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50 Treasures: Last Light, Normanton by Ray Crooke

Our thirty-sixth treasure is from an Archibald Prize winning artist who became known for his unique vision, particularly of  north Queensland. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes Last Light, Normanton by Ray Crooke.

Ross Searle answers the question "why is this significant?"

Ray Crooke (1922-2015) first came to north Queensland during World War II when his AIF unit moved first to Townsville and then, via the Atherton Tablelands, to the tip of Cape York. In a 1997 conversation with Gavin Wilson, Crooke vividly recalled the journey by troop truck from Townsville to Cape York: ‘At first, I was confronted by the majesty of the coastal rainforests and then the virtually isolated interior plains, with the occasional dream-like mine settlements like Chillagoe and Maytown.’ After a brief posting on Thursday Island he was sent to Borneo and while there, waiting for his discharge, he began to consider his future in civilian life and the possibility of a career as an artist.

Ray Crooke, Last Light, Normanton, mid 1960s, oil on hardboard, 29 x 44 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. ©Ray Crooke / Copyright Agency, 2019. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

In 1946 he resumed his studies at Swinburne Technical College in Melbourne. Army service in north Queensland and the islands of the Torres Straits and Borneo helped to extend his fields of observation and experience. It also provided his first contact with Indigenous village life. All of this had a tremendous influence on Crooke and propelled his artistic curiosity in two distinct paths. Perhaps the best known are the island subjects of the Torres Strait and Pacific Islands but equally significant are the works that reference the sparse, dry interior of the continent.

Image from Smith, S. (1997). North of Capricorn: The art of Ray Crooke. Townsville, Australia: Perc Tucker Regional Gallery. Page 10. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.

His first major exhibition was held in Melbourne in 1948, two years after his discharge from the army. The exhibition was well received and encouraged the young artist to continue painting. His second exhibition in 1949 was also a success and was reviewed in the Melbourne Herald by Laurie Thomas, who noted the influence of Gauguin and Italian Renaissance painters. The years 1949 to 1955 were a period of experimentation with technical aspects of painting. His carefully finished paintings emphasised a careful arrangement of his compositional subject and space. As far from Gauguin as one can imagine, Crooke’s method of working was to make drawings from the subject with highly finished sketches which he took to the studio to develop into completed paintings.

Ray Crooke and Islander boy, St Paul's Mission, Moa Island, 1949. Image from Smith, S. (1997). North of Capricorn: The art of Ray Crooke. Townsville, Australia: Perc Tucker Regional Gallery. Page 10. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.

In the winter of 1949, Ray Crooke set off for Thursday Island, where he worked variously as a labourer, cook and trochus diver. On board the lugger, ‘Panton’, the young artist would meet his future wife. He wrote of his early days on Thursday Island and is quoted by Rosemary Dobson in 1971: ‘those first weeks of drawing were the most exciting I had ever had.’ During this peripatetic period of his life he divided his life between Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Crooke did not exhibit again until 1957 by which time he had found his artistic vocation. This was consolidated by a major breakthrough in 1959, when he staged a successful solo exhibition at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne that was closely followed in September 1960 with his first exhibition at the prestigious Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane.

Mental images from his journey through the Cape York interior during army service were to lay dormant until he made his first attempts to paint these experiences in the early 1960s. In 1962, finally settled at Yorkey’s Knob, twenty kilometres north of Cairns, Ray Crooke set off with fellow artist and adventurer, Percy Trezise to the remote settlements of Normanton and Croydon. Normanton was established as a port for the Gulf of Carpentaria pastoral industry and grew in importance with the discovery of gold at Croydon in 1885. Normanton and its ramshackle townscape would become a recurring motif inspiring a series of paintings including, Last Light, Normanton. The eerie white light of the approaching night and the dark shadows of the looming streetscape at dusk held particular fascination for him. Ray Crooke had a special affinity with the Indigenous people of remote northern Australia and when situated in his paintings, as they do in the foreground of Last Light, Normanton, they have a calm, almost classical gravity.

A selection of items featuring the art of Ray Crooke from the North Queensland Collection and the Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.

One of his first master works from this period, Sunrise, Albion Hotel, Normanton 1962, in the Collection of Queensland Art Gallery, looks out from the shadowy interior of the Albion Hotel where he was lodging, while the first rays of the sun bathe the town in a golden light. This play between interior and exterior light was to be a continuing motif and he returned to this form of composition from time to time, creating a dramatic frame for the landscape and elevating his work. The fading light in Last Light, Normanton can also be read as a metaphor for mortality. The decline of these once prosperous centres was for Crooke like visiting some past civilisation.

While often compared to Gauguin, Ray Crooke’s craft and vision had a closer affinity to early Italian painting and the clear defining light of Piero Della Francesca and Giotto elevated his artistic vision. A quality that art historian James Gleeson noted, only began to transform once one discovered the stillness and the silence that lay at its heart. Last Light, Normanton was created during a decade of extraordinary creative activity which culminated in 1969 with him winning the Archibald prize with a portrait of his friend, the writer George Johnston.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University. 

Further reading:
R Dobson, Focus on Ray Crooke, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1971.

G Wilson, Encounters with country, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns, 1995.

Author Biography
Ross Searle has an extensive history as a curator, art museum director and art historian. His major exhibition credits in Australia and the wider Pacific region include exhibitions curated for Queensland Art Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane City Gallery, Adam Art Gallery, Centre Culturel Tjibaou and many significant regional galleries. His monograph 'Artist in the Tropics: 200 Years in North Queensland', published by Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, 1991, remains the only significant art historical reference on an Australian region.

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