Self-portrait ready to dive 1937

Eric Wilson was a deeply religious man and a disciplined artist. His training in the realist tradition, at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School during the 1930s, reinforced his conviction that in art truth can only be achieved by copying precisely from life.

A consummate draughtsman, Wilson never wavered in his dedication to his chosen field and lived a frugal lifestyle in order to paint and eventually fulfil a dream of studying overseas. He entered the New South Wales Travelling Scholarship three times before he eventually won, in 1937, with six precisely composed and constructed works including this drawing and painting. One is a curious self-portrait as a diver, the other a portrait of Wilson’s mother. His familiarity with his subject matter allowed him to study his subjects intimately and then reproduce them in meticulous detail. Both gaze calmly and unflinchingly at the viewer, for truth is of the essence. Wilson did not clutter his portraits with background detail; all attention is focused on the subjects as they are of prime importance.

Paradoxically, it was the Travelling Scholarship, awarded for these incredibly detailed realist works, that made possible Wilson’s experimentation with abstraction. In London, he studied at the Westminster School and at the London Academy under Amedée Ozenfant, who introduced him to Purism, an academised form of Cubism. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Wilson was forced to return to Australia and, over the next few years, he took up teaching positions at East Sydney Technical College, Cranbrook School and the Sydney Art School. He continued to experiment with abstraction but always maintained his dedication to realism through his sketchbooks, portraiture and landscapes. Tragically, Wilson’s career was cut short by his sudden death in 1946. Anne McDonald