Kenneth Jack

Artist who recorded a vanishing world in the Australian outback
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The Independent Online

Kenneth William David Jack, artist: born Melbourne, Victoria 5 October 1924; MBE 1982; AM 1987; married 1950 Betty Dyer (one son, two daughters); died Melbourne 10 June 2006.

The Australian artist Kenneth Jack painted a vanishing world - he was a kind of "guardian of the outback". The land he evoked in his pictures, which he often depicted in the magical light just before nightfall, was an Australia of ghost towns, abandoned mine workings, ruined shacks and barns, recorded as they were about to return to the landscape where they had been been both constructed and deserted almost within living memory. It became Jack's life's work to record this world before its destruction. "I think he must know Australia better than anyone," the critic Lou Klepac wrote:

He has been everywhere looking for what exists only in himself. He may believe that he has been looking for a vanishing Australia but instead he has gone to restore it to the places he has drawn.

He has stamped indelibly his vision of Australia on everything he has drawn and painted. Even when he draws the Sydney skyline or the streets of Melbourne, one feels that if one gazed beyond, one could see the outback butting up to the suburban sprawl. Invisible (and sometimes visible too) cockatoos inhabit his urban landscape.

Kenneth Jack was born and brought up in suburban Melbourne. His father, Harold Jack, had studied architecture before becoming a commercial artist who designed graphics and posters for the Victorian railways. The young Kenneth drew constantly from childhood and sold his first watercolours while still at school. At 13, he won first prize at the Melbourne Royal Show and in his final year at Melbourne High School received the top marks in drawing for the state of Victoria. Meanwhile he had already made use of his father's staff travel pass, as well as a bicycle won in another competition, to go on sketching expeditions into the local countryside.

Aged 18, in December 1942 Kenneth Jack joined the Royal Australian Air Force immediately on leaving school, and for 15 months he was attached to the Directorate of Works and Buildings drawing maps and doing lettering. He also attended evening classes conducted by John Rowell at the Melbourne Technical College. In 1944 he was sent as a corporal in the RAAF No 5 Construction Squadron to the Pacific war zone and he spent the rest of the war in New Guinea, Morotai Island and Labuan in North Borneo.

His official duties included making contour maps from aerial photographs but, when he had the time to do so, he sketched incessantly the life around him. Over the course of 18 months, he made some 500 drawings of the landscape, of life on board ship or in camp - men sleeping, playing cards, at work preparing airstrips or in the cookhouse or sawmill, or of the ruins of buildings wrecked by the devastation.

In 1945, at the invitation of Harold Freedman, the art editor of the RAAF publications section, Jack had two pictures published in an air-force magazine called RAAF Victory Roll: Labuan Mud, a picture of thick mud churned up by truck wheels on a tropical rain-soaked track, and Dead Japs Ready for Burying, a subject made even more unpleasant due to the stench Jack endured while drawing. The whole collection of sketches and paintings was subsequently transferred to the archives of the Australian War Memorial at Canberra.

On his return to Melbourne Jack, through the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Scheme for ex-servicemen, resumed his lessons under John Rowell and the printmaker Ben Crosskill at Melbourne Technical College. Subsequently he gained a teaching certificate and went on to spend the next 20 years as an art instructor in the Victorian education department.

In 1950, the same year as his marriage to Betty Dyer, Jack passed his final Art Teacher's Diploma with the thesis "On the Drawing of Architecture", and had his first of many one-man shows as an artist at the Bookshelf Library, Hobart in Australia. By now he was fairly well-known. His work had won prizes and been published in a significant art journal, Australia National Journal.

In 1956 Jack was appointed senior instructor of art at the Caulfield Institute of Technology, where he founded both a printmaking and a painting department. (He also served as an assistant to the Art Inspector of the Technical Schools.) Some of his most abstract work - his restrained, organised images included a series of studies of paddle steamers - was done as a printmaker and two linocuts submitted to the Giles Bequest Print Competition at the Victoria and Albert Museum were purchased by the museum. However, he found the contemporary trend towards abstract expressionism as fundamentally antithetical to his own creative work, and he became intolerant of painting not based on solid training.

In 1967 he took six months' leave to try out life as a full-time artist and with 21 other passengers went on a five-week bus tour across Australia. They travelled 6,000 miles across some of its most inhospitable country from coast to coast, experiencing the land's vastness and isolation. The following year, Jack retired from teaching, resuming his travels in order, he wrote,

to see and experience places at first hand - places which in quite a number of places have hardly been tracked by the artists. And this searching and knowing of the shape of things belongs to the 20th century in just the same way as "hard-edge", "colour-field" or "abstact-expressionism".

In a succession of Toyota Land Cruisers which he turned into travelling studios and with provisions supplied by his wife ("Betty's café" as he called it) Jack journeyed back and forth across Australia in search of inspiration for his pictures. He said that if he did not have a drawing done every morning he didn't feel fulfilled. These sketches, as well as the photographs he took, would then be returned to his studio where he transformed them into pictures, always standing to work however small the picture and however fine the brush, and - until he became deaf - with his beloved Mozart invariably playing in the background.

Gradually fashions changed and Jack's portraits of a bygone Australia came to be recognised as a valid a subject for art as any other. During the last decades of his life, his work was widely exhibited and he gained considerable recognition. He was appointed MBE in 1982 and AM in 1987. With watercolour his preferred medium, he was elected to the Royal Watercolour Society in 1977 and he was also a foundation member of the Australian Federal Government's Artbank Board and a foundation vice-president of the Australian Guild of Realist Artists. His commissions included a mural for the Australian Pavilion at Expo '67 in Montreal and a tapestry coat of arms for the Australian pavilion at Expo '70 in Osaka.

His work can now be found in a great number of collections throughout the world, including the Royal Collection at Windsor, as well as in the capital city collections of each state of Australia. There were several publications of his works including a book, World War II paintings and drawings (1990), as well as a portfolio of lithographs, Old Mining Towns of Australia (1984) and a portfolio of linocuts, Australian Gold and Ghost Towns (1962).

After the war years, Jack did not leave Australia again until 1973, when he came to England and was able to see the works of Turner and Rembrandt, the artists he loved the most, as well as the Boningtons in the Wallace Collection. Thereafter he came regularly to Europe where he took pleasure in painting its castles and cathedrals.

Within the past few weeks Ken Jack had had a highly successful exhibition at the Greythorn Gallery in Melbourne. He was still checking proofs for a new book of his drawings while in his hospital bed shortly before his death from cancer.

Simon Fenwick

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