Hugh Sawrey was born in 1919 in Forest Glen, Queensland, Australia to a farming family. His father, George, died when he was three years old. His mother, Jane, struggled to manage the farm on her own and so in the early 1930’s the family, Hugh, his mother and older brother, Allan, moved to Brisbane.
The Great Depression caused the family to continue to struggle; aged 15 Hugh Sawrey left school and went to work on farms in the vast Australian cattle stations in the Queensland outback. For many years he continued to work across the Australian outback, from the Northern Territories to Western Australia doing jobs such as droving and shearing. It was during this time that he taught himself to paint and draw,
‘I used to carry a few sheets of paper in my packbag and draw on ‘em with charcoal and give them to mates.
Often I’d hit the cook for any spare paper he may have had (usually pretty tatty by that time with golden syrup and beetroot all over it) and I used to raid cook’s pantry for any dyes or essences I could get to paint with of cochineal and so on’
After a day of work, he would draw and paint; taking in local towns and cattle stations and the people who lived and worked there, including indigenous Australians. He quickly started to sell his artwork, which gave him money to buy art materials.
In 1964 he moved to Brisbane to work as an artist full time. He exhibited work in galleries across Australia, which included the dealers; Keith Moore, The Grand Central Gallery, Brisbane, and Julian Stirling, Southern Cross Gallery, Melbourne.
Hugh Sawrey also exhibited internationally. In 1979 he was selected to exhibit at the Tryon Gallery, London in an exhibition of ‘Horses of the world’.
His work can be found in notable private and public collections, such as the Robert Holmes a’ Court Collection and the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia. Internationally the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand, and the Mitsubishi collection in Japan.
As well as being a successful and popular artist, Hugh Sawrey was the founder and at one point, chairman of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Centre, which is a heritage institution in Queensland, depicting the lives and history of early bush custodians of Australia. The cultural institution pays tribute to the pioneers of the outback, inclusive of indigenous peoples and Australians of European ancestry. One feature of the centre is a permanent Gallery Space named after Hugh Sawrey.
Hugh Sawrey was the beneficiary of several art awards during his career; he was awarded the Queensland Industries Fair Gold medal, and in 1989 a CBE for services to the arts.
Hugh Sawrey died in Benalla, Victoria in 1999 aged 80. He is still hugely popular in Australia and is remembered for his depictions of rural scenes of Australia that capture the essence of the livelihoods and people in the outback.
Further reading: Jill Bowen, Hugh Sawrey Outback, French’s Forest, NSW: The Currawong Press