For more than a century official war artists have helped shape our understanding of Australian military history. Often selected on the basis of their pre-war reputations, the works produced by official war artists such as Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Streeton and Albert Tucker have become staple offerings for a nation now locked into a permanent cycle of military commemoration.
Far eclipsing the output of these official war artists however is the great body of work produced by Australia’s unofficial war artists. Despite its greater authenticity (much official war art having been produced by non-participants, after the event), this vast output remains largely undocumented, unstudied, and unappreciated.
These unofficial artists painted, sketched, and drew for their own pleasure, depicting what they liked as they liked without the thought that their works were destined for public collections. They drew and painted to hone their artistic skills, to record their experiences, to relieve the boredom and isolation, and in the case of many, as a means of therapy, helpful in unfamiliar situations disconnected from everyday life.
Unencumbered by military directives these unofficial artists could access and observe subjects that were not ordinarily available, the informality of their art contrasting with the oftentimes formal and heroic tone of official war art.
Although Australian servicemen and women were never actively encouraged during the Second World War to sketch and paint (as they were in Canada), many uniformed personnel took pleasure in doing so. While some of these unofficial artists were self-taught, others had received formal training and were so employed – typically as commercial artists – prior to the war.
To this last category belonged many of Australia’s camoufleurs, members of a small but prestigious group of practicing artists, photographers, designers and architects (both men and women) tasked with assisting the Army, Navy and Air Force to camouflage its facilities and equipment, and with training military personnel in the science of camouflage.
In early April 1941 the Australian War Cabinet had approved the establishment of a Defence Central Camouflage Unit and an experimental camouflage station at Sydney’s Middle Head, both operating under the auspices of the Home Security Department. National Security (Camouflage) Regulations were approved later the same year. Recruitment began almost immediately, no more than about sixty ‘officers’ having been appointed in all.
Arthur Francis (Frank) Rowland (1912 – 1976) received his camoufleur certificate number 19 around May 1943, being initially posted to the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) newly constructed satellite airfield at Brymaroo near Jondaryan on the Darling Downs (Queensland). Seldom used by aircraft, and with no hangars and just a handful of wooden structures to camouflage, there would have been little else for Rowland to do at Brymaroo – other than paint. It was around this time that Rowland is also thought to have joined Brisbane’s influential Half Dozen Group of Artists.
In a mid 1943 war art exhibition review, Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper counted Rowland ‘Amongst the painters who rise above the depressing level…though his drawing is not perfect, [he] has a sense of character in a portrait of a CCCworker, and has captured the movement and atmosphere of a man working at a gravel-crushing machine.’
The following year he was posted to Darwin and although employed as a civilian, he continued working for the RAAF. Only camouflage officers working in forward areas were required to wear uniforms, being issued with Air Force officer uniforms adorned with Home Security Department badges, buttons and armlets (with the letters ‘A C’).
It was only after camoufleurs in Australia’s North-West Area had begun ‘illegally’ wearing epaulettes with the words ‘Accredited Camoufleurs,’ that the Department – in April 1943 – had issued its first official insignia bearing the correct ‘Authorised Camoufleur’ insignia.
The Japanese had long since ceased attacking northern Australia by the time Rowland arrived there, the allied advance having also moved far offshore to the north-western islands. No longer a front-line combat zone, much of his art from this period is concerned with the ordinary and the routine of everyday military life.
After the war he returned to Brisbane where he resumed his career as a commercial artist, while continuing to judge, exhibit and teach art (at the Queensland College of Art). He eventually retired in 1961 after a twelve year career with the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper.
The works shown here were exhibited at the Royal Queensland Art Society’s Petrie Terrace Gallery in 2016, and are thought to have been among the collection of thirty-two works subsequently donated by his family to the State Library of Queensland.