Evocative scenes of everyday life

Even for lovers of Australian art, Herbert Badham is not nearly as well-known as his contemporaries such as Roland Wakelin, Sali Herman, Margaret Preston or Grace Cossington Smith. And the Library is very keen to change that.  'The Town Band' by Herbert Badham

The Library recently purchased another of Badham’s evocative paintings, The Town Band, an oil on canvas from 1951. Badham’s carefully crafted paintings bring a modernist palette and bold brushstrokes to scenes of everyday life. Seemingly modest in scale and ambition — with much less flourish than his more famous contemporaries — Badham’s work documents the small passages of everyday life with a jewel-like charm which belies the technical skill and thinking that has gone into their creation. In a century dominated by the juggernaut of documentary photography, Badham’s paintings provide a wonderful counterpoint. They tell colourful stories about subjects that photographers rarely tackled. 

Using only thinly applied paint, The Town Band depicts the resident Eastern Command Band performing outside Paddington’s Victoria Barracks. This lovely scene realistically evokes a lazy, late Sunday afternoon yet Badham’s clever use of shapes and angles, colour and form, strong lines and energetic brushstrokes produces an effect almost of abstraction.  

Badham studied at the Sydney Art School during the 1920s under Julian Ashton and George Washington Lambert, and later taught at East Sydney Technical School. In 1949 he published an important historical survey, A Study of Australian Art.  

He typically depicted commonplace subjects, everyday scenes and aspects of life in Sydney recorded with careful detail. He was one of many Australian artists who embraced the modern city and took his inspiration from urban life rather than the Australian bush. Neglected for decades by critics and institutions, Badham’s work has been attracting considerable attention in recent years.  

In The Town Band, Badham has used a viewpoint that looks down on the band, encircled by informal and variously interested or distracted groupings and pairings of families, couples and children. The low afternoon light, conveyed in small, deft gestural brushstrokes, catches on the band members’ uniforms and the faces in the crowd casting long, dark shadows and creating bright contrasts and striking highlights. He has captured the relaxed mood and informality of this gathering in a way that celebrates the ordinariness of the scene, yet is indicative of time and place.  

The Town Band is now on display for the first time in Paintings from the Collection.

Louise Anemaat. Executive Director, Library and Information Services and Dixson Librarian.