Tea garden, Peking
c193620th and 21st century Australian (ground level)
Ian Fairweather is one of the most individual and eccentric figures in Australian art, and the most revered by his fellow artists. Born in Scotland, he travelled extensively (including to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) before settling on Queensland’s then-remote Bribie Island in 1953. There, the reclusive artist lived and worked in two thatched huts, without the distractions of modern life disturbing his painting.
Fairweather first visited China in 1929, where he was captivated by the excitement, colour and cosmopolitanism of Shanghai. He learned Mandarin and travelled with his sketchbook to Beijing (then called Peking), the Lake Country and the towns of Hangzhou and Suzhou. But it was Beijing that captured his interest most. He returned there to live in 1935-36, which is where he conceived this painting.
The artwork reflects Fairweather's awareness of oriental painting and calligraphy as well as Western modernism and the figurative drawing he had studied at London's Slade School of Art. Chinese calligraphy encouraged him to experiment with different ways of making marks, and the Chinese idea that a finished work should ‘emerge’ from the sheet influenced how he made his pictures for the rest of his career.
The motif of mother and child is repeated in many of Fairweather's paintings and drawing. This is perhaps a consequence of his own unsettled childhood as, for most of the first 10 years of his life, he was raised by relatives while his parents were overseas. In this artwork, the figures of mother and child are situated within a clear space at the heart of a microcosm of social harmony - a reflection on a cherished ideal of this artist.
Chinese viewers may be reminded of Lao She's famous play Cha Guan, published in 1957, which is set in a Beijing teahouse in various periods from 1898 until just after World War II.