Important Aboriginal Works of Art
25 May 2016


(1902 – 1959)

watercolour and gouache on paper

34.5 x 27.0 cm

signed lower right: ALBERT NAMATJIRA

$30,000 – 50,000
Sold for $85,400 (inc. BP) in Auction 43 - 25 May 2016, Melbourne

Private collection
Theodore Bruce Auctions, Adelaide, 11 July 1988, lot 174
Collection of the late Duncan Kentish, Adelaide


The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, 10 November 1991 – 31 January 1992; and touring nationally
Seeing the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira, 1902 – 1959, The Araluen Centre for Arts and Entertainment, Alice Springs, Northern Territory, 28 July – 22 September 2002; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 5 October 2002 – 19 January 2003; and touring nationally (labels attached verso)


French, A., Seeing the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira, 1902-1959, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p. 86 (illus.) and p. 162

Catalogue text

Ormiston Gorge is the largest, and artistically most inspiring, of the chasms that punctuate the MacDonnell Ranges. The immense gorge was sculpted by surging floodwaters racing from elevated northern plains, to the Finke River basin, and beyond to Lake Eyre.

Albert Namatjira, and his mentor Rex Battarbee, made an extended expedition to Ormiston Gorge in the early spring of 1939 – a journey that resulted in the production of several celebrated works, including Quarta-tooma (Ormiston Gorge). The timing was significant, for as wildflowers bloomed, war was declared. Aware that Europe would once again descend into bloody conflict, Battarbee wrote: ‘So this ends the best camel trip I have had, six weeks and two days, two very good men to be with [Albert and Terence] no rain and every day fit for painting.’1

Battarbee later recalled the precise elements that Namatjira captured so intensely at Quarta-tooma,

'To our amazement we found a magnificent gorge of many colours, and in the bed of the creek were beautiful pools of water, gem–like in quality, reflecting the high red walls; and ghost gums clinging to the rock faces. The pools were set among rocks of pastel pinks, greens, purples and yellows, truly a colourist’s paradise, of which one could not grow weary. One has only to linger in this gorge to witness the most unbelievable colour effects, produced by the play of sunshine reflected from one wall face of rock to another in shadow'.2

The year 1939 was a period of experimentation for Namatjira who, in addition to painting the landscapes that made him famous, produced a series of ‘tribal portraits’; a painting of the Achilpa (Wild Cat) Arunta Corroboree (whereabouts unknown); and several watercolours on porous slabs of the bean tree (Erythrina vespertilio). However, significantly it was photography that would come to exert the greatest influence on the work Namatjira produced at Ormiston Gorge during this time.3

Battarbee had given Namatjira a camera during a previous visit and indeed, was surprised by the quality of the ‘snaps’ Albert showed him in 1939. Instrumentally, Battarbee had also demonstrated how to hold squared-off index fingers and thumbs, in front of his eyes, as a framing device, and thus, the radically cropped edges of Quarta-tooma (Ormiston Gorge) are a direct result of Namatjira’s capacity to isolate selected views as subject within an infinitely expansive land.4

Having identified the exact spot from which the artist, painted Quarta-tooma (Ormiston Gorge), it is possible to visualize Namatjira, a tiny figure sitting on a large boulder in front of an ephemeral pool, dwarfed by cascading rockfalls and bathed in the red-orange light refracted from towering cliffs. From this vantage point, Namatjira’s gaze fixed on the intersection of several rocky planes that describe the path of the river southwards, towards the narrowest part of the gorge a kilometre away.5

Namatjira would have been aware that the local name of the site Quarta-tooma (Egg-hit) refers to the ancestral Emu that visited the place. One senses that while painting this radiant image, the artist was intent on capturing the all-pervasive refracted light that characteristically permeates the gorge and delights the senses.

1. Edmond, M., Battarbee and Namatjira, Girimondo Publishing Company, New South Wales, 2014, pp. 173-4
2. Battarbee, R., quoted in Strehlow, T., Rex Battarbee: Artist and Founder of the Aboriginal Art Movement in Central Australia, Legend Press, Sydney, 1956, p. 46
3. Edmond, M., Battarbee and Namatjira, Girimondo Publishing Company, New South Wales, 2014, pp. 176, 157
4. Ibid., pp.152-7
5. The author visited Quarta-tooma with Dr Susan Lowish and University of Melbourne students in July 2016, identifying the sites of specific works by the artist.