William Frater, MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia (c.1950)
Oil on board
Benalla Art Gallery Collection. Ledger Gift 1983
Born Scotland 1890, arrived Australia 1910, died Melbourne 1974
William ‘Jock’ Frater was an Australian modernist painter based in Melbourne, who challenged the conservative views of art in the city at the time. He is regarded as an important pioneer in early Australian modernism.
Frater was born in Scotland in 1890. At 15, he began an apprenticeship in the Glasgow glass studio of Oscar Paterson, who encouraged him to enrol at the Glasgow School of Art. He studied painting and drawing there until 1909.
Frater migrated to Australia in 1910 and settled in Melbourne. He accepted a five-year contract in charge of stained-glass design at Brooks, Robinson & Co Ltd, and enrolled in night classes at the Victorian Artists’ Society. Frater made his living as a stained-glass designer while continuing to paint and exhibit in his spare time. He made trips to the countryside outside Melbourne on weekends, painting in the plein air tradition of the Impressionist school.
Frater’s lifelong friend and fellow painter Arnold Shore also worked as a stained-glass designer. The pair, along with other key artists, are credited with establishing a post-Impressionist school of painting in Melbourne.
Frater’s first solo exhibition was held in 1923 at the Athenaeum, Melbourne, and he exhibited with the Twenty Melbourne Painters from the late 1920s, and the Contemporary Group of Melbourne in the 1930s.
For a period during his early painting career Frater adopted the tonal theories espoused by leading tonalist painter Max Meldrum, particularly in his portraiture. His work during the 1920s and 1930s was heavily influenced by French artist Paul Cézanne.
In 1925 Frater gave a lecture challenging artist Bernard Hall (director of the National Gallery of Victoria and head of its art school), who had publicly attacked modern art and asserted that art was an imitation of nature, a view widely held in Melbourne at the time. Frater asserted that ‘copying nature is not an art… to copy effects of light tends to destroy form and colour’.
Frater retired from stained-glass designing in 1940, devoting himself to full-time painting, subsidised by teaching and living frugally. He exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney throughout the 1950s and 1960s and was the president of the Victorian Artists’ Society from 1963 until 1972, exhibiting annually with the group during the last decade of his life. In 1974, the year he died, Frater was appointed an Officer of the British Empire for his services to art.