By Rosalea Ryan – “Artist’s Studio” Magazine – Vol 4, April 2000
From his base on the NSW south coast, John Vander travels often in his quest to experience Australia’s goldmining past.
John Vander sometimes wonders if it is his lack of blood ties to Australia that drives him to study his adopted country’s colonial roots. “Neither my wife nor I have relatives in Australia; our families are still in Europe, “John explains. “I
sometimes think I’m trying to compensate for that absence by indulging my love of Australian history. Maybe I’m subconsciously creating my own past.”
Born in Charleroi, Belgium, in the aftermath of World War 11, John migrated to Australia in 1969. “That region has produced a high number of world-renowned
artists,” John Vander notes. “My father was a baker – one of Belgium’s finest pastry cooks – but my mother and one of her uncles both painted. On the advice of a teacher, my parents bought me my first set of oils. We only managed two or three lessons
before my tutor was transferred to another school. “In our mid-teens. A group of us dreamt of sailing around the world travelling to Australia.” he recalls. “Then the time came for me to take a steady job, so I became an accountant in the taxation department, and painted as a hobby.”
John Vander developed an interest in aircraft during a period of national service. Upon his discharge, he began preparing for a bold new career in the Australian outback. Soon after arriving ‘down under’, he gained his commercial flying licence, but
abandoned a position as a crop-duster pilot when a couple of close friends died in work-related accidents. “At that point I decided it was too dangerous and went back into financial management,” he says. “My employer, Citicorp First National, bought many of my early pictures for its offices in Australia and overseas. I
painted at weekends and almost every evening until, eventually, I was offered leave to work full-time as an artist, with the option of returning after a year if I wasn’t successful. “Having overcome the difficulties presented by unfamiliar colour and textures, John produced dozens of landscapes in rapid succession. Sixty-five paintings sold out completely in his first one-man show, opened by controversial
celebrity Juni Morosi. In 1976, with the support of his wife, British-born Frances, John accepted the challenge and began painting professionally from a home studio in southern Sydney.
Following the birth of their daughter, Katrine and a move to Stanwell Park, just north of Wollongong on the NSW south coast, John continued to paint, travelling extensively and often in search of inspiration for his intricate depictions of rural Australia’s former goldmining towns. “I realise now that I miss the tiny villages of Europe; I think I was reminded of those when I began discovering areas like Hill End, Sofala, Carcoar and Hartley (in the central tablelands region of NSW). Australia’s brick buildings are certainly different to the stone cottages in Belgium but the village atmosphere is the same. “I’m also very interested in the gold rush era. It’s difficult for me to relate to earlier Australian history but coming from a European background, I’m quite fascinated by the history of white settlement. “At the pub in Hill End I actually met an old digger who had known my grandmother when she was 17. He had been stationed at a camp behind our house in Belgium in 1918 and even remembered the number of the tram which passed through our street!” John’s ability to capture the charm of nostalgic 19th-century settings has won him international accolades. His work, painted in the studio from quick colour studies and photographs, is often reproduced as cards or limited-edition prints and in books. His paintings were among, the first published by Art Nouveau during its domination of fine art publishing in Australia in the late 1980s. In fact, until 1997, a John Vander design released through that company was second on the national list of all-time print sales.
John works methodically, sketching buildings individualIy before beginning work on any fresh piece. He likens his approach to that of a portrait artist studying his model. “When I look down from the top of a hill as I’m working, I need to be able to say I know every house in the village,’” he says. “The detail is all accurate. Sometimes I remove the bitumen from the roadway or take a little liberty with the time of day or the season, but the structure of my scenes is always true to life. “My wife and I travel all the time, and always within Australia. We’ve been through the old goldfields of Victoria, too – Beechworth, Chiltern, Yackandandah in the north-east, Maldon near Bendigo, and Buninyong and Clunes around Ballarat.
I love autumn and winter in particular, and Berrima (in the southern highlands of NSW) is one of my favourite subjects.” Sofala, too, is close to John’s heart. “To me, Sofala represents the Australian pioneering spirit – that El Dorado feeling from the height of the gold rush. I go back every, year – it’s like a type of pilgrimage for me – to paint the town again from yet another angle.” John’s work hangs in private collections throughout the world, in corporate headquarters in the United States, and in public galleries, most notably those of the Shoalhaven and Wollongong shires in NSW. His polo scenes have proved particularly popular with members of the British royalty, including Prince Charles. John returns to Belgium for an informal family reunion every few years. On a recent visit, he completed a painting of the street in which he once lived for presentation to Le Musee des Beaux-arts, a fine art museum, in his home town. Ironically, Charleroi, like the illawarra region around Stanwell Park, is founded on natural coal reserves.
“On my last trip back I did a lot of sketches of local villages, with the intention of painting a series for an exhibition in Belgium some time in the future,” John says. In the meantime, however, it is the rustic relics of the Australian landscape which continue to dominate his work.