Murrumbeena, Victoria, Australia 1920 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1999
The brown room
Open Country, Murrumbeena, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on cotton gauze on cardboard Support: cotton gauze on cardboard
Arthur Boyd was raised in a house that was built by his father on Open Country, a small orchard property at Murrumbeena on the outskirts of Melbourne. The ‘brown room’ was the central room in the house—the living space where the family spent most of their time and where artists and intellectuals gathered for discussion, entertainment and inspiration.
In the painting, the brown room has bare floorboards and is sparsely furnished, its shabbiness reflecting the poverty experienced by the family during the years of the Depression. Seated on a sofa is the artist’s father Merric Boyd, his silver hair aglow with the light that pours from the window behind him. On the floor in front of him and at the centre of the painting, Merric’s nephew Laurence Beck plays with Peter, the family dog. To the left is Arthur’s brother David, seated and playing the piano. In spite of the realism engendered by the balanced, domestic composition, the subjects’ massive heads, claw-like hands and unnatural eyes—hollow and blank or huge and staring—are grotesque distortions. To many viewers the image would appear oppressive; the harsh vibrancy of Boyd’s style belies the fondness the artist felt for the subjects.
The brown room not only harks back to Arthur Boyd’s earliest work when he enlisted family members and local dogs as subjects but also anticipates his later series, when the same subjects were drafted into symbolic roles in his religious and mythological paintings. As in these works, where Boyd avoids ‘event’ moments in a narrative, The brown room evokes the home and the family as a whole, rather than simply the individuals shown. Other members of the family are drawn into the painting through the props in the room. For instance, the piano was a gift from Hatton Beck, the husband of Arthur’s older sister Lucy—and Laurence was their child. Arthur’s uncle made the chair and through the window is a glimpse of the neighbouring home of his beloved grandparents. The brown room is more than a group portrait; more than the depiction of a room. It is part of the artist’s complex layering of his art and life.
 J Mollison, ‘Arthur Boyd’, Art and Australia, vol 3, no 2, September 1965, p 118.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010