Sunshine Coast-born artist, Hugh Sawrey is the focus of a new, one hour television documentary, “Banjo Paterson with a Paintbrush” directed by Hinterland journalist Michael Berry and produced by his daughter Emily.
THE FILM clears up the contentious debate about who founded the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and reveals the often controversial life of this larrikin bushman and popular Queensland artist.
Former CEO of News Limited, Ken Cowley states in the film that it was Hugh Sawrey, not the more upfront R.M. Williams who came up with the idea for the Longreach museum, dedicated to the Australian stockmen and opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1988.
Hugh Sawrey died in 1999 but he has been recognised by the western downs community around Dalby. They have re-badged their region ‘Sawrey Country’ and launched a new art festival this month. The Sawrey documentary was premiered at the ‘Art at Kogan’ festival on October 3 before the Queensland governor, Penelope Wensley AO.
Producer, Emily Berry says the documentary, “presents amazing archival vision of Sawrey, who was a restless rover of outback stations and stock camps. He went from painting rough murals on pub walls in the 1950s for a few beers, to earning a fortune selling his nostalgic images of the bush.” “Banjo Paterson with a Paintbrush” has all the ingredients of a great Australian yarn. It reveals Sawrey’s lingering anger over RM Williams getting all the accolades for the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. The film has interviews with three key players in the Hall – wife Gill Sawrey, friend David Briggs and Sawrey’s wealthy patron Ken Cowley, Another controversial story in the film tells of the Kogan Hotel wall murals that were painted by Sawrey and calmly cut down and sold by a canny publican – a move that almost caused a riot in this quiet bush town.
At the age of 45 Hugh Sawrey met a 19 year-old girl who immediately fell in love with this charismatic man, and they married three weeks later.
Rugby legend Wally Lewis reveals how he tried to use his football fame to get his hands on a Sawrey painting. He failed in that attempt but he ended up getting his portrait painted by Hugh.
There’s the hilarious story of Sawrey’s painting of the prostitute “Madame” and the disgust of the management of Brisbane’s Johnsonian Club, where it was hung. The controversy hit the papers of the day (1970s) and the film locates where the bawdy “Madame” portrait now hangs in Brisbane.
Sawrey was an enthusiastic gambler and during the roaring 1980s on the Gold Coast, he entered Jupiters Casino high roller competition intent on winning $75,000 in the national Blackjack ‘War of Nerves’. His friend at the time, Agnes Tatay, tells the tale of Hugh’s amazing determination to beat the blackjack dealer.
Michael Berry says Sawrey often gave his money, his time and his paintings to worthy outback causes without fanfare. “What’s interesting”, says Michael, “is that Australia rewarded him with one of its highest civil awards – the Australia Medal – but in the true spirit of bureaucracy, his wife was notified two days after he died.”
While Hugh was still a struggling artist in the early 1950s, he fathered a child who only got to know him in the last year of his life. Deborah Wright Sawrey gives an emotion-charged interview in the film about her “100 minutes with my father.”
Sawrey friends are interviewed in the film including his close confidante – Lawrie Kavanagh. This renowned Courier Mail columnist often travelled through the outback with Hugh, writing and drawing together.
“Banjo Paterson with a Paintbrush” is narrated by actor John Wood, and contains music from Coast blues icon, Doc Span.
The documentary was supported by Q-PIX Ltd, Screen Australia and the Hugh Sawrey Foundation.
It is being considered for broadcast by ABC Television.