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Dick (Goobalatheldin) Roughsey

Dick (Goobalatheldin) Roughsey

1924 - 1985


Dick Roughsey, a member of the Lardil people, was born on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. His tribal name, Goobalathaldin means rough seas, hence the English derivative. During his early years with his family and friends, he explored the shorelines listening to the Dreaming stories and learning how to hunt and gather the once plentiful bush foods. He attended the mission school, learning how to read and write and then found employment, first on cattle-stations and later as a deckhand on the area supply boat Cora. While making deliveries to the different missions and Aboriginal communities, Roughsey would seek out the bark painters, sitting with them to watch them paint and listen to their stories. His first attempts at painting followed the style of Albert Namatjira who at the time was gaining public recognition. A pivotal meeting with the airline pilot and artist Percy Tresize galvanized Roughsey’s wish to become an artist. ‘Paint what you know yourself,’ Tresize told him, encouraging Roughsey to embark on painting as a professional career and also to rely on his own sources of inspiration. Tresize brought supplies of suitable bark and ochres to Roughsey who began painting the stories of his own tradition. Soon after, his first exhibition in Cairns was highly successful, generating great enthusiasm among both artists and audiences. Later, Tresize also instructed Roughsey in the use of European art materials and techniques, which provided the basis for the illustration of the many children’s books that they would work on together. Their close friendship and art-writing collaboration lasted until Roughsey’s death in 1985. Tresize described Roughsey as endlessly fascinated by art, ‘he worked at it fourteen hours a day and seven days a week‘ (1993: 173). He became a leading Aboriginal artist, exhibiting in Australia’s major cities and, in 1973, became the inaugural chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board, travelling widely in Australia and overseas to promote the preservation and perpetuation of Aboriginal art. Roughsey stressed how important it was for Indigenous Australians to tap into their rich cultural identity at a time when political control was only beginning to be regained. Recognizing the loss of their lands and lifestyle had left many living on very meagre resources in depressed conditions, he envisioned the way art could provide a means of income as well as cultural and spiritual regeneration. His quick-witted intelligence had facilitated his own successful mediation between Aboriginal and European culture and he sought unfailingly to extend that opportunity to others. Tresize recalled that he could recite Shakespeare and other English poets (learned from the Scottish missionaries) or perform a mesmerizing traditional song and dance for friends and visitors. Roughsey regularly returned to Mornington Island where his wife Elsie and their children lived. He would work on a new series of paintings and instruct his children, some of who followed in his artistic footsteps. In 1978 he was awarded an OBE for his many cultural contributions. Many Australian schoolchildren were first introduced to Aboriginal mythology through Roughsey’s award winning children’s books. The Rainbow Serpent became established in the national psyche as an Australian creation myth. It was a Dreaming of special meaning to Roughsey because it was on his homeland island that the huge serpent came to rest after it had finished creating the land, seas and mountains. In Moon and Rainbow 1971 Roughsey told the story of his early life and his early fascination for art and myth. The book provides a unique insight into less known aspects of Australian history and inspired others, including Elsie his wife, to write. Roughsey accompanied Tresize on many expeditions in the Cape York Peninsula, playing a crucial role in the documentation and study of Quinkan rock painting and meeting with many tribal elders. This eventually led to the declaration of the Quinkan Reserves and the return of these lands to their Aboriginal owners. Suddenly taken ill at the end of one of these study adventures, Roughsey returned to Mornington Island to ‘sing himself better’. Sadly, after a period of illness, he passed away. Roughsey’s ‘foot in both worlds’ was reflected in his painting. He could succinctly illustrate the narratives of Aboriginal life and myth in a lyrical European painting style but also skilfully express the dynamic patterns and figurative motifs that characterise the ancient painting traditions of Queensland’s far north. His tireless efforts to encourage Indigenous Australians, and Indigenous artists in particular, followed in part upon the model of his enduring friendship with Tresize, who himself often said that it was he who was doing most of the learning. His description of Roughsey as a ‘key inspiration in his life’ could well be quietly echoed by many others who knew this determined yet gentle and endearing man.         

Dick Roughsey died in 1985 at a time when the Aboriginal arts industry was still very much in its infancy. He played a leading role in what would later become known as the reconciliation movement. He could be said to have done more than any other, perhaps apart from Albert Namatjira, in bridging the cultural divide between black and white Australia. The children’s books that he illustrated and wrote with his friend Percy Tresize were numerous and widely read and loved. Images for these books were painted on illustration boards and each of these unique sets of paintings were sold after publication. Most of these have remained as complete sets, having been cherished by their owners, many of whom actually met and were deeply affected by Roughsey’s humour and personal magnetism. They occasionally appear for sale now that their owners are growing older and looking to simplify their lives. One such set that comprised the illustrations of one of his most successful and enduring books achieved the record price for the artist when sold at Lawson~Menzies in May 2006 (Lot 39). Goorialla-The Rainbow Serpent 1975 comprised 16 works each measuring 61 x 75 cm and sold for $16,800 against a presale estimate of $15,000-20,000. It exceeded the previous record of $15,000 that had stood since March 1990. This was surely one of the oldest records that still remained current for an Aboriginal artwork. One can only imagine the titanic struggle in the room when Second Last Game, the small 23.5 x 33 cm board depicting a game of marbles being played out at twilight sold at Mason Gray in Sydney with an estimate of just $800-1,600 actually sold for $15,000. It demonstrates clearly how rapidly the Aboriginal art market has changed because, at that time, this would have been one of the highest prices ever paid for a painting by any Australian Aboriginal artist. It was in fact still the 37th highest price ever paid for an Aboriginal artwork at the end of 1994 but had been consigned from the top 50 by the following year when Sotheby’s began their specialist sales. Apart from his book illustrations, Roughsey is principally recognized as a bark painter and two of the finest ever offered at auction hold his third and fifth highest results. Both were sold at Lawson~Menzies having been highly prized in my own personal collection. The first was bought directly from Roughsey by Siri Omberg, a personal friend, who inspired by his encouragement opened Emerald Hill Gallery just after the artist’s death in the late 1980s and installed the work behind glass at the gallery’s entrance. The other was purchased when the magnificent Ray Laurie collection was sold in a stand-alone auction at Lawson’s in 1994. Both depicted Roughsey’s oft repeated Marnbil and Debil Debil creation story which described the fight to the death between two brothers by dividing the image into three horizontal narrative elements. The barks created in 1968 and 1965 respectively sold for $11,400 and $7,200. In 2010, Roughsey was posthumously represented by Jan Manton who installed a solo exhibition  at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, accompanied by an excellent catalogue essay written by Simon Wright. It set the artist up to achieve due recognition as a seminal figure in far north Queensland art. However its effects were not evidenced as 2010 turned out to be a rather average year on the secondary market.  Only two works of seven offered selling for a sum total of $5,000. The highest price for one of his many paintings depicting missionaries and Christian themes was the $7,200 paid at Sotheby’s in November 2005 for The Coming of the Missionary 1981 (Lot 348), thereby reaching the high estimate. This lovely small work depicts his lithe, healthy Lardil clan ancestors standing in an Eden-like innocence as they look out to a sailing ship anchored off their idyllic island.   Overall, Dick Roughsey’s extremely appealing paintings are both popular and inexpensive and this is reflected in their success at auction. A 75% clearance rate for an Aboriginal artist that has had so many works offered for sale is impressive, especially so when his results since 1997 are taken in to account. Prices for his works are still extremely reasonable and affordable for collectors with even the smallest budgets. But with only one of his highest ten results having been set before 2000 and five of the highest six achieved since 2004 there is no doubt that interest in his work has been growing and keen collectors should not think twice if they find a nice piece at a good price.  

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