top of page

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri

1934 - 1984

Djabaldjari, Timmy Leurah, Timmy Madgera

Before settling with his wife Daisy and their six children at Papunya in the early 1950’s, Tim Leura was born c. 1934 and grew up and worked around Napperby and nearby cattle stations that had taken over his traditional tribal lands north-west of Alice Springs. Working for white people gave him a command of English as well as some familiarity with European ways, but tribal traditions were also maintained in this area and Leura was steeped in ancient lore. Along with his younger ‘brother’, Clifford Possum, he was acclaimed for his wooden carvings of snakes and goannas prior joining in the early artistic endeavours at Papunya. Despite his initial reservations, Leura approached Bardon and became one of the four founding members of the Western Desert art movement. He was reportedly ‘someone you sensed had thought a lot, and deeply' (Wolseley 2000: 377) and once he made a wholehearted commitment became invaluable to Bardon as friend, assistant, and interpreter. Bardon wrote of him as ‘a most gentle and endearing man…he was my dearest and closest friend in the Western Desert' (2004: 89). Through the trials and tribulations of the art movement’s exuberant though fragile beginnings, Leura enabled the necessary dialogue to develop between Bardon and ‘the painting men’ and then later with interested outsiders. He was noted as having enlisted Clifford Possum, also a renowned wood carver, to the painting group. As the group grew, the men would often burst out in laughter at Bardon’s efforts to understand their explanations of paintings or his attempts to discuss visual aspects of their work, sometimes 'through relays of translations'. Yet Bardon recalls, Leura could always come up with a story that was comprehensible and acceptable to all. In the process of acting as interpreter between artists and Bardon, Tim Leura also began developing his own distinctive painting style. It showed a willingness to engage with a cross-cultural sensibility to a greater degree than any other of his contemporaries. His desire to straddle the cultural divide, which impelled him to become a leading figure in Aboriginal art, was also the source of a deep melancholy, often discernable in his painting. Sitting in his own corner of the painting room with his board across his knees, Leura initially followed the ordered and symmetrical style that typified his Anmatyerre Arrernte tribal group and which proved appealing to buyers. He was drawn to subdued tones, mixing colours, dotting on to wet grounds, and blending outlines so that shapes would often run into each other. With great subtlety, he would include stylised animal, plant or skeletal human figures without disturbing his partiality for balance and clarity of design. Bardon strove to curb the group’s raw enthusiasm enough to slow their working procedures down and allow technical proficiency and stylistic innovations to develop. In Leura’s case this was to yield a creative departure from strict topographical and totemic mapping towards more painterly experimentation. He developed a remarkable elegance of tracery and filigree effects that eddied beneath and between the surface dotting, thereby creating a depth of suggested, though camouflaged, meaning. The style he developed was in keeping with the move to secularise the sacred Dreaming stories so that non-tribal outsiders could view them. In his quietly authoritative manner Tim Leura maintained a considered discretion in imparting traditional knowledge. He anguished over the loss and the humiliation his people had suffered and recognized that the eternal stories of his Dreaming must be kept alive and passed on to the new generations. Promoting awareness of his ancient cultural heritage seemed the best remedy for its threatened dissolution. Following the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board by the newly elected Labour government in 1972, Leura participated in a successful delegation to Sydney to secure funds for the emerging Papunya Tula enterprise.  While today Clifford Possum is the better known of the two ‘brothers’ Tim Leura is recognised as having been Possum’s spiritual mentor and instrumental in the development of Possum’s talent and technique. In the mid 70’s they collaborated on a series of monumental paintings incorporating several Dreaming stories in a map-like configuration. These works are regarded as being among the most significant in Aboriginal art. One of these, an 8.2 metre work on canvas, Warlugulong 1976 was exhibited in the 1981 Australian Perspecta and is in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. Another collaborative work, Napperby Spirit Dreaming, was the principal painting in the landmark Asia Society, Dreamings exhibition (1988-1989) and is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. In this magnificent seven-metre masterpiece produced in 1980, Clifford Possum and Tim Leura depart from a group tribal vision tethered to country and tradition, and reveal a subjective gathering of their own life history. Contained areas or ‘windows’ depict the Dreaming totems that sustained their life while a classic journey line runs through them, passing a skeletal spirit figure who waits and watches beside three resting spears. The sombre, dappled surface reflects the deeply felt memory of Leura’s birthplace, recreating qualities of the landscape: leaves, smoke and grass, sand and earth imprinted with tracks and footprints. Clifford Possum’s crisp traveling line and central row of circles, contrasts with Leura’s meandering mode of building atmosphere through the disolution of solid form. He evokes a sense of the numinous, appealing to an aesthetic sense that transcends the arrangements of earthly existence. Often read as a painting in which death is dramatically prefigured, Leura became ill not long after finishing it and wandered lost and disoriented for a time before sadly dying in hospital of a brain tumor, his prolific career and unique perspective prematurely cut short. This painting, hanging in the National Gallery of Victoria, is a testament to Tim Leura’s far-reaching vision open to both the world of eternal stories, and to their sometimes difficult grounding in the circumstances of an individual life.  

Tim Leura painted for just 12 years and passed away in 1984, still several years before the desert painting movement spread to communities beyond Papunya, and long before Aboriginal art gained wide acceptance nationally. His most successful works at auction were created at either the beginning or toward the end of his short career. Although his record price was for a work created just two years before his death, and this sold for more than twice his second highest result, early boards created between 1971 and 1972 occupy eight of his top ten prices at auction. Sotheby’s offered five of his earliest boards in 1998 and all sold for prices so far in excess of their high estimates that the average price paid for one of these in that year was a staggering $68,145. These paintings are of great ethnographic, historic, and aesthetic value and engender the most delicate beauty. This is true of all of Leura’s paintings when rendered in fine varied dotting and subtle hues. It is especially apparent in the almost sparkly early Men's Dreaming board, which at just 54 x 35 cm, created the artist's second highest record in Sotheby's June Auction 2011 (Lot 13). However those early boards with plain backgrounds, and mid 1970s works, have not been as desirable to collectors, and have failed to achieve such high prices. Tim Leura’s highest selling work, Kangaroo at Ritjulnya, painted in 1982 for Papunya Tula and measuring 152 x 181 cm, sold for twice its high estimate in Sotheby’s July 2006 sale (Lot 90). Aesthetically it is a most pleasing work and, even though it was a large canvas painted by a fragile man near the end of his life, he managed to complete a wonderfully intricate dotted background. However it is unlikely that there are any more than a few other 1980s works of this standard and size in private hands. Since 1998, the majority of Leura’s works that have come onto the market have been boards or canvases painted during the period between 1973 and 1979 and these have sold for an average price of around $30,000. The highest price for a sculpture or artefact was the $9,600 paid for a 71 cm long painted beanwood shield at Sotheby's in November 2007(Lot 102). Leura’s sales rate is high at 82% with the 20 unsold works out of the 112 offered generally failing due to reserves that have been too ambitious, or because they have represented his least desirable styles or periods. Sotheby’s have been by far the most prolific house offering Tim Leura’s works with a sales total of more than $1 million from the 58 works it has sold.  Leura's highest grossing year was 1998 when all nine works offered found new homes for a total of $303,150. His next best year was 2007 when $270,346 was generated from the ten works sold of 13 offered. Not much of real quality appreared until 2011 when Sotheby's doubled the upper estimate of one work fetching $162,000 (Lot 13) despite the dampened market, and subsequently, when a sensational early board Untitled, Rainmaker Bird Ceremony, 1972 reappeared for sale for the first time since 2002. Originally sold by Sotheby's for $59,250, it achieved $109,250 in the Cooee Art MarketPlace in 2018, the ast time any of his works have been offered at public auction. Of the two other works that were offered in the same sale, a 1979 rendition of Love Story that sold for $35,750 in 2002 was passed in while the other sold at its mid estimate.  It has been said that Tim Leura was, in Aboriginal eyes at least, a more important figure than Clifford Possum, who lived for another 18 years after his brother’s death and became one of the most prolific and successful Aboriginal artists of all time. While Leura’s output was relatively small, his best works are exquisitely rendered and highly collectable. Works by Leura have an extremely high success rate of 82% at auction. They are important paintings, and will over time, become more and more coveted, as was evidenced with his stellar sale in 2011. Their rarity will be matched by a corresponding increase in value.

Explore our artworks

See some of our featured artworks below

bottom of page