Paddy Bedford was born at Bedford Downs Station in the East Kimberley c.1922. He was given the name Paddy after the station manager, Paddy Quilty, a hard man, who was believed to be the instigator of the strychnine poisoning of Gidja Men at Bedford Downs in retaliation for killing a milking cow near Mount King several years earlier. Like many of his Gidja countrymen, Bedford worked for Quilty and others as a stockman for the majority of his life in return for rations of tea, flour and tobacco. These and other, often horrific, events are woven into the contemporary history of the Kimberley region and provided Paddy Bedford with a unique perspective informing an art practice that began in his late 70’s.
Though he had been involved with ceremonial painting all his life, it was by chance that a gallery dealer happened upon some of his boards in a rubbish tip in the mid 1990’s. From such humble beginnings Paddy began painting formally in 1997, with the formation of Jirrawun Aboriginal Arts. Initiated by Freddy Timms with help from artist Tony Oliver, the group which includes Timms, Peggy Patrick, Rammy Ramsay and others, has gained exponential notoriety and they have been ‘mythologised, almost like rock stars, by some of the country’s best writers’ (Bowdler 2005: 45). In tangible terms Jirrawun Arts has been able to provide the kind of individual support and promotion of its artists that art centers have difficulty emulating. Numerous shows were organised through the group, in which Bedford starred during his lifetime, including Blood on the Spinifex at the National Gallery of Victoria and True Stories at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
'I’m a millionaire' Bedford shouted when he received his first cheque as an artist. Over the following decade his painting style developed from simple expanses of flat ochre to masterful luminous textured surfaces. Painting in a recognizable east Kimberley style in which plains of ochre are disrupted only by sparsely planted shapes, Bedford masterfully combined important ancestral Dreamings with depictions of his environment and contemporary historical events.
His health and dexterity at various times dictated the medium in which he worked. Introduced to gouache and paper after 2000, he created intimate works that were equally successful as those depicted in ochres. In both mediums his paintings are imbued with authority and an absolutely distinctive individual language within the east Kimberley conventions. Characteristic of Paddy’s style are richly ochred surfaces with minimal arrangements of circular shapes, often centered upon a band, and delineated by white dots. Though important Dreamings such as the Emu, Turkey, and Cockatoo are present in many of his works, like the narratives of his family history they are not depicted in any figurative form. This is evidenced in the self-published book, Walk the Line, produced during 2004, in which Bedford depicted important sites and explored the culture of his people.
Paddy Bedford, an enigmatic octogenarian, stood out as a uniquely talented artist. He was amongst the few selected to contribute to the permanent installation at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris and was honoured, during his lifetime, with the unprecedented recognition of a retrospective exhibition and a major catalogue by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney during 2007, which toured nationally.
His work, most probably without intention, became embroiled in the ‘history wars’ between various social commentators and journalists after Keith Windschuttle, in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History 2002, questioned the veracity of Aboriginal oral accounts of such tragedies as the Bedford Downs massacre. Three years later Paddy Bedford exhibited a series of paintings based on the Bedford Downs massacre at the National Gallery of Victoria. The Blood on the Spinifex exhibition revealed a surprising attitude to the killings. Its power lay in the 'modesty of the voice, the quiet economy of the storyline, the sober lack of sentimental or rhetorical elaboration' (Nelson cited in Bowdler 2005: 46). It is testament to this wonderful old stockman and artist, one of the great Kimberley characters, that the truth distilled within his canvasses has brought broad acceptance amongst a majority of Australians as to the credibility of Gidja oral accounts of their traumatic encounters with white settlers.
Paddy Bedford, like Eastern Anmatjerre artist Emily Kngwarryee, produced paintings for no more than a decade at the end of his life. However unlike Kngwarreye, who produced in excess of 4000 paintings before her death in 1996, Bedford painted only sparingly for most of his late-blooming, artistic career. At their best, his minimal abstracted ochre works have an equal power and strength to those of Rover Thomas, the founder of the East Kimberley style. However Bedford was physically capable of producing major paintings for only a limited period of his life, restricting his work beyond this to painting on paper created in coloured gouache and smaller, more manageable works on linen and artboard. His entire artistic output was produced for Jirrawun Arts, other than a small number of paintings on canvas and artboard created during a workshop organised by Neil McLeod for Jack Dale at his home in Derby during late 2001. During the workshop Bedford stayed with Dale, an old friend, and although the paintings he created at that time were extremely well photo-documented these works are not considered to have been part of his ‘official’ catalogue resonne and their value has therefore been discounted in the market.
Between 2000 and 2006, Bedford’s secondary market results were dominated by non-Jirrawun paintings, the highest selling of which being a 106 x 147 cm work on linen entitled Caves at Old Bedford 2001, which went for $19,200 at the Lawson-Menzies November 2004 auction (Lot 22). At the start of 2007 a superb 180 x 150 cm canvas, Girrganyji the Brown Falcon Dreaming 2000 sold well over estimate in Shapiro’s June 2003 auction taking $17,625 (Lot 163), to become the artist’s second highest record.
During his own lifetime Bedford remained one of those rare artists whose secondary market prices did not reflect the prices paid for his works by collectors in the primary market. His exhibitions at galleries including Raft Gallery in Darwin, Chapman Galleries in Canberra, Martin Brown Gallery and Grant Pirrie in Sydney and William Mora Galleries in Melbourne were always eagerly awaited events and the buyers of works from these exhibitions were universally unwilling to let go of their prized purchases until 2007. What a difference just three years can make! Paddy Bedford passed away early in 2007 and since then his sales have been nothing short of spectacular. There have now been 32 sales of $75,000 and over, which have propelled Bedford from relative obscurity on the secondary market at the end of 2006, to see him rank 1st in 2011, 4th in 2012, 2013 and 2014, 5th in 2015 and 3rd in 2016. With an Aboriginal Art Market Rating in 2006 of just 0.892 and a ranking between the 120 and 150th in terms of his individual auction success he became the 12th most successful artist of all time by the end of the following year, the eighth by 2012 and 6th by the end of 2015.
At the time of his death his most contemporary looking paintings were already valued in the primary market for as much as $85,000, with small boards produced toward the end of his painting career in 2005-2006 selling for up to $25,000, yet his record price at auction remained below $20,000.
In 2007 William Mora featured the artist in his stand at the Melbourne Art Fair to rapturous acclaim. However, following the Bedford's death, with primary market sales having dried up completely, auction houses were deluged with interest. The same year, at Lawson~Menzies no less than eight potential buyers were willing to bid above $120,000 for Joogoomoondiny - Gawler Gully 2004, and by the time two eager buyers had finished their titanic struggle the painting, sold to a Swiss collector for $300,000, the artist's record price to this day. Merremerrji-Queensland Creek, 2005 was the star performer in Bonham's solo artists sale Selected Works from the Estate of Paddy Bedford when it sold for $216,000. And Thoonbi, 2006, a work held in the superannuation fund of Melbourne uber-dealer Bill Nutall, achieved $180,000 at Bonham's in 2012 despite a dismal result for the sale overall. In 2013 two works entered his top 10 results. Ngarrmaliny-Cockatoo at Police Hole, 2003 measuring 150 x 180 cm, and carrying an estimate of $150,000-180,000, sold for $201,300 at the Bonham's Laverty Collection sale in March; and in June, Thoowoonggoonarrin 2006, achieved $183,000 at Sotheby's.
In spite of some adverse publicity in the Bulletin magazine, suggesting Bedford was assisted in many works, his popularity continues undiminished. In 2015, 12 of 14 works sold for an average price of $45,567, another work entering his top ten results.
Since his death in 2007, Paddy’s best works have shattered his earlier records. And no wonder! Their sophisticated, subtle palette and inspired sense of design, as well as their relative scarcity, ensure that they will remain amongst the most highly desired of all Aboriginal paintings indefinitely.