Jack Britten was born and spent his childhood at Tickelara Station, in the north west of Australia, at a time when many Gija people were massacred during the gold rush at Hall’s Creek and Chinaman’s Garden in the East Kimberley region.
'Sometimes they bin all day shootin people there,' Jack recalled in his later years, 'my father and mother and grandparents were with good gadiya (white man). I might have got shot if he didn’t look after me' (cited in Ryan 1993: 41).
Their ‘good gadiya’ was Ted Britten, a European stockman who took Jack, whilst still a boy, to Fitzroy Crossing to work on stations such as Cherrabun, Christmas Creek and Cogo. He did not rejoin his mother at Ticklerra until in his late teens, and he worked there as a stockman well in to his late 40’s. The introduction of the pastoral award in 1969, which aimed to provide Indigenous workers with similar wages to their non-Indigenous counterparts had the devistating unintended effect of ending their jobs entirely. Jack who, along with other Aboriginal stockmen, found himself unemployed, moved to Nine Mile creek at Wyndham and became a road-worker with the Shire. One of his nicknames Yalarrji, was given to him after spending a number of years panning for gold and dingo trapping at Yalarre on Alice Downs after Ted Britten’s death. He used to relate the tale of finding a reef of gold, enough to make a prospector a rich man, and having been paid for the 44 gallon drum of ore he mined from it in rations and blankets.
It was not until the establishment of the Warmun Community at Turkey Creek, some 500 kilometres south of Wyndham, that Jack returned to his traditional lands which stretched from his new residence at Frog Hollow east to the Bungle Bungles; south, to take in the former Hann Springs and Tickelara Cattle Stations; north to the upper reaches of the Ord river; and west to the rugged hilly domain of the Mabel Downs high country. It is this country and its sacred and significant sites that he came to depict in his paintings.
Jack Britten actually began painting earlier than almost all of his contemporaries, including Rover Thomas and Paddy Jaminji, his grandparents having taught him to paint using traditional materials, methods and themes. In many of his canvasses, most particularly the earliest ones, Britten used bush gum, sap from the Bloodwood tree and kangaroo blood to bind the ochres. Besides these traditional binding agents, Britten showed other signs of the tutelage he received from his grandparents. The manner in which he marked the dark surface of his canvaes with zig zag, linear, and dotted scrifito and paint is reminiscent of how the Gidja traditionally decorated their artifacts, slates and boab nuts in the region, as well as the designs they created for body painting. Most especially in early paintings, these effects animate Brittens’ unique composite perspective of country.
Despite a vast repertoir, Jack Britten is most renowned for his depictions of the Purnululu, the Bungle Bungle region of which he became the most senior living custodian. Throughout his career he constantly drew inspiration from this land, painting the Bungle Bungles as dark clusters of dome shaped mountains, layered with glistening white trails of dots. Nevertheless, excentricities and undulations in composition and stylistic manner were still to be found throughout his artistic output. His early works were daring in their execution, featuring highly unusual compositions of alternating perspectives. In work such as Untitled (Ord River Country)1990, one shifts from a topographical omnipotent perspective of the Ord River, which twists through the work diagonally, to silhouette’s of the Bungle Bungles in lateral perspective, scattered around the river implying their individual orientation in the landscape. In constrast to the somber, moody atmosphere of these early works Britten’s late career paintings tend to be more open and stark as exampled by Pumululu 2001.
It is Britten’s moody atmospheric canvases that will be his most enduring. Works with a similar sensibility can also be found in the early paintings of George Mung Mung and Freddie Timms. However, while George and Freddie produced very few works with such temperament, Jack Britten dedicated the majority of his career to investigating the subtle variations of mood and composition within the domain of his own somber outlook on a life lived during turbulent times. As a prolific artist, such investigation left a sumptuous legacy of work of intriguing emotion.
While Jack Britten’s work was included in a number of important institutional exhibitions prior to 1990 and several commercial group shows from 1989 onward, his career was marked by a lack of good representation and individual promotion. He lived and painted principally at Frog Hollow and only visited Warmun to paint during the short tenure of Maxine Taylor as the first unfunded art coordinator in Turkey Creek. After Taylor left the community, Jack continued to paint for her exclusively, aside from a very brief period just prior to his death in 2002. Earlier works were painted for Waringarri Arts and Ochre Gallery in Kununurra and, until its closure, Goolarabooloo Arts in Broome. However Jack did not like to travel far beyond the confines of his small community and relied, for most of his career, on others visiting him there. An important body of work was produced in this way for Vivien Anderson in the early 1990s.
Although he was active from the early 1980s, when Rover Thomas had only just began painting, Jack Britten is appreciated, by and large, on his own terms, and for a distinct and altogether different sensibility. His early works were not, for instance, derived from the Krill Krill boards associated with the origins of the East Kimberley style as were the work of Thomas, Jaminji and others.
His early Purnulu- Bungle Bungles1984 fetched an astounding $35,125 when offered at Deutscher~Menzies with a presale estimate of just $15,000-18,000 in 2000. Still his sixth highest result, it was not exceeded as his record price until Sotheby achieved $49,850 for a work with the same theme and estimate four years later.
Such a high price at the time, doubling the previous record of $17,250, paid for Untitled (Ord River) 1990 two years earlier, is even more noteworthy in light of its year of auction, 2000. The day before Sotheby’s had just eclipsed the record paid for Texas Downs Country 1984 by Rover Thomas which stood at $108,100 when they sold Kulmadja (Elgee Cliff)1987 for $141,00, (now Rover's 34th best result). The following year Rover's record was set at $778,750 (and this remains his best sale to this day), while Jack Britten highest result is the $82,750 achieved by Sotheby’s for a 1989 depiction of Purnululu which carried an estimate of just $60,000-80,000 in 2005.
The preference amongst collectors of works by major East Kimberley artists, other than Paddy Bedford and those who began painting much later, is clearly for works created prior to the early 1990s. In Britten’s case all of his best ten results were for paintings created before 1994 until a major 1998 triptych with each panel measuring 160 x 60 cm achieved his second highest result when sold at Mossgreen in April 2008 for $51,735 against a presale estimate of $50,000-70,000 (Lot 118). This later work was characterized by a stricter geometry and starker colouration. Britten's next highest result for work produced after 1993 was Purnululu 2001, a work measuring 110 x 114 cm. which sold at Lawson~Menzies for $21,600 in 2005 (Lot 197). However these later works also form a large majority of his lesser sales and a considerable amount of his unsold works. The number of works at auction steadily increased during the late 1990s and peaked in 2004 when 26 were offered for sale of which 21 sold for a total value of $216,410. Despite fewer works being up for sale, 2005 was the peak year for Britten’s work with 15 paintings selling for more than $276,000. Only 26 works have sold for more than $10,000 with just three selling above $50,000 indicating a distinct reserve on the part of buyers for all but the very best of his works. Jack Britten produced many very fine paintings in the last five years of his life but Tier I auction houses have shown an indifference to the provenance of his late career painting even though it was Jack himself who refused to paint for the Warmun art centre once Maxine Taylor no longer acted as art coordinator there. His works created for her company, Narangunny Art Traders, were produced with great integrity employing the finest materials and would seem to be greatly undervalued in the current market.
While his images of the Bungle Bungle ranges are by far his most familiar, Jack Britten produced many other images throughout a painting career which spanned several decades. Many of these, may currently be considered lesser works, however they are extremely accomplished, quirky and visually challenging. A perfect example is the delightful Eagles 1993 which sold for a mere $8,400 at Sotheby’s in July in 2005 (Lot 192) despite its considerable size and beauty. The two eagles seem to court each other, endearingly. This work, like all of Jack Britten’s best, can be appreciated for its charm, doubtless born by the love and longing this great old man felt for the country of his birth. He was an artist of the highest importance and his paintings are relatively inexpensive alongside those of many of his contemporaries. They represent fantastic value for collectors who can still pick up great paintings at very reasonable prices indeed.
In the last few years it has become increasingly difficult to sell Britten's work at auction, with clearance rates dropping steadily (2017 showed a rate of only 29%), and estimates reflecting his waning popularity. We have yet to see if Britten's popularity will experience an upswing in the coming years. The one thing that is certain is that for an artist of Jack Britten's importance, collectors have the opportunity to snatch up lovely works at incredibly reasonable prices.