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Artist captured the carefree people of Australia's tropical north

RAY CROOKE

Artist

Ray Crooke in Sydney in 2011.
Ray Crooke in Sydney in 2011. 

12-7-1922 – 5-12-2015

When famed Australian artist Ray Crooke walked into Eva Breuer's Sydney gallery one day in 2002 she pointed to a $22,000 painting and said how pleased she was to have such an early work of his on show. The Melbourne-born artist inspected the picture of an islander woman and child then remarked: "Well, it may be an early work but it isn't mine. Close-up, I can see it was done with a different technique." A rattled Breuer returned the work to the auction room where she bought it.

Islanders 
Oil on canvas, 122 x 91 cm
Islanders Oil on canvas, 122 x 91 cm 

It is a measure of Ray Crooke's status in Australian art that a skilled forger had attempted to "create" a Crooke painting. Undoubtedly, he was one of the greats, his paintings inspired by the carefree lifestyle and people of North Queensland and the islands of the Torres Strait and the Pacific.

Crooke, who has died aged 93, was the second of three sons born to Gordon and Euphemia Crooke. His father worked in an office as an accountant but had studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne in the hope of becoming a cartoonist or illustrator. Eventually, he pursued art as a hobby instead.

Crooke's mother spent her youth on Aboriginal missions and later trained as a nurse. His youth was spent camping, hiking and fishing with his father, and exploring the natural world, observing the birds, insects, spiders and other wildlife in the Australian bush. He later joined the Victorian Naturalist Society and participated in many of their expeditions.

Ray Crooke attended Brighton Beach State School and later Hampton High School and Melbourne High School, finishing school at 15, and acquiring a job at an inner city advertising agency in Melbourne, studying art part time at Swinburne Technical College. In 1940 he enlisted the army, serving three months in the Victorian Scottish Regiment, becoming a full-time soldier in 1941, and transferring to Western Australia, from there his unit was transferred to Townsville, and points north up the Queensland coast. His love of the tropics stems from this time, as well as his time on Borneo.

After the war his art training resumed at Swinburne Tech, studying under Sir William Dargie, Rodger James and Alan Jordon. While at the college he staged an exhibition, including works from his army days and Borneo village scenes at the Kozminsky Gallery, Melbourne. In the late 1940s he met June Bethell and they married in 1951 in Melbourne. Daughter Susan was born in 1952 with two other children completing the Crooke family –Dianna in 1954 and David in 1959. The Crookes move back to the tropics to Cairns, Thursday Island, and eventually to the popular beach town of Yorkey's Knob.

His desire to prove himself as a painter, led the family back to Melbourne in 1955, and some part-time teaching appointments at Swinburne and Ferntree Gully Junior School, as well as working as a designer in a factory screenprinting fabrics.  A major breakthrough came in 1959, when he staged a successful one-man show at the Australian Galleries in Melbourne. In September, 1960, Ray had his first show at the prestigious Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane. This would prove to be a happy association, exhibiting with them until 1972.

Ray was on his way, having major exhibitions in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle and Canberra. His art peers recognised his talents and were supportive of his art. Sir Daryl Lindsay stated in 1964: "In his career each step forward showed a growing maturity of vision and the technical ability of expressing it in paint." Sir Russell Drysdale added "Ray Crooke is a sensitive and original artist who paints Australia's tropical north as no one else has done."  His profile moved to a more international status when he exhibited three paintings in the Australian Painting Today exhibition at Tate Gallery, London in 1963 and a solo exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute Galleries, London the following year.

Further success came when his portrait of writer and friend George Johnston was awarded the Archibald Prize in 1969 – then one of his paintings, The Offering 1971 was purchased by the Vatican Museum in Rome, and a retrospective exhibition of his work staged as part of the Adelaide Festival in 1972. 

Crooke moved permanently to North Queensland, firstly at Yorkey's Knob and eventually to Cairns. His collaboration with Phillip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane began in 1982 when he exhibited North Queensland Paintings and Drawings and has exhibited with them since. Bacon described the artist as "the last of his breed".  During 1997-1998 the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville stage a major retrospective of his work and in 2005 the Cairns Regional Gallery showcased Encounters with country: landscapes of Ray Crooke, both these exhibitions touring nationally. Crooke was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1993 and received an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University in 1996.

His love of life, colour and in a sense, spiritually reflected in his works. Journalist Scott Bevan wrote: "The war years took him to the tropics, and art allowed him to stay there." Crooke's view was simple and he emphasised: "I'm trying to express an emotional reaction of the world around me. I can just record these dreamscapes of the Pacific, but they're real. They're real things."

Daughter Susan died in 1975 and wife June in 2008. Ray Crooke is survived by children, Dianna, David, grandchildren and extended family.