Thomas Henley Pilgrim was a committed painter; art and its teaching being the major focus of his life for over fifty years. Pilgrim was never a person who sought self-promotion but quietly and assiduously continued the pursuit of that ever-vanishing mystery, art. He was born in Beaudesert (QLD) in 1927 and, although residing for the greater part of his life at Bilambil Heights in northern New South Wales, his working career was concentrated in Brisbane.
Pilgrim was educated in the Northern Rivers district but his first experience of what was to become his profession was in 1946 when he was appointed as a student teacher at the art school of the Central Technical College, Brisbane. His study for a Certificate in Applied Art from that institution was interrupted when he was appointed to teach art at Maryborough, where he served from 1949 to 1953. In 1951 the Jubilee Art Train was organised by the Queensland Art Gallery to deliver art displays through Queensland’s regional centres. Pilgrim was attached to the train during part of its progress through Queensland and delivered lectures at Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton and Mount Morgan. Pilgrim met the prominent landscape painter John Rowell after he was awarded the first H. C. Richards Prize in 1951, which inspired him to make art his profession. Later, Pilgrim was employed by the Education Department and taught art subjects at the State Industrial High School in Brisbane (1953-55), the Cavendish Road State High School, Brisbane (1953-56) and subsequently in the country at the Warwick Technical High School (1956-58). He completed his Certificate in Applied Art in 1962 after he returned to live in Brisbane.
Pilgrim subsequently taught and lectured in art at adult education classes in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. During these years he fulfilled the requirements for a Diploma in Drawing and Painting at the Central Technical College which he completed in 1969. He was appointed to the position of art instructor at that institution (by now designated the Queensland College of Art in new premises at suburban Morningside) and shortly became the senior instructor, a position he fulfilled until his retirement in 1986. This was not, in effect, retirement but a renewed commitment to his painting.
While Pilgrim was actively involved with his students at the College of Art, he retained his distance from the art scene in Brisbane and did not participate in the various artist organised groups. He did, however, contribute to the numerous prize and competitive exhibitions which proliferated in Brisbane in the 1960s and 1970s, thereby establishing a substantial exhibition profile. These exhibitions included the H. C. Richards Prize (and later Trustee’s Prize) and the L. J. Harvey Prize for Drawing which were held at the Queensland (National) Art Gallery: Pilgrim contributed in the years 1960 to 1980. As both of these competitions were open to national participation and independently selected it ensured that Pilgrim’s work was seen in the context of advanced art practice. Other significant prize exhibitions in which Pilgrim participated were the Redcliffe Art Contest, the David Jones Art Prize, and the Gold Coast City Art Prize.
Because of the wide scope of artistic styles included in such exhibitions, the attention of reviewers was usually directed to the prominent interstate artists. So it was very rare for particular mention to be made of Pilgrim’s individual work. As an exception, Legendary Landscape was praised by the Brisbane critic Dr Gertrude Langer when she assessed it in the Seventh Annual Redcliffe Art Contest in 1963 (1).
The landscape focus demonstrated by Pilgrim’s work is also emphasised by his being selected for inclusion in the prestigious Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on six occasions. These works were Steep Terrace, Terranora in 1966, The Long Hill in 1968, Watercolour 1 and 2, Tweed District in 1969, Landscape 1 Storm in 1971, Dark Forest, Tweed District in 1974 and Twin Peaks, North Border in 1978. The titles of these works clearly indicate the focus of Pilgrim’s practice was rooted in his own locality.
Pilgrim was awarded first prize for watercolour at the Central Technical College in the Queensland’s centenary year but his most significant award was in 1962 for the Johnsonian Club Watercolour Prize, Brisbane, with Under the Bridge, Tweed Heads . It is a highly successful example of a more formal abstraction as the pylons of the bridge are organised on a strict grid of horizontals and verticals and the image emerges out of the dark blue/green/brown ground.
Pilgrim featured in only one commercial exhibition which he shared with Betty Quelhurst. It was organised by John Cooper in late 1955 at Margo Kelly’s Hibiscus Room, Surfers Paradise. The display was promoted as being the 'first exhibition of paintings entirely of South Coast’ (2) subjects and included Pilgrim’s watercolour images of Surfers Paradise both by day and by night. Pilgrim had his first survey exhibition at the Ipswich Regional Art Gallery in January 1981. This exhibition, which included thirty watercolours produced over a thirty-year period, was organised by the Ipswich branch of the Queensland Arts Council but passed largely unremarked.
His second survey exhibition “Thomas Henley Pilgrim: the last fifty years” was a much more significant event as it was held at the Tweed River Regional Art Gallery in 2001 to acknowledge his contribution to local art practice. The exhibition particularly revealed the quality of Pilgrim’s watercolours. The watercolour medium is one of the strengths of art practice in Queensland; from the simplified, decorative works of Kenneth Macqueen and Vida Lahey from the 1930s, to the large scale and colourful brushwork of the senior artist W. G. Grant in the 1930s and the increasing freedom of expression encouraged by the prominent expressionist painter Jon Molvig in the 1960s and 1970s. A notable exponent of the watercolour medium in this phase was Joy Roggenkamp (1928-99) who highlighted the freer, fresher approach that was appearing generally in the context of art in Brisbane.
During the early 1960s Pilgrim studied drawing briefly with Molvig at Corroboree House in the inner Brisbane suburb of Spring Hill. Although his work was not directly influenced by this charismatic figure (and that was not Molvig’s way) the greater emotional freedom his work later developed may be seen against this background.
Peter Schardin, who curated Pilgrim’s 2001 survey exhibition rightly noted 'His work communicates some of his vision and idea of his life experiences as an artist. . . . Pilgrim’s art expresses strong colour, shape and expressive manipulation.’ (3) But in the early years of his career colour was not such a vital component. A muted palette is evident in Pilgrim’s watercolours of the fifties in works such as Baddow House, Maryborough 1957 . But in its own time it would have been regarded as quite colourful. We must remember that the visual media of the time was dominated by black and white images, colour only appeared in the fluoro intensity of Technicolour films.
Like most artists of his generation Pilgrim was seduced by the call of abstraction and the emotional freedom it allowed its exponents. Pure abstract paintings in oil media do not seem, on the whole, to be the most resolved works in his production but this comment does not apply to his expressive large-scale watercolour 'Metamorphic landscape’ 1966 which was exhibited in the 1966 H. C. Richards Prize at the Queensland Art Gallery. The golden-ochre forms and the crystalline linear structure partially obscured by the swathes of watercolour washes do suggest a landscape in the act of being created. Another fine example, more hard edge in its approach, is Cosmic landscape II 1968 in which the dark and luminous colours inspire a suggestion of both transience and strength. Landscape images, abstracted to various degrees but still acknowledging the source of his inspiration, are the most successful of Pilgrim’s oeuvre.
This new freedom of expression unleashed his watercolour technique to even greater vitality such as in Terranora landscape II 1966 which was first shown in an exhibition by the Robin Hood Committee in one of its exhibitions at McDonalds and East’s Gallery, Brisbane. It received deserved praise from Dr Langer. The palette of this work is restricted to yellow, green and blue with the sky dominantly yellow. The mountains peer out of this enveloping glow and are pulled to the frontal plane over the receding blue and green colours in the foreground. This expressiveness was continued throughout the late 1970s to the 1990s in the freely applied washes of numerous works. Watercolours such as Tweed landscape 1986 utilise washes of the wet into wet colours are fluid yet controlled and a comparison with the watercolours of the American artist John Marin spring to mind. The broadness of his watercolour technique can also be transferred to some of his later oils such as his vigorous McPherson Ranges c.1980 in which the application of colour almost seems random.
Northern New South Wales is acknowledged for its scenic beauties and Pilgrim’s studio, situated at the crest of a ridge, has stunning views of the ranges and to the coastline. The landscape of the border regions between New South Wales and Queensland has thus been the focus of his work and familiar motifs in the landscape recur. These images document the particular mood and atmosphere of the motif in changing conditions of light and weather. His painting Across the valley 1978 is taken from a view through Pilgrim’s studio window and the high keyed palette of bright pinks, yellows, blues and greens again seems almost random in its placement. Even with acknowledging the intensity that the 'tropics’ give to our appreciation of colour the intensity of Pilgrim’s palette adds almost a transcendent element. This transcendence is displayed to an even more marked degree in works such as Kirra 1990.
Pilgrim has rarely strayed from his native environment; however, he made his first visit overseas in 1993. He travelled to the United States and, unsurprisingly, it was the landscape which attracted him. It was a marked shift from the lush beauty of his Australian landscapes to the austere strength of the Mojave Desert. Segment of the Grand Canyon 1994 (Collection College of Art, Brisbane) depict the simplified planes of the mesas in twilight which caught his eye and demonstrates the richness of his palette. It is markedly different to that used in his studio.
Pilgrim’s third survey exhibition Celebration 2002 was held at the Ron McMaster Gallery in the Gold Coast Campus of Griffith University to acknowledge his teaching association with the College of Art and his life long practice. The exhibition again demonstrated the diversity of the work produced over Pilgrim’s career but the unifying elements are landscape subjects and expressive brushwork and colour. There artists who catch the attention of the media (and younger generation artists are particularly astute in this aspect) but the one element that they have to develop is one that Pilgrim has demonstrated throughout his life, his dedication to his profession, painting.
(1) Langer, Dr G. 'Art’, The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Sep. 1963.
(2) Unidentified press cutting, Betty Quelhurst File, Queensland Art Gallery Research Library
(3) Schardin, Peter. Thomas Henley Pilgrim: the last fifty years, Tweed River Regional Art Gallery, 2001, p.2
- Glenn R Cooke
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