The Listener: ‘Spitting Images. The Fine Art of Imitating Grahame Sydney’

The Listener, Linda Herrick.  At the foot of the stairs of art retailers Fishers Fine Arts in Parnell, Auckland, stands a large landscape painting, “Approaching 95 at Maryburn”, signposting the entrance to an exhibition upstairs. A couple walk through the door and exclaim, “Look, there’s a Grahame Sydney.” As they move closer, they bemusedly examine the painting’s signature. Geoff Williams.

Anyone who has read the book The Art of Grahame Sydney (three-time winner in the 2000 Montana Book Awards), or attended his public gallery talks or engaged with his paintings, will be familiar with the intensive meditative process Sydney goes through to produce his work, which is also renowned as technically superb. He completes about six paintings a year, and destroys any that don’t meet his exacting standards. On the other hand, a series of conversations with Williams – who acknowledges he is colour blind – present a dispiriting picture: “a lot of it is just really good illustrations”; “nothing earth-shattering”; “I had to paint paintings I could make a living from”; “I’m quite proud of them, not for their artistic sake, but because I’ve been able to make a good living”; “I’m now painting less because they’re getting good prices and I don’t have to focus on volume anymore”; “I’ve never been able to connect with the landscape and I haven’t been that interested in it, either”; “I’ve made a few bob from the boats.”

Art critic Keith Stewart: “You’d have to say, buyer beware, and anybody who’s buying it in terms of it being an investment I would predict is in serious trouble. If what Williams is doing was being done in print, in the sense that someone wrote a novel that was such a straightforward copy of style and content, as these paintings are, I would suggest there’d be a court case very quickly. Grahame’s not losing any business by it, but this guy is living off the talent of others and that annoys me intensely.”

In the end, says Sydney, history is the best judge – the truth is in comparing the paintings. “It is fascinating and sad,” says Sydney, “that someone who has apparently been painting fulltime for a decade is so profoundly blind to art’s complexities and mysteries, sees it as mere commerce. Quality in art does not consist of doing what someone else has done, nor simply formulaic repetition of boats with reflections, models on beds, objects on shelves, sheds in the landscape, and reproducing the photographs with a signwriter’s methods. Neither does a sale equate with success, Williams may well have been a successful signwriter. He is now the country’s most expensive one.”