Skip to content

John Olsen Five bells 1963

John Olsen

Australia b1928
Newcastle-born Olsen freelanced as a cartoonist before studying art in Sydney and Europe. He aims to create a ‘totality of experience’ in his works, which have a powerful sense of place and expressive vitality. For him, movement is the essence of painting, and his idiosyncratic style is like drawing with paint.

Olsen has been influenced by Eastern philosophy and by literature, especially the poetry of Dylan Thomas and TS Eliot, as well as his interests in history, travel and food. He was a trustee of the Gallery from 1978 to 1981.

Five bells 1963

Although it takes its name from a poem about a man who drowned after falling from a ferry in Sydney Harbour – Five bells by Kenneth Slessor – Olsen’s painting is more a celebration of life on and in those waters. A private commission, it was painted in situ in a family home, where it remained for 36 years.

Said Olsen: ‘I brushed a line around the core theme, the seed-burst, the life-burst, the sea-harbour, the source of life. Inside and around this core, I painted images drawn from metaphors and similes in Slessor’s poem of our harbour-city, and from my own emotional and physical involvement with the harbour… The painting says directly what I wanted to say: “I am in the sea-harbour, and the sea-harbour is in me”.’

People and places

With 240 kilometres of shoreline and 54 square kilometres of water, Sydney Harbour is the heart of the city. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful harbours, it’s also renowned for its natural deep water channels and is very much a working waterway, used constantly by ferries (carrying more than 14 million passengers a year) as well as tugs, cruise liners, commercial shipping and recreational boating. Its foreshores range from bushland and swimming coves to private homes and commercial and industrial sites. While its entrance is marked by North and South Head, two modern icons now dominate the harbour: the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. There are also several islands within the harbour, including Shark, Goat and Cockatoo Islands, and Garden Island, which is a base for the Australian Navy.