Godfrey Miller

- an abridged chronology


The Real in a thing is that which does not depend on any other thing and which is permanent. Sankaracharyya.

Godfrey Miller's life and work was a search for the Real within the world of appearance. This philosophic and artistic quest brought him to realisation at the close of his life in Sydney, 12May, 1964: "Why is it, that only when we get old we know what to paint?" A philosopher must use the tools of his thinking, an artist his brush and pencil. Godfrey Miller used the former, not merely to guide his hand, but to order a deeper wellspring of imaginative and intuitive life which is the content of his art. Intellectuality is as much a means as a motive. Alone it could not scale the heights of this accomplishment, neither could untrammelled emotion. Magnificent last works embrace a monumental structure which painstakingly unfolds a vision, at once true and beautiful. True because it has tested and penetrated the world of forms, beautiful through a marvelously unified set of of relationships, whereby these forms indeed become a Form, but in the purely visual terms of great painting.

Anchorite, contemplative, teacher, writer, philosopher and friend, deeply involved in the cultural life of his time, Godfrey Miller's achievement is rich, individual and highly complex. His quest was never diverted by concern for fame, position or money. He embodied Goethe's admonition that an artist unfold every human quality, every skill, understand every experience, in order to produce, "that second pinnacle - Art" out of the first given by nature and civilisation. The universality of this approach places him amongst artist of all ages. His importance in Australian art lie also in a unique interpretation of Australian landscape. The duality of a man and his work did not exist for him. The scope of this book permits the briefest chronology, as its intention is to present as much of his painting as possible.

1893  Godfrey Clive Miller was born 20th August, in Wellington, New Zealand. The family lived at Hawera, a small Taranaki town, where his father, Thomas Tripney Miller, managed a bank. A Scot of shrewd abilities, from Glasgow, he preserved an imagination amid routine business life, which strongly appealed to his son.

1895  Isabella Miller, Godfrey's mother, died. An exuberant Irishwoman and modest painter of works in the total manner of the nineties, she bequeathed her son some of her Irish qualities, as well as an annuity. Thomas Miller married her sister, a devout Presbyterian, to whom Godfrey was deeply attached. The family increased from three to seven. An awakening visual experience of the lovely cone of Mt. Egmont, "so in spirit like CÚzanne's Mont St. Victoire", looms significantly from the Hawera years.

1907  The Millers settled at Montecello, a large, sparsely furnished house in Dunedin.

Growing up a vigorous, athletic and sensitive boy, discovering Ruskin, Shakespeare and Francis Thompson, Godfrey felt the spur of the creative, but was involved in finding it not in painting but photography. Recalling his formal education he commented "education is the great tragedy of our age in that it prevents our minds reaching the creative". His rebellion against the formality of his society found encouragement in his father's example. "I recollect father's enthusiasm for the natives of the South Seas, but the admiration he kindled in us would not do among the young gentry who unconsciously valued the white collar."

1912  As part of his architectural training Godfrey joined a firm of builders, "made boxing for concrete, sawed, dug holes for the Dunedin Y.M.C.A. I learned quite a lot I found useful in sculpture".

1914  Trained at Trentham, Godfrey was sent to Egypt and Gallipoli with the N.Z. Light Horse. The grand solemnity of Gizeh, Luxor and Karnak made the deepest impression, his first, of monumental art.

1915  He was wounded in his right arm, and lay hours on a Gallipoli battlefield before being found.

1916  Recovering in a Rotorua hospital back home he was convinced that the criminal imbecility of war was fundamentally a failure of thinking. His future was completely changed by the experiences of Egypt and Gallipoli.

1917  Completing his degree in Architecture, he worked with a firm if Dunedin architects on the Grand Pacific Hotel, Suva. A. G. O'Keefe, an Irish painter with a rich feeling for the medium, encouraged him to paint, and his advice he followed to the end of his life.

1919  A long trip to the Philippines, China and Japan brought him into touch with Eastern thought. This interest remained for life. Almost immediately on return he left for Melbourne and Warrandyte, his home for the next ten years. Financial security permitted his absolute devotion to painting. Small pastoral landscapes, well constructed, richly modulated and tonally resonant flowed from his brush. Light is silver, mellow or cool. Sepia wash drawings recall Turner's Liber Studorium, and studies of cattle, Cuyp. Intuitions outstripped capacity, but an approach was forged which prepared the future.

1929  At the Slade school in London, Godfrey studied sculpture. Tonks taught Renaissance drawing, but apart from the comment, "you can do what no one else can do, but you can't do what everyone else can do", had little influence. "I was the only student who stood at his grave when they buried him." London galleries, the Tate and Courtauld Institute, inspired a precise and sunny pointillism in his painting. Claude Lorrain "taught me to arrange masses in space". He realised Claude's genius did not imitate, but rather clothed Idea in the semblance of reality.

1931  In Melbourne he modelled and he painted landscapes with trees, for which he showed extraordinary sensitivity. He sought a detachment where "vision sees through to structure" and in sculpture, "not lacework but ironwork".

1933  "I get a lot from Goethe, more explicity, his ideas on plant and animal metamorphosis, something rigid intellectualism cannot grasp". Back in London in the slums of Howland Street, W.C.1, "because slum people are more polite," he took his standpoint as a conceptual artist. "All we are interested in is the Idea - poetry, painting, life are revelations of it. He who can envisage ideas of truth and put them out in any form whatever is an artist." Geometry established "a base from which to reach out into individual opinion". Intellectual stimulus from lectures by Sweitzer and Freud, plays, concerts and friends fill his spare moments.

1934  His father died in London. With brother Lewis, Godfrey explored the art centres of France, Italy and Spain, taking many superb photographs wherever he went.

1935  The Chinese exhibition at Burlington House reminded him of his debt to the East. "First draw the completed rhythm, then fill with Earth's objects, beauty is found in relationship." He drew at the Slade over these years. However, "Not the Slade or CÚzanne, but Indian philosophy gave me a key". The interpenetration of opposites, the life of entities within a world of correspondences contrasted vividly with Western materialistic thought.

In Van Gogh, Klee, Picasso he found kindred seekers. He preferred archaic Greek art and Boticelli to the imprecision of later painting.

1936  He came to grips with cubism and abstraction. Synthetic cubist still lives with meandering linear motifs, convoluted abstracts using the principles of Kadinsky's "The Spiritual in Art", figure compositions of Blakeian intensity, even richly painted analytical landscapes, mark but a few of the variegated phases of his development.

1937  ValÚry and French theorists like Matilla Ghyka, whose figures he adopted, helped create "a solid, permanent under structure in free and fluid things". The Tate Triptych was probably begun. "We dematerialise our objects and consider only the abstract thing which they perform."  Other notes extol the possibilities of the found object. In sculpture, concepts of solid and void, the sense of elemental existence in seaworn boulders challenged his abilities. However, modelling, though continued, "only filled weary days after weary nights". Fluid rippling drawings became the most personal statement of these years.

1939  Greeks Temples, Greek light, Byzantine Art, Troy, Istanbul, Venice numbered among the compelling images of his Mediterranean cruise. Settling at 54 Young Street, Sydney, he rediscovered the Australian scene, with the skills of a fully mature artist. Calligraphic line gained pre-eminence, his drawings explored the metamorphic world of Picasso (as typified by nudes, 1936). From Picasso he learned to ring the changes of any motif.

1940  Ruled ink lines with small colour touches appeared, at first, diagonally upper right to lower left, in a group of Sydney harbourscapes. Cityscapes move from cubism through stippled monochrome, to pure colour mosaic. Mandalas, still life an figure compositions are based on London drawings. From the first Central Australian visit comes the genesis of red earth forest and trees and mountain landscapes. Watercolours presage the Unity" series.

1945  Invited to teach at The National Art School, Godfrey developed his concepts of drawing and ultimately a climactic interpretation of the nude.

1948  Madonna paintings are inspired by the Oberufer Nativity Play.

1952  Unity in Blue bought for the Art Gallery of New South Wales was the first of a Regular showing with the Sydney Group. In November-December, Godfrey studied Goethe's Farbenlehre in Switzerland. For years he had read Rudolf Steiner and practised eurythmy. Movement as visible speech inspired a view of form in art as visible tone.

1957  The first one-man show (10 paintings and 9 drawings), at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, established his position in the forefront of Australian Art.

Godfrey flew to Paris with some paintings. A tragic street accident put him in hospital and nothing came of a proposed exhibition.

1959  The National Gallery of Victoria held an important retrospective (22 paintings, 9 drawings).

1960  A final visit to London for the Tate's Picasso show reaffirmed a life-long admiration. A year later the Tate purchased his Triptych from the Whitechapel exhibition of Australian Art.

1962  Forty Drawings of Godfrey Miller   was published by Edwards and Shaw, Sydney. To 1950 nude drawings are soft and fluid, by 1958 they have reached a peak of sculptured brevity and from this time they opened to rapid, staccato, surface tensions. Plastically alive, they leap somewhat in advance of the magnificent "black" nudes, mountains, and lutes being painted at the same time. Over 12 years at least, three major stylistic changes occurred. A dense tactile structure (orange Cliffs) gives way to a movable lattice admitting more light and colour (Trees in a Quarry) and finally, a synthesis of interpenetrating planes, moves in a new order of space (Summer). A last exhibition at East Sydney Technical College Cell Block Theatre in November, comprised nine works which are all reproduced in this book.

1964  Godfrey Miller died, 12th May, at 89 Sutherland Street, Sydney.

1965  A Memorial exhibition of 37 paintings was held at the Darlinghurst Galleries, Sydney.


In the text above "this book" is mentioned. I have tried to find out, and to get the book, - but the closest I have come is this (hoping Santa Claus is reading this and will help me to get it):

a2694 Henshaw, John (Editor)
Godfrey Miller
(Sydney: Darlinghurst Galleries: 1965) First Edition Cl. pp. 96 (360 x 280 mm)With 16 colour plates and 110 illustrations in monochrome - foreword by Peter Bellew - an abridged chronology and an article and writings by the artist. Fine in like dust-jacket.

(Enok Kippersund, - 12.03.2005)

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published on Hugen 12th March 2005