Part 1: Important Fine Art
26 November 2014


(1904 - 1982)

gouache on paper

36.0 x 30.0 cm

signed and dated lower right: Eric Thake 1945

$25,000 - 35,000
Sold for $60,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 37 - 26 November 2014, Melbourne

Estate of the artist, Victoria
Thence by descent
Private collection, Melbourne


Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 28 May – 3 August 1992 (label attached verso)


Eagle, M., and Minchin, J., The George Bell School: Students, Friends, Influences, Deutscher Art Publications, Melbourne and Resolution Press, Sydney, 1981, p. 28 (illus.)
St John Moore, F., Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1992, p. 74 (illus.)

Catalogue text

One of sixty artists commissioned by the Australian Government in World War Two, Eric Thake was one of the more unlikely choices to carry the title of Official War Artist. Recognised as a modernist with a quiet surrealist vision, he was far from the bravura figure painter Ivor Hele or the professional portraitist William Dargie, the longest serving and most prolific war artists. Thake enlisted in the RAAF in 1943 and worked as a draftsman in aircraft production. While the majority of Official War Artists were under the direction of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the RAAF had its own agenda and made three appointments of its own. Thake joined Harold Freedman and Max Newton in documenting the work of the RAAF in Australia and the South West Pacific.

Eric Thake undertook two tours of duty, the first up the east coast to Townsville and on to New Guinea, the second to Timor via Darwin. He documented these journeys in annotated sketchbooks, while also producing watercolours and drawings for later paintings. When he reached the islands, the battlefront had moved far to the north. What he found were the grotesque remnants of technological warfare. The powerful aircraft he'd helped build back in Australia were heaped around in huge dumps, crushed and burned in moments of extreme violence. It was the stillness and eerie calm of the aircraft dumps that moved him. 'This was a wonderful place for painting - salvaged aircraft parked on long avenues or pushed into heaps by bulldozers. Everything still and silent ... and the rattle and tinkling of loose metal when the wind blew.'

Most of Thake's war paintings are devoid of life - few figures, no action and no triumphant troops. The exceptions include a group of pencil portraits of Japanese prisoners of war, including their commander General Yamada, and the surrealist 'upside down artist' in the iconic Kamiri Searchlight, a repeated subject held in both the Australian War Memorial and National Gallery of Australia collections. Self Portrait in a Broken Shaving Mirror presents the artist's face, fractured and distorted in a broken mirror nailed to a tree. It is a clear nod to Thake's surrealist works of the earlier war years and a telling metaphor for the nation as a whole - disoriented by years of war, torn by a conflict which left 40,000 dead and countless more injured in mind and spirit. While Thake's war had been relatively benign, he saw in the broken communities of the Pacific Islands the waste and cost of five years of conflict. Unlike Donald Friend, working to his north in Borneo, Thake did not need to depict the dead and dying. He felt and saw the calamity of war in the sheer waste of energy and resources, which put destruction before creativity and, in his own quiet way, he railed against the stupidity of it all.