ESSAY: Charles Blackman's Barnes Auto, Brisbane and City Lights
Charles Blackman’s Barnes Auto, Brisbane, a significant early painting from 1952 is a companion to City lights (also 1952), which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery in 2005. Together the works present a contemporary picture of Brisbane city, and provide an important link between Blackman and Brisbane, and the avant-garde milieu of Melbourne. In Barnes Auto, Brisbane, Blackman has transformed a local urban theme capturing psychological tension and alienation, characteristic of Melbourne painting of the time.
Blackman’s first visit to Brisbane in 1948 was marked by two important encounters: he met Barbara Patterson, who later became his wife, and he viewed Sidney Nolan’s exhibition of Fraser Island paintings at Moreton Galleries. Blackman later recalled:
'Brisbane happened to me when I was growing up . . . and I think that [it] helped humanise my own attitude to painting . . . Brisbane was an exciting sort of a place then, because Barjai [magazine] was here . . . and because people were all doing something.'1
Barrett Reid, one of the Barjai writers, had previously shown Nolan records at the John Oxley Library that inspired his ‘Mrs Fraser’ series. Reid also introduced Blackman to the extensive collection of colour reproductions of paintings by modern European masters at the Carnegie Art Reference Library, Brisbane. This resource, along with examples of Nolan’s painting, was significant to the development of Blackman’s early style.
With Barbara as his wife, Blackman returned to Brisbane in the winter of 1952 carrying a leather plumber’s bag of brushes and Dulux enamel paint given to him by the art patron Sunday Reed. It is most likely that he used these paints for City lights and Barnes Auto, Brisbane; their glossy finish was perfectly suited to capturing the artificial light of nocturnal scenes. Earlier the same year, Blackman made several paintings of Melbourne’s St Kilda at night, just as Nolan had done; indeed both these Brisbane works owe a stylistic debt to Nolan’s St Kilda paintings — in the rigid, formal presentation, the childlike rendering and the emphasis on striped forms.
Blackman’s subject, Barnes Auto, had established a distinct profile in Brisbane city: for many years, it was the only location to sell petrol 24 hours a day. In 1914, the McGhie Motor Co. changed its name to Barnes Auto Co. and in 1926 it moved from Adelaide Street to the corner of Queen Street and North Quay. The hand-operated petrol bowsers that are such a prominent feature of the painting would have been installed by this time. When Luton J White — the proprietor of Barnes Auto Co. when Blackman painted the subject in 1952 — took over the bankrupt business in 1931, he also retained its iconic motto: ‘We never sleep’.
At this time in his artistic development, Blackman’s insistent use of stripes in City lights acknowledged the influence of Sidney Nolan. However, the stripes of the vehicle in the foreground of the painting have a connection with reality: according to family sources, Barnes Auto changed the livery of their vehicles to blue-and-white stripes shortly before Blackman produced this work.2 The vehicle is clearly an older model (probably one of the ex-army trucks that Luton J White acquired after World War Two) as the vehicle’s running boards and projecting headlights are quite prominent. The driver’s head is framed by stylised arches of the old Victoria Bridge, the distinctive profile that dominates City lights.
Together with the wharves on the Brisbane River and the trams that passed over Victoria Bridge, North Quay was an important transit centre — Greyhound and Grimley’s country bus services all departed from the Quay. Consequently, Barnes Auto hired lockers to travellers, a mobile cafe spent the day at Hayle’s Wharf and then parked at the Quay at night to serve refreshments, while at the rear of Barnes Auto was a speakeasy — serving another form of refreshments — only two doors from the Brisbane watch-house.3
In the 1950s, the Barnes Auto building on North Quay was eventually demolished to make way for the Prudential building, which was completed in 1958. In turn, the Prudential building made way for the new Brisbane City Council building, Brisbane Square and Reddacliff Place, which opened in early 2007. Today, Barnes Auto continues to operate from the outer western Brisbane suburb of Rocklea.
Glenn R Cooke, former Research Curator (Queensland Heritage), QAGOMA.
- Charles Blackman in Thomas Shapcott, Focus on Charles Blackman, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1967, p.11.
- Personal recollections of Barnes Auto supplied by David White.
- Although licensing regulations in Queensland permitted longer hotel opening hours than in the south, supplies of beer were very restricted in the years after World War Two, so hotels closed early.