Industrial Life

Frank Carl Le Compte – Victorian Artist 1950s to 2000s

Frank, a widower, died in 2009 at the age of 92, six months after staging his final exhibition of landscape paintings in Wodonga.

He was from Chiltern, Victoria and died in the Wangaratta hospital on Thursday 3 December.

He was born in Antwerp, Belgium on 11 July 1917. He did not become a baker like his father but studied for five years at the Academy of Fine Art in Antwerp (1933-1947), tutored by Baron Isadore Opsomer, the court portrait painter for the Belgian Royal Family

In the 1950s, as a skilled portrait and still life painter, he helped restore some of the art treasures on the Bishop’s Palace in Mechelen, Belgium. He also worked as a signwriter to supplement his income.

He migrated to Australia in 1963 with his wife Maria and two daughters Irma and Augusta.

The National Archives of Australia website shows that the family arrived Melbourne per ARKADIA, 22 Nov 1963.

While at Bonegilla Migrant Centre, his sign writing skills were recognised and he got a job at the army bases, and stayed at Wodonga.

He and his wife opened a gallery, Antverpia, at Yackandandah and the area became the subject of some of his artworks but they also spent some years in Perth before returning to the Border at Albury-Wodonga.

He had solo exhibitions in Albury, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and occasionally returned to Antwerp to hold exhibitions. The Europeans liked the bright colours of the bush in Australian paintings.

One of his more famous paintings was a portrait of the Ambassador of Belgium, Mr J.H.E. de Bruyn exhibited at the Theatre Gallery, Canberra from November 30 to December 4, 1968.

He was also an Art Teacher at the Albury Technical College in New South Wales from 1970-71 and is represented in Institutional and private collections in Australia and Europe.

He drew or painted nearly every day and at his last exhibition he showed 58 watercolours to thank the region that welcomed him and his family.

Two daughters and a number of grandchildren survived him. From his headstone it appears that another daughter, Angelina, had predeceased him.

The 1963 work held in the Fairview collection, Sir Thomas Playford Power Station A highlights Australia’s emerging industrialisation in the early 1960s juxtaposed with the undeveloped rangeland hills in the background looking across Spencer Gulf from Port Augusta.

Playford A power station was the first power station built by the Electricity Trust of South Australia at Port Paterson. It was built in 1954 to generate electricity from coal mined from the Telford Cut at Leigh Creek and transported 250 kilometres by rail.

It was joined by the Playford B Power Station in 1963 and the Northern Power Station in 1985.

Noted as the first power station in South Australia which did not require the importation of fuel from interstate, this was one of the first industrial scenes painted by Le Compte when he arrived in Australia from Belgium and is historically significant because it does not show Playford B station in the scene.

There is speculation this landscape was commissioned by the Electricity Trust of South Australia to record the scene prior to the completion of Power Station B.

The life of the stations was expected to be 30 years based on the life of the mine supplying coal available from Leigh Creek.

Playford A was decommissioned in 1985 and the building remained until all three power stations were demolished in 2018.

The power station was named in honour of Sir Thomas Playford GCMG (5 July 1896 – 16 June 1981) who served continuously as Premier of South Australia and leader of the Liberal and Country League from 5 November 1938 to 10 March 1965.

This was the longest term of any elected government leader in the history of Australia. His tenure as premier was marked by a period of population and economic growth unmatched by any other Australian state and this painting captures clearly that economic growth.

Tom Playford was an orchardist from the Adelaide Hills and honed his negotiation skills as young grower selling his product in the local fruit and vegetable markets.

Known for his parochial style in pushing South Australia's interests, in 1938 when Playford became Premier most of South Australia’s wealth was generated by agriculture, with Adelaide being the major service centre for this.

By 1965, largely because of Playford’s efforts, South Australia had transitioned its economy to manufacturing with the number of factory workers increasing by nearly 200 per cent with the State leading the country in the value of secondary production per capita.

Le Compte’s brush documents beautifully this important time in South Australian history, capturing both a rustic rural scene with an emerging industrial construct in the midground.

Frank Le Compte painted this industrial landscape set in the Australian bush with a fresh set of eyes as a recently landed immigrant.

He would have witnessed Europe torn apart by World War Two and then rebuilt. He would have seen first the devastation and then change happening to his local landscape.

This painting has a similar theme, new beginnings from an ancient landscape.

But he must have found it tough in Australia, especially coping with blunt and harsh art critics such as this one from Robin Wallace-Crabbe writing in the Canberra Times on an exhibition of Five Painters held in the Theatre Centre Gallery from November 29th to December 4 in 1968.

Wallace-Crabbe, was born in 1938 in Melbourne and was very influential in the art world as a curator of exhibitions, literary reviewer, cartoonist, illustrator, book designer, publisher and a commenter on art.

He was 30 when he wrote this scathing review.

“Underneath the accomplished technique used by each of these artists there is more or less total lack of real control. Tones jump, colours die, foreheads advance in front of hair, cliffs don’t meet the water: but these things don’t worry me. What worries me is that the pictures are dull, produced to fulfil some type of obligation, as though we all had to be creative and love the arts. I do not wish to discourage people from painting or exhibiting but it takes a pretty good picture to endure as an exhibited thing and hardened art-lookers like myself are difficult to please.”

Le Compte lacked the networks and support of positive reviews that others like Hans Heysen had.

The bluntness of Australian art critics would have been challenging for the Belgian born artist.