'Venomous snakes abound, his horse may stumble, bushfires may engulf them. Still he canters on, down the endless line of the fence'

pam ayresThe Boundary Rider, 1968, by John Pickup (b.1931), 3ft by 2ft, private collection

Pam Ayres says:

I met John Pickup in 1979. I was on my first visit to Australia, touring country towns for the South Australian Arts Council before visiting the major cities. I was petrified. John was in the audience when I played Broken Hill and afterwards he sent me a beautiful oil painting of me on stage with a little boy from the audience. We visited his studio and he gave me a print of The Boundary Rider. I love it for its solitude and for the toughness of the man. Venomous snakes abound, his horse may stumble, bushfires may engulf them. Still he canters on, down the endless line of the fence.

Pam Ayres is a writer and entertainer. Her latest book, The Last Hedgehog, is published tomorrow to coincide with Hedgehog Awareness Week (May 6–12)

John McEwen comments on The Boundary Rider:

John Pickup had a long career as a broadcaster for the Australian Broadcasting Company. He specialised in sound ‘pictures’, so the fact he is also a painter is not surprising. In 1973, when running the ABC station at remote Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia’s longest running mining town, he joined forces with some other self-taught painters: Pro (‘Professor’) Hart, miner; Hugh Schulz, Second World War commando and mining prospector; Eric Minchin, accountant; and Jack Absalom, outback guide and kangaroo shooter. Their first exhibition received a headline ‘Brushmen of the Bush’. Mr Pickup registered it as a business name. The group were soon exhibiting across Australia and abroad, including London.

‘We didn’t go to art school,’ said Mr Pickup, ‘so we just muddled through… and developed our own particular styles.’ They disbanded and followed individual careers from 1989. Their group exhibitions were staged in aid of charities (particularly for children) and raised the equivalent of AUS$1.64 million.

Only Mr Pickup and Mr Absalom survive. The group were not popular with what The Sydney Morning Herald called the ‘pontificating elite’ of the art establishment. This included the New York-based art critic Robert Hughes.

In addition to the far-reaching effect of their charitable donations, the Brushmen have transformed declining Broken Hill – where there were hard-drinking miners’ pubs, now there are art galleries. Mr Pickup’s subjects are diverse: ‘I find that literary work and films are a great source of inspiration – often in ways I didn’t first expect.’

A boundary rider works on cattle or sheep stations, touring their perimeters to check everything is in order.