Studies for the painting A Splendid Superior Home (1989), MS14217/1/1038

Howard Arkley (1951-1999) is acknowledged as one of the most important artists in contemporary Australian art. His work is held by many major art galleries, and is widely exhibited. Born in Melbourne, he studied art at Prahran College of Advanced Education, where he lectured in painting after graduation.

Very early in his career, he formed a close association with Tolarno Galleries, in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, and its owner Georges Mora, and maintained a rigorous art practice, exhibiting regularly. Arkley achieved fame and acclaim for his fluorescent, large paintings of suburban houses and interiors, done in the late 1980s to mid 1990s. In 1999 he was appointed Australia’s representative in the 48th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, where he exhibited “The Home Show” at the Australian Pavilion.

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Left: Study for the paintings Floral Exterior (1996) and Houseomorphics (1996), MS14217/1/1062;  Right: Studies for the painting High Fenced (1996), MS14217/1/1058

That same year, he produced a portrait of musician Nick Cave, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery of Australia. Soon after his return to Melbourne, after great success overseas, he died of a heroin overdose in his home.

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Studies for the portrait of Nick Cave, 1999, MS14217/1/1009 & MS14217/1/1659

The Howard Arkley Archive was acquired by the State Library of Victoria in 2011. It consists of over 1600 individual works on paper (drawings, doodles, sketches, watercolours, and working drawings for large painting), and over 400 photographs. There are 33 sketchbooks and 48 visual diaries which give insights into Arkley’s planning processes, influences and reading.

An almost exclusively visual archive, what is rare and extraordinary about this collection is its scope and size; it’s a studio archive representing almost 30 years of an artist’s work. We see the evolution of Arkley’s style. Evident are the influences of surrealism, colour field and the work of artist Paul Klee and Jean Arp in his student years, 1970-1974. He moved on to the use of ornament and abstraction in the mid 1970s to early 1980s. Then the influences of graffiti and punk appear by the mid 1980s.

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Left: Wallpaper swatch which influenced the painting ’50s’ (1979), MS14217/1/643; Right: Study for explosions, 1982-1985, MS14217/1/1362

We see the use of the air brush, which became his signature method of applying paint, as well as the evolution of recurring motifs, like the exploding box, cacti, masks and heads, including Zappo Head, and eventually suburban houses.

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Studies for the paintings Zappo Head, 1987 and later,  MS14217/1/708 & MS14217/1/709

Many of the pieces are signed and dated by Arkley, so can be thought of as art works in their own right. Others are not signed but stand as quite finished pieces nonetheless. Still others are rough sketches, doodles, stencils, or studies for his paintings. Of particular interest are numerous ‘interventions’, where Arkley has over-drawn on published books – like the series of Mills & Boon books – pamphlets or advertising material.

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Interventions and doodles: Mills & Boon books. Volume 7: Wintersbride, 1984-1988, MS14217/1/Vol7

The Archive is fully listed and the contents list can be viewed online via the catalogue. About 200 items have already been digitised, and more are added periodically.

The online publication – Arkley Works – created by Professor John Gregory, is a catalogue raisonné, where Howard Arkley’s works are listed and discussed by year of creation.

The TarraWarra Museum of Art is curretly showing Howard Arkley and Friends, a major exhibition of Arkley’s paintings. The State Library of Victoria has lent over 150 items from the Arkley Archive to this exhibition, providing insights into Arkley’s methods of researching and sampling. The items from the Archive are displayed so that the viewer can see the development of an idea, and how it was tranformed into a large painting.

Olga Tsara
Librarian, Heritage Collections

All images Copyright: The estate of Howard Arkley, courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art.

This is an updated version of the article: Olga Tsara, “House Master: The Howard Arkley Archive…”, SLV News, No.51, November 2012-February 2013, pp. 12-13.


Study for the painting Shadow Factories (1990), MS14217/1/1173



This article has 4 comments

  1. David Tytherleigh

    Hi Olga
    Have just come across the site and I think its great.

    Howard Arkley was such an important painter in the scheme of things. It’s great to see his process/practice through the sketches and studies shown. Thanks

    • Hi David. Thank you for your comments. We have digitised quite a few items from the Arkley Archive, and we will keep adding more online. I hope you will visit our catalogue from to time time to see new things! Regards, Olga

  2. Great article, Olga! I only discovered Arkley last year and I had no idea SLV held so much of his materials – must have been a fantastic collection to work though and catalogue!

    I really enjoy looking at work-in-progress sketches and the like, TarraWarra’s curating sounds right up my alley 🙂

    • Thanks Romney. It’s an amazing archive, and the curators at TarraWarra have used it in such an intelligent and thoughtful way. We are thrilled that it’s getting so much exposure. Very best to you. Olga

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