Ian Fairweather was born in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, Scotland in 1891. His parents returned to India when he was a baby, leaving him in the care of a great-aunt, and he did not see them again until he was 10 years old. He received early schooling at Victoria College, Jersey, London and in Champéry, Switzerland before attending officer training school at Belfast where his rank was second lieutenant.
During World War I he was captured by the Germans in France and spent the next four years in prisoner-of-war camps. While captured, he was permitted to study drawing and Japanese. He was responsible for the illustrations in the POW magazines.
After the war he studied art in the Netherlands, London and Munich. In 1918, he studied at The Hague Academy and then privately with van Mastenbroek. In 1921 he attended the School of Oriental Studies studying Japanese and between 1920 and 1924 he attended the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. From this time on he began a wandering existence travelling to Canada, Shanghai, Bali, Colombo and Australia. In 1934, in Melbourne, he made contact with modernist artists and began a mural for the Menzies Hotel.
Later that year he left Australia via Sydney and Brisbane for the Philippines. He then travelled to many places including Shanghai, Peking, Manila, Brisbane, Singapore, Calcutta. He served with the British Army in India from 1941 to 1943 and after travelling to Cairns, Cooktown, Melbourne and Brisbane he eventually settled into a studio in Melbourne.
Desire for adventure saw him move to Darwin where he built a raft and travelled alone to Timor. Deported by the Indonesian authorities, he went to London via Singapore and returned to Brisbane in 1953. He built a hut on Bribie Island, where he lived for the rest of his life except for visits to India and London during the 1960s.
One of his paintings, Monastery, acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, was described by critics at the time as a masterpiece. It was singled out by fellow Australian artist James Gleeson, who said, "He has fashioned an extraordinarily fascinating hybrid from the pictorial traditions of Europe and the calligraphy of China...." (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 June 1961)
It is acknowledged that he is one of the few European painters to have assimilated the exotic and primitive islands of the Pacific and the art of the Australian Aborigines. His style has been described as "a paragon of sophisticated clumsiness". He often used the cheapest materials, such as cardboard or newspaper and poor quality paints, and he lost or damaged many works due to the effects of the tropical climate in which he lived.
Fairweather's work was included in the exhibition "Australian Painting Today" at the Tate Gallery, London and in the same year was selected to represent Australia at the São Paulo Art Biennial.
He is represented in all state galleries in Australia, the Tate Gallery, London, City Gallery, Leicester, and the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Ironically, the only exhibition of his own works he ever saw was an 1964 retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Murray Bail has written the monograph Fairweather (1981; revised edition 2009).
- Ian Fairweather
- The Ian Fairweather Project
- Ian Fairweather on Artabase. Chi-tien Goes Begging 1964
- A reclusive Australian painter