Ralph Balson (Aug 12, 1890 – August 1964), artist, was born on 13 August 1890 at Bothenhampton, Dorset, England, third of six children of Charles Frederick Balson, journeyman baker, and his wife Martha, née Larcombe. Having attended the local village school, he was apprenticed in 1903 to a plumber and house-painter. In 1913 Ralph migrated to Sydney. Emilie Kathleen Austin came from England to join him and they were married at All Saints Anglican Church, Woollahra, on 7 September 1914. They first lived at Bondi and from about 1920 at Pagewood; he supported his wife and three children by working as a house-painter, but took up art in his spare time.
In the early 1920s he began night-classes at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School under Grace Crowley, Anne Dangar, Henry Gibbons and Ashton himself. Balson’s early work, mostly small, post-impressionist sketches of his domestic surroundings, was shown in his first one-man exhibition in 1932 at Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre where, in the evenings, he also attended a sketch club.
In the 1930s Balson deepened his awareness of modern art through contact with other artists, particularly Crowley. In 1934-37, with such modernists as ‘Rah’ Fizelle and Frank Hinder, he sketched in the studio of the Crowley-Fizelle school at 215a George Street. Painting and drawing from the figure, they explored geometric, cubist principles of composition. In 1939 they formed the nucleus of Exhibition 1, a group show of modernist painting and sculpture at David Jones’s art gallery; among their few patrons were Bert and Mary Alice Evatt. After the closure of her school, Crowley invited Balson to share her studio at 227 George Street; he painted there at weekends. They continued to work together, becoming increasingly detached from the stylistic fashions of the Sydney art world.
Balson’s exhibition in 1941 at Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd’s gallery marked the beginning of his ‘Constructive Paintings’—geometric abstractions employing overlapping planes of colour. Later works in this series were shown in an exhibition with the sculptor Robert Klippel at the Macquarie Galleries in 1952. Following his retirement in 1955, Balson painted more prolifically and in a less formalized manner. He divided his time between Sydney and Crowley’s country home, High Hill, at Mittagong, where he had a garden studio. In 1953 his work was included in exhibitions in Britain and Italy. The ‘Non-Objective Paintings’, his major series of the late 1950s, consisted of complex fields of dappled colour; in the 1960s he produced a difficult and critically contentious series of ‘Matter Paintings’, fluid abstractions in which he literally poured the paint onto his work: a year abroad in 1960 had encouraged this late, spontaneous direction.
Socially, Balson was shy and reticent. Between 1949 and 1959 he taught part time at East Sydney Technical College. Students respected this near-sighted, suburban painter, with his tradesman’s clothes, who made no display of ego. For Balson, self-effacement was a philosophical principle. Late in life he wrote about the wider view behind his abstract art: a world which no longer had humanity at its centre, a universe like Einstein’s of indeterminacy and change.
Survived by his daughter and two sons, Balson died on 27 August 1964 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated. Despite his humble circumstances, he had achieved a body of work that was among the most advanced modern painting of his generation in Sydney.