Cow up the Tree


Nature of event: Talk and PowerPoint presentation.

Where: Function Room, The Celtic Club
316-320 Queen Street, Melbourne, Vic 3000

When: Thurs 11th July @ 7.30 pm

Cost: Free.

Further information: Acclaimed Australian Contempory  Artist.docx
or Peter Gavin, Ph: 03 9670 6472


John Kelly studied at the Slade School of Art after completing his Master of Arts in painting. Many of his works – including the famous ‘Cow up a Tree’ in Docklands, Melbourne – is a reference to the appointment of William Dobell as an official artist commissioned to make papier-mâché cows during the Second World War.  (The cows were meant to distract Japanese pilots surveying rural areas for military defence bases.Dobell was quoted as saying that he thought the authorities had underestimated the eyesight of Japanese airmen!)

The cow’s distinctive shape with its small head and long neck is influenced by the portrait of Joshua Smith, the Australian artist who was painted by William Dobell. This painting became the winner of the 1943 Archibald Portrait Prize and was subject to the infamous court case where the ‘art’ was put on trial during the Second World War. Kelly has been intrigued by the seemingly bizarre government ruse and has dedicated much of his oeuvre to this subject, creating surreal images of cows positioned in empty rural settings.  The ‘Cow up the Tree’ sculpture was conceived whilst Kelly was researching Dobell and contemplating what would have happened if a flood hit Dobell’s airfield. Kelly specifically envisaged that the sculpture would be placed in close proximity to water.

The 8m high sculpture creates a curious and surreal experience, but the apparently absurd vision of a cow being stuck up a tree is based on reality. The inspiration for the work comes from the Australian landscape and a strong water-based theme. Australian floods are often violent and it is not unknown for cattle to be swept into trees whilst floods are ascending only to be stranded once they subside. The artist observed photos of this occurring in the Gippsland area of Victoria.

While Kelly’s paintings are surreal they are not a novelty, his skilled draughtsmanship and precise execution of paint instead reveals an intelligent sociological commentary on Australia’s war effort by an artist of great technical merit. In 1997 Kelly was awarded a Samstag scholarship and was chosen to display his work in the Les Champs de la Sculpture II on the Boulevard Champs Elysee, Paris in 1999.


The artist has high hopes that his sculpture will become a Melbourne icon.

‘Its location between two tram stops means that people will see the sculpture as they go about their day to day activities. As part of the environment, it hopefully will become a meeting spot in the same vein as the Flinders Street clocks. ‘Meet you by The Cow Up The Tree’ could well become the new phrase in Melbourne’s idiom.

I am thrilled about the installation of the sculpture in my home town and especially Docklands. I hope the sculpture fires the imagination of Melbourne as well as making a valuable contribution to the city’s contemporary cultural debate.’