Susan Rothwell

Balmoral Shark Net, c. 2008

Mosman Art Trail Sign 9 located end of path in front of Bather’s Pavilion near steps to Edwards Beach.

Listen to an audio recording, read by Claudia Karvan, to learn more about this artwork. 

Renowned architect and contemporary painter, Susan Rothwell, has been a resident of Mosman all her life, creating countless sumptuous residences around its foreshores and answering to the harbour’s siren call in paint. Rothwell’s Balmoral Shark Net commemorates a former heritage landmark of Balmoral’s enduring beach culture, in 2008, the year it was decommissioned, painted with the warm emotive colours of late summer.

Skillfully built up in successive layers of paint, Rothwell depicts the view over Edwards Beach with decisive unblended square brushstrokes placed upon a warm orange ground. The broad brushstrokes convey the artist’s confident gesture and favour chromatic effects above linear details. The artist has, with a restrained colour palette, created an engaging depth of field, ranging from the radiating shadow of palm trees in the foreground to tiny figures pacing along the waterfront at the foot of the island. Against graduated tones of sand, ochre and turquoise, the graphic steel tripod of the shark net’s pylon stands proudly in the foreground. Its strong metal beams, in striking black lines, draw attention by virtue of being the sole vertical elements in a composition almost entirely constructed from horizontal brushstrokes. Erected in 1935, this net enclosure was suspended from steel cables that extended from anchor posts on Rocky Point Island (the promontory between Edwards and Balmoral beaches) and on the northern end of Edwards Beach, from where this painting was executed, at the water’s edge.

During the 20th century, public swimming at Sydney’s harbour beaches became a popular pastime, and these fond memories of summer trips to the beach have informed Rothwell’s nostalgic painting. In the 1920s a vast pier structure enclosing the bay of Edwards Beach, complete with dance halls, a band stand, ferry wharf and restaurants, was proposed to Mosman Council, it was quickly vetoed by residents keen to keep free access to the beach. 1 Although shark attacks seldom occurred in Mosman’s Middle Harbour, a standalone protective net was nevertheless built in the mid 20th century, and remained in place until it became too costly to maintain, with Rothwell wisely recorded its iconic presence for posterity. In its place was left only the anchor posts and a segment of the steel cables and two concrete foundation blocks that supported the tripod tower depicted in the painting. An interpretative sign was installed on a rocky outcrop at Rocky Point Island. 2

Rothwell was fortunate to study art at the University of Sydney under pioneering artists Roland Wakelin and Lloyd Rees. 3 Central to a group of experimental Modernist artists, Wakelin was stimulated by Sydney’s harbour and in the first decades of the 20th century created simple tonal compositions of the foreshore in saturated light and colour, informed by colour-music harmonies. Some decades later, Lloyd Rees would also depict his enduring muse Sydney harbour with hazy and lyrical oil paintings, opalescent with a myriad of colours. Rothwell’s aptitude for colour, inherited from these great artists, is apparent within the confident tonal shifts of Balmoral Shark Net, a time capsule of this picturesque and much-loved area of Mosman. 

1 Morris, P., ‘Balmoral: What Might Have Been’, Mosman Times Gone By, Mosman Historical Society, Sydney, 2023, p. 79 
2  Carment, D., ‘Edwards Beach Shark Net Mosman (Balmoral)’, Lost Mosman, 12 October 2014
3 Conversation with Susan Rothwell, Mosman Art Gallery, 2023 

Text by Lucie Reeves-Smith.

Balnaves Collection, Sydney
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, a gift from the above in 2011 

Photo credit Jacquie Manning

Additional Specifications

born 1948 
oil on canvas 
59 x 70 cm
signed with initials lower right: SER