In 1954 The Western Mail sent their staff artist and often journalist Norman Aisbett up to Exmouth Gulf to report on the oil drilling and exploration in the region. The Rough Range No 1 Well had been sunk in 1953 and had been producing good quality oil in commercial quantities since. This development and the discovery of oil was being greeted with great excitement locally as it promised to herald a new era in Western Australia.
It was predicted that the state was set for an unprecedented boom, and the economic ill balance between the two seaboards would disappear. The tag Cinderella state that applied to the west, would finally be removed – no longer the poor relation to the more robust economies of the east.
When he arrived in Exmouth Aisbett had no experience of what awaited him. In addition to being one of the earliest journalists to visit the site, he was an arts pioneer as well, being one of the first contemporary painters to record the landscape and the surroundings of the Rough Range and the rugged country of the North West. He begun his newspaper article with a comment on the painting conditions,
Australia’s wild north is a paradise for painters – but you’ve got to be a pretty tough sort of painter to appreciate it.
I can’t imagine any of the more highly strung members of our fraternity emerging from it unscathed. A week in the Spinifex would turn Salvador Dali into a gibbering idiot.
He then went on to write, When you’re sitting under the boiling sun with a brush between your teeth you are ill equipped to defend yourself from unprovoked attacks by ants, mosquitoes and Kamakazi flies.
Aisbett had issues with the insects of the north – particularly the voracious ants. He presumed that Dali wouldn’t have been able to manage in a real setting that was suggestive of his imagined landscape.
This work Rough Range No. 1 Well was painted on that 1954 trip and is an important record in the development of Australia’s North West.
In his essay The Rough Range Oil Discovery – 50 Years On, published in the December 2003 – January 2004 Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia (PESA) newsletter Philip Playford wrote:
It was the Rough Range discovery that first pointed towards the rich potential of this area. That find was clearly an incredible fluke that has had a major impact on Western Australia and the nation as a whole. The enthusiasm generated by the discovery focussed national and international attention on the petroleum and mineral potential of this country, resulting in much exploration investment for a wide range of resources. It can truly be said that Rough Range was the forerunner to the petroleum and mineral developments that now form the backbone of Australia’s economy.
Rough Range No. 1 Well is a pioneering work of a pioneering era and as such is an important piece of contemporary history.