Auction Highlight Autumn 2015 Norman Aisbett

When oil was struck on the Rough Range Number 1 oil well on December 4th 1953 William Walkley, the founder of Ampol Exploration, was said to have celebrated by walking down Martin Place in a bright red ten-gallon hat, cheered all the way by well wishers.

The strike heralded a different era for mining in Western Australia and some might say it was the humble beginning of a north-west mining industry which has become the foundation of WA’s economy and its identity today.

Perth was a different city at this time, not only in its appearance but in the way people operated here – it was a simpler time.

As far as mining exploration went in Australia no well had struck anything much resembling oil at the time. It is said that the staff on Rough Range-1 were a little under-equipped to deal with the strike. “The geologist on-site collected the samples in empty beer bottles. Fortunately (thanks to the climate of the Exmouth Gulf in early summer) there were plenty of these around.”[i]

The Western Mail sent their staff artist, Norman Aisbett, on a three week tour of the Exmouth gulf and Derby to document the exciting progress at Rough Range-1. Aisbett returned with hundreds of sketches, thousands of ant and mosquito bites and plenty to say about the American roughnecks he encountered while staying at the Rough Range-1 site.

These observations were recorded in an article published in the Western Mail December 9th 1954. Aside from the harsh working conditions the arid north provided, Aisbett noted that the roughnecks “when they come off their “tour of dooty,” get their individual, cellophane-wrapped, frozen T-bone steaks – T-bone steaks an inch and a half thick and flown in from civilisation at what must be frightening cost.”[ii]

It certainly was not an ill-funded endeavour with Ampol Exploration teaming up with California Texas Corporation (CALTEX) to pledge a £1,500,000 oil exploration agreement in May 1951.[iii]

The West commented at one point that drilling operations commenced “on a prayer.” In fact, the discovery of oil at Rough Range-1 was quite serendipitous. The site was moved for logistical reasons 250 metres west of where it was originally planned.

Lot 50 Norman Aisbett – Afternoon Tour Rough Range Number 1 Exmouth Gulf

When they had finished extracting oil at Rough Range-1 they commenced drilling across Rough Range, Rough Range South and Cape Range to no avail. Eventually the original location for Rough Range-1 was drilled “Everyone was shocked and bitterly disappointed when no. 10 was also dry … If Rough Range-1 had been drilled at the site originally selected there would have been no oil discovery and a very different history of Australian resources development.”[iv]

When we look to Aisbett’s image of the roughnecks at Rough Range-1 we get a sense of the gravity of the work involved in these early days of mining exploration. From the brightness of the afternoon sun on the workers backs to the sheer magnitude of the equipment they’re manoeuvring, this artwork gives its viewer a sense of presence in this historical moment for WA and the nation and is a testament to the artist inert eye for observation and detail.

The painting was gifted by the managing editor of West Australian Newspapers Ltd  in 1956 to the chairman of CALTEX during his visit to Perth – no doubt as a reminder of this industrious era of oil exploration.

The artwork returned to WA this year and stands as a relic of an age of great prosperity, a symbol of things to come for the Cinderella State and, looking back now 60 odd years later, a reminder of the simple beginnings of an industry responsible for the great wealth and development of the nation.

Works Cited

[i] Skyes, T. (2003, December 31). The Rough Deal at Rough Range. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from Pierpont.

[ii] Aisbett, N. (1954). Oil Mining. Western Mail, 4-5.

[iii] The West Australian. (1951). Search for oil in the north-west. The West Australian, 1.

[iv] Playford, P. (2003). The Rough Range Oil Discovery – 50 Years On. Geological Survey of Western Australia.