Man In A Landscape
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday December 13, 1997
On the eve of a major Russell Drysdale retrospective, Janet Hawley spoke with his media-shywidow about the life of "Australia's best-known unknown artist", who would eagerly down brushes to catch a good western on TV.
During the Royal Visit of 1963, Prince Philip dropped a royal hint: "Don't give us any more mulga wood bowls - give us a Drysdale." And so, recounts Lady Drysdale, the late artist's second wife, "Ming [Prime Minister Robert Menzies] trundled along to Tas's [Russell Drysdale's] Sydney studio, and Tas poured him a few dry martinis while he looked through Tas's work.
"Only two paintings were available.
A lovely picture of a naked Aboriginal girl sitting by a rockpool ... which they decided was too nude for the Queen!
The other showed the red desert outback, with an Aboriginal stockman in a shirt and hat, stretching both arms across a large boulder. Man in a Landscape was deemed suitable for the Queen, so it went into her Royal Collection.
"Tas loved to tell the story of how he was then invited to dinner with the Royals in Canberra, and the Queen inquired of him: 'Do tell me, Mr Drysdale, what does your painting mean?' 'Ma'am,' he replied, 'It is a man trying to hold on to his land.' "
George Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) was born in England, came to Australia as a child with his pastoralist family and became, as fellow-painter Sidney Nolan declared in a moment of honesty, "the most genuinely Australian of all of us". Previously, the dominant and fashionable Australian pictorial imagery had been the Heidelberg School of glorious blues and golds, depicting lush pastoral scenes of gum trees and sheep.
Drysdale provided a shocking alternative. Loading his palette with browns and reds, he painted stark images of the rural outback Australia he knew, loved with a personal intensity and continually explored.
The young art critic Robert Hughes noted at the time that Drysdale and Nolan had "pulled Australian landscape from the limbo of fleece and gum tree in which it had lain stiffening for 30 years". Drysdale's paintings depicted lonely country towns and bush battlers surviving stoically on parched, drought-stricken land. They showed vast red deserts and bleached skeletons, isolation and nature's awesome powers of devastation and regeneration: the raw bones and beauty of the inland and its range of people.
His works were usually sparsely inhabited with a repertoire of resilient outback characters, many unsung ordinary heroes. Strong bushwomen and their children, pastoralists and station hands, migrant cafe owners, town and tribal Aborigines often stand like towers in his paintings, sometimes reappearing in similar guise years later.
Several Drysdale paintings - Drover's Wife (1945), The Cricketers (1948) Moody's Pub (1941), Sofala (1947) - became Australian cultural icons and helped define an emerging sense of national identity. Drysdale was elevated to the status of national hero and, in 1969, awarded a knighthood for his services to the arts.
A paradox about Drysdale was that this celebrated artist, who awakened Australians to look at their own country with both eyes wide open, could himself only see with one eye.
"I would often cover one eye and imagine what it must have been like for him," says Drysdale's daughter, artist Lynne Clarke.
Lady (Maisie) Drysdale, Lynne's stepmother, explains her private theory. "I've often wondered if Tas's monocular vision gave his work one special characteristic. All his paintings have tremendous 'carry'- you almost want to step backwards to get the right perspective. Perhaps seeing with a single eye did that."
Drysdale painted slowly, completing only some 300 paintings in his lifetime. Seventy-five of his most significant works are in the major retrospective Russell Drysdale, 1912-81 opening next week at the National Gallery of Victoria and later at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Although his art is often reproduced, the originals are rarely seen by the public - so successful was he from the start that his work was swiftly acquired by significant private collectors, including Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir Laurence Olivier, Lord Richard and Lady Casey, and the Fairfax, Murdoch and Packer families.
More than half the works in the retrospective have been borrowed from private collectors, including the Queen and the Queen Mother, and galleries including the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and London's Tate Gallery.
Russell Drysdale never intended to be an artist, and it was only a chance incident - while in hospital for an eye operation in Melbourne - that led him to a late start in this career. He was raised to see his destiny as being part of the squattocracy, by a conservative Scottish father and English mother who had little concern for the
arts. The family owned extensive pastoral properties in Queensland and the Riverina, and had an interest in Pioneer Sugar Mills. But his parents and sister spent much time back in Britain, which his mother preferred to Australia.
Young Russell was sent to board at Geelong Grammar, where a fellow pupil and good friend was future Liberal prime minister John Gorton.
"Tas enjoyed Geelong," says Lady Drysdale. (The nickname originated when his younger sister, Micheline, was unable to pronounce Russell and called him Tussell, which became Tas). "He was an average student and good at cricket - but the holidays were very lonely, as he was mostly farmed out to distant relatives.
"The early psychology that probably influenced the later artist was a lonely childhood and a fairly distant relationship with his parents - as it so often was in those days."
At 17, Drysdale suffered a detached retina in his left eye (which may have been the result of a fall from a horse) and lost effective sight in that eye. At first, there was some peripheral vision which he found more irritating than useful. Eventually the eye went blind.
He left school and began working as a jackaroo on the family properties.
Aged 20, in hospital for an operation on the damaged eye, he amused himself drawing cartoons and sketching.
"Tas often drew cartoons, and had lightly entertained the notion that he might become a cartoonist. That was as high as he aimed; he'd never considered becoming an artist," says Lady Drysdale.
Drysdale's doctor showed the drawings to his friend Daryl Lindsay, a noted artist who later became director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Lindsay, who'd been a jackaroo and station manager, visited Drysdale, became a friend and introduced him to George Bell, who ran a highly regarded art school in Melbourne.
It proved a turning point in Drysdale's life. He spent two months at the George Bell School, where he saw reproductions of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani.
Inspired, Drysdale left for Europe to haunt the galleries and see the real thing. He particularly admired the Impressionists and School of Paris artists, and became determined to paint.
Returning to Australia, on his 23rd birthday he married Elizabeth "Bon" Stephen, daughter of an old Riverina family, who slipped happily into the supportive role of artist's wife.
Drysdale's father, initially opposed to his son's artistic ambitions, relented, and gave the newlyweds an allowance that saw Drysdale through art school and his early painting career. Although he was an immediate success, it has to be remembered that few people bought Australian art at the time and prices were modest.
His time at the George Bell School also marked the start of a great, lifelong friendship between four people: Drysdale and his wife Bon, and fellow art students and sweethearts Peter Purves Smith and Maisie Newbold, who later married. The four spent a lot of time in each other's company, travelled overseas together and stayed friends through life's joys and crises.
In those exciting student years when life held so much promise, none had any foreboding of several tragedies that lay ahead for the group. War would come, and Purves Smith would die young from tuberculosis contracted during service in Burma, leaving Maisie a widow for 17 years. Drysdale's son, Tim, would commit suicide at age 20, then his wife, Bon, would kill herself a year later. Drysdale and Maisie, both veterans of shock and suffering, would restart life together when she was 49, he 52.
While Drysdale's art is widely known, Drysdale the man remains obscure. His friend, author Geoffrey Dutton, describes him as "Australia's best-known unknown artist". After the tragedies, his family and friends drew a circle of privacy around the artist to help him get on with life, and private matters remained respectfully private.
Lady Drysdale, a statuesque, lively witted and highly intelligent woman, now 83, never gives personal interviews. While she talked openly to this writer, she remained firm about what was on and off the record, and anything deemed private was off. Her attitude was that Drysdale wasn't the sort of artist who painted his private life and angst, so there was no need to write about it. Thus it remains.
"At art school, it was obvious Tas was the star student - frighteningly so," she recalls. "He was a natural draughtsman, with a great facility to draw anything. One day Tas drew a bird's-eye view of a circus, which we all thought brilliant. We nearly fainted while old George [Bell] tore into Tas and his tour de force ... he felt Tas was in danger of becoming slick.
"George would tell us, 'When you look at an object, don't just remember the object, but think of the essence of that object while you draw and paint it. When you look at a jug, don't just think "jug", but think of the essence of jugs, its shape has to hold something.'
"George had a profound influence on Tas. He taught him how to paint in the classical manner, preparing the canvas properly and building up layers with under-painting and glazes. Tas could draw as easily as breathing, but he always found painting difficult and slow. George instilled into him not to slip into a lot of habits because of his facility to draw, so Tas tried to think deeply about everything he did. Sometimes he'd prepare a study, square it up and enlarge it for the final painting, others not."
His first year out of art school, Drysdale was still painting School of Paris-style pictures. Mrs Maie Casey was an early eager buyer, and when her husband, Richard, was appointed ambassador to Washington, the Drysdale paintings went too. The trustees of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art saw them and bought Monday Morning (1938) for the museum in 1941. It was the first Drysdale to enter a public collection - not a bad start.
Meanwhile, his work had changed, as he'd begun to find his own style. In 1938, Drysdale, Bon and newborn baby Lynne went to Paris. Purves Smith and Maisie were already there, and Drysdale and Purves Smith went to art classes together.
Lady Drysdale: "Neither of them spoke French, and in the evening they would end up in cafes, homesick and nostalgically talking about how they both used to be jackaroos.
"Peter painted a couple of gouaches of droughts and wretched desiccated animals, and that really affected Tas.
It suddenly dawned on both to stop painting School of Paris-type pictures of still lifes and ladies and instead paint their own surroundings. Paint their experiences as jackaroos, out in the deep old dry dust; forget that blue and gold Heidelberg School bush. That was the germ that started it; Tas came home and started to paint Australia."
Lynne Clarke's earliest memories of her father are at Albury, where he was managing a property during the first years of World War II, and painting in a barn across a cow paddock. "Tas was bitterly disappointed he'd been knocked back for war service because of defective eyesight. All his mates were serving, and he felt he should be with them.
"Donald Friend was stationed near Albury and whenever he had leave, he'd come to our place and go off and paint with Tas in the barn. They became tremendous lifelong friends and Donald was like a second father to me."
Drysdale and Friend had similar backgrounds - wealthy squattocracy - which they'd eschewed to become artists. Both were natural draughtsmen, great observers of nature and people, loved art, reading and music, and kept up a repartee of conversation, Friend - with his theatrical wit - usually the provocateur."
While Friend's love of exotica would eventually lead him to live overseas, and into a series of gay relationships, Drysdale's life remained firmly based in Australia, with his family and circle of art-world friends.
"In 1942 we moved to Sydney and our place became open house for anyone on leave, a place to forget the war for 48 hours," recalls Clarke.
"My mother was very good at keeping people away from Tas while he was working, but at the end of the day they were both very gregarious and loved visitors and parties. But my mother was only interested in real people - she hated pretension and phonies - 'There's a Mr Importance!' she'd declare.
"My father used to play the saxophone when he was younger and my parents both adored jazz and boogie-woogie, and they and Donald were all great dancers. The records would play loudly on the wind-up gramophone and around midnight we'd take pity on the neighbours and stuff socks into it to lessen the noise.
"My father would paint through all of this, using one of the bigger rooms as his studio. My brother, Tim, and I would ride our tricycles around and around his easel and Donald's easel, jump on stools and draw with crayons on the floor, but he never seemed to mind.
"Tas was a sweet and gentle father; he loved children. He was always showing us things, to make us aware. I have endless memories of crouching down in the garden beside him, while he was saying look at this, look at that, the way highly visual people do.
"He actually found painting very hard and was often looking for any excuse to put off the dreaded moment of starting. He'd make wooden furniture, benches. He spent ages making Tim and me these Indian-type sandals. We hated wearing them because they squeaked.
"He was a very orderly painter. At the end of the day he'd clean his brushes and there'd be a wonderful smell of turps in the house ... I love that craftsman's ritual."
After the war, the Saturday-night parties and big sit-down dinners continued. The regulars were Donald Friend, William Dobell, Margaret Olley, Paul Haefliger [Sydney Morning Herald art critic], Jean Bellette, Justin O'Brien, John Olsen, Jeffrey Smart, David Strachan and the group of artists from the legendary Merrioola boarding house.
In 1944, The Sydney Morning Herald commissioned Drysdale to travel with a journalist around the drought-stricken regions of NSW and record what they saw. It was the worst drought in Australia's recorded history.
"That trip had an immense impact on Tas and he talked about it for years afterwards," says Clarke. "He'd grown up on the land and now, seeing this horrendous drought, all the dead animals, dead trees, dead everything ... it reinforced his intensely personal feelings about the country. He had huge admiration for the way the rural people weren't defeated by the devastation, they endured the worst, and he had this tremendous belief in ordinary people's ability to survive."
Drover's Wife, one of Drysdale's great icons, came as a result of that trip: a large, solitary woman standing with monumental dignity and resilience, against the stark desolation. "The drover's wife wasn't a real person - none of the figures Tas
painted were," says Clarke. "All his figures were inventions, representing the essence of types of people he observed ... bush children, the man in the bar, the migrant cafe owner in a country town.
"He always painted in his studio, from his extraordinary visual memory, or from sketches and photographs he'd taken out in the country. He never used a sitter. He wasn't a portrait painter. He was commissioned to do a few portraits, but found them terribly difficult and didn't want to do any more. He only painted half a dozen portraits in his life, including one of me as a child, his writer-friend George Johnston and a couple of Donald [Friend]."
Lady Drysdale: "All those characters who inhabit Tas's paintings are very well anchored, they stand very firmly on the ground. You need an ability to draw well to achieve that."
Lest anyone get too romantic about the way artists work, there is a marvellous passage in Donald Friend's diary, describing the full reality of Drysdale trying to paint his drought pictures back home in his studio after the Herald assignment. (It will ring true to any parent who works from home.) Drysdale was working on The Crucifixion (1945) - tortured, dead tree stumps in an ominous, ancient red landscape.
Friend writes ... I put it on record so that, should Tas's Crucifixion end up as a world masterpiece, anyone who reads may know it was painted to an accompaniment of ear-splitting yells and screams from the two children ... that their noise was rivalled by the gramophone playing Fats Waller's "Forty-nine robbers", by Tas and I singing, by much talk, cups of tea, glasses of wine, meals, telephone calls, sundry visitors ... Most of his paintings during the slow process of their growth get wildly altered, painted out completely, turned upside down, recommenced, scrapped - emerging triumphantly in the end without scars to show for the appalling assaults they've been subjected to ...
In 1947, Friend, while staying at the Drysdales', read an article about the deserted NSW gold-mining towns of Hill End and Sofala. The two artists organised a trip to the area, were mesmerised by the landscape and settled in a cottage in Hill End. It became a regular retreat for Friend, Drysdale, Olley, Strachan, Smart and more for years afterwards, and produced two more Drysdale icons, Sofala and The Cricketers.
Today's now-gentrified gold-mining tourism towns are physically very different from what attracted the early artists, explains Clarke.
"When we first went, we'd sleep on stretchers in the cottage, or stay in the old pub if there were too many of us, and the gold diggings were raw, red, ochre and barren, with just a tiny bit of grass. That's the atmosphere and colours they loved to look at and paint. Today it's all lush and green with grass and trees - they'd never have wanted to paint that."
In 1949, eminent British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark visited Australia, singled out Nolan and Drysdale as the two most outstanding artists, bought their work for his personal collection and advised Drysdale that Leicester Galleries in London was interested in holding a solo show of his work. That show, held the following year, was a great success, enhancing Drysdale's growing international reputation.
Drysdale returned to Australia and travelled to Cape York Peninsula. He felt an immediate response to the Aboriginal people and their culture, admired their dignity and affinity with the land, and struck up a good rapport with many. He became the first white Australian to paint Aboriginals, not as the "noble savage" or dying race or emblems of white guilt, but respectfully, as they are, a part of the Australian identity.
"Tas visited Ian Fairweather when he was living and painting on Bribie Island off Queensland," remembers Clarke. "And they talked about Fairweather's amazing raft trip from Darwin to Indonesia. Tas asked Fairweather if there was anything important he'd learned from the trip, and Fairweather replied: 'Yes, next time I'd take sunglasses.' "
Drysdale often wrote in his diary about the land, "magnificent in dimension, old as time, curious, strange and compelling, it rests in ancient grandeur, indifferent to the challenge of man". He loved its qualities of strangeness, from the tropical swamps of Arnhem Land, to the "long slow spread of the plains". He was inspired to paint "these curious and strange rhythms which one discovers in a vast landscape, the juxtaposition of figures, of objects, all these things are exciting".
Donald Friend wrote in his diaries how Drysdale, the man, was so totally different from those typical Drysdale images: "... those visionary landscapes of stark and arid vistas, of endless perspectives of leafless trees and grassless acreage ... lonely station hands and their unfulfilled wives ... always as still as tree stumps beneath the vast, hopeless skies threatening permanent drought ... these are dreams of hell really ... all this was much at variance with his non-painter's life. He loved lush tropical Queensland, pioneer sugarlands ... the trees in his orchard ... gardens ... Everything, in fact, that was unlike those superb, sad, empty pictures he made, in which a town was an empty street, a pub was one bored man leaning against a veranda post. He was, like me ... the escapist, who could disappear into other shapes."
"Tas was a chameleon," says Lady Drysdale. "You could put him down in his favourite London Club, in his pinstripe suit, and he'd talk happily in a British voice to the club members, as if he was one of them. Equally, you could put him in old comfortable clothes in an Australian country pub, and he'd lean against the bar with the blokes and be yarning like one of the mob.
"This wasn't phoney, it was just Tas. He was a genial, happy man with friends from all walks of life - doctors, writers, farmhands; he admired people who did things, and loved learning about them. One surgeon friend used to let him watch operations; it fascinated him.
"Tas was never a solitary figure, quite the opposite. He was a herd animal, very gregarious. He didn't like to be left alone for too long."
In 1962, Tim Drysdale, a complex and troubled young man, took his own life. A year later, his mother, unable to bear the pain of losing her son, did the same. "The poignancy of those tragedies never lessens, in fact it deepens," says Clarke.
Clarke had known Maisie all her life and says she was "very happy for my father that he and Maisie later married and found contentment". Drysdale and Maisie built a new house in the bush at Bouddi National Park north of Sydney, with a big library, guestrooms for their friends, a garden and a studio. Drysdale continued painting, but less often.
He drew an amusing series of cartoons, starring Maisie as the Bird Woman of Bouddi, feeding the magpies while the currawongs performed The Pirates of Penzance to entertain the Drysdales and their cat, Ginger.
"My father didn't ever seem to have an obsessive need to paint every day, to express his identity, the way many artists do. I know I always feel a bit edgy when I'm not working or thinking about working," says Clarke, who makes highly sought-after fabric collage paintings and still uses her father's old drawing board.
"Tas had many interests and could be quite content doing things other than painting. He was a director of Pioneer Sugar and a trustee of the National Gallery in Canberra and the Art Gallery of NSW. He loved his new house up north and his garden, and reading, and perhaps he was so comfortable in his last years, he just kept putting off the painting."
Lady Drysdale remembers, "Tas loved westerns. Our friend [artist] Freddie Williams, would ring up and say, 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is on at noon,' and down would go the paintbrushes and Tas would run to the telly.
"A lot about Tas was really old-fashioned. He was an old-fashioned, chivalrous gentleman. Many people disapproved of his painting style, claiming it was already old-fashioned for its time when he did it - meaning it was figurative and accessible, not abstract. Many disapproved of him being so successful and complained his icons were far too popular, but perhaps they became icons for the very good reason that Australia was beginning to feel its own national spirit and his work reflected this. Much of the complaining was jealousy.
"He didn't have a mean bone in his body. I can only remember one time Tas bullied me, about using too much tank water to water our garden. George Johnston was there, listening in.
"George knew how Tas was often accused of being an artist's version of Henry Lawson, particularly after Drover's Wife, which had the same title as a Lawson story, and Tas didn't like it one bit. So George called out to Tas another Lawson classic - 'Remember the dying words of the selector's wife - "water them geraniums".' Tas stopped complaining and I kept watering.
"Tas was never a bore talking about painting," remembers Lady Drysdale. "He didn't go on with a lot of guff like some artists about how he was God's gift to painting,
nor did he go on and on about his deep sources of inspiration. It was more about ... I think I need a bit more blue in that corner ..."
The exhibition Russell Drysdale, 1912-81 opens at the National Gallery of Victoria next Friday, and moves to the Art Gallery of NSW on March 27, 1998.