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Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

CHAPTER 13

AUSTRALIAN ARTISTS IN LONDON

THE EARLY 1960s

During the early 1960s, an expatriate community of Australian artists lived and exhibited in London. They formed a loose-knit group of friends and associates centred on the Highgate/Hampstead and Ladbroke Grove districts of London. During a period that saw Australian contemporary painting reach its height of popularity in Britain, artists mingled with a varied mix of London society, meeting at parties, drinking with fellow artists in pubs and receiving invitations to aristocratic soirees in Mayfair. Bryan Robertson championed Australian art at the Whitechapel Gallery, whilst Sir Kenneth Clark offered hospitality to artists at his home at Saltwood Castle. Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan chose to remain in London but by the mid 1960s many artists began to return home to further their careers in Australia.

By the end of the 1950s a number of travel scholarships such as the Helena Rubinstein travelling scholarship and that offered by the Italian Government in conjunction with the Flotto Lauro and Lloyd Triestino shipping companies and Dante Alighieri Society were offering substantial sums of money as bursaries to young Australian artists, encouraging them to live and work for a time in Europe. In 1959, when Lawrence Daws went to London from Rome for a six-month stay at the end of his Italian Government Flotta Lauro Dante Alighieri Society scholarship, he had a first class ticket home under the terms of the award. ‘I don’t know whether I had any real intention of settling up in London permanently at that time’, he recalled in an interview given in 1965, ‘but I moved there and settled down and started painting a bit’.1 Charles Blackman won the third Helena Rubinstein travelling scholarship in August 1960. At the time he was living with his wife in an old coach house in Melbourne and working very hard to try and save a hundred pounds.2 Barbara Blackman remembers that they had no particular desire to go to England and were quite happy with their lives in Australia. Financial success came quite suddenly with a sell-out exhibition at Brisbane’s Johnstone Gallery in June 1960 that made approximately £4500 plus £1000 from the scholarship and a further £1000 from the sale of the winning painting. In accepting the Helena Rubinstein award, the Blackmans had to agree to return to live and work in Australia and before leaving they bought a house in St Lucia, Brisbane.3 They set out for London in early January 1961 with more cash than they needed, intending to take over the house that Arthur and Yvonne Boyd were renting in Highgate. On the afternoon of their arrival Arthur took Charles to see the Vermeer painting at Kenwood, a short walk from his home in Hampstead Lane. The Boyds had decided not to leave but to stay on in London and the Blackmans stayed with them for a short time before finding their own rented accommodation in nearby Jackson’s Lane.4

Neither Daws nor Blackman, both of whom would become long-term expatriate Australians living and working in London, felt any great imperative to escape from Australia – for either financial or for cultural reasons. But once in London, they it found it a stimulating place to be – a city quite changed from the dreary postwar austerity that earlier expatriate artists had experienced in the late 1940s. Daws remembers his arrival in London in 1959 as ‘a late, Indian summer, really hot, everyone in shirt sleeves, windows were open and there was a popular Cliff Richard’s song Living Doll pouring out everywhere’.5 Charles Blackman recalls that Britain was recovering from the war and had begun to look outwards on the world. It was an exciting time of That Was the Week that Was, David Frost, and the Profumo scandal:6 ‘The English were coming out of their chrysalis with their own painters and getting recognition for them and also introducing into England via the Tate Art Gallery American abstract expressionism. Big shows were being mounted which had never been mounted before’.7

London and Paris were still the most important international centres of contemporary art; commercial galleries regularly put on exhibitions of the latest work of the world’s leading artists, and it was often possible to meet the great and the good at private views. Picasso, Magritte and Chagall lived in the south of France, but Francis Bacon, Victor Pasmore and Graham Sutherland could be seen at exhibition previews or in the galleries of Bond Street and Cork Street. Australian art was on the rise too, and following the success of Sidney Nolan at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1957, the presence of Australian artists began to be felt more strongly in London through the growing number of group and solo exhibitions that were held during the early 1960s. Roy de Maistre, a longstanding resident of London, usually attended the openings and took a fatherly interest in the younger painters.

While there was a growing market for Australian painting, there were no guarantees of success, however, particularly if an artist’s work did not fit what was generally perceived to be the ‘Australian school’. Much, too, depended on an artist’s ability to understand and engage with a complex social hierarchy. The conservative art establishment in Australia, an under-developed Australian art market, and the desire to see great artworks in the galleries of Europe at first hand were all major factors in sending young artists to live and work overseas in the early 1950s. But now it was more the sense that ‘things were happening’ in London. Nolan’s rapid rise to financial success and recognition in London was noted with some envy by artists of his generation in Australia. But Nolan had benefited greatly from the influence of Sir Kenneth Clark, and for other Australian artists who had left home to pursue their careers in London, things were not always so easy. Nolan’s friend and contemporary Albert Tucker, whose first experience of London in 1947-8 had been one of poverty and rejection, wrote a cautionary letter from Rome to Yvonne and Arthur Boyd in an effort to dissuade them from leaving Australia:

 

Prices in London are about the same as in Australia, but if I know the fish-souled English at all, they will reject Arthur’s painting on sight. They like these sterile, tidy abstracts or milk and piddle landscapes. In France or Italy, prices are a quarter to one fifth Australian. Also the social and cultural life in Europe is incredibly tricky and complex – and corrupt. In many ways Australia is a haven of sanity and civilization by comparison. But then perhaps I’ve been here too long.

And if you plan to settle in London and work for a living I feel like advising you not to come. ... You would enjoy the first few weeks of course, novelty etc. But after one winter there – and it’s mostly winter – with cold gloom and dirt, and a pompous, insular, unapproachable people who look on Australians as second grade Englishmen, you would start thinking in terms of flight; but with a family you would be trapped and might take years to get back – and see very little of Europe in the process.8

Tucker predicted that Europe would be ‘obstinately blind’ to Boyd’s painting and believed that ‘he would have to strike very freakish circumstances indeed to make any worthwhile sales’. Tucker’s pessimistic predictions proved to be wildly inaccurate. With sponsorship from the Australian Galleries in Melbourne, offering Boyd £20 a week for six months in return for an agreed number of paintings, plus money for their fares from the sale of a block of land, the Boyds set sail, on the Iberia, arriving on a chilly December day in 1959 with return tickets and no fixed plans to stay. For the first six weeks they lodged in Hampstead with a friend from Melbourne, the philosopher Brian O’Shaughnessy and his family (brother of actor and director Peter O’Shaughnessy), before finding a large old Victorian house to rent at 13 Hampstead Lane, Highgate. The property would become the Boyds’ permanent London home and is still lived in by their son Jamie.9

Image

Figure 13.1 Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and Barbara Blackman at the opening of Recent Australian Painting, 2 June 1961. Hanging on the wall behind them are two of Blackman’s paintings: ‘Reflections’ and ‘Dreaming in the Street’ alongside John Coburn’s ‘High Noon’.

Source: Photographer unknown. Whitechapel Gallery Archive.

Not long after his arrival, Arthur Boyd achieved success with his first solo London exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in August 1960. Bryan Robertson, who saw Boyd’s work at the gallery, offered him a one-show at the Whitechapel Gallery on the spot, and with proceeds from the sale of paintings at Zwemmer’s, at relatively high prices of around £200, Boyd was soon able to buy the house that he had once rented. For a while he drove around in an old Rolls Royce with a squashed Nescafe tin instead of the silver lady on the bonnet, acquired from fellow Australian Geoffrey Dutton in exchange for a decorated ceramic tile.10 But the Boyds never forgot earlier hard times and were always willing to offer a bed or at least a space on the floor to friends and fellow artists from Australia.

EXPATRIATE SOCIAL CIRCLES IN LONDON

The Australian quality of ‘mateship’– the offer of a place to ‘doss’ and casual hospitality – could help to ease an Australian artist into life in England.11 There was mateship not only in the sense that expatriate Australians tended to stick together in loose-knit groups, meeting at parties, in favourite pubs or at the theatre as well as the regular exhibition openings at London galleries, but contacts could also be made and introductions given. The British social and cultural scene could be tricky, but for the artist with the right timing, temperament and, above all else, the right kind of work, rapid success was indeed possible. Sculptor Steve Walker slept on a mattress for two weeks on the kitchen floor at Brett Whiteley’s house in Ladbroke Grove whilst organizing a show at the Drian Gallery in Marble Arch.12 Walker subsequently introduced Whiteley to Lilian Somerville, a leading figure in the British Council. Arthur Boyd introduced Brett Whiteley to Lawrence Daws in 1961, taking him in a taxi to a studio above the ABC bakery in Hampstead High Street where Daws was working on a series of paintings relating to early experiences of the outback.13 Daws remembers a taxi drawing up and looking down from the first floor studio to see:

 

this young, red-headed Groucho Marx leap out and help Arthur out. Arthur was blustering away, quite offended that this young turk had helped him out of the cab as though he was an old man ... he was only forty or so at the time and Brett was about twenty. It was like a young walrus testing the strength of the old one.14

Charles Blackman and his family found a furnished house to rent off the Archway Road in Jackson’s Lane, Highgate, an area of London where there were already a number of Australians living who were involved in the creative arts. Barbara Blackman described their first London home:

 

... a proper house, as read about in books, with solid walls, carpets and indoor lavatory – indeed two of them. It spiraled up through five levels to the attics, one a children’s room to kneel upon window seats and look down to the road far below and ours where a bright alcove contained a dressing table easily converted to a writing desk, and a view on a clear day to the dome of St Paul’s.15

Al Alvarez would later write of the Blackman’s home as ‘the pungent – or punchy – centre of the Australian exiles’.16 It was the focus for a bohemian Australian enclave in North London where a number of artists who had known each other at a distance in Australia all lived in the same vicinity at one time. The Blackmans’ house became the meeting point, not only for Australian artists living in other parts of London, but also for expatriate Australians working in the broader field of the arts, such as Barry Humphries and his friend and collaborator Peter O’Shaughnessy. The Highgate habit was to gather on a Sunday evening at the local pub, Barbara Blackman recalls: ‘Aussies passing through London and our circle of English friends would drink in the Rose and Crown and then repair to our house for a supper of soup and cheese’.17

Barbara Blackman remembers that ‘We saw much of one another after that in those five years in London when our lives seemed to flow close together, to intertwine and follow common currents. There seemed to be endless parties, most of them at our house’.18 Among their expatriate artist associates were Brett Whiteley and Mick Johnson who were living at Ladbroke Grove, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, John and Mary Perceval, Sidney Nolan, Lawrence Daws, and Len French, who arrived in London with his family in 1962 to stay at the Blackmans’ home following a period spent on the Greek island of Samos.19 Others ‘passing through’ from abroad included Laurence Hope, Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger and Lynn and Fred Williams.20 There were also reunions with old friends from Australia: Charles Osborne, now co-editor of London Magazine, Jean Langley Sinclair, the cartoonist Bill Sewell, illustrator Virginia Smith from Blackman’s early days as a copy boy for the Sydney Sun, and jeweller Rod Edwards. As Charles Blackman relates, ‘my contemporaries in London were more or less the same that they were in Australia, except that I probably saw them more often, in London’.21

Ladbroke Grove, not far from Portobello Road in west London is still a racially mixed area famous for its Saturday market, but in the early 1960s it was arty and slightly on the edge. Peter Blake, Derek Boshier, Pauline Boty and Clive Godwin, Robyn Denny, Michael English, William Green and Ian Stephenson all lived or had studios within a mile radius of ‘the Grove’ which was also within easy walking distance of the Royal College of Art. Brett Whiteley and Mick Johnson, who lived at 129 – or what the Blackmans dubbed ‘one two many’ – Ladbroke Grove, would drink just across the road at The Elgin, a public house frequented by David Hockney, Joe Tilson and other young British artists. At other times Daws and Whiteley would join a group of Australians to see a play at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square and to drink together afterwards at a pub in Chelsea, not far from Bryan Robertson’s house in Draycott Avenue.

Barbara Blackman admitted that she was part of a formidable gang who did not have proper good manners. On one occasion they were all thrown out of the pub because of their rowdy behaviour. About seven or eight had pulled tables together and were ordering scotch eggs and drinking beer in pint pots. ‘We would be talking and the noise would be incredible’, Daws recalls. ‘Barbara reached across for something and four or five of these big things smashed to the floor’.

 

... there were a couple of sweet old guys on the next table getting a bit harassed by this sort of going on. One of them said: “Could you quieten down a bit?” And Brett, quick as a flash, said: “Just keep your dinner down, Daphne.” And the other guy said: “He called you Daphne!” ... With the broken glass we did get thrown out once because of that.22

Alannah Coleman, Australian artist and private art dealer based in London, was also central to the expatriate circle of artists living in London in the early 1960s. A stylish blonde, Coleman had been among other things a model and circus performer in her early life. Her glamorous looks were matched with a feisty entrepreneurial spirit that helped her make her way in business. She loved Siamese cats and Barbara Blackman described her as like a Siamese cat herself: ‘She slinks about in Royal circles, she is smelling out the buyer, she will purr up to him and whispers the right names’.23 Coleman had studied art at the National Gallery School in Melbourne where she had known Nolan and Tucker, but had later fled Australia in 1950 to get away from a murderous lover who had killed her favourite Siamese.

Since living in London she had become well known to dealers and auction houses as the resident expert on Australian contemporary painting. In the domestic setting of her gallery flat in Putney, Coleman promoted the work of long-term expatriate artists Louis James, Oliffe Richmond, Tony Underhill and, later, Arthur Boyd, with whom she cherished lifelong friendships. She set up her gallery one windy evening in 1959 with the help and encouragement of artist friends, cooking a huge pot of spaghetti for them as they arrived, bringing paintings and bottles of wine. A large canvas on the roof of Tony Underhill’s car nearly took off in a gust of wind as he drove over Putney Bridge to deliver it to her flat. Paintings were installed the same evening and the Alannah Coleman Gallery was in business the next day.24

Alannah Coleman was to be seen at all the private views in town (once she attended no fewer than 10 in one evening) where she made many of her business contacts and was also able to keep an eye on young Australian newcomers such as Vernon Treweeke, Peter Upward and William Delafield Cook, whose paintings she subsequently sold for a modest commission. She invited clients to her home to view work, and arranged visits to artists’ studios, always pressing for a sale and sometimes even accompanying the buyer home to advise on hanging. She would hold three–day parties over consecutive evenings where clients and artists could meet each other and to which the press was invited. At one particularly formal occasion, Brett Whiteley turned up, elegantly dressed in a white boiler suit.25

Sidney Nolan lived with his wife Cynthia in a large house overlooking the Thames in Putney, just around the corner from Alannah Coleman but at some distance from other Australian artists in the Highgate/Hampstead area of North London. Coleman had known Nolan from her art school days in Melbourne and had once owned an early Nolan (Bondi Beach, 1947), which she took with her on the boat to England. Nolan was now too successful to involve himself with the Alannah Coleman Gallery, although he would sometimes contribute paintings to her selling exhibitions. The Nolans placed themselves on the periphery of both the long-term expatriates and younger Australian artists associated with Coleman’s gallery. They now moved in rather different and more elevated art and literary circles. Amongst their friends were Sir Kenneth and Jane Clark, the composer Benjamin Britten and the writers Robert Melville and Alan Moorehead.

The Nolans were often away from London, although Sidney continued to see Arthur Boyd for gallery visits and lunch every Thursday when they were both in town.26 Between 1961 and 1963 they spent periods of time in Paris, Egypt, Africa and Greece, travelling first class and staying at the best hotels. In 1958 Nolan was awarded a two-year Commonwealth Fund Harkness Fellowship to the United States ‘to record the American scene’. Travelling extensively throughout America during this period, Cynthia would later write about their experiences in Open Negative.27 When in London she spent many hours in her Thames-side garden, tending the flowers beds and climbing roses28 and enjoying the anonymity that expatriate life in London could offer, where everyone was very busy, had their own lives and would see each other a few times each year.29

Performer and artist Barry Humphries was also part of the expatriate London circle and a friend of Boyd, Nolan and Charles and Barbara Blackman. The Blackmans met Humphries and his second wife Rosalind at a party at 27a Jackson’s Lane about a year or so after their arrival, and when they moved into a larger house in Southwood Lane, just up the road in Highgate village, the Humphries moved into their old house. When not understudying the role of Fagin in Oliver! Barry Humphries took centre stage at parties, conspicuous as ‘the only man present in a Turnbull & Asser shirt, antique Chavet tie, pin-stripe double-breasted Savile Row suit, Lobb shoes, black fedora and a monocle’.30 He moved within a broad circle of friends and acquaintances that included both renowned literary figures such as the English poet John Betjeman and down at heel Australian artist Francis Lymburner, whom he first met at a party in 1961.

After the Humphries moved from Jackson’s Lane to a small basement flat in Notting Hill Gate, Lymburner stayed with them for nearly a year. Humphries admitted that ‘we found ourselves falling for Francis’s hard luck story and offering him our spare bedroom for a few nights. It seemed he had been living rather grandly in other people’s guest rooms for some time but that he was otherwise homeless’. Although Lymburner was included in the 1961 show Recent Australian Painting, he was more commonly grouped with Donald Friend, Justin O’Brien and other members of the now unfashionable Sydney ‘charm school’. Whilst the prices of Nolan and Boyd rocketed, Lymburner was unable to afford paint and made drawings instead, frequenting a coffee lounge called The Palette in nearby Queensway, where a ‘nude model posed on a dingy rostrum for the clientele of “artists” ... invariably a group of seedy middle-aged men in raincoats who pretended to sketch with their free hands’. Humphries recalled:

 

When I met him in London he was bewildered and mildly amused, rather than embittered by his spectacular fall from fashion. Nolan was extolled everywhere, Arthur Boyd was beginning his international career, Blackman was exhibiting in Bond Street, but Lymburner remained on the periphery, a languid dandified figure in a black velvet jacket, a jaunty red neckerchief and always a cigarette and a glass of wine. If you did not know he was an artist you would have taken him for an attractive, if slightly down-at-heel flaneur.31

Having lived in London since 1952, Lymburner had witnessed the arrival of Nolan and Boyd and their rapid rise to success with some ambivalence. He thought Boyd’s success was well deserved32 but was perplexed about Nolan’s work: ‘I went to Sidney Nolan’s opening the other night and Princess Margaret was there so one can take it he’s really arrived. I can’t quite make up my mind about his paintings, when they are good they are very good and when they are bad they are awful’.33 Lymburner lived in the hope that figuration would eventually triumph over abstraction, sensing a big swing against it in London in 1962.34 The same year he wrote: ‘The big excitement in London just now is the Kokoschka show at the Tate. It fills seven rooms and is very exciting. It also helps to drive the nail into the coffin of abstract art – which is all very helpful to me’.35

Following the Australian exhibitions at the Whitechapel there was some resurgence of interest in Lymburner’s work and he held an exhibition at the Qantas Gallery in Piccadilly. ‘My plans for my show with Qantas are going well in spite of the paralysing cold’, he wrote in the freezing January of 1963. ‘John [Douglas] Pringle has agreed to open it, and there is a great deal of interest in Aust[ralian] art as the big show is on at the Tate. They had a rather splendid reception there the other night’.36 Sir John Rothenstein visited and praised Lymburner’s exhibition, and a short film on the artist and his work appeared on BBC television.37 Being a non-commercial gallery, Qantas did not take any commission, which suited Lymburner’s circumstances well since throughout most of the 1960s he was perpetually hard up, and at times was reduced to holding drinks parties at which he would sell his drawings to friends and acquaintances. Brett Whiteley, who would occasionally drink with him at Ladbroke Grove, or dine with him at an Italian Trattoria,38 attended one of Lymburner’s ‘rough Spanish red & drawings on the wall’ nights when he sold about £70 worth of ‘pretty crummy work’.39

Pub drinking was central to the Australian social scene in London as indeed it was to 1960s artistic life in general. Imported Australian wine was expensive and available only at the Australian Wine Centre in Soho. Barry Humphries discovered that the cheap Algerian wine that he was serving to his friends could be made more appetizing by mulling it with spices and brandy, the only drawback being that it turned the teeth black. At the Whitechapel Gallery, Bryan Robertson would lay on stylish and generous hospitality at parties after the exhibition openings, when big scotches and gins and tonic were handed around on trays. They were popular occasions for some of the younger Australian artists when free drinks would be knocked back before heading off to a favourite pub or an arranged meeting point. Photographer Axel Poignant documented exhibition openings and the lives of the Australian artists in London, visiting their studios and photographing their paintings. With his wife Roslyn, he occasionally entertained with dinner parties at their home at 19a Oakcroft Road, in the South London suburb of Blackheath. Brett Whiteley wrote of one occasion: ‘it was all Scandinavian food with special drinks and special songs before the drinks: then down the hatch with the Swedish fire water and everyone smiling their eyes burning with tears and Axel bullshitting on in the background about what this all meant’.40

Despite the strong sense of identity that Australian painting benefited from in London during the early 1960s, expatriate artists were influenced by the British artists around them, both through friendship, and the exhibitions that took place in the London commercial galleries of Cork Street and Bond Street. Charles Blackman got to know Adrian Heath, Prunella Clough, Keith Vaughan and Michael Ayrton through Bryan Robertson, who showed their work at the Whitechapel, whilst Brett Whiteley was for a while strongly under the influence of Roger Hilton and William Scott. They also met socially: Scott was frequently at the exhibition openings, whilst Hilton and Whiteley became regular drinking companions at Ladbroke Grove. Whiteley’s combative manner – especially in regard to art – meant that he would sometimes gang up with Hilton to ‘put the word’ on somebody, Daws recalls. Joe Tilson, who had a studio off Holland Park, not far from Ladbroke Grove, was another British artist whom Daws and Whiteley would see informally, and Peter Phillips, John Hoyland, Lucian Freud, Bridget Riley, Phillip King and Patrick Procktor were amongst other British artists that Brett and Wendy Whiteley met either at exhibition openings, or socially. Regular invitations to openings at Marlborough Fine Art came through Tony Reichardt, whilst Ann Forsdyke, assistant director at the Whitechapel Gallery, sent out private view cards to Australian artists with a friendly note of invitation. At the Marlborough Gallery Daws and Whiteley occasionally met Francis Bacon – another great influence on Whiteley, who adopted his style of heavy gilt framing behind glass and made a series of portrait drawings of Bacon between 1964 and 1965.

The early 1960s saw the opening of the new Commonwealth Institute in High Street Kensington and a renewed interest in art from the Commonwealth. Australian artists benefited considerably from exhibitions such as Commonwealth Art Today and the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother were all buyers of contemporary Australian painting. But the cosmopolitan nature of London and the sheer diversity of artwork being created and exhibited could also be bewildering, as Charles Blackman related:

 

One of the funny things about living in Australia as against living in Europe [London] is you more or less know where everything is coming from; you get few actual shocks, once you become familiar with the painters who are working around you. But living in a big metropolis you have some bloke, perhaps from Greece, you’ve never even heard of, pops up with a full-blown job – it’s a sort of shock to the system, and sometimes it’s quite difficult to relate yourself to it, it seems all a bit unreal. I found that a very exciting aspect of looking at things.41

In addition to the overlapping social circles in which expatriate Australian artists moved, centring on parties and various pubs in Highgate, Ladbroke Grove and Chelsea, they sometimes received invitations to grander affairs. These included occasional lunches arranged by Jane and Kenneth Clark and held in a private room at the Eastern Dining Room of Liverpool Street Station, to which all expatriate Australian artists would be invited, along with Bryan Robertson and other guests.42 Artists from Britain and abroad intermingled at dinner parties given by Hans and Elsbeth Juda, and by Lilian Somerville of the British Council. To Whiteley, Somerville was ‘the most important woman in the art world in England’. He first met her in 1961 when she took him out to lunch with fellow Australian Steve Walker, and wrote excitedly to his mother about the woman ‘who was on the selection committee for all the Biennales’ and who had ‘made Moore the name he is ... Next minute there’s an invitation for this very exclusive party so here goes!’

The evening went well, with guests including British artists Merlyn Evans (who represented Britain at the 1960 Venice Biennale), Victor Pasmore, and sculptor Kenneth Armitage. It was at this party that Whiteley met Scottish painter William Scott for the first time – finding him ‘completely inarticulate, half my size but quite mighty as expected’. Whiteley thought Eduardo Paolozzi (also represented at the Venice Biennale) ‘a complete egotist with a bilious Oxford voice’ whom no one seemed to like, while Australian expatriate Frank Hodgkinson was merely condescending, treating Whiteley ‘like the young student from Orstralia’. Arthur Boyd was also there along with three critics, two poets, a composer from New Zealand and a young painter whose drunkenness ruined his chance of getting anywhere.43 The party went on until the early hours with ‘heavy aesthetic’ discussions at four in the morning. Pasmore and Evans remained the perfect English intellectuals throughout, constructing sentences ‘of almost eighteenth century complexity without pausing to take breath’.44

RELENTLESSLY MEETING THE ENGLISH

Already a close friend of Sidney Nolan, Sir Kenneth Clark took a special interest in the younger Australian artists to whom he was often introduced by Bryan Robertson.45 Attracted by what he perceived as Australian directness and honesty, Clark encouraged their company and he became especially friendly with Charles Blackman, whom he first met at the opening of the Whitechapel show in June 1961. They immediately got on well together and subsequently Barbara and Charles Blackman were invited with Bryan Robertson to lunch with the Clarks at Saltwood Castle, in opulent surroundings that included a butler, and separate lavatories for men and women, hung with paintings by Renoir and Seurat. Clark’s informality impressed Barbara Blackman: ‘He was regal, knowledgeable. He had every reason to be haughty but he wasn’t. His way of handling things was wonderful’.46 After lunch, Clark personally drove the Blackmans to the station and waited with them for their train back to London.

As their friendship grew, Clark invited the Blackmans to leave London to live in one of the cottages on the Saltwood estate, suggesting that it might be good for the children. ‘Clark was magnanimous to make the offer, Barbara Blackman relates, ‘but we couldn’t have handled living at Saltwood ... Charles didn’t like the countryside ... he was afraid of a falling leaf’.47 Charles Blackman admired Clark’s intellect and recalled a lunch at Saltwood with Sidney Nolan and others when the subject of Velasquez’s Las Meninas was raised in conversation. Blackman pronounced it a ‘shithouse painting’, as knives and forks clattered to the table and his wife kicked him under the tablecloth. About an hour or so later Blackman was admiring Clark’s Turner painting and Clark remarked: ‘You Australians have a problem inasmuch as you’ve never had the experience of the Renaissance. ... You’ve also never had a lot of other problems because you haven’t had that’.48

It has been claimed that Clark had ‘a special category reserved for Australians, who were expected to break all rules and conventions’.49 Sometimes Sidney Nolan, who was a regular weekend guest at Saltwood, would try making deliberately contentious statements about modern art in an attempt to goad Clark into a response, but always without success. Clark, who felt that Australians were ‘the only truly democratic and non-hypocritical people of the world’ and not suited to what passed in British circles as ‘sophistication’,50 was never dismissive and always helpful, saying: ‘Let Sidney have his say, after all, he’s an Australian’.51 Nolan, on his part found Clark’s upper-class diffidence and restraint frustrating on occasions. He once questioned an unchanging custom at Saltwood, which was for Nolan and Clark to breakfast together in silence over the Sunday papers and received a rebuff from Clark that ‘we’ll just have to continue as we are’.

Barbara Blackman summed up the 1960s expatriate circle as ‘a pretty raucous lot to break on the English scene. If we went to parties, we spoke more loudly and we would talk across the room [whereas] English people don’t’. She describes how Australians would spurn the sofa and sit on the floor to have their cup of tea – ‘probably we’d have our ashtray on the chair. It was very “bush’’’.52 Such informality was no bar to mixing in the highest social circles, however. Australian artists could meet Princess Margaret on the gallery circuit, where on one occasion, while pregnant, she walked barefoot around the Whitechapel Gallery. Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon invited the Whiteleys to Kensington Palace, while Charles and Barbara Blackman had their own friends among members of the British aristocracy. They would visit Penelope Mountbatten, who had stayed with the Bell family in Australia. They also knew Fiona Campbell, a cousin of the Queen, who had an apartment in Mayfair, furnished with Royal crested furniture. The Blackmans would arrive for drinks in their ordinary clothes and mix with British aristocracy, but when their welcome had been worn out, the butler approached, offering to call a taxi. Once they took the Bryonic and abrasive John Perceval who caused a minor stir by dismissing the Turner paintings in the Campbells’ flat as fakes. The British aristocracy was dreadful to one another at these parties, Blackman recalls. ‘As soon as one went home they would pull them to pieces. We were so nervous we stayed right until the end’.53 A few upper-class habits rubbed off on the Australians. Barbara Blackman took to smoking Ariston Muratti oval cigarettes with gold tips that had ‘as smoked by aristocracy and royalty’ embossed on their grey and purple box, and Arthur Boyd adopted a British telephone manner, answering calls with: ‘Boyd of Highgate’.

Australian artists enjoyed a degree of immunity from the British structures of class in London society. They received invitations to upper-class parties because their presence acted as a social catalyst, diffusing the stiffness of such occasions and perhaps also helping to distract fellow guests from self-destructive snobbery and bitchiness. However, the Australians were more than simply an amusement for aristocracy. While they were in a social position roughly equivalent to British working class or, as one expatriate artist put it, ‘like the Scots or the Irish ... outside the pale, but rather charming in an odd sort of way’,54 a certain degree of waywardness and unconventionality was accepted simply because they were artists. Added to this was their status as rough-diamond ‘colonials’ who were expected to break all rules and conventions. As part of a broader picture of changing attitudes towards the Commonwealth, a directness and simplicity of approach was indulged – even welcomed – from the people of Britain’s former colonies. In the early years of Empire, Britain had exported its language, legal system, customs and infrastructure to dominions around the world. Now, as part of the shift away from Empire towards Commonwealth, Britain was looking towards its former colonies for new vigour and a fresh approach. While it could be argued that this was only colonialism in another guise, there is no doubt that Clark and many others like him, inured to the duplicity and snobbery of British society, welcomed the directness of the Australians like a breath of fresh air.

Bryan Robertson was another key figure in bringing Australian artists together and in strengthening friendships, both in his curation of the Whitechapel show of Australian contemporary painting and through parties and Sunday lunches at his home. He was also central to the promotion of the ‘Australian school’ of painting in London through his writings for the London Magazine and elsewhere. A number of other influential literary figures in London shared an enthusiasm for Australian art, notably Al Alvarez, the Australian author and poet Charles Osborne, who worked with John Lehmann and later Alan Ross on the London Magazine, and John Douglas Pringle who had previously been editor of the Sydney Morning Herald before returning to London as editor of the Observer. Tom Rosenthal, who worked for Thames and Hudson, wrote for The Listener and owned works by Boyd and Nolan, and Dennis Duerden, art critic for Arts Review were also influential supporters of Australian art.

Robert Hughes, who had collaborated with Robertson on the Recent Australian Painting exhibition catalogue, arrived in London just at the time when Australian art had reached its zenith of hype and popularity. As Clive James, an old friend from student days in Sydney observed, Hughes was ‘already halfway way to everywhere’. Whereas James had arrived in London during a cold January in 1962 with ‘nothing to declare at customs except goose-pimples under my white nylon drip-dry shirt’,55 Hughes was living near Piccadilly Circus in a suite of rooms at the Albany where neighbours included the novelist Graham Greene. Well off and well connected, Hughes seemed to know everybody.56 James accompanied Robert Hughes on a visit to the Colony Room in Soho (renowned drinking club and favourite watering hole of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Bruce Bernard), where James met and immediately fell foul of Colin McInnes – another long-term expatriate. With Clark and Robertson, McInnes had extolled the work of Nolan in a recently published Thames and Hudson monograph – cynically dubbed ‘Three Authors in search of a Painter’ for its verbose style.

Robertson’s close circle of artist friends included Prunella Clough, Bridget Riley, Keith Vaughan, Patrick Procktor, Roy de Maistre and Lawrence Daws. At the time of Daws’ return to London in early 1961 Robertson was already putting the Whitechapel exhibition together. ‘He heard about me and he wanted to see me and he came round’, Daws recalled ... ‘Later I also went and saw him in Draycott Gardens [sic] and he worked out a couple of paintings he wanted in the show’.57 Robertson regularly visited Australian artists’ studios to see what was being produced or to select paintings for exhibition. His visit to Brett Whiteley’s Ladbroke Grove studio proved a eureka moment for Robertson; a high point in his curatorial life and a breakthrough for Whiteley. Elsewhere artists did their best to put on an impressive show, knowing that Robertson’s influence could be crucial to success in London. When Robertson went to Arthur Boyd’s house at 13 Hampstead Lane to choose paintings for a retrospective exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, he was shown into a room that had been cleared and the curtains drawn to shut out the daylight. A chair and table with a whisky bottle on it had been placed at one end to put him at his ease, while paintings were brought out one by one, lit by a studio light ‘against a backdrop of red velvet curtains’.

MOVING UP AND MOVING IN

The prosperity that many Australian artists achieved in London in the early to mid-years of the 1960s often meant a move to properties in more expensive and centrally located parts of London. Lawrence Daws, whilst keeping his studio over the ABC bread shop in Hampstead High Street, moved into Brett Whiteley’s old residence at 129 Ladbroke Grove where Mick Johnson was still living upstairs on the second floor. The Blackmans moved to a second-floor flat in Hanover Gate Mansions, a massive block of apartments just off Regent’s Park, where Yoko Ono had previously lived with her first husband. It had a large studio that Charles furnished with curtains of canvas off-cuts and carpeted with masonite paintings. Three apartments in the same block were occupied at various times by Australian artists. Leonard Hessing shared with Colin Lanceley, who was visited on one occasion by the surrealist painter Joan Miró. The sculptor Roger Klippel, painter John Olsen and the art critic Robert Hughes all stayed at Hanover Gate Mansions during periods spent in London during the 1960s.

Despite financial success that saw the price of his paintings rise almost weekly during the early 1960s, Arthur Boyd chose to stay in Highgate and the area became a focal point for other members of Boyd’s extended family – such as his sister Mary, who settled there with her husband the painter John Perceval and their four children in 1963.58 Brother David and his wife Hermia also returned to London with their three daughters in 1962 and lived for a time in the Priors apartment building on the edge of Hampstead Heath, before buying their own house in Islington. Son Jamie described how the three-floor Victorian town house on Hampstead Lane became ‘a powerhouse, a factory, a place for generating art’,59 with work gradually filling the whole house. Brenda Niall, the Boyd family biographer, describes the ground-floor sitting-room as being ‘always under threat, and whenever a buyer came there would be frantic tidying-up so that paintings could be seen to advantage’. The basement was used for the storage of paintings and materials where there was a ‘fortune’s worth’ of dry colour in ten-gallon drums of dry colour, copper sheets, rolls of canvas and framed and unframed paintings ‘against every wall’.60 The whole of the ground floor was taken over as studio space. The front room (or ‘tidy room’ as it was known) had a white carpet which was covered in sheeting and reserved as a clean space whilst the ‘splashy stuff’ went on in the adjoining back room:

 

everything would be splattered with paint, including Arthur’s gramophone ... and the postcards he put up to look at. ... He put up two 1000-watt bulbs in the studio so that he could keep painting through the dark London afternoons, when daylight failed early. Often he would paint till midnight or later: he would have to be called to his meals or he would forget them.61

Brett Whiteley, married to Wendy at Chelsea Registry Office in 1962, moved to an imposing studio in Melbury Road near Holland Park, where Sidney Nolan, keeping his visits a secret from Cynthia, frequently came to keep an eye on what his young rival was painting. The split-level, garden pavilion had once been owned by Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt, and the great oak that grew in front of it, under which the artist had played with his children, was now the place where Whiteley and his friends would gather for drinks. Clive James, previously living in a basement in Tufnell Park, moved subsequently to a top-floor flat of the house in Melbury Road, which held a large contingent of Australian expatriates. He observed Whiteley’s rapid success with some envy, whilst enjoying his expensive cigars and imported Australian beer. One night James joined a circle of ‘murmuring people in fancy dress, passing, after one dainty puff each, an oddly defeated-looking roll-your-own cigarette around in a circle’ that he sucked ‘to a stub in two jumbo drags’.62

In his memoirs, under the pseudonym ‘Delish’, James describes Wendy Whiteley as a ‘seraphically lovely van Eyck angel in jeans and T-shirt’ with ‘a hard business brain’ who ‘could spot anyone who would waste her husband’s time a mile off ... she had a clock running somewhere in the background and always made sure he was dead on time for dinner with Sir Kenneth Clark’. The ‘golden-haired’ Whiteley, ‘rugby-nosed and as restless as a surfer on a wet day ... chose a theme, painted every possible variation on it, and then sold his sketchbooks and preliminary drawings along with the pictures’.63 Whiteley’s ability to work quickly was a factor in his rapid rise to success, mirroring that of Nolan in some respects, although evidently the two artists viewed each other rather differently. While they appeared to rub along together as friends, Whiteley privately satirised Nolan’s prolixity and mechanistic approach, whereas Nolan admired Whiteley’s natural talent, counselling him to ‘Just build your world regularly and shove it out regularly. It all belongs to you just as much as your fingers and toes’.64

CONCLUSION

For Australian artists in London, the early 1960s was both a beginning and an end: a prelude to the ‘Swinging 60s’ and also the end of a brief postwar period of colonial expatriation for artists who had still sought international status and recognition in the ‘mother country’. Emphasizing the ephemeral and artificial nature of the cultural ‘colony’ of Australians in London, Alomes has compared it to an artificial plant or fragile pot plant. It was, he contends, ‘a post-colonial aberration, engendered by the meeting of the last post-imperial waves with the emerging era of international travel and global diversity’.65 A changing cultural scene, increased prosperity and an unprecedented boom in the art market back in Australia, made returning home an enticing prospect for long-term expatriate artists, whilst increased air travel made it possible. As the 1960s progressed, expatriate Australians working in the broader field of the creative arts returned to an ‘Australia in which the people felt more in touch with the land and its history than the derivative English “cultural pattern” they had left’.66

Cultural displacement, it has been argued, can be a spur to creativity, but for many of those in London in the early 1960s, expatriation was not an aim in itself, but rather ‘the route to continued work at one’s profession’.67 Charles Blackman would later describe himself as an Australian ‘isolated’ in Britain,68 whilst Francis Lymburner, who returned to Sydney in 1964, continued to feel an outsider in both countries. The artist Tony Underhill, who lived in London until his death in 1977, described Australian identity as something not rooted to place, but carried internally. Louis James, for whom a 15-year period spent in London had felt like ‘being in a dream’, continued to feel pangs of ‘homesickness’ for England several years after returning to Australia. Others, like Lawrence Daws, were content to live between two countries for a period of time, whilst Sidney Nolan achieved international fame, becoming, at the same time, an artist who never quite belonged to either country. Family ties were often a factor that either led to permanent roots being put down in Britain, or to the eventual return to Australia. The fact that Arthur Boyd’s children and later, grandchildren would grow up in England has been given as one of the reasons that the artist chose to remain there (along with Boyd’s fear of flying) that made the means of return slow and sporadic. There was no sudden end to the presence of Australian artists in London, and just as Charles Blackman, Brett Whiteley and others returned home in the mid 1960s, so more young Australian artists such as Colin Lanceley, Michael Ramsden, Philippe Mora, and others took their place. Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, affluent and comfortable in the British art world, remained to paint Australia from afar, where the peculiarly lyrical and literary qualities of their work continued to appeal to the sensibilities of the British art market.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to acknowledge all those who generously gave of their time to talk to me about expatriate life in London: To Barbara Blackman, Edit and Lawrence Daws, Guy Warren, and Beryl Whiteley, who all agreed to be interviewed, sharing much useful information and greatly adding to my understanding of the period. I also wish to thank Christine France and David Rainey for introductions given in Australia, and Professor Carl Bridge for much enthusiastic support in Britain. Steven Miller of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Janeen Haythornwhaite and Nayia Yiakoumaki of the Whitechapel Gallery have all offered generous support with archive research. Lastly, I am very grateful to Traudi Allen, not only for a memorable lunch, but also for introducing me to David Dunstan, resulting in this collaboration.

ENDNOTES

1     Lawrence Daws interviewed by Hal Missingham,1965.

2     Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 2006.

3     Shapcott, 1967, 52.

4     Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 2006. See also Shapcott, 1967, 52.

5     Weston, 1982, 39.

6     Charles Blackman interviewed by Thomas Shapcott in 1987; Shapcott, 1989, 2–3.

7     Charles Blackman interviewed by Thomas Shapcott in 1987; Shapcott, 1989, 2–3.

8     Niall, 2002, 319–320.

9     Niall, 2002, 326–327.

10    Niall, 2002, 332.

11    Alomes, 1999, 80.

12    Brett Whiteley, letter to his mother, dated ‘Thursday’, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, FA 759.994 W594 4.

13    Lawrence Daws interviewed by Hal Missingham,1965.

14    Lawrence Daws interviewed by the author, 2005.

15    Blackman, 1997, 231.

16    Al Alvarez, ‘The Paintings of Charles Blackman: The Substance of Dreams’, Studio International, September 1965. Quoted in Shapcott, 1967, 67.

17    Blackman, 1997, 264.

18    Blackman, 1997, 258.

19    Shapcott, 1989, 4.

20    Moore, 1993, 21.

21    Shapcott, 1967, 67.

22    Lawrence Daws interviewed by the author, 2005.

23    Cosgrove, 2007, 82.

24    Alannah Coleman interviewed by Wendy Bradley, 1988.

25    Alannah Coleman interviewed by Wendy Bradley, 1986.

26    Bungey, 2007, 500. See also Adams, 1987, 168.

27    Nolan, 1967.

28    Adams, 1987, 167.

29    Adams, 1987, 129.

30    James, 1985, 295.

31    Kolenberg and Pearce et.al., 1992, 17.

32    Lymburner to Teddy Krips, London, 28 June 1962, Francis Lymburner papers, Sydney, Art Gallery, MS1999.11 (personal correspondence box 4).

33    Lymburner to Krips, London, 7 May 1963, Francis Lymburner papers, Sydney, Art Gallery, MS1999.11 (personal correspondence box 4).

34    Lymburner to Krips, London, 28 June 1962. Francis Lymburner papers, Sydney, Art Gallery, MS1999.11 (personal correspondence box 4).

35    Lymburner to Krips, London, 29 September 1962. Francis Lymburner papers, Sydney, Art Gallery, MS1999.11 (personal correspondence box 4).

36    Lymburner to Krips, London, 25 January 1963. Francis Lymburner papers, Francis Lymburner papers, Sydney, Art Gallery, MS1999.11 (personal correspondence box 4).

37    ‘The artist at work: Francis Lymburner explains his ideas’, Town and Around, BBC TV, 21 February 1963, interview conducted by Richard Baker.

38    Whiteley to his mother, January 6 [1961]. Letter on Ram Hotel, Newark, Notts. headed notepaper, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, FA 759.994 W594 4.

39    Ibid.

40    Whiteley to his mother, London, 4 December 1960, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, FA 759.994 W594 4.

41    Charles Blackman interviewed by Thomas Shapcott, 1987, 67–68.

42    Lawrence Daws interviewed by the author, 2005.

43    Whiteley to his mother, January 6 [1961], Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, FA 759.994 W594 4.

44    Whiteley to his mother, January 6 [1961], Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, FA 759.994 W594 4.

45    The phrase ‘relentlessly meeting the English’ is taken from Blackman, 1997, 257–258.

46    Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 2006.

47    Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 2006.

48    Shapcott, 1989, 4.

49    Adams, 1987, 148–49.

50    Clark, 1977, 150.

51    Adams, 1987, 148.

52    Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 2006.

53    Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 2006.

54    Guy Warren interviewed by the author, 2007. Guy Warren (b.1921) was an expatriate artist based in London in the 1950s. He returned to Australia in 1959.

55    James, 1985, 179.

56    James, 1985, xi.

57    Lawrence Daws interviewed by the author, 2005.

58    Niall, 2002, 327.

59    Niall, 2002, 328.

60    Niall, 2002, 329–330.

61    Niall, 2002, 328–329.

62    James, 1985, 304.

63    James, 1985, 299–300.

64    Nolan to Whiteley, ‘Antarctica’, 24 January 1964, AGNSW (FA 759.994 W594 4).

65    Alomes, 1999, 264.

66    Alomes, 1999, 253.

67    Alomes, 1999, 261.

68    Shapcott, 1989, 4.

PRIMARY SOURCES

Barbara Blackman interviewed by the author, 1 December 2006, Canberra.

Charles Blackman interviewed by Thomas Shapcott, 1987.

Alannah Coleman interviewed by Wendy Bradley, October 1986, London.

Alannah Coleman interviewed by Wendy Bradley, September 1988, London.

Francis Lymburner papers, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, MS1999.11.

Lawrence Daws interviewed by Hal Missingham, 21 September 1965, London, Hazel de Berg tapes, Canberra, National Library of Australia, ORAL DeB 107.

Lawrence Daws interviewed by the author, 6 December 2005, Beerwah.

Guy Warren interviewed by the author, 4 November 2007, Sydney.

Brett Whiteley, folder of photocopied correspondence, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, FA 759.994 W594 4.

REFERENCES

Adams, Brian. 1987. Sidney Nolan, Such is Life, A Biography. Hawthorn, Vic.: Century Hutchinson.

Alomes, Stephen. 1999. When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackman, Barbara. 1997. Glass After Glass: Autobiographical Reflections, Ringwood, Vic.: Viking/Penguin Books.

Bungey, Darleen. 2007. Arthur Boyd : A Life. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Cosgrove, Bryony, editor. 2007. Portrait of a Friendship; The Letters of Barbara Blackman and Judith Wright 1950–2000. Carlton, Vic.: The Miegunyah Press.

Clark, Kenneth. 1977. The Other Half, a Self-Portrait. London and New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.

James, Clive. 1985. Falling Towards England. London: Jonathan Cape.

Kolenberg, Hendrik; Pearce, Barry. 1992. Francis Lymburner 1916–1972: Retrospective. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Moore, Felicity St John, editor. 1993. Schoolgirls and Angels, a Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Charles Blackman. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.

Niall, Brenda. 2002. The Boyds: A Family Biography. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.

Nolan, Cynthia. 1967. Open Negative: An American Memoir. London, Melbourne: Macmillan.

Shapcott, Thomas. 1967. Artists in Queensland: Focus on Charles Blackman, St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.

Shapcott, Thomas. 1989. The Art of Charles Blackman. London: André Deutsch.

Weston, Neville. 1982. Lawrence Daws. Frenchs Forest, NSW and Wellington, New Zealand: A.H. & A.W. Reed Pty. Ltd.

 

Cite this chapter as: Pierse, Simon. 2009. ‘Australian artists in London: The early 1960s’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 13.1 to 13.17.

 

Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge