Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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During the seventies, you had an exhibition in New York. What sort of paintings were in that exhibition, and how did you come to be exhibiting in New York?

Again, it had to do with the ... with this sort of yearning to get back to New York that I had. And then, it was also linked with the fact I'd had an exhibition at the Broome Festival. They have a festival once a year called the Matsuri Festival. I was the guest artist, and they asked me for some work. And I ... [They] took me up and we'd showed it. I think it was an auction of some ... I think it went by auction, that exhibition. And it went very well. I can remember that they were terribly efficient, too. And they paid very quickly, which is always a ... it's always a long drawn out business after an exhibition. It takes a long time before you actually get all the ends tidied up. They paid very efficiently, and I thought, now this ... this is it. And I got a ticket to New York, as a result of that exhibition. Then I think I ... I was only examining the scene for ... for an exhibition there. I think I went back the second time, once I'd established the fact that it fitted in with the 150th year for Perth. I think that's what it was. And although, I didn't have any ... any funds from the government, I had moral support from the then Premier, Sir Charles Court, who's always been a very good friend of mine. And he ... he joined it in. And I was ... The exhibition I was going to have in New York linked in with the [WA] sesquicentenary. And for it ... Now that I look back on them, I can see that there are paintings that were a radical change. They were paintings that I call my flung paintings. But I think what I was doing - it's like ... like a plant almost sending out threads looking for a piece of nourishment in which to settle, or something. The thread ... They're strange paintings. Although I did a big volume of them, very big volume. Oh, a couple of hundred paintings. And I chose the best of them, and I called it Explorers & Discover ... Discoverers & Explorers and linked them with names of Australian exploration. And [I] took that exhibition to New York. Quite an undertaking, because there was no funding, you know, it was done all ... I did it myself. I remember rolling them, and getting them off to Qantas, and our representative there - it was Cotton. I think he was a knight. Yes. And his wife, Eve Cotton. You might know them? Sir Robert Cotton, I think it was. And they ... they accepted them. You see, all these logistics are enormously difficult to work out. I must have had to contact Canberra to say would they ... could the parcel go to the ... go to this address in Fifth Avenue and they did say it could. And then from there I had to get them framed. But it was all like an adventure. Finding a framer in Manhattan, and meeting the framer and doing all that, and getting it transported to the venue, which was the World Trade Centre - the two big buildings that you see. And ... and then getting the screens to set it up. All this was done by myself. But each bit of it was ... it was entering more into New York society. And then eventually the paintings were framed and ready to go up. I think the canvases were just stretched, not framed. And I ... I didn't know how to hang them. You know, I couldn't hang them. And this is one lovely experience that I had there. I think it was the young man that delivered the paintings to the site on the ground floor of ... of the World Trade Centre. And he was what they call now an African-American. Very dark African-American. Tall young man, loose limbs and very ... very efficient. And I'd also bought all the nails or hangers or whatever it was, and I said, 'Could you help me with it?' I just asked him out of the blue and it was fairly late in the evening. It must have been four or five o'clock. And he just set in, and quite efficiently hung the whole exhibition for me. I thought, well I'm just desperate. There was no one to help me. And he did it. And then of course, I said well, 'And now what do I owe you?' He said, 'Ma'am, you don't owe me a thing'. You know, I almost burst into tears. I could when I think of it, almost burst into tears. He would not take any payment for working for an hour for me. And he went off and waved, you know. It was ... it was a terribly moving experience. But somehow, everything that I did in New York was like that. Everything. And of course that exhibition was not for sale. That was one of the provisions of it. It was not to be for sale but it was on exhibit and it got some good notice, although it never ... never crossed the Pacific. The event never crossed the Pacific into our papers, which I would have loved but never mind, it was another wonderful adventure. And then, what happened? Then of course, the big thing was ... oh yes, I could have sold separate pieces but I wanted to keep them as a set. I could have sold one or two separate pieces to one or two of the universities who were interested in them. And I thought, no I'll keep them as a set. Then what to do with them then? You see, because they were now stretched. How do you get fifteen stretched ... big stretched canvases back to Australia? Then I met a friend who we've had a lot of contact with, and he's been active in business circles in Australia, Allan Gerdau. And particularly in Broome. And he ... he ... we met up: a very nice man, a mature man, and he was very kind to me. I remember going up to some wonderful restaurant for lunch, you know, and all this sort of thing and then as he was dropping me off at the ... what's it called? It's not High Commissioner for ... for Australia, is it?

The embassy.

The embassy, is it? Yes. As he was dropping, he said, 'Now, if there's anything else I can do for you, ma'am ...', although we were calling each other our Christian names. And I said, 'There is, Allan. There is. What ... Could you ...?' And he had big buildings ... he had big buildings there, called the Gerdau Building or something. He said, 'We've got all the space in the world down in our cellars'. And I said, 'If you'd put those paintings there for a while 'til I work it out, I'd be very grateful'. So that's where the paintings went. Then years later - I hadn't ... I didn't follow that up very much - years later, Allan Gerdau, God bless him, went to his reward, and his daughter wrote to me, in charge of his estate, and she said, 'We have these paintings. What are we to do with them?' and I said, 'Well, I'd like them back, please'. I'd almost forgotten about them by this time. And so they ... they came back. Oh yes, she said, 'We have a good way of sending them back, because one of our boats touches at Darwin', and I said, 'Well, that'd be great', you know. 'Wouldn't ... Doesn't cost us anything', she said, 'Wouldn't cost you anything. We can land them at Darwin. Can you get them from there?' And I said, 'Yes, oh yes, that'd be wonderful'. So then ... you know, the months and months went past and I then heard that the paintings were in Darwin. And somehow, again to make a long story short, those paintings have been acquired by the museum and art galleries of Darwin and that's where they are. But when they were unpacked, one was missing. Torres was missing. I called them after the discoverers, and one was called Torres. Torres was missing, so the set was incomplete. So I said, 'That's all right, I can complete the set. I'll redo Torres', because I had reproductions of it. And I couldn't redo it exactly, but I redid it fairly exactly. So Torres and ... and Vlamingh and all the rest of them - fifteen of them - are in the collection of the Northern Territory. So that's ... that's just the New York story.

Do you think you were so moved by your reception in New York, by everybody down to the ... down to the man that helped you, was because you felt more appreciated there than you did here?

Oh, I definitely did. There was another attitude towards me. And I can remember, like all the things you do in every day ... as I say, it's an adventure. You get up and you go out and it's just like a great musical comedy from nine o'clock in the morning 'til dark. And I was looking at galleries, and saying, 'Would you think of being an agent for me?' and I can remember one of them in Soho or something, and I can remember this ... this man looking at me. And of course, I'm pretty mature then. And he said, 'My dear young lady ...' - that's not a good accent, but he was saying, 'My dear young lady, no agent's going to take you on all that way down under. You got to come and live with us'. It was sort of sweet but they weren't going to be an agent for someone living in Perth, of all remote places in the world. But again, it was that, that sort of insight into the warmth and ... and I found them warm and gentle people. And ...

Had you felt unappreciated in your own country?

Well, it'd been a big battle. Still is.

Do you think that was made worse for you by being a woman?

Yes, definitely. I think taking it perhaps even unconsciously for ... It is ... art has always been a man's world but definitely very much a man's world in Australia I think. Although I haven't got a hang-up about it, Robin. You know, it hasn't embittered me or anything. But it ... it's there, I'm sure because one of the worst experiences was when I showed the big Broome collection at then David Jones Gallery in Sydney. It was a lovely gallery, and it was run by Will Lawson, of the Lawson family. Lovely artist and a lovely man in himself. And when ... when I approached him and said, 'Would you show these paintings?' he was very responsive and he said, 'This is just what David Lloyd Jones hoped we'd be showing', and, of course, I was thrilled with that. He was one of those - again, mature men with lovely sense of ... I don't know - [a] gentlemanly person. And so that exhibition went up there. But it was exactly across the time when there was a critic called Paul Haefliger. He'd be well known still in art circles and he was ... he was the critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and ... and he was a big influence in Sydney at that time. And, of course, the exhibition before that was one of the Nolans, and I ... I remember Haefliger had written a tremendously eulogising review of it: 'To even see them was like coming into a cathedral', whatever these paintings were by ... by Nolan. I think they were some of his Australian landscapes. But then, somehow, because I was ... he hadn't got any social links with me, he didn't know where Western Australia was. I think he originated from Switzerland but he'd been living in Sydney a long time. He was married to Jean Bellette, a well known artist. She did copies of Greek figures and things like that. And, at any rate, he came to this exhibition. I would loved to have talked to him, but he didn't engage me. I saw him there, writing down a few notes and then he went out and the next day in the ... in the Sydney Morning Herald, there was a damning ... a damning review, in which he said, 'It's pretty clear that this artist is starting to walk before she can crawl and a lot of these pictures look like as though she's copied cheap reproductions of Matisse'. And, of course, I was new to all this and I ... I went in and saw Will Lawson. And I said, 'Oh, we'll take no notice of that. It's just nonsense. It's so ridiculous, you know, saying that I'm copying people or something', and he said, 'Oh no, Elizabeth, this is very serious. This man has very big influence in this city'. He was nearly in tears himself over it, dear old Will Lawson. I still didn't take it very seriously. But the fact of the matter was, the exhibition died on the walls. A few drawings sold but I hardly could pay my way back to Western Australia, you see. It was a damning criticism by a man artist. But it came as just sort of ... just woven now into the rich tapestry of my failed career. [Laughs]

The men in your life, that you knew personally: your father, your brothers, your husband - what was their attitude to your work?

Always very supportive. That's where it's always hard for me to ... perhaps, why I'm never sort of embittered against men. But men in the art world, I think, they were ... that isn't even so. It's difficult to answer that. Because certainly my dad was very thrilled that I was doing anything with my work. Although it did worry him that it wasn't a little bit better paying. And the ... my brother, Kim, was a tremendous support. My brothers have been. And of course, perhaps my husband, Frank, was the most supportive of all, because I don't know that I had, when I was married at twenty-three - I think, I must have been twenty-two, twenty-three - feeling that I was going to be an artist so much. I'd done a lot of work. You know, I'd done a lot of illustrating and everything but I was prepared to be more domestic. I can remember we had a small flat in St. Neot's Avenue, Kings Cross and I was just looking after it and dusting it and things, and preparing an evening meal. [INTERRUPTION]

Do you think that ... I mean you were always a very good-looking and elegant woman. Do you think that made it more difficult for the men in the art world to take you seriously?

It's hard to answer that, I think. Perhaps it did. Perhaps it did. They would have ... yes, I think that that came into it a little bit.

When you got married, did your husband encourage you?

Yes, he did. Yes, he did appreciate the fact that ... that I was working, doing the work that he was very familiar with by this time, through the books and that sort of thing. So I can remember when we first got married we had a little flat in St. Neot's Avenue, Kings Cross and I was prepared to play a domestic role. You know, I wasn't feeling very ambitious about work at the time and I was preparing an evening meal and I remember making a pudding - a pudding with a beaten egg on top, meringue on top - and we had the evening meal. We had the steak or whatever it was and then Frank looked at the pudding, and he picked it up and he took it over to the sink, and he ran the tap on it and he said, 'Elizabeth, I didn't marry you to cook puddings for me', and it was just a sort of appreciation of the fact that I could turn my energies to something better. So that was his attitude towards it, and he did encourage me in every way.

Do you think it's a lot easier for young woman now, who are wanting to do what you did?

Well, it must be. I mean, I think it's no comparison between battling around in the fifty years ago than today. There are more opportunities and more funding, you see. The whole ... people ... sometimes strikes me that no one puts brush to canvas now without having a grant. It's a complete reversal from what I did. You know, the ... always exhibiting to raise the wind and then seeking out sponsors and this sort of thing.

Apart from CRA, did you have any other commercial sponsors?

Yes, yes, I've always had a shot at some sponsors, and I did a big block of work for the Australian Agricultural Company, working at Rockhampton Downs, you know. I'd sort of think out some idea. And then some of the towns of Western Australia, the councils for the towns, supported me. When I did a big block of work on ... on the town of Geraldton, I negotiated with the town council and I went up and did the big block of work and then they bought it for a sum of money. It was always a very small sum compared to anything nowadays, but I must have done about forty or fifty, sixty paintings. Not big ones. Graphic work of Geraldton and the environs. And then for a long time, I didn't know what happened about that. Then not so long ago, only about ten or twelve years ago, they set up a very nice gallery, Queen's Gallery, in Geraldton, and at the same time, they discovered that ... that those works that I'd done for them, which had been lost, were found again. And the ... Geraldton was very thrilled about finding them again and so they set them up in this new gallery and ... and they ... they paid my fare up there and I opened that. And that's how the folio of the town of Geraldton is the one that's remained most intact. Because though I've done the other towns, the ... there ... there's only the ... a lot of the pages are gone out of them, you know, because I had to sell them. So there were all sorts of ways I thought of involving enough funds to keep ... keep abreast.

Do you think that the need to make a living from your brush, was what made you such a prolific painter?

I think it would have probably. There was that drive into it too, apart from the urge to create. There was that ... that urge too, which keeps you on your feet.

Supposing you hadn't had to make a living from it, do you think you still would have painted a lot?

I ... I doubt it. It doesn't ... it's hard to ... again a hard question to answer, to what effect a secure economic support would affect the creative impulse. It ... it ... security does tend to dim creativity sometimes, you know. There's nothing like the drive of having to find the next meal, more or less, to be exaggerated, yes. [Long smile]

In thinking about your artistic life, you were saying you had support from your family, you had support from those close to you. Have you felt supported by the broader artistic community in Australia?

Not at all, no, no. I've got trunks full of applications. [Laughs] I've got trunks full of rejected applications. I'm always thinking up good ideas. Of course, as soon as the Australia Council was set up, I mean I'm not ... I thought, well I'll work an idea in on that and I ... I could show you all sorts of applications, very good ones. But they've only got to see the name Durack, or to have it sponsored by ... have a referee in the form of Sir Charles Court, and it sort of goes into the discard bin. [Laughs] I'm sure that's what's happened time and time again.

What kind of a living were you able to make from the support of the private sponsorship that you got, and the sale of your work?

Well, very small, very small. Just lived from exhibition to exhibition. Run up a few ... a few accounts in the city. And go and see dear old Mr. Ahearn, and say, 'I'll pay for the children's uniforms after the exhibition', still keeping my fingers crossed that anything would sell. You know, it was sort of a ... it was a struggle. It was a real struggle. But I wasn't oppressed with it. Just go on with it. It's hard to describe, you know. And you know, I'd get ... everything would get run down. All my under clothes would be in rags and then ... then I'd have a few ... and I'd buy a few new things at the end of the exhibition. Thinking back over it, that was literally the situation.

Can we talk now again a little bit more about what was happening in your personal life. Did you ever think of remarrying?

Oh, a few times, yes. Just thought of it. Just crossed my mind. And I'd rapidly go on another painting expedition.


Oh, I don't know. I don't know. Well, it had partly to do with ... partly, I suppose, to do with the fact that Frank did ... I did ask for a divorce once, and Frank said, 'I will never give you a divorce, Elizabeth'. So that was one of the inhibiting factors, I guess. And then, you know, I could live with that. I get knock backs and I quickly think of another track, you see. And I just went on working. But of course, after Frank died, I did get away because it wasn't easy to get away even before that.

And you never thought of marrying after he died?

No, no, no I didn't.

Is that something you've missed, having somebody close to you?

Oh, I think it must be when you see the wonderful teams of ... I can enumerate so many of them, wife and husband, working together. And my friend Leon Pericles, lovely West Australian artist, his wife just lives to support him and to help with all the detail of his work and the accounts and the PR work and everything. That's only one instance. There are dozens but it just happens that I was talking to Pericles not long ago and what a wonderful support Moira is. Yes, yes, and some of the successful artists, like Preston, Margaret Preston, well her husband was enormously supportive to her. And so was that woman that did the lovely portraits of oriental queens and ... See what's happening to the old memory: the names go. Her husband's been a big support to her.

How far was the need to raise your children, and support them financially, and at the same time try and express yourself as an artist ... how did that impact on your work, do you think? Do you think it made it different?

Yes, it probably did. I think it probably did.

In what way? I mean, how did you juggle all those things?

You do wonder how ... how you manage it. One of the things, I've had immense energy, which I can see the contrast with it in this present age. I simply did not know what it was to be tired, you know, and I'd work half the night when the children were asleep, doing ... fulfilling orders for these ... for these reproductions that I told you about. The handmade reproductions. One of my best agents for that was Edith MacMillan in Melbourne. She had a little shop in Little Collins Street, called the Primrose Collins Street, where lots of work went from here to her and she handled ... handled it there. She was a remarkable little woman and there's been effort made to bring her forward more and have an exhibition concerning her at one of the universities in Melbourne and her niece contacted me the other day.

Where do you think all this energy came from?

Just good luck, I suppose. Good luck and good health: a great ... great advantage. Yeah. Also, touching on another aspect of my life, which I won't go into deeply, I ... and it's almost a cliché, but I had a desperately unhappy love affair, early, in the north. And I think it sort of shattered me to a large extent, so that everything else was irrelevant to a large extent, you know.

Was that before or after you were married?

Oh, well before. Long before, yes.

And who was that with?

I don't suppose it would hurt to mention the name after all this time. He was a young man called Tom Naughton , Thomas Naughton, and the Naughtons had adjoining stations to ours. And he ... he was born and bred in Melbourne but he came north, and it was ... it was a sort of a non-stop love affair for quite a long time. But you know, that was what made me, perhaps, dislike London and being abroad so much. It was that I really didn't want to go away but I was committed to it by that time. I was committed to it. I can remember the boat pulling out from the Wyndham jetty, and looking ... and my tears dropping down into the muddy waters of the gulf. But I thought I'd come back. I thought I'd come back, and ... and that, you know, that everything would work out. But I never saw him again. He was killed.


It was a motor car accident. He was a wild boy, a very wild boy. And he was ... I must ... they must have an attraction for me - he was seriously alcoholic. Yes. But wonderful charm, and wonderful, wonderful young man really.

Did he die while you were overseas?

Ah no. I came back and I was in the north again, and that's when he died, yes. And that's what I felt, I couldn't stay on in the quiet of the station any longer and that's when I went to Darwin to nurse. He was in a very bad way then, and ... and I would have gone down but I didn't go down. I didn't know he was going to die, you know. And then ... then I actually ... he ... I heard of his death when I was nursing, which was in some ways a blessing, because it was very, very traumatic. And just to be working, I think, kept me sane. I remember saying to the matron, 'I just don't want to knock off work', you know. 'I just want to work on'. But that's getting a little bit into an area that doesn't belong to our talk, I don't think.

Oh, yes it does because even at this distance, looking back on it in retrospect, you still see it as having had a major influence on how you felt about the world afterwards.

Oh yes, it definitely did. So in a way, you know, I wasn't ... it sort of ...

How did it affect the way you looked at things?

Perhaps the whole of my life is the answer to that. The whole of my life, since then, is the answer to that. Including marriage and lovers and friends.

And what do you think you did differently because of that tragic beginning?

I don't think I could ever mate with anyone, that was my trouble. Perhaps the failure of the marriage was my inability to mate, more than ... much more than ... than Frank's. Do you know what I mean? I could never give completely ever again, and never would. And never have.

Out of fear of what that might mean in loss?

Just an inability. Just something within me, I think, in just ... and perhaps all the energy went in other directions, you see. I'm only putting a superficial, psychological explanation to it but it's ... it's there, you know. It ... it was profound effect on my life, there's no doubt about that. But everything you put behind you.

And so while you were doing serene, realist, gentle paintings on the one hand, that were popular, you had another theme, which was disintegration, loss, a world about to be blown away.

Yes, yes. I see what you're getting at. Was I describing my own ... was it autobiographical, a lot of the work? In a sense it is. In a sense there is that feeling of loss, always loss, loss. And to that ... that was also something of the bonding with the Aboriginal people. Loss. A shared loss, you know. However you rationalise loss, loss is loss, you know.

And you identified and empathised with the loss that they were feeling about their culture going?

I think so. I think I did, yes. I think I did. And I think I personalised things through the Aboriginal people to a large extent. For instance, the painting ... it's not a painting, it's a big drawing that's in the Art Gallery of Western Australia ... They acquired it only last year. After the war we had people coming here, didn't we, that we called displaced people, from Central Europe. But this is a big flow of Aboriginal figures and I thought, well if anyone was displaced people ... and I call it Displaced People, reverting back to the women and children moving across the landscape. So it's a mixed theme. I think we're getting into some rather sort of quicksandy areas here, Robin, that I don't know that I like.

[end of tape]

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