My father’s art works were brought out to be catalogued by Rosalind Hollinrake. They lined the walls of the hallway 6 deep and a great excitement set in as an exhibition took shape. Rosalind, a published author most notably for a biography of artist Clarice A’Beckett, was an old acquaintance who lived up the way from our home in Wattle Valley Road in Canterbury. A chance meeting with my mother at the Camberwell market led to the suggestion of an oral history being recorded. The original idea had been to mount a show with the possibility of having it tour the regional galleries in Victoria.
Unfortunately, time was short, a lot shorter than any of us anticipated. Having been diagnosed with advanced cancer of the oesophagus in December 1986, my father’s condition rapidly deteriorated. His oesophagus opening had narrowed to the size of a pin and he would have perished of dehydration within weeks if it had not been for medical intervention. He had been having difficulty swallowing for over a year, a condition wrongly diagnosed as associated with a hiatus hernia he had suffered in the late 1960’s. Now he began laser treatment, at that time a relatively new and experimental procedure, designed to burn away the tumour to relieve symptoms associated with the blockage. There was a proliferation of ‘how to conquer cancer’ readings in the house, in particular a book by Ian Gawler, a man who had managed to defeat his illness having been given the prognosis of weeks to live. This in turn led to a benign belief in the power of self-healing. One evening I watched him stand at the edge of the veranda contemplating the view, as if at the edge of one life looking back upon something he had created and yet had never afforded himself the time to appreciate. The ingraining of the work ethic had been so complete that even in his last days he described himself as semi retired and an artist at the beginning of his most exciting period.
My father had always had a spiritual quality despite his atheist leanings. He would muse about parallel lives where he had returned to a travelling life rather than stopping to nest. My mother recalled how he had announced, ‘No ghosts in here’, when first stepping foot in our Canterbury home. Over the dinner table, he would revel in stories of spectres in the sunken gardens of the Abbey, an Artist’s colony in New Barnett, where he had lived in 1947 in a war torn north London. His old scrapbook would be brought out to illustrate the anecdotes, filled with newspaper cuttings and snap shots of a young man brimming with promise in front of unfamiliar canvases.
With moist-eyed remembrance, he brought back to life the characters and places he had been as a young man over a glass of bubbly, thimble size for the youngest. Then in his final months, he embraced meditation and described in detail, moments of elevated insight and the experience of cradling his very soul. Despite this journey toward healing, on the bedroom wall was a late woodblock print, a dead bird windswept by a north blow reminding me the storm might not have passed. He died on April 15th 1987 having been originally given a prognosis of up to a year to live. The catalogue had to be finished without him, and the exhibition became a memorial, hung to coincide with what would have been his 62nd birthday.