Camera man at Canterbury

Camera man at Canterbury. The video of the segment that was aired on SBS and expanded interviews is currently missing.
Camera man at Canterbury. The video of the segment that was aired on SBS and expanded interviews is currently missing.

A team from SBS also came to our house to shoot a small piece shortly after the article had appeared. It was a dull, stormy afternoon, and familiar surroundings were again transformed for a time, filled with the alien after shave of the presenter and his small crew. The dining room became an interview studio, a red spotlight no longer a domestic prop to illuminate a fish tank. At one point, the man conducting the interviews turned to me asking ‘What about you?’. I grinned stupidly for a second then bashfully responded in the negative, believing he was asking me to sit in front of the camera, and served with an equally perplexed smile, I then felt foolish as it was just a question to see if I too was following the creative path. The next week the whole family watched, transfixed in the study, as the melancholic Eric Satie piano theme introduced our segment. Even the Carey’s from next door came over for the occasion, people we had barely seen in years – Five minutes that definitely felt like fifteen.

I remember Jan remarking later that she regretted making the bold assertion that Peter Graham would be on the Acquisition lists in two years. She said this only provoked a shrinking away and closing of ranks from certain influential corners of the art establishment. First there was the realisation that there was this larger art world, of which my father was now a part. Then came an understanding that this world was an exclusive club and recognition and acceptance was reserved for only a select few. For the rest it remained the seemingly unattainable Mecca of success. At the time I didn’t understand what ‘success’ for an artist meant. For me success was as much about discovering a second face in profile in a painting on my bedroom wall; or admiring the skilful rendering of eyes in a self portrait that followed you down the stairs, as it was about recognition from the great-unknown world. But as Jan always insisted, the vast majority of Peter Graham works she sold, remained in the possession of the original buyers, and had not re-entered the larger market place. In her eyes this was testament to their true value. They had become an indispensible part of the lives of the people who had bought them.

Front room of the memorial exhibition at the Lyttleton Gallery in Castlemaine
Front room of the memorial exhibition at the Lyttleton Gallery in Castlemaine

On the occasions when my father spoke to me, not as a child, but as a young man, I would be filled with such bigness inside that I could feel myself swell with the newly afforded status. He asked me once in a rhetorical sense, what I would think if he became famous. This is something that had plagued him his whole life. Having tasted success exhibiting as a young man, his appetite and the expectation was established. Then when the first blush of promise was not fulfilled, disillusionment set in. In many ways it was this sense of isolation that drove him to seek an unconventional path to artistic accomplishment. But the need for recognition only hardened and even in his final months, he spoke about dying of a broken heart, so close to receiving the adulation he craved.

There was a strange interplay however between his sense of self-doubt and a self-belief and enthusiasm that would emerge at the slightest invitation. Paul Cavell who exhibited in my father’s gallery in Queensbury Street in the early 1970’s described a scene, still with a look of bemusement, where he would bring out his paintings, propping them up against those hung around the walls, for anyone that was interested. The building was ideal for his purposes, with two floors – about six squares on each – room for a gallery upstairs supported by a workshop below. And that is how he set it up, transporting a large gravure printing press which he had acquired a few years before, on which he hoped to produce fine quality art reproductions while supplying litho plates and colour transparencies and half-tone negatives to the commercial printing trade, to make a crust. My memories of this place are rather dim, but still feel significant – the process camera looming out of a dark room like a great metal dragon and toilets that could be found only after rummaging through volumes of hanging Hessian.

Peter Graham
Peter Graham

Significantly, he became involved with the Victorian Print Group under the leadership of Noela Hjorth in these years. This group was the inspiration behind the establishment of the Print Workshop which would have public access for artists and students, plate-grinding services, and exhibition facilities. The idea was to seek to be incorporated with the newly established Meat Market Craft facility. My father was asked to serve on the Interim Committee of the Meat Market body in the absence overseas of Noel Counihan and during that time, he prepared a submission for a grant from the Australia Council to fund the new Print Workshop. Though this was not successful, government eventually saw the necessity for such a workshop and today, it has its own premises in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy and is a prestigious establishment producing prints from the work of Australia’s most prominent artists.

My father worked extremely hard at the Queensberry Street premises to establish an artistic identity and was a trailblazer in the artist-run gallery initiative. But at the end of the day he was still left doggedly running his litho workshop in an increasingly hard commercial environment and though he built up a store of good will from other artists, teachers and trade representatives, the business began to falter, the lease ran out and he decided to quit and work from home.

Memorial Exhibition

Memorial exhibition held at the Lyttleton Gallery in Castlemaine, Victoria in June 1987
Memorial exhibition held at the Lyttleton Gallery in Castlemaine, Victoria in June 1987

The next December, Douglass Green and Paul Cavell, artist friends who had moved with their families from Melbourne to live in Castlemaine, suggested my father contact Jan Martin, an art dealer and appraiser who immediately came to our Canterbury home to meet him. She described feeling terribly impressed by his presentation of a life’s work in images, many of which had never been seen before. He was very nervous about the encounter and brought each piece out in an order that was carefully considered. Jan later described her first impressions as seeing him as a bit of a Lair. My father had pulled out all the stops for that occasion, knowing intuitively that it was his last chance to shift his art into a more public arena. He had kept it very close to his chest for so many years and harboured a fear of being in some way pigeon-holed despite often expressing the frustration of being his own collector. Upon the sensible reassurance that Jan was the right person, he had agreed to the meeting. Jan did not get to see him again and her next visit was in the following May, with Rosalind to select the images making up the memorial exhibition, held at her own Gallery in Castlemaine.

Jan Martin, Philip Graham and Rosalind Hollinrake choosing pictures for the memorial exhibition
Jan Martin, Philip Graham and Rosalind Hollinrake choosing pictures for the memorial exhibition

Jan was a thoughtful person, sparing with words in a way which obliged one to fill in the gaps left by a pregnant pause. Her belief in my father’s work never faltered over the next 20 years, which contributed greatly to our ability to ‘keep the faith’, despite many setbacks along the way. But it was that first exhibition that has remained a seminal experience for me, and a life- changing one.

Before the opening in the Lyttleton Gallery
Before the opening in the Lyttleton Gallery

 

Jan’s gallery in Lyttleton Street Castlemaine had a neat modern feel, with three main exhibition spaces best suited to small intimate viewings. Downstairs, she had a living space from which emanated the smells of hot broth, unfamiliar herbs and dry cat food. Jan had held a viewing for her clients previously and by the day of the official opening, a third of the works on display had already been sold. That afternoon, the small gallery swelled with people, and an excitement was palpable as I struggled to take photographs amongst the sea of heads, arms, feet and faces. Our mother had given my older brother Philip a firm warning not to drink at the opening, but my own indiscretion went unnoticed until a 7th glass of champagne sent me toppling exposing my intoxication. By then the quality of my photography had been reduced to capturing half faces and crooked doorways. I was overwhelmed, and so ushered to a couch in Jan’s den below, where the room swirled around me. I watched a black cat slink along a ledge in pursuit of a willy wag tail, listened intently to the hum of activity above.

The Opening
The Opening

OPENING_001 OPENING_007

After the opening had concluded we walked down Lyttleton Street to a nearby tavern/ family restaurant. Everybody was in a daze, such a high I had not known. Over dinner, conversation was buoyant, however, at some point the tenor changed abruptly. I was only slightly aware of what was happening at the time, but Rosalind, a person I had only ever felt affection for had begun to spin off into some alcoholic vitriol describing my father as a closet drunk and the rest of us as mad, gloating over the spoils while the body was still warm in the grave. The success of the exhibition had taken us by surprise, so much so that my mother requested a suspension of sales, as she felt it was getting out of control. The role that Rosalind had played in sitting with my father in those last months and admiring his art works with devotion and generous attention to detail can never be underestimated. It gave him a deep satisfaction in what he had achieved and a window into how it would reach other people and fulfil the great promise that had always lingered uneasily. It was later revealed to me that Rosalind’s abrupt turn of face was in part due to my mother’s reluctance to continue financing an open ended book project. This in hindsight may have been a strategic disaster, but it simply reflected our vulnerable financial situation having lost the main bread winner of the family.

It felt strange to see pictures that I had lived with, in a domestic situation, all of a sudden line gallery walls and gain admiration from what seemed to me at the time to be thousands of people. A new sense of importance seemed to have floated down and rested uneasily on my slight shoulders. In the face of great loss, this new thing had emerged and in its presence I found comfort and fortitude. Placed in context, it was hardly a touring exhibition of the regional galleries, but it felt larger than life. I had always loved those paintings, they were a part of me, but it was only when they were exhibited that I gained an outside perspective, that they were something of value that needed to be seen, to be shared, to be acknowledged as an important contribution to art history no less. The Castlemaine exhibition received significant attention. After a telephone interview with my mother, John Lahey in his column ‘Lahey at Large’ in The Age, wrote a large piece “Quiet Artists Life Revealed’ which emphasised the unpretentious and secretive nature of the man, and was well beyond our modest expectations at that time.

Scan

The Last Holiday

Phillip Island 1974 Peter Benjamin Graham pen and ink on paper 55 x 37 cm An image of the sandy track which lead the beech.
Phillip Island 1974 Peter Benjamin Graham pen and ink on paper 55 x 37 cm
An image of the sandy track over hung with Banksias and Ti-Tree which lead down to the beech.

There was a vague awareness that something momentous was approaching, beginning in the Christmas break straddling 1985 and 1986. We were once more heading down to Phillip Island, a journey this time heralded as our last holiday as a complete family unit. I took this news with suitably sombre consideration, my siblings were older, and it was my understanding that such a trip would soon no longer be either practicable or desirable. My family had been going down to the Island since the late 60’s, initially pitching a tent on the land owned by Grahame and Inge King, old artist friends of my fathers. It was soon discovered that two houses down was a holiday shack owned by John Swan, another old acquaintance and this modest fibro cement dwelling was to become my family’s regular holiday haunt. As a child, words could not express the momentous thrill of entering the undulating dirt road that was Woodlands Avenue in the area of Silver Leaves, a short walk from the protected beach looking across to French Island on the North side of the Island. The path was over hung at every point by the same tall silver beauty of the banksias and tee-tree that had inspired my father to produce a glorious suite of paintings and drawings in the 1970’s, and importantly became the subject that was to best illustrate his experimental art ideas then known as ‘Notation Painting’. These works were literally a flowering of his creative spirit, where foreshore danced across the waters of Westernport, and light touched the waves revealing sea music that spoke in colliding delineations tangling with filigree clouds in poetic movement across the sky. “Glimpses of the Sea”, one of three larger canvases from this series hung pride of place above the dining table at Canterbury for many years, a work that even my father admitted was aging well. Contained within its blueness were all the feelings I associated with the Island.

"Glimpses of the Sea" 1977 acrylic on canvas 200 x 240 cm
“Glimpses of the Sea” 1977 acrylic on canvas 200 x 240 cm

The summer of that last family holiday seemed to stretch for an eternity the days lingering lazily and emotions ebbing and flowing as if following the pattern of the tide. The rituals that lent structure to our lives were temporarily put aside and everybody seemed to visibly shed layers, leaving them to dry with a salty crust under dappled sunlight. Television was replaced by a pack of cards, dartboard and scrabble; water for hot chocolate; violin practice and homework for a cricket bat and pocket knife. I discovered a new independence, a new desire for exploration amidst the vines and ivy that strangled the under story of the foreshore. At the base of a slight ravine nestled half way between the beach and the Swan’s place, I poked about for an hour or so one morning among the remains of a campfire. It seemed impossibly lush to have been intentionally lit, and among the scraps I recognised an odd ensemble of tinnies, broken venetians, canvas backed chairs with beach stripes mangled into sculptural confusion, a few swollen paper backs and a collection of baby’s plush chew toys with partially melted plastic protrusions. The contrast of these forms against the surrounding glossy green was quite startling and it became a secret place I returned to for solitude over the weeks of the holiday, each time finding a new small treasure to collect.

rRain and Ti-Tree 1975 mixed media on paper
Rain and Ti-Tree 1975 mixed media on paper

Every time we visited the Island we encountered the rains. It wasn’t really a problem, as the little shack was comfortable, and despite the close proximity, everyone seemed to find their own space. My brother Philip spent one morning drawing with white chalk on the glass back door; a web like configuration that he explained was a thematic picture. I watched with puzzlement for some time, and eventually my curiosity about how easily it might rub off got the better of me. I also made some drawings, a fish representing a Toady transformed into a predator trapped in the shallow pools left behind by the receding tide, and a version of the mural above the top bunk that my sister occupied. It was an authentic hippie masterpiece with a central figure with long combed hair obscuring one side of her face and a ball and chain inscribed with free love and peace slogans. Other words and critters surrounded her intoxicated repose and it represented a whole world of discovery and interpretation. Another artwork at the foot of my bunk was made up of a series of colourful drips that had been allowed to find their own course from one end of the board to the other without human intervention apparently.

It didn’t matter that the mattresses were old and the bed springs noisy or that the fly screens had gaps that frequently allowed a hungry mosquito to escape the buzzing mob and take pot shots at limbs pulled out to escape the Furness of the sleeping bag. The mossies could have been the death of me, “because your blood is sweet” my mother explained. Just being there however was intoxication enough to forget the rudimentary nature of the place and its inconveniences. It was a part of its charm and mystery and waking up to the distant rumblings of waves and the languid scrape of slippers on lino was enough to bring a restorative calmness to the family. There was a visitor’s book bearing testament to the significance it held for all the families invited to stay, and it was part of the ritual to read through the entries before adding our own addition at the end of each visit. The house was made up of two main areas separated by curtains; the children’s bedroom with two bunk beds and a large maroon trunk that could have been pulled from a Spanish galleon containing bed linen; and the main room with a small annex with another bunk (for parents), dominated by the dining table and pot belly. I loved running my finger nails along the grooves of the yellow lining of the large table in the middle of the room at which we would happily consume fish ‘n chips washed down with lemonade. The laundry area was like a time capsule, with an antique wringer and a variety of receptacles and lanterns also bearing the shape of antiquity. By the glass windows and door at the back was another trunk designated for games and puzzles that contained a collection of red head match boxes, one for each change in design over preceding decades, and this over looked a bird bath that saw a staggering variety of brightly feathered visitors that always had us diving for the bird ‘book’, for purposes of identification. John’s wife Ailsa Swan was a keen bird watcher and was a prominent figure in nature conservation on the Island.

After a week of beach combing we headed for the Cows golf course, a sprawling few miles of lush green bordered by the traditional sliver grey of the coastal flora. Golf had been a long-standing passion for my father, and he took every opportunity to frequent local courses and instil his keenness in my brother and I, believing it to be of bonding benefit. In my case his enthusiasm definitely rubbed off, but for my brother Phillip, the exercise was carried out with reluctant angst. On the 8th tee, a par 4 with a prominent dog leg, Philip’s drive slew off the side edge striking my father in the chest with a thud that sent a nearby group of water birds sky rocketing. He remained doubled over for at least 15 minutes, but was reflective at how narrowly he had avoided a more serious injury. The shock of it was intense, and I heatedly reprimanded Philip for what had happened, though my father insisted that the fault was his own for not standing behind the line of the ball. The mood was burning through my cheeks, and for those minutes I hated the game, and what had happened. The sound of insects seemed to swell to fever pitch and drown out, or make absurd the sound of my voice dumbly asking, “are you ok”?

The idea of moving to the Island permanently was often mooted that summer. We were full of plans for getting away, for making a clean break in recognition of my father’s failing health. They were dreams that circled, sometimes stopping to perch on a hill to take in the Westernport Panorama, but Canterbury was still our home and the only place I had known as home. After one such conversation, my father read aloud the opening chapters of the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”. The evening unfolded in a manner resembling a classroom at attention. Then suddenly, my father choked reading through a poignant description of a poor child, his voice failed and he burst into tears quickly taking leave into the darkness outside. I could just make out his grey form through the window, the slope of his shoulder adding variation to the skyline in silhouette. I had never seen him cry before leaving me to secretly believe some things and disbelieve others. It was the first time I became aware of the mixture within him of stoic worldliness and this most fragile innocence. When he darkly emerged from the night an hour or so later, the house seemed to shrink in his presence, filled with words left unspoken, everyone tip toeing around the strangely muted living area, the hum of the gas light louder than ever. In the days that followed, my father embarked on a series of line drawings of each member of the family. It was a project undertaken with great seriousness and concentration. He had me pose for photos, my head against a halo of dartboard before commencing the portrait properly.

21 Phillip Isle xmas 1985

Every gesture every crease was placed with recognition of their character building importance. It was evident that these works held a special significance to him, a deeper insight into those in his family, and he was most perturbed when Michaela left early before he had a chance to draw her. I remember him saying that it was the first time he had really looked at us for years. The sadness I could detect in him, the weariness had been replaced by this complete absorption in the task at hand. This was the beginning of his last great artistic effort.

27 Phillip Isle xmas 1985

Euan 1986 pen on paper 60 x 40 cm
Euan 1986 pen on paper 60 x 40 cm