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.

Author: crowcries

Euan Benjamin Graham I decided to become an artist when I was 14 years old in 1987. I have pursued my vocation with dedication and a complete single mindedness. Pictures are like people, they have their own life. I have embraced the streets recently as a venue because pictures need a lover, and artists become intolerably frustrated without an audience.

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