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 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.
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.
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.