Christine France

Donald Friend: Merioola and Friends

Christine France

Place was always important to Donald Friend; his art and his writings are formed by it. Place was also a problem; one side of him sought the stimulation of urbanisation, a stage for his satirical wit, his eloquent stories, his need to be outrageous, to entertain and be entertained. The other side craved a life of Rousseau-like simplicity in which he could feel in touch with the basic rhythm of life and simply get on with his work.

In January 1946, just prior to his demobilisation as official war artist, Donald took a room in a Sydney boarding house called Merioola. In postwar Sydney, Merioola was probably the most exciting place for a young artist to live. A Victorian mansion situated in Rosemont Avenue, Woollahra, it had known grand days and, as the house of Arthur Wigram Allen, had even hosted a ball in a specially built ballroom for the Prince of Wales in 1920. It had become a boarding house when in 1941 Arthur Wigram Allen died and his family decided to lease the house to Chica Lowe. Melbourne born Chica was an exceptional character; she had already run several boarding houses, she was interested in the arts and liked to have interesting people as tenants. Her warmth, generosity and ability to amuse, as well as her maxim that the house should be run for the convenience of the tenants not the landlady, attracted artists. But part of the success of Merioola also came about from her belief that it was bad for artists to live in isolation. Consequently her tenants included dancers Alison Lee, Darya Collin, Beatrice Vitringer and Edmee Monod, author and historian Hector Bolitho, architect George Beirs, mathematician and astronomer John Sidgewick, musicians John and Norma Bannenberg, students, teachers, office workers and others.

Those connected with the visual arts were Loudon Sainthill, later to become one of the most prominent theatre designers of the twentieth century, Harry Tatlock Miller, writer critic and curator and subsequently the director of the Redfern Galleries, London, sculptor Arthur Fleischmann, artist and costume designer Edgar Ritchard, photographer Alec Murray, painters Justin O’Brien, Peter Kaiser, Roland Strasser and Mary Edwards, artist and later noted costume designer Jocelyn Rickards.

Fleischmann, Strasser and Peter Kaiser were all European born. Fleischmann had studied medicine in Budapest, art in Vienna and had worked in both South Africa and Bali. Strasser, who was not only a painter but also the author of The Mongolian Horde, had lived and worked in Tibet, Mongolia and Bali while Berlin born Peter Kaiser had been visiting London at the time war broke out. He was interned and then sent to Australia on the infamous Dunera. Most of the Australians had also lived and worked abroad. Edgar Ritchard had studied in London under Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland and at the Slade under Henry Tonks before commencing a successful career designing for the theatre. Loudon Sainthill had worked and travelled to Europe with the Colonel de Basil Russian Ballet Company while Harry Tatlock Miller had organised the 1940 British Council Exhibition of Art for Theatre and Ballet. Chica had lived in London in a house where she rented rooms to Loudon and Harry. Donald Friend had been a student at Westminster School, London before spending two years in West Africa. Justin O’Brien had just returned from four years in a prisoner of war camp in Poland. Alec Murray had served with the RN and Mary Edwards (who because of her involvement in the Archibald Case was not especially popular), had studied in Paris and lived extensively in Java, New Caledonia, Fiji and Tahiti.

One of the things Donald would have enjoyed most about Merioola was the breadth of experience that it encompassed.

Merioola contradicts Robert Hughes’ claim that neo-romanticism became prominent among postwar Sydney painters because so few of them had travelled and were anxious to experience something of European culture before it totally disappeared [1] .

Although there was no common style at Merioola, it could be said that its artists were more interested in art as a poetic expression of the spirit and less interested in art as a progressive force. Most of them had spent long years in the services or been displaced. They were anxious to get on with their lives and distance themselves from the war. This they did by showing a predisposition for style and an interest in art history, the stage, literature and the cultures of non-industrialised countries. In this they were very different from the more politicised Melbourne painters.

The early postwar years at Merioola were exuberant, as Justin O’Brien remarked: ‘I have never laughed so much, not at people, but with people.’ [2] Alec Murray saw it as an idealistic time in which all benefited from the freedom of thought and action, but in a way it was a bit like living in a houseful of hopeful children. [3]

In Geoffrey Dutton’s book, The Innovators, Donald Friend commented:

Melbourne during the war and after the war went in quite heavily for social realism, which is a kind of expression of resentment against being poor and other people being poor. Sydney artists were poor. They enjoyed themselves in their attics. They were drinking plonk and eating crusts of bread … the usual thing … We didn’t think of resenting it. We had a bloody marvellous time and we did all sorts of interesting things. Sydney extroverted sort of things—plenty of laughter and plenty of laughter in the paintings [4] .

Certainly there was laughter in Donald’s paintings around this period. There was nothing he loved more than to send up the pretensions or idiocy that he saw around him. Both Art Critic Tilting 1948 and Apotheosis of Ned Kelly 1946 are vehicles for his mordant wit. Like other Sydney artists of the time he distances the work with stylistic art history, references to Bosch and Breughel and his use of gold leaf. He was, however, aware of the differences between cleverness and art when in his diaries he compares the Ned Kelly painting with a work by Drysdale. The former, he complains, is just a pleasantly painted giggle [5] .

Whether Donald was ever really poor is also questionable, as Jeffrey Smart relates: ‘Donald did not care for creature comforts. He slept in many an uncomfortable bed and could live very simply yet he was always concerned about money.’ [6] Margaret Olley recalls his interest in the financial section of the newspaper and his hosting an extravagant dinner at Princes restaurant after her first solo exhibition. [7]

At Merioola Donald Friend had a large room on the left of the entry hall. He habitually dressed in a wide leather belt accentuating his slim waistline, and decorated his room with sculpture and masks he had collected in Africa. A portable gramophone player played his extensive collection of jazz.

In contrast, Alec Murray’s photographs show Harry Tatlock Miller and Loudon Sainthill’s room as painted dark brown and decorated with plaster casts and muslin dipped in plaster of Paris to form drapery around the fireplace. The music was Beethoven and Loudon is clad in an elegant dressing gown à la Noel Coward.

Donald always grabbed life to the full and one of the things that exhausted him was the endless round of parties in postwar Sydney. His best friends Tas and Bon Drysdale gave legendary parties at their house in Rose Bay, and Merioola was always full of visitors; both local and overseas artists would call in. Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger, David Strachan, William Dobell, Margaret Olley, Francis Lymburner, Lyndon Dadswell, as well as the Drysdales, were all regulars. American war artist Edgar Kaufmann and Neil McEacharn were not only friends but, like other visitors, patrons. Visiting performers such as the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik, the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau and members of the Old Vic. Company were thrown large parties in the ballroom.

The mix of creative people at Merioola often led to interdisciplinary activity. The dancers would pose for Fleischmann and the artists made sets for theatrical activities, while Harry Tatlock Miller, Loudon Sainthill and Alec Murray combined efforts as editor, designer and photographer for Ballet Rambert and Old Vic. programs.

Although Donald does not seem to have been involved in much of this, he did become wildly infatuated with a young art student, Colin, who was working as an apprentice to Fleischmann. Colin occupies much of Donald’s thoughts and is also the subject of numerous works of art at this time. As Jeffrey Smart has written: ‘Donald inevitably fell in love with really unsuitable, quite unavailable people.’ [8] Sick of parties and disappointed at Colin’s rejection, Donald retreated to the Torres Strait Islands at the end of 1946, letting his room at Merioola to his mother and sister Gwen. After several months he craved the mental stimulation of the city and returned to Merioola where he found his life a bit inhibited, as his mother had decided she also liked living in the house and had taken a more permanent room.

Apart from Colin, those closest to Donald were probably Peter Kaiser and Justin O’Brien. Kaiser was a serious painter and often related how much he enjoyed talking about art to Donald. [9] Donald does not seem to have been much influenced by Kaiser’s art, although they both display an interest in Braque at this time. It was possibly at Friend’s suggestion that Kaiser visited the Torres Strait Islands and did a number of paintings, which were exhibited in the Merioola group exhibition in both Sydney and Melbourne in 1947. In March 1949, Kaiser and Friend travelled together to Italy aboard the Toscana. Like most Merioola artists, Kaiser made his home outside Australia and settled in France.

Both gregarious Donald Friend and Justin O’Brien got on well, yet their temperamental differences could leave them both exasperated. Whilst at Merioola, Donald thought highly of Justin’s work and in May 1946 wrote in his diaries: ‘Justin’s work is religious in subject and feeling. I am sure that I am witnessing the beginning of an important art.’ [10] Both artists made the male figure an important part of their subject matter and both made stylistic references to art history.

In Donald’s case his appropriation of previous art styles was usually related to satire, while O’Brien used it to express the spiritual. In their renderings of the male figure, Donald’s sensual line contrasts greatly with the stylised idealism of O’Brien. Donald’s working methods were fast; drawing and watercolours suited him best. O’Brien’s methods were slow and painstaking. In 1967 Brian Dunlop shared a house in Skyros, Greece with O’Brien and Friend, and he relates:

It was a small house on the sand behind the main beach with a room each. Apart from the bed there was only a table and a chair in each room. They opened onto a simple terrace as well as the kitchen. We worked most days, Donald in a frenzy of activity, especially in the mornings he could be heard grunting and scraping. About midday he often emerged looking rather like a hen that had just laid an egg and would put his drawing on the table.

Justin’s temperament was altogether different. He worked steadily and methodically, like a monk working on an illuminated manuscript. I think Donald found that a little disconcerting, particularly as he was in an unsettled state of mind just prior to going to live in Bali. His work was affected too, and he even developed a psychosomatic stiffness in his left elbow.

He loved to be the raconteur, telling his often remarkable stories but to the extent that he would often leave Justin and I to cope with the boring chores, this eventually got Justin down to the point of telling Donald off about it. [11]

Donald Friend’s time at Merioola was important for the mental stimulation, excitement and freedoms it offered after the restrictions of army life. A great observer, he initially enjoyed the mix of people until the social intensity of the situation became boring and repetitive. Although the group all eventually left Australia, Donald maintained contact with many of them. In 1957 he exhibited at the Redfern Galleries, London managed by Harry Tatlock Miller. In 1967 he stayed with Justin O’Brien in Greece and in 1972 with Peter Kaiser in France. Many of the people he met in his Merioola years visited him in Hill End or later became his patrons.

Like other Merioola artists, Donald’s art was always concerned with the figure and its placement but, apart from his use of past styles, his work was not really influenced by the other artists. The now lost manuscript Unhappy Animals, which satirised Sydney society, was probably a direct product of his years at Merioola. Stories of the Merioola murder and Chica thickening up a rather skimpy soup with pieces of cardboard remained in his repertoire until his last days. As Jeff Smart comments:

Donald could never work out a suitable lifestyle he was either lotus eating, lonely or surrounded by too many people. [12]

[1]     Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia. Ringwood, Australia: Penguin Books, 1970, p.17.

[2]     Justin O’Brien, correspondence to the author, May 1986.

[3]     Alex Murray, correspondence to the author, May 1986.

[4]     Geoffrey Dutton, The Innovators. The Macmillan Company of Australia, 1986, pp.99–100.

[5]     Donald Friend quoted in Barry Pearce, Donald Friend 1915–1987: Retrospective. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1990, p.57.

[6]     Jeffrey Smart correspondence to the author, 8 January, 2001.

[7]     Margaret Olley, interview with the author, Sydney, 7 January, 2001.

[8]     Jeffrey Smart, correspondence to the author, 8 January, 2001.

[9]     Peter Kaiser interview with the author, Tourettes sur Loupe, France, October 1985.

[10]    Donald Friend diaries, April 1946.

[11]    Brian Dunlop, correspondence to the author, 26 November, 2000.

[12]    Jeffrey Smart correspondence to the author, 8 January, 2001.

Back to the top