On retiring from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1971, Director Hal Missingham received an extraordinary gift: a bound volume containing contributions from over 200 Australian artists and cultural figures. Join Treasures Curator Nat Williams, Hal’s son Peter Missingham and publisher and curator Lou Klepac to explore this fascinating volume and celebrate the production of the new Beagle Press book Hal Missingham: Artist Author Photographer.
A Treasures Gallery Access Program, supported by National Library Patrons
Image: Russell Drysdale (1912–1981), The Waitress, For Hal., from Fully Bound: Over to Hal Missingham: A Tribute with Love and Affection, 1971, nla.cat-vn4598533
Speaker: Margy Burn (M), Nat Williams (N), Deborah Hart (D), Peter Missingham (P), Lou Klepac (L), Audience (A)
Location: Theatre, National Library of Australia
Date: 19 November 2017
M: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the National Library on a day that’s almost too good to be indoors. Such a lovely spring day. I’m Margy Burn and it’s my pleasure to be the Assistant Director General responsible for Australian Collections at the Library so those collections include all the really good things like pictures, the archival collections of manuscripts and oral history which are very relevant to today’s discussion.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Ngunnawal and Nganbury peoples and thank their elders past and present for caring for the land that we’re now so fortunate to call our home.
We’re grateful to supporters for making this afternoon’s event possible, in particular I thank National Library patron supporters of the Treasures Access Program and also the Australian Governments for supporting the role of the Treasures Curator through Catalyst, the Australian Arts and Culture Fund.
Today we’re exploring the fascinating story behind one of the treasures of our manuscripts collection. When he retired from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1971 as Director Hal Missingham received an extraordinary gift, a bound volume containing contributions from over 200 Australian artists and cultural figures and the National Library is honoured to be the custodians of this volume which has been on display for a long time in the Treasures Gallery upstairs. This afternoon we welcome Hal’s son, Peter, publisher and curator and formerly a senior art gallery administrator, Lou Klepac, and Deborah Hart, head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia. They join the Library’s Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, to reveal the story of this very special volume, Fully Bound.
But to begin please join me in welcoming Nat who’s going to set the scene and give us some context about Fully Bound.
N: Thank you, Margy. This story is of great achievement, of persistence, of vision, of loss but also of continuity. What remains of artist, photographer, author and beloved museum director, Hal Missingham’s voluminous papers is now held in the Manuscripts Collection here at the National Library. Much was lost in his disastrous studio fire in 1986. You can see some survivors here. Our papers chart some key moments in his very productive, long and happy life. We also represent Hal fairly extensively in our oral history collection, being interviewed about his life and art and interviewing other artists about theirs. We hold his portrait photographs of many Australian artists and also portraits of him. We have Hal's production of books which span fishing and cooking, children’s books, exhibition catalogues, books on commercial art, of his photography and of course the beautiful book we are here to celebrate today.
At 65 Hal retired from his lengthy and rather challenging directorship of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As you can see here the entry in his tiny 1971 diary for February – for Friday, 3rd of September reads last day at Gallery, 26 years exactly. Beneath this inscription is staff party in red ink and next to this, hire car. These abbreviated notes say quite a lot about the man who had successfully run the Gallery and dramatically changed its course since his appointment in 1945 and was somebody who as they say didn’t mind a drink. Hal was obviously planning to let his hair down and enjoy a few after more than two-and-a-half decades of fighting New South Wales Government apathy, bureaucracy and unshiftable elderly Gallery trustees. Significantly his memoir to be published two years later was entitled They Kill You in The End, an amusing, surprisingly light-hearted account of life running a cultural enterprise for decades presided over by troublesome trustees and budget wrangles.
Among the perfunctory notes in his pocket diary are frequent comments on the weather. Perfect day, reads an entry a week after his retirement. Unbeknownst to this retiree his entry for Sunday, the 5th, Father’s Day, Wallace, party, Hornsby, Old Man Valley was to be a particularly momentous one. The mysterious blanket-wrapped object unwrapped at the well-attended bush barbeque at Wallace Thornton’s house was a weighty book. The man presenting the hefty gift was his friend, the artist and printer, Rod Shaw. It was entitled Fully Bound, over to Hal Missingham, a tribute with love and affection, 1971, which we know as Fully Bound in the Library.
Within its painted and hessian-wrapped cover boards were assembled 200 works of art, illustrated notes and poems created by artists and admirers all over the country and from overseas. Behind the production of this unique volume which now resides as MS3940 in the Library Manuscripts Collection was a story of passion and of concealment.
It seems that the architects of the tribute volume had been inspired by the publicised example of Willem Sandberg, the respected Director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. On his retirement in July 1962 Sandberg had been presented with nearly 100 works of art as a gift organised by the painter, [Gerla Tasta] 6:23, and the sculptor, [Vessel Kuzen] 6:23, aided by a group of 78 prominent artists such as Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, John [Tengelay] 6:31 and Robert Rauschenberg. After its exhibition the collection was given by Sandberg to the City of Amsterdam and the Stedelijk Museum. Coincidentally Sandberg had also led his museum since 1945, the same year that Missingham commenced in Sydney. The two men shared a number of other similarities, both were energetic optimists, passionate about graphic design and thoroughly understood publishing. They both were left wing in their views and progressively pushed their fusty old museums into new directions.
The ambitious idea of a commemorative gift had been discussed well before Missingham’s retirement by the artist, Ross Morrow, who was inspired by the Dutch precedent, and Stan [de Telliger] 7:17, a fellow art teacher at East Sydney Technical College. The Sandberg idea was apparently dismissed as unpractical by [de Telliger] who knew Hal in his retirement was planning to simplify his life, thin out his art collection and to drive around Australia in his four-wheel drive. Months later as Hal's friends more actively pondered how to commemorate him the novel idea of soliciting works of art evolved into what ultimately became the Fully Bound tribute book, a kind of visual festschrift or perhaps a miniature gallery within a book. The idea took hold but now the protagonists needed to get their skates on as the big day loomed.
Rod Shaw, mentioned earlier, the well-known painter, illustrator, printmaker, publisher and Communist, took on the role of bookbinder. Shaw was a founder in 1945 of SORA, the Studio of Realist Art, a left wing visual arts organisation which Missingham also joined before he became Director of the Gallery. The progressive printing business of Edwards and Shaw was based in Sussex Street, Sydney and had been founded by Shaw with his partner, Dick Edwards, in 1945 and you can see them here. Edwards and Shaw, earlier pre-war imprint, The Barn on The Hill Press had operated briefly from 1939 and they’d published memorable and high-quality art and poetry books by authors such as A D Hope, David Campbell and Geoffrey Dutton. They had a long and very productive relationship with Missingham.
Edwards’ epistle to Missingham, Hal and Farewell, the first literary work in the volume seen here is elegantly set in Eric Gill’s Perpetua font and wishes his friend well. It concludes, on starry waves may Hal, his comet, ride.
The production of Fully Bound was kept secret and greatly aided and abetted by Esther Missingham, Hal's devoted, long-serving and long-lived wife and she’s in the middle here, and Noni Farwell and Maree [de Telliger], left and right, were the other co-conspirators. Noni was a journalist and she and her husband, George, a writer, were old friends of Hal and Esther. Peter does a very good impression of Noni Farwell, you might ask him for it in question time.
Maree worked for the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney and was very close to Hal and married to the painter, ex-curator and rev head, Stan [de Telliger]. Like the Farwells the de Telligers were close friends of Hal and family. The two indefatigable collaborators were also assisted by other supporters including Nora Ort in Perth. Like the Farwells the [de Telligers] were close friends of Hal and the family. The two indefatigable – oh sorry, I’ve repeated myself. The plans were assembled, Fully Bound relied on artists or associates ending a work of art or memorial of some sort to commemorate Hal's life work. Works of art and other contributions were quietly solicited from enthusiastic friends and artists around the country and also overseas. Of course expecting artists to stick to the plan of submitting works of a certain size was possibly a little optimistic. One inclusion in the volume hints at this problem. One inclusion, this one by Bernard Hesling, a British-born painter and cartoonist, clearly he could not find a decent sheet of paper. Instead he submits a cartoon based on the vogue for bodybuilding ads at the time, also satirising himself. As you can see it’s inscribed, more suitable for a retiring bank manager than for a gallery director. Sorry, Bernard. Haven’t any bigger paper.
Pre-emptively Rod Shaw had planned for this eventuality in the compilation of the volume. The perfect binding employed for the book allowed for works of art to be tipped in onto sheets of pre-bound paper. If something arrived which was too large or rigid the existing page could be cut down and the work adhered to the remaining hinge. Shaw’s perfect binding and its white kid leather spine have served the volume well over decades. Fully Bound’s pages have been turned for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Treasures Gallery where the book has been one of the key destination objects in the rich and varied display. Visitors have appreciated the individual treasures on view but they’ve also coveted the book itself, recognising that such an accumulation of valuable works of art, of personal history and a remarkable perspective on Australian art world through the mid-20th century is both unprecedented and significant.
Each of the pages shown over the past six years has been seen only for six months for conservation reasons. All images were sighted next to Nobel Laureate, Patrick White’s beret, glasses and his hanging garden manuscript, and more recently as you can see here, alongside John Olsen’s endlessly inventive collage, diaries and sketchbooks which visually reinterpret and help him memorise the landscape. And John spoke at the launch in Sydney very beautifully about Hal.
The design and layout of Fully Bound deserve a brief description. Years before commencing work on the volume Rod Shaw had found some large Victorian typeface letters at a printer’s and they had apparently appealed to Missingham. Made from wood but damaged they were unusable for much else. Creatively they were pressed into service to colourfully illustrate and augment the book. No doubt seeing the bold red and black-lettered end papers spelling out a subtle dedication for Hal Miss. Says Miss in the beginning and Mip at the end, I don’t know if you can see that. For Hal Mi – so it’s a kind of – I think it was a subtle dedication to Hal and would have made Misso chuckle. The typeface is used on the marked-up jokey title pages too, a homage to Missingham’s early life in the print industry.
The imprint page of Fully Bound displays the following lines. Holy mackerel, up and mucked up in Australia by Edwards and Pshaw. Design and binding, master-bounder, an amusing reference to the printing partnership and Shaw’s leading role in creating the work. Hold on for this one.
To protect the precious collection within Shaw created a simple bespoke slip case which he covered with a red folksy fabric redolent of the palette favoured by designers in the early 1970s. It’s slightly nightmarish, I think.
As the volume came together Shaw became worried about delays in production and as it turned out he was justified as the book was finished only on the day of its presentation to Hal. Shaw tells a story in a recording in the Library’s collection about the last work to arrive. It was contributed to by sculptor, Tom Bass, who created the 1968 monumental copper lintel sculpture straddling the entrance to the Library. The image he passed over to Shaw is based on a rubbing taken from one of his sculptures. It’s dated – you can see it upside down – 5th of September 1971, the day of the handover. There’s a story which I can deal with if you’re interested about that.
Interestingly on the preceding page of Fully Bound is a pen and ink wash drawing by Leonard French who created our much loved stained glass windows here.
The scramble to track down artists and supporters spread widely around both Australia and the globe, was without doubt a challenge but the networks of the dogged project co-ordinators paid dividends. Artists were keen to offer their support for the retiring director, someone who had in many cases helped guide or launch them in their artistic careers.
Missingham was a keen supporter of contemporary art and Brett Whiteley’s contribution to Fully Bound is a clear example of a work of art born out of the artist’s love for the museum director who had championed him and who had acquired his paintings for the gallery. In the Library’s collection is a 1965 recording of Missingham speaking about Whitely in London. He says he looks fantastic, sparks are absolutely flying off him. The warmth effused on the tape towards this young artist by the gallery director is evidence of Missingham’s open-minded attitude and his extraordinary ability to get on with all sorts of people, even a groovy hipster artist in the vortex of London’s swinging ‘60s.
In Fully Bound Whiteley’s witty collage image of [Catachitta] 16:00 or the Olgas is transformed surreally into a celebratory layer cake and his poetic inscription to [Halean’s] 16:12 PS, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
Fully Bound is a who’s who of the Australian art world. Established and now venerated artists can be seen alongside those remembered less kindly. The time capsule resonates with names now familiar to us, Drysdale, Boyd, Nolan, Reece, Williams, Brack, Lanceley, [Koshington]-Smith 16:34, Nora Heysen and Judy Cassab.
London-based painter, Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd contributed works for Hal via Alana Coleman, the Australian artist and art dealer who took up residence there in 1950 and promoted Antipodean painters. Coleman was another of the project’s coordinators hidden behind the scenes. She sent a collage of watercolour and printed images which you can see here of Canterbury Cathedral focusing on the exquisite bell tower and its remarkable fan-vaulted ceiling dated 9th of August 1971. Less than a month out from the handover to Hal, Coleman’s work suggests the tight production timeline and challenges to get items from across the world.
Sydney Nolan’s work is one of the first in the volume and part of his Paradise Gardens series created in London between 1968 and 1970. More than 900 panels of this series can be seen in the St Kilda Road foyer of the Arts Centre in Melbourne. The images were inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Cantata, Rejoice in The Lamb, written in 1943 and were named by another Australian art museum director, Eric Westbrook, after he saw them in 1970.
Arthur Boyd was the other major London-based painter to offer a work for Hal. Unlike Nolan who simply sent a panel from the existing body of work Nolan with pen, ink and wash creates a sketch especially for Hal. He imagines him as a kind of St Francis figure on bended knee being fed by birds. The title, Being Fed on Holiday, seems to refer to Hal's keenness for the outdoor life which Peter Missingham has described so eloquently in this volume we’re launching today.
St Francis, patron saint of animals and of the environment, seems to be a reference to Hal's pleasure in and passion for the landscape and voyaging through it. Boyd knew Hal was soon to embark on a huge solitary drive through the outback with Blue, his new cattle dog puppy. Perhaps also like St Francis who was a bit of a carouser in his youth, Boyd is gently observing Hal's fondness for a glass of wine.
Fully Bound is of course much more than a treasury of art, it is a gateway into amusing and often singular stories about a remarkable man and his world. This world now recedes quickly before us but it can be richly experienced through the pages of the book and by appreciating its embodied relationships and moments from Australian art history.
Fully Bound is truly much more a book of friends than a gallery. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fully Bound is that it exists at all. The 1986 devastating fire which overran Hal's studio in Darlington destroyed too much of his past and contributed to his demise. However that portion of Hal's archive that had been progressively deposited with the Library from 1970 onwards now maintains continuity with his past. Within that body of letters from his associates and his speech notes, diaries and awards is his remarkable retirement gift, Fully Bound.
Fully Bound was very precious to Hal and Esther but they realised by May 1975 that they had to give it up for safekeeping and thank God they did. Hal graciously and magnanimously donated it to the Library’s manuscript collection where it is now revered in our Treasures Gallery as one of our greatest 20th century treasures.
N: Now I will ask my collaborators to come to the stage, Deborah Hart who’s the head of Australian art from the National Gallery of Australia, come on up. Lou Klepac, curator, author and owner of The Beagle Press and great friend of the National Library, and Peter Missingham, Hal and Esther’s son.
P: Second son.
N: Second son, okay, second son, raconteur as you’re about to hear and bon vivant. That’s what it says on his business card. Thank you.
N: I should have said the images you’re about to see now is just a scrolling through of about 20% of what’s in Fully Bound, it’s some of the more obvious images by artists that you might know so that will scroll through as a backdrop to us talking and you can ask questions about that if you want to.
D: Well thank you very much, Nat, is that working? Can everyone hear me? Well lovely to be here today to celebrate a number of things, as Nat has said the wonderful Fully Bound and also to launch this wonderful book in Canberra, Hal Missingham, Artist, Author, Photographer that has been published by Beagle Press and really shows the devotion that Lou Klepac brings to these publications on Australian art and we’re very fortunate to have that you know to have you in our midst doing all of this. And I think it really opens up who Hal Missingham was you know he made an extraordinary contribution to Australian art but I think that the publishing to date on him has been very much – I think that publication, They Kill You in The End, was what I remember reading and it’s very much Hal's response to the bureaucracy, the struggles of working as a director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
I think this has brought exactly what you were saying, a balance into the picture and certainly what Nat’s brought thorough Fully Bound, that sense of friendship and warmth that comes through in that volume. But I do think that in terms of the book that Hal wrote, They Kill You in The End, there was a bit of truth in this idea that it was a hugely tough battle when he started as Director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1945 and Peter, I wonder if you could start us off by giving us a little sense of maybe what it was like for your dad when he began as the Director? It was a very different kind of gallery to what we see today.
P: Yeah, I mean I was born in ’45 so obviously my story’s a little bit hand-me-down to an extent but the Gallery, it’s well documented by Lou about the terrible state physically it was in and you know the stories that Hal used to talk about, I mean his way of dealing with it was with his good-humoured nature way but just an anecdote to show you, I remember when I was a fairly young kid, you’d go to the gallery and it had no artificial lighting so you couldn’t have a function like this, it was reliant on skylights. Anyway to go the toilets you came in and you turned right and you went to the end of the hall and right at the end of this massive great painting, about 4.5m x 3.5m which was the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon and she was going up these stairs and it was all dark and gilt so you could only see it on a fine day and you went down to the toilets.
As a young kid I was a bit put off because at one end it said ladies and at the other end it said men, it didn’t say gents, it said men so you’d decide – yeah, okay, you’ll go down the men’s side and there’s this fabulous western red cedar balustrade and steps like the opposite direction to the Queen of Sheba going upstairs. You went down into this dark place and then you came out through this tin door at the bottom which was like coming out of a ghost train in the old days you know how they’d burst out into the open and then they’d do a sharp U-turn and go straight back into the dark. And so you’d burst into the open and there was the toilet but it was a tin shed across the yard at the back because the gallery was just a façade, there was nothing there. It just had the – it’s still not completed from the 19th century, there’s bits missing at the top and so on so that was the kind of thing that the gallery was like, I mean it didn’t have ensuite toilets for the director or any of that stuff you know so he did beat his head against all sorts of problems when he got there.
D: Yes and it seems that actually in those early days it was only two people, it was only the Director and his secretary and it took him I think, Lou, five years for him to get a deputy director who was then called - only called an assistant and he also battled to get a conservator on board who was initially called – was allowed to get a job on the basis that he was a handyman and it was several years before he got the title properly instated of conservator. Lou, maybe you’d also like to join in and just tell us a little bit about your understandings of what it was like for Hal in those days.
L: Yes, it’s quite interesting. I sort of – one of the things about the book, I actually wrote a chapter called Art Gallery Directors and State Galleries of the 1950s and ‘60s and – to explain how terrible things were but it was so negative that I left it out of the book. If anyone actually – I might put it up on the internet but I joined the museum world in 1964 and things were still terrible, I mean you know there was no staff or – I mean I was – in the Art Gallery in Western Australia there were three people working, Hal had about three or four people, Daniel Thomas started before me –
D: ’66, yeah.
L: - but I remember when Lyndon Johnson came and this is quite recent times and the Americans came in to see where he was going to be in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and there was just an office which was a boardroom and an office and the Americans said he has to have a toilet, somewhere that he can go to the toilet and the only thing that was actually available for him was Hal’s sink.
P: The hand basin.
L: And the funny thing which is quite interesting was that when he was in there in the Art Gallery of New South Wales Esther, Peter’s mother, was outside protesting against the Americans. It was terrible for a very, very long time, people don’t realise how primitive everything was you know sort of conservation, the sort of – the Director had to know everything, the Director was in charge of bibliographies, it was impossible, really. Nowadays there are too many staff in the museums, I would actually cut them back but it is quite amazing. I can tell you roughly in 1970 – I started in the museum world in 1964 as a professional officer in Perth and this is when Hal came over for a meeting of the art gallery directors’ conference that happened to be in Perth and I was there and I was introduced to Hal and all the other directors and it was actually a very strange state of affairs. Laurie Thomas who had been Director of the Perth Art Gallery and who I met as a student had actually left Perth and gone to Queensland and they all came back roughly for this meeting in a room about you know 3m by 3m. And Laurie Thomas who came from Queensland had been in Perth but he had broken up his family and he was in a terrible state and he came into the gallery, said oh Lou, go and get me some Seven Up razor blades, I really need to have a shave and he was all over the place. I practically shaved him.
The Director from the Adelaide Art Gallery, Robert Campbell, who had been the Director of Perth Art Gallery and then the Director of the Queensland Art Gallery and ended up in the Adelaide Art Gallery came over for this meeting and when he woke up from the hotel he said where I am? What’s going on? And they put him back on a plane back to Adelaide because he was drunk. It was quite a strange set of affairs but there was Missingham, a fantastic character, he’d sort of just done a big retrospective of Dobell and he gave us a lecture on Dobell, he was full of beans. Brenda made a cake for the directors’ you know morning tea, it was a kind of – like a meeting of sort of six people you know who were sort of kind of in charge of little museums. Nowadays you would not believe it, it’s like having sort of the janitors’ meeting somewhere, it was a very primitive state of affairs and yet Hal stuck out – there were two people who stuck out at that time, it was Missingham who was worldly and knew everything and was positive, and Eric Westbrook who was in charge of the National Gallery of Victoria who didn’t bother even to reply to anyone who wrote a letter to him. When Missingham wrote a letter to Eric Westbrook he didn’t get a reply so it was a strange set of affairs and that’s the kind of thing - Missingham inspired the likes of me from day one.
D: Well I think something that’s really interesting is the way that sort of almost against the odds you know Hal – he had had very interesting beginnings, his dad died when he was quite young. There was an illusion that Nat made to in the book that he’d had an involvement really as a very young teenager in the printing industry –
P: Yeah, 16.
D: - which shaped a lot of what he did later on and he then went over to the UK and he trained at the Central School of Art so he – and he’d looked at museums you know so when he became the Director really very much at the instigation of [Sydney Ira-Smith] 30:47 there was already a sense of something that he wanted to achieve you know he didn’t just fall into this complete mess which it kind of was but he – it’s then what he did with it that’s so interesting, I think and he – and among the things that he did was curate – he instigated three retrospectives. There was the retrospective of Russell Drysdale, of William Dobell and then Sidney Nolan.
And Lou, I wonder you know this idea of the friendship with artists. Russell Drysdale or Tas Drysdale as he was known, Tas, Tassie was a very good friend. Can you tell us something about that friendship? And in fact we see up on the screen a drawing of Tas'.
L: Missingham respected the work of contemporary artists and he actually realised how good Russell Drysdale was and they became very good friends and Russell Drysdale had the retrospective which was the beginning of all the retrospectives ever done you know for us in contemporary – in modern times. But then Russell Drysdale was asked to come to be a trustee of the gallery and Missingham said it is a very sad day for me because when you become a trustee that is the end of our friendship but it never was you know Missingham and Russell Drys – remained very great friends. And I’ll go a little bit further because I started at the Art Gallery in ’64 and then I went to Adelaide and then I cleared off forever to live in England and then in ’74 they asked me if I would come back to Perth and I said I will come back if they gave me the job but I wouldn’t apply for it. And when I came there I was the golden boy from London and they said you can do whatever you like and when I arrived back to this – a gallery in Perth which – where I started, they had plan – they were planning to do a very big new building but they only had a director, a deputy director and a secretary. I said - well in 1974 I said a curator of paintings, I want a curator of prints and drawings, I want the registrar, I want an education officer and a I want a photographer and they said you can have anyone you like.
So I said I want Barry Pierce to become curator of paintings, I want Henry [Colimack] 33:12 to become curator of prints and drawings, I want Roderick Anderson to be made registrar, I want [Mount Carter] 33:21 to be made into photographer and then Anna Grey came in as an education officer so we had the most beautiful staff without any interviews or anything, it was like in Stalin’s day. But it was a perfect way because we were very, very happy people. And one of the things was that we were doing exhibitions and one of them was the Russell Drysdale drawings exhibition in 1980 which was the end of several things and it was Missingham who was going to open it at the end you know 1980 and so it was a kind of – 1960 was the retrospective in Sydney, 1980 was the drawings exhibition so 20 years later we all got together and did a wonderful exhibition and everything came to an end. After that we all cleared off to other places but that’s another story.
D: But – yeah, no, that’s really interesting and I think the other thing that was important and Peter, I’d like to bring you in and also Nat if you’d like to but talking about the acquisitions policy because I think Hal had a really hard time you know it’s perhaps hard for us these days to think about Drysdale and Nolan as being the contemporary artists of their day but they were seen as being very radical and in fact I think this is true, that one of my favourite works in Australian art, Nolan’s Pretty Polly Mine, was seen as being so outrageous that Missingham had bought that he had his power of purchase removed.
P: Paltry though it was.
D: Yes, exactly. But you know there’s something about that painting - for those of you who don’t know it, just to say there’s like a little mine in the desert and it’s got this man in a business suit and Pretty Polly, the parrot at the top overscale and yes and so you know there’s something here – I’d like to just dig in a little bit to what kind of man Hal was and Peter you know I think you write very eloquently about your travels with your dad when he had his 10 year – the break after 10 years as Director but I wonder you know it strikes me with that work that his own father working in mining and you know the desert of Western Australia, how much that early impact of his dad and who his dad was might have had an effect on him and who he became?
P: Well I think with Hal, I mean he learnt - I’m sure a lot of his behaviours were just self-discipline, incredibly self-disciplined but also he learnt from – that’s what he did, he learnt as he went but there’s an obituary written about his father and you could bas – who got killed in a mining accident when Hal was 14 – you could basically write Hal's name in that obituary, it’s the same person, this incredible energy, this – well when you’re a teenager this rather sickening energy early in the morning you know when you want to sleep in ‘til midday, Hal would have been up since 4am and he would have written 20 letters in the days of email – not email and he would have been to the post office and he’d posted those and he would have had breakfast and at 8:00 he’d be ready to go. Well you’d be going oh no, you know? So he did have that incredible discipline, incredible energy. He did truly believe whether you were the cleaner or whether you were an artist or whether you were a politician you know if you worked hard at what you did and you were well intentioned then he took you at that level you know that was it for Hal.
He also had a very cheeky, irascible sense of humour you know which – he – all through his photographic career he’s constantly referring back to this whole Australian thing about women in one end and men in another or one end’s got ladies or one end’s got women at the women’s toilets but when you go ‘round the – at a country race meeting for example in Broome, they used to put up this fabulous pristine white painted edifice all – and it had – one end it had lady members only and at the other end it had women, I think and of course when you went around the side of the [bus] 37:42 it was exactly the same inside so he loved all that double entendre thing and he loved all the idiosyncratic things that he came – but you refer – sorry, just so we have it on the record, going to your latest point I think first to the illusion to the book coming into the possession of the Library, one of Hal's latest projects was going to be this book Like A Bowerbird because he knew his own propensity to gather this stuff up and that’s why most of it was lost ‘cause it was sitting in his studio when it burnt down. So he was going to call this book Like a Bowerbird, he had everything from his first ticket that he got on a bus in London in 1926 or something, Lou, whenever he went there right through you know letters from - incredible people corresponded with him. But Esther prevailed on him, it was Esther that got on his case. I mean she put up with him for so many years anyway he did dedicate –
L: Put up?
P: Yeah. He did dedicate They Kill You in The End to his wife, he said, and all those early secretaries, they had to put up with him but he – she prevailed on him, partly ‘cause she’d get nervous about you can’t have this book and anyway it’s not ours, it’s a legacy. So if it weren’t for Esther it would have been incinerated along with the rest so she really was –
L: Can I bring in something? One point. You know when I said this wonderful staff in Perth at the Art Gallery, when Hal left Sydney he came to live in Perth at the same time roughly as we set up the – this new Art Gallery staff and so he actually became the – a trustee as it were to this staff so that we actually worked with Hal who gave us advice so he was our kind of a – so he hadn’t finished with the art gallery world, he became sort of a trustee to this little bundle of people who looked up to him forever. And that was a wonderful thing that we sort of – continuity from – he had to retire at 65 –
P: Yes, it was obligatory.
L: - but he did retire – when he came to Perth – it was in Darlington, he came down and he was always with us, always with us.
D: I mean it’s extraordinary when you think that he was the Director of Art Gallery of New South Wales for 26 years so that’s not a bad innings and you know just to backtrack again to a few of those achievements, I remember when I was writing a book on John Olsen that how much some of those exhibitions that Hal brought over, not just you know important Australian exhibitions but things like the French painting exhibition of 1953 you know which was really – would have been seen as quite a radical exhibition at the time and made a huge impact on artists. Sorry, Nat, you were going to say something.
N: Is this working? Yes. I was just going to hold this line here. It’s an interesting one, it looks pretty – if anyone knows the artist, Tony Tuckson, who was the Deputy Director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales with Hal for a long time, he does this and it’s a homage to Hal so what you can see here is all the various exhibitions, travelling exhibitions, contemporary French painting, contemporary Japanese painting, young Australian painters, the Nolan retrospective, the Dobell re - they’re all there and what I found extraordinary, and I hadn’t noticed this when I’d looked at the book because it’s been in the Treasures Gallery, it’s not easily able to be looked at, what I hadn’t noticed until I was writing the essay for the book was this, J A Tuckson, this tiny, tiny little self-acknowledgment of the work of art in this collage and it – I think it says a lot about Tony Tuckson who really wasn’t known as an artist.
L: Can I –
D: Yeah, jump in.
L: The reason why – I actually felt that the book ought to be done because Hal was a great friend and people had forgotten him and so on and I went to see the Director of the Art Gallery last October a year ago and I said to him I think he’s been forgotten, let’s do something, please do something about him. And he said to me – we were sitting in Double Bay and he said can you think of some event that we could base it on? Have a dinner or something like that. I said I’ll think about it. By the time I got home I realised that 2017 which is next year was exactly 50 years since the retrospective on Nolan and it was also Nolan’s centenary so I said we’ll do it as a memory of the retrospective on Nolan.
L: And then he said that’s a good idea, I said by that time I’ll have a book out on him as well.
D: Yes, fantastic.
L: And the book came out of that idea of doing something for Hal. And then this man came to the rescue because a book on Hal Missingham is impossible over financial restraints and so on but the book as I said before, it’s Peter Missingham who is responsible for the book, I’ve just put a few things together.
P: It’s Lou’s unflinching dedication that’s responsible.
D: Well I can say as somebody looking in at it from the outside that I think you're all you know you’ve certainly all contributed to this and that’s what makes it a very rich publication. And I think it’s interesting bringing up Tuckson for example because Tuckson was another person who worked in the art gallery world but was also an artist although most people didn’t know it until very late in his life. And one of the things that I think you do in the book, Lou, and Peter and Nat you know I think you all bring out the different aspects of Hal including his work as an artist and I wonder you know whether any of you would like to jump in and talk about his artistic practice and the range of that?
L: Well he had a fantastic – he was left-handed and left-handed people, I don’t know why, they seem to be very good draftsmen you know sort of – if you look back at the history of great draftsmen almost every great draftsman is left-handed, I don’t know why. It must be to do with the two different brains. But he was fantastic you know he could do fabulous things and nothing gave me more pleasure than to see Missingham sign his name, I just love him you know doing his – and it’s such a wonderful thing and when I see the signature anywhere my heart jumps up and he comes up you know almost when – it’s like doing a magic bottle and the genie comes out. When I see his signature I can see Hal coming alive in front of me. He was a fantastic draftsman but he didn’t actually get much time to do it.
N: No, I think he you know when I saw – I’ve never seen a lot of Hal Missingham’s watercolours and they’re beautiful, really lovely. They’re in the book, you can see them, Peter has some and I saw them at his house when I went up to record some interviews with Peter and I was very taken by them and I think they’re marvellous things and - but also his photography which he’s probably better known for. I mean the tragedy is in a sense that like Tony Tuckson, if you’re a practitioner and an administrator the administration in the arts takes over because there’s enough you know time and funds to allow you to do it. So basically Hal's double disaster other than being the Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for 26 years – much to his credit – was that he lost so much when that studio fire happened in 1986, that you know it really wiped out his whole photographic archive, lots of works of paper, lots of things that he cherished dearly and correspondence and things so that’s a sad –
P: Well the beauty of modern digital is that all his photographic books that he did and Lou, we rescued one that was going to be another one of his last projects which is a thing called Beach Magic and there are these fabulous shots of anything to do with the be – detritus washed up, rock pools, sand-blasted – wind-blasted sandstone. He got them blown up in one of those big old Cibachrome things, big like that but they were terribly expensive and Lou’s son does a lot of the production side and is absolute wizard on digital and he can take one of those photographs and basically make it better than the original used to be. So – but the other thing about Hal was he used to catch the ferry to work every day so he was constantly – had two hours every day to draw which he used to do on the way to the ferry but then he got a car and you know drove to the Art Gallery and so on so – and the vicissitudes of the job meant that he just didn’t have the time to devote to his practice which all you know artists have got to be at it all the time, don’t they?
N: They do. Just looking at this image behind us which I’ve held there for a moment, is – the surprising number – when you look at the 200 images in Fully Bound there’s a surprising number of dunny jokes –
P: He liked to photograph dunnies, yeah.
N: - ladies.
P: Ladies and gents and –
N: In different forms of dress and undress.
N: And those two things stand out quite strongly you know that he was – ladies loved Hal.
P: Well he was an artist.
N: And he was an artist, yeah.
P: He appreciated nice form, you know?
N: And there’s also a couple of interesting – and I'm not sure if the next slide will reveal this. No, that’s <inaudible> 47:14. There is a slide that you’ll see coming up which is basically Rudy Komon, the famous art dealer who was an extraordinary character, a great friend of Hal's, great dealer.
P: Bon vivant.
N: Great bon vivant, had his own winery and his contribution – and I might just jump forward to it and see where it – and we can go back to – there it is. Here’s a bottle of wine splashed on the page.
P: Raw shark –
N: Exactly, that’s exactly what it is and then he inscribed it saying Dear Hal, you’ll no doubt be able to pick up which vintage this is when you sniff the page.
P: He did like a drink. Just to go quickly back on the – you had Emile Mercier there, was a cartoonist, very well practised but he got a job in about 1945, the end of the war, with The Sun newspaper which was the evening tabloid and every day he had a cartoon in it. And he was a wry kind of slightly acerbic - and he just commented on day-to-day pretty ordinary things so – and he had all these mad little things that he’d have like the whole of Sydney’s streets were all on springs underneath you know there was nothing solid underneath which I think we all know there’s nothing solid under there now, it’s all tunnels and things but he thought this was terrifically funny and he loved things – being a Frenchman he loved the word – there was no such thing in the Australian vocabulary as a sauce, everything was gravy and he’d have old cans of you know opened in the old rough way lying on the side of the gutter and it had gravy tra – and then – but all his trams so if he had to draw a tram in his pictures, mad Emile Mercier – he was always having a go at the French language versus English and on the top of the tram he was fascinated, always said Bondi J-c-t-n.
P: So it didn’t make a lot of – he didn’t understand it so all his trams had a thing – they were all going to Shrdlu Junction so – which is S-h-r-d-l-u. Now that is an old compositor’s joke going back long before people knew qwerty and electronic type, it’s six letters, the first six letters were A, whatever it was, down like that. The second six letters were s-h-r-d-l-u because they were the 12 most used letters in the alphabet and a compositor sat there and had to just lay his hands on them like a typist so he had to know exactly where they were. So nobody got this Shrdlu Junction but Hal knew immediately what it was so he loved that minutiae you know people who had that really close up eye for detail.
L: Can I tell you the story of how the book came about? Which is quite interesting. When we were in Perth I said to Hal, They Kill You in The End is actually not good enough because it tells you all the problems you had but it doesn’t tell you your enthusiasm for life and art and everything else. I said I want you to write another book. He said I'm too busy writing you know sort of taking photographs, going around and so on and then he had a problem, had a detached retina and he had to be in a room doing nothing. He said I’ll write the book and it’s going to be called As One Door Closes. I said great so he typed away, wrote his thing and then he came to me, said here it is and it’s – and said I’m now much better, that’s it, I’m not writing anymore. So I’ve been sitting on this since 1985 knowing what to do with it, you see? And I thought I’ll build a book around it so that’s – that chapter in there – but that chapter is based on the fact that he – when he came to Perth he had all his boxes with all his tickets – he never threw anything away – theatre programs, everything else and he sat down and he got some sheets of cardboard and he stuck down everything in chronological order and the essay that he wrote you know the beginning of the book came by him looking at this. And then Diane Dunbar came along and he actually – she interviewed him and he actually went through all these pieces of paper, everything about his life was actually laid out page after page.
L: And that’s what the fire destroyed. And that’s what destroyed him but we have the interviews with Diane Dunbar which are in the National Library based on that otherwise we’d be completely at a loss.
D: Yeah and I think that personal connection and that handing over of the story is something that really comes through beautifully in this book, is Hal's own voice and I think that is an achievement given that you know when you were doing this book but also there’s an incredibly useful timeline at the back of the book that give – is filled with heaps of information. And I think just to round a few things off because we want to open up to questions but you know one of the things that really struck me reading that material and trying to kind of get a feeling for Hal's voice was this sense of making do that came from his very early years you know and hearing of his you know going to London and – and I mean just having no money like he and his mate, Jamie, going and buying wood and making beds with no mattresses and travelling to France and literally the amount of walking they did and you know when you read it - and his persistence at the Central School of Art and his work in typography and you know so that I really think by the time he comes to do his work you know here’s this beautiful page you know he is really well suited to sort of standing out with his trials and tribulations that he had to face.
P: There was a terribly practical side to Hal as well and you know like he could turn you know he was very inventive and I cover a bit of that off in the book too.
D: You do.
P: But just seg – little – I think the modern idiom, segue, but the lovely segue on from the fire is that he had that – well not – sorry, not lovely segue but from his retirement when these 200 people put this together, when he had that fire there were 18 – 16 years?
P: So 15 years – Nora Ord who you mentioned was partly helpful in the original book, at very short notice she got cracking and got 160 artists to put work up to auction to get him money to rebuild his studio. She did that in a very short space of time and a lot of those people were the same people that were already in this book who you know they’re all getting on a little bit like John Olsen the other day, I had to say to John Olsen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I said I think, John, you were about 23 when I first met you and he kind of looked at me you know sharply and so there was John Olsen at 23 being promoted by Hal, there was John Olsen giving a speech at Hal's book handing over party and there he is giving a speech at Hal's launching of this book you know –
D: Yeah, the continuity –
P: - 70, 80 years later, yeah. So Hal had this incredible ability to make friendships that just lasted for you know for his life.
N: One thing that I should have said was singlets, singlets were a big part of Hal's – the way he presented himself. There’s quite a lot of singlet imagery in the book and this one by Allan Byrne, a painting conservator, I don't know if Alan’s in the audience but he does a wonderful thing that the Public Service Board with the New South Wales Government issue arrow being shot into his backside. There’s a lot.
D: Yes. I mean it’s extraordinary and it is well documented in the book that Fully Bound, just the range of people who contributed including Bernard Smith and we might open this up in the questions and discussion but you know he says an old friend from the SORA days. I mean you might like to say what SORA was, the –
P: I think Nat touched on it briefly.
D: Yes, he did, the Society of Realist Artists you know –
P: Well-known Communists.
D: Communists, that’s right so interesting time in terms of the politics and Daniel Thomas, the first curator there, I just jotted it down, he said with love, grandest Dad you know so he was – it gives you a bit of a sense of the times. Yes so you know as well as of course as you say many artists and that continuity that went through to the days in – when he went back to WA because of course he was from Western Australia originally and then ends up back there as Lou says, very much as a close friend and colleague as well at that time.
N: There’s one thing, the great ple – greatest pleasure almost for me in this whole project other than working with these wonderful people was calling up a book from our stacks which is called Good Fishing by Hal and I thought I don’t know what to expect quite from this you know I called up all his books to have a look at them and there’s this exquisitely designed, beautifully formatted little book, horizontal format with – he’s drawn every fish that you could conceivably want to eat in Australia -
P: Every hook.
N: - beautifully and then the hooks, the sinkers, the whole thing. He tells you on one page how to catch them and then on the right-hand page how to cook them and you know how to cook them at a bush camp and how to cook them in the kitchen. And I can’t think of too many modern museum directors today around Australia doing the same thing, can you?
D: That’s a great –
P: He had an eye for the detail and Lou showed me a wonderful foolscap which no-one’s heard of these days but most people here’d understand a foolscap sheet of paper so you can fit a lot more than A4 and Lou was undertaking a car trip from Perth to Sydney and Hal had done this big road trip and he just loved the bush and you know nothing could be a – more of a challenge than Hal having a breakdown in the middle of the [Numidebal] 57:18 Ranges here or something, he loved that you know he loved that, thought that was great. But anyway he gave Lou who was coming with Brenda and their two kids across the Nullarbor a page of instructions and it was everything from early in the morning check your tyre pressures, check all the wheel bolts, make sure you got petrol, water, take some Minties to have on the road. Everything bar how to – like actually get in and drive it, Hal had given him this checklist, you know?
L: I shall leave it to the National Library.
M: We’d love to have it, thank you, Lou. Thank you, Deborah, Peter, Lou and Nat for a really fascinating discussion and some insights into Hal and his work and his times. We do have some time for questions from the audience but if you would like to ask a question would you put up your hand and we’ll get a microphone to you because we’re recording this event for the benefit of people who can’t be here. Yes, at the back.
A: <inaudible> 58:29.
M: The microphone’s just coming.
A: Hal fit into all of that or did he not given that internationally, very politically, New South Wales, very polit –
P: I’ll kick it off. He’s just asking but given it was such a political period it’s already been alerted to that my mother was on the other side of the road at the height of the American bombing in North Vietnam and everybody had signs up, the antiwar demonstrators and my mother was with the Save Our Sons <inaudible> 59:06 but I would say – this is being recorded so I’d better be a bit careful ‘cause he’s still got a security file for being a person likely to be a danger to the moral welfare of Australia with AISO. He was a left wing sympathiser and –
N: It’s thick as Fully Bound.
P: It’s like Fully Bound, the ASIO version of Fully Bound. He was a left wing sympathiser. I had a list of people – one journalist referred to him at the handover, Alan Barnes from The Australian, as – the people that attended the handover were writers, poets, artists, bums and other sundry hangers-on. Now in the bums and sundry hangers-on you could put Maie Casey you know Governor-General’s wife but they were all of a left suasion generally, they sympathised with the left. You know even his trustees who weren’t – the bulk of the board were terribly conservative but he did have Mary Alice Evert, [Sidua Smith] 00:02 who was a well known Communist in partnership with the other publisher so I don’t think he was ever a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, I’ll say that but he was always a left-leaning person. And in those days as you sound like you know a little bit about it you know the only place you could go and listen to jazz for example in Sydney was down at the old ironworkers’ building in George Street North there and that of course was just a Stalin you know a Communist front.
So anything that wasn’t under the conservative umbrella of Menzies and so on and of course they were all you know anti-Menzies. You mentioned instigator of the book, Noni Farwell, she was a journalist with the Women’s Weekly for many years but you know you should have heard her rail against John Howard. I mean I couldn’t begin to say the words in here how she used to go on, she was a real hard-bitten left wing journalist and so on. So you know they were the people - it was a symbiotic thing, they were the people that were pushing for change, Hal was pushing for change in his own way so they were happy with each other but he was always against you know people who had no skill, no knowledge, no empathy, no interest in the arts that – and they were always very insistent on going to openings and boring everyone stupid for two hours. He had no time for them whatsoever, he had a lot of time for anybody who had progressive left wing, generally left wing ideas you know they didn’t have to be but they tended to be that way through that period. If that’s – sorry, I’m not a great historian but they tried to conscript me into the army as well at that time so –
L: I can give you another bit as well. In 1975 or ’76 when I did the Guy Grey-Smith retrospective at the Art Gallery and I wrote the introduction and at the end Guy said to me I was a prisoner of war, I became interested in Christianity and that made me a socialist. And I put it down in the introduction and I was actually called to the trustees in the Art Gallery in Perth, said why am I talking about politics in my thing? I said this is historical. If you said to me I’m a Nazi I would have put it in you know it just happened to be that he said – he said for my Christianity I became a socialist. That was 1975/76, same kind of thing that Hal would have gone through. I – earlier on I would have been sacked but they said to me any time after that you have to show us what you’re writing.
P: Just a quick little side note to SORA which was the School of Realist Art, my father was an early teacher there and I found the transcript. I shouldn’t say this to Lou because he jumps on the back. Where it is in my filing system I don’t know. There’s a wonderful transcript of an ASIO officer coming to see my father and asking him what his interest was in SORA. And my father looked at him and he said you know I like to teach and he said yeah but Mr Missingham you know what is your interest you know in SORA? You know that is are you a Communist, you know? Basically as in – well my father wasn’t completely stupid and he said well I like to teach, he said and I like young people and he said but what’s you know what is your interest in SORA? He said well I like to teach, I like young people and I like to teach young people art. At which this guy just gave up you know went oh okay, you’re obviously not going to get anywhere with this line of questioning, you know?
M: I hope after this afternoon’s presentations and conversations that if you didn’t know or experience the Hal Missingham years or even if you did that you’ll want to buy the book. That’s why we’re here today, it’s a beautiful book, a beautiful tribute to Hal and that time in Australian art and so at the conclusion of the formalities please do go up to the foyer, have some afternoon tea, continue the conversation with the speakers and above all buy the book, Hal Missingham, Artist, Photographer which I’m sure Lou and Peter will be delighted to sign –
P: And Nat.
M: And Nat. And Deborah.
D: <inaudible> 4:38.
M: And this afternoon it’s 10% cheaper than it would be if you buy it tomorrow. And of course you’ll want to visit the Treasures Gallery and see Fully Bound and it’s revealed today. So –
P: We’ve got lots more stories if you want to stay riveted to the spot for –
D: Lots more stories, yes.
M: Okay so thank you all for coming here, I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have and we’ll see you in the foyer.
L: Thank you.
M: Congratulations, Lou.
P: Oh one more thing. Don’t go. Don’t go. It’s in the running, how did you miss it on the running order? We were presented with a two-page sheet a little bit like my father would produce for this event which was down to the minute and I said well –
M: And they kept to it.
P: Not too bad because trying to keep a Missingham to a few words as you’ve just discovered is a pretty tall ask. But what we’d like to do, Eva, my wife, and myself is present the Library with a watercolour, I think a very good example of my father’s – it’s in –
P: It’s in the book and it’s a very fine example, I think. Daniel Thomas who was the – Hal's curator and a great art historian, he referred to my father when he was trying to categorise him, he said I don’t know what to call your paintings, he said I think I’ll call you the new realist. So that’s whatever milieu he fits into.
M: Thank you, Peter and Eva, that’s really very generous of you and it’s a very welcome addition to the Library’s collection. I’m ashamed to say that we didn’t have any of Hal's painting so that is something we will have to rectify but thank you, it’s very generous of you to give it to us and we love having it. Thank you.
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