Drawing from the text

With the publication of the sumptuously produced third volume of The Diaries of Donald Friend, the grandly conceived concept of the National Library of Australia is three-quarters of the way to completion. This is not just the portrait of the artist in his own words, but through his drawings as well. Together they are proof that Friend was not only one of the most eloquent and acrid of commentators on the social and artistic worlds in which he uneasily lived, but also among Australia’s leading 20th-century artists.

Astutely edited by Paul Hetherington, the diaries cover 17 years of Friend’s life (1949-66) on three continents. There are two trips to Italy, a five-and-a-half-year sojourn in Ceylon, intermittent visits to the artists’ retreat at Hill End that he did so much to popularise, and an attempt to settle in Paddington in the 1960s. In this period there were diverse friendships, for example, and to stay with alliteration awhile, with James Fairfax, Ian Fairweather and Peter Finch. As Friend moved from his mid-30s to beyond his 50th birthday, one aspect of his life remained lamentably constant. Hetherington comments that ‘almost inevitably, it seemed, his love became too claustrophobic an experience for his lovers’. Friend’s problem—which Hetherington might have identified as also the dramatic and emotional core of Shakespeare’s sonnets, was that of ‘the ageing man who is attracted to but cannot control, or finally possess, the youthful boy’.

Volume Three presents a succession of such boys. Some are anonymous, such as ‘a strange dangerous tough little sailor from Aberdeen’. Others, such as Attilio (sketched ‘Sulking’), he of the ‘Neapolitan guttersnipe soul’, would become long-term fixtures in Friend’s life. The warnings of well-wishers were never heeded. One by one the youths treated Friend as the ‘rich fool’ that he despised in himself. Usually they began as his models. Drawings converted them into cash which Friend returned with interest. He was clear-eyed about his entrancement and entrapment, depicting himself as ‘a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed’, but unable to change. The last lover to whom we are introduced, the loathsome thief Stewart Holman, is memorably described by Friend as being like winning ‘some appallingly demanding and infuriatingly inconvenient thing in a raffle, such as a desert, or an angry crocodile’.

While periodically he lacerates himself as the creature of ‘long, unintelligent and unhappy obsession’, so Friend is unsparing of others. Hetherington remarks that even the diaries’ gossip is ‘valuable as cultural history’. This understates their pungency and the ways in which they illuminate the foibles of so many notables, in particular their vain self-projections. Sometimes Friend generalises, describing men at a party as ‘homosexual in the Melbourne manner, which is a mixture of raddled effeminacy and discretion’; deriding censorious English neighbours who object to ‘coloured people arriving’ at his flat as possessed of ‘manners devoid of curiosity, minds devoid of judgment’. Another, who hates the idea of homosexuals near her property on the Isle of Capri, is ‘Gracie Fields, that vaudeville monster from the Midlands’. Closer to home, Frank Clune is ‘that gross monster’, while Friend’s mother is ‘a useless old effigy who would be better dead’.

Friend combined a taste for rough trade with an intense snobbery. In Ceylon he fusses that ‘I will have to buy a car ... I must also get a servant’. His family had been rich (although much was lost in a probate case) and he is clearly better off than most of those around him. Still he was obsessed with getting and spending: ‘All I want is love, sex, money,’ he disarmingly confides. The diaries provide fascinating information about the economy of the art world—prices paid, commissions taken, the relationship of the artist with critics, dealers, other painters. And Friend is sensible of the larger economy: how his shares are faring, what the Korean War will do to the market, how to juggle the payment of income tax in both Australia and Ceylon. For all that, he seems to acquire money cannily, only to give it away cavalierly—to lovers, family, friends and other unworthy causes. He earns like an artisan; disburses like an aristocrat.

Besides the material side of Friend’s vocation, the diaries give insights into his aesthetics. A London show forces him to reappraise his distaste for Abstract Expressionism. Like all artists he has an eye on the competition. The ‘rotund’ Fred Williams finds favour, as does Fairweather, with whom he struck up an intermittent but admiring acquaintance. Bob Dickerson, on the other hand, is ‘a weird, ex-pugilist dauber’; Albert Tucker ‘that bombastic bearded fake of a painter’. Of the promoters of Albert Namatjira Friend angrily exclaims that ‘it’s a sad sight to see a simple mission black taught the trick of painting in a dreadful silly way, made famous, and then dragged around the city ... by a rabble of publicity hunters and politicians’. If Robert Hughes paints ‘quite appallingly’, Friend revelled in his company, respected his critical acumen and was delighted when Hughes wrote the monograph Donald Friend. Nolan’s work he found uneven. Drysdale he valued highest, though not without reservations. Drysdale was his oldest friend among fellow painters, although the friendship is waning as this selection of the diaries comes to an end. By then, Tim Drysdale, ‘that little swine’, whom Friend minded in Ceylon, has committed suicide, as had Drysdale’s first wife.

In his introduction to the Diaries, Hetherington notes how another strand in Friend’s life had been seeking paradises—in the Torres Strait islands, in Nigeria, latterly in Ceylon. Each of these turned out to be ‘an illusory, post-lapsarian Eden’. Perhaps in a remote region of his own country, rather than in his restless travelling and attempts to settle overseas, Friend came closest to contentment. This was Far North Queensland, where he had lived and travelled in the 1930s and 1940s and to which he happily returned from June to September 1954, for some of the time in company with another long-time painter friend, Margaret Olley. Staying with his Islander adoptive family, the Sailors, Friend rejoiced in ‘the tales and scandals of the coloured world of Cairns’. In Port Douglas he decided that ‘the exuberance of nature and the accidental effects of decay provide the picturesqueness’ of the locals’ environment. And he concedes, if hardly in the language of the tourist brochure, that ‘there is a distinct fascination about the mildewed, damp, fungus-rotted appearance of the place and its people’.

Friend illustrated his diaries. Often we are surprised and delighted by a line drawing, or coloured depiction of people, and of built, sometimes jerry-built landscapes. No Australian artist has drawn with more brilliance than Friend; has achieved more substantial effects with what misleadingly appears to be languid attention. The drawings in the diaries are an integral part of them. They are never regular, or dutiful. They seem to emerge naturally from the text. Perhaps they are better regarded not so much as illustrations of what Friend had written, but as a re-viewing, reimagining of that material. Certainly they are an enhancement of writing that sparkles with malice, sours with self-contempt, honestly confronts the problems of the artist’s craft. By putting Friend’s diaries in the public domain, the National Library of Australia, and Paul Hetherington, have enriched the national culture towards which Friend was so ambivalent, in which he strove for fame, but felt himself forever on the margins. 

The Diaries of Donald Friend, Volume Three, edited by Paul Hetherington. National Library of Australia, 2005. isbn 0 642 27602 1, rrp $65

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.


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