Of art and men

The tu­mul­tuous 1970s form the back­drop to Ju­dith Pugh’s lively mem­oir of her life with artist Clifton Pugh, writes Cor­rie Perkin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

AND­SCAPE and por­trait artist Clifton Pugh died in Oc­to­ber 1990. In the same week, Melbourne news­pa­per The Age ran a front page ar­ti­cle that in­cluded a warm trib­ute from his for­mer wife Ju­dith. It’s not of­ten that ex- wives re­ceive such prom­i­nent me­dia at­ten­tion when their prom­i­nent for­mer spouse dies. But the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Clifton Pugh and the Melbourne school­teacher he met in 1970 and di­vorced 10 years later was no or­di­nary one.

Dur­ing their years to­gether, Ju­dith and Clifton Pugh were out­spo­ken ag­i­ta­tors for po­lit­i­cal and so­cial change. They were me­dia celebri­ties in a city that craved ac­ces­si­ble talk­ing heads. As high- profile ALP sup­port­ers, they counted sev­eral min­is­ters in Gough Whit­lam’s gov­ern­ment ( in­clud­ing Whit­lam) as friends.

The Pughs cham­pi­oned the artist’s cause, yet com­fort­ably moved be­yond the cliquey art cir­cles of the time. Af­ter their break- up in 1980, Clifton Pugh had sev­eral re­la­tion­ships, in­clud­ing a highly pub­li­cised one with fash­ion de­signer Prue Ac­ton. Yet his third wife, Ju­dith, con­tin­ues to be the one most con­nected to his work, his pol­i­tics and his love of the Aus­tralian bush.

In her new book, Un­still Life: Art, Pol­i­tics and Liv­ing with Clifton Pugh , Ju­dith Pugh re­calls her years as the artist’s part­ner.

Was writ­ing the book ther­a­peu­tic? ‘‘ In a sense it was a case of defin­ing it ( their re­la­tion­ship and the times) to my­self,’’ she says. ‘‘ I wouldn’t want to use the word ther­apy, but it’s a com­ing to an un­der­stand­ing.’’

Their decade to­gether was ex­cit­ing and, at times, tu­mul­tuous. Both Pughs had lovers ( in­clud­ing, in Ju­dith’s case, South Aus­tralian pre­mier Don Dun­stan).

Clifton was plagued by mem­o­ries of ex­e­cut­ing Ja­panese pris­on­ers in World War II, and

Lsome­times he drank heav­ily. In her mem­oir, Ju­dith Pugh writes that dur­ing th­ese bouts he some­times hit her. Eigh­teen years af­ter Clifton Pugh’s death, and two mar­riages later, Ju­dith Pugh is still linked to her for­mer hus­band. While writ­ing the book she has been an­chored in the past, plough­ing through her me­mory bank, re­search­ing de­tails of Clifton’s life and try­ing to re­call events as he would have liked them to be told.

‘‘ Of­ten I would be think­ing, ‘ How should I put this?’ and I would then think, ‘ Well how would he want me to put it?’ ’’ she says.

Pugh lives in a tim­ber house in Melbourne’s in­ner north with her third hus­band, Joe Kin­sela, an opera singer. Their walls are cov­ered with paint­ings by some of the artists Pugh has rep­re­sented dur­ing her 20- year ca­reer as an art dealer. Among the group are a cou­ple of Clifton Pugh’s works.

Given the boom­ing art mar­ket and in­creased in­ter­est in lo­cal artists and their work, the pub­li­ca­tion of Pugh’s mem­oir is timely.

‘‘ In or­der to tell my story I have to tell ( Clifton’s) story, be­cause we were so close and did so much to­gether,’’ she says. ‘‘ I also wanted to tell the story of the times.’’

Ju­dith Ley grew up in sub­ur­ban Melbourne. The old­est of eight chil­dren, she at­tended a private Catholic girls school. From 1962 to 1964 she stud­ied law at the Univer­sity of Melbourne, but dropped out when she de­cided she didn’t want to be a lawyer.

She switched to teach­ing and was sent to a sec­ondary school in outer Melbourne where she taught English and his­tory.

Work­ing in re­source- poor schools had a pro­found im­pact on the young wo­man and the ex­pe­ri­ence gal­vanised Ju­dith’s po­lit­i­cal think­ing. Un­til that point, she says, ‘‘ I had no par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ment ex­cept

those val­ues which came out of a small- l lib­eral, Bri­tish eth­i­cal sys­tem that I sup­pose in­formed our par­ents’’.

She met Clifton Pugh in 1970 at an ALP branch bar­be­cue af­ter the Viet­nam mora­to­rium. Over the fire’s low em­bers, the artist talked about paci­fism to the gath­er­ing. It was then, Ju­dith Pugh re­calls, that ‘‘ I took him on’’.

‘‘ I can’t re­mem­ber what I said, I just be­gan to point out the log­i­cal flaws in his po­si­tion,’’ she writes. He re­sponded: ‘‘ You’re in­tel­li­gent. Do you want to have din­ner on Mon­day night?’’

Within days the 25- year- old teacher had moved in with the artist, who lived at Dun­moochin, his bush prop­erty in Melbourne’s outer east. Not long af­ter, she changed her sur­name from Ley to Pugh, and they got mar­ried in Lon­don in 1976, with Whit­lam as their best man.

Dun­moochin, artist Rick Amor re­called re­cently, ‘‘ was a magic place, a fun place that peo­ple al­ways wanted to come back to’’. It was here that Ju­dith Pugh set­tled into the role of artist’s wife. She kept house, she en­ter­tained and cooked, and she helped her hus­band with the busi­ness side of cre­at­ing and sell­ing art.

She was also an as­sid­u­ous net­worker, both within the com­mer­cial art world and among Melbourne’s so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles. It was a fas­ci­nat­ing life, Pugh re­calls. ‘‘ One of the things that’s ter­rific about artists is that they’re home dur­ing the day, they’re small busi­ness peo­ple, re­ally,’’ she says.

Pugh’s so­cial and po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing co­in­cided with the women’s move­ment of the late 1960s and early ’ 70s. Why, then, did she feel com­pelled to adopt the sur­name of a man who, ini­tially, was not her hus­band? ‘‘ I changed it at his sug­ges­tion,’’ she says. Clifton was still mar­ried to his sec­ond wife, Mar­lene, ‘‘ and be­cause in those days to live with some­body was such an is­sue, Clif said it would be eas­ier’’.

Putting her own ca­reer on hold was not un­usual for women at that time, she ar­gues. In the book she ex­trap­o­lates: ‘‘ Clif and I shared phys­i­cal in­ti­macy, po­lit­i­cal views, and the cul­ture that formed us. We both wanted a com­fort­able and beau­ti­ful space in which to live, to nour­ish us, our friends and our ideas.

‘‘ Twenty years apart in age, we were at ei­ther end of that last gen­er­a­tion in West­ern cul­ture to take for granted that the man earned money and the wo­man kept house.’’

Clifton Pugh’s drink­ing, and the ver­bal and phys­i­cal at­tacks it would trig­ger, was a dark cloud over his re­la­tion­ship with Ju­dith. More than 30 years later she can see sev­eral pos­si­ble cat­a­lysts. An im­por­tant ret­ro­spec­tive in Lon­don in 1970 had stirred up old mem­o­ries. The Viet­nam War had caused him to re­flect on his army ser­vice. And then there was Ju­dith’s pas­siv­ity, as she de­scribes it, which she be­lieves en­cour­aged Pugh to vent to a lis­ten­ing au­di­ence.

At the core of his anger, she says, were the World War II ex­pe­ri­ences in New Guinea, in par­tic­u­lar, his in­volve­ment in the killing of Ja­panese pris­on­ers of war.

‘‘ I don’t re­mem­ber when I was cer­tain that Clif had been the mur­derer,’’ writes the forth­right Pugh of her ex- hus­band’s third­per­son ac­count of the ex­e­cu­tions. ‘‘ The story be­came per­son­alised slowly, amid a chaos of an­guish and fear . . . Once I un­der­stood what he had done, I knew I should stay; to help him through it and to face it.’’

The one con­stant in their re­la­tion­ship was Clifton’s work. In the early ’ 70s the land­scape artist started to fo­cus on por­trai­ture, a genre for which he be­came fa­mous ( sev­eral of his works hang in Can­berra’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery).

He won the Archibald Prize in 1965, 1971 and 1972 ( for a por­trait of Gough Whit­lam), and he painted many fa­mous Aus­tralians, in­clud­ing Melbourne so­ci­ety ma­tron Ma­bel Brookes, Coun­try Party leader John McEwan, Vic­to­rian pre­mier Dick Hamer, philoso­pher David Arm­strong, ac­tor Barry Humphries and, dur­ing a visit to Bri­tain, the Duke of Ed­in­burgh.

A few months af­ter the 1971 Archibald win, the Pughs went to Ade­laide, where they met Dun­stan. ‘‘ The most ca­pa­ble and vi­sion­ary state pre­mier in the coun­try, he dis­tilled all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of pro­gres­sive, de­cent and ex­cit­ing gov­ern­ment,’’ writes the wo­man who was to be­come his lover.

‘‘ He was at­trac­tive, it is won­der­ful to be the ob­ject of such a man’s at­ten­tion,’’ Pugh writes. ‘‘ Of all the men in the coun­try, he was the one as ca­pa­ble and in­tel­li­gent as Clif.’’

Dur­ing our in­ter­view, Pugh says her af­fair with Dun­stan of­fered a way out of her stormy re­la­tion­ship with the artist. Be­sides, ‘‘ the man was ter­ri­bly in­ter­est­ing and in­tel­li­gent. He was the most charis­matic man in the coun­try.’’

In late 1972 Pugh dis­cov­ered she was preg­nant. Dun­stan’s re­sponse was prag­matic: he ar­ranged for her to have an abor­tion. On the morn­ing of the pro­ce­dure — the same day as Clifton’s di­vorce hear­ing with Mar­lene — the artist con­fronted her.

Ac­cord­ing to the book, Clifton said: ‘‘ You’re hav­ing an af­fair with Dun­stan, you’re preg­nant, and you don’t know whose it is, so you’re hav­ing an abor­tion. Ju­dith, I know you’ve been un­happy but this isn’t good. I don’t like it.’’

He then called Dun­stan and sug­gested an al­ter­na­tive: once his di­vorce from Mar­lene had come through, he and Ju­dith would marry. The baby would be born and af­ter a suit­able pe­riod the Pughs would di­vorce, en­abling Ju­dith and Dun­stan to marry. The preg­nancy con­tin­ued, and so did her af­fair with Dun­stan. A few months later she went into early labour and the baby was still­born. Soon af­ter, ‘‘ we all un­der­stood that nei­ther Don nor I wanted to be more than friends’’, she writes.

By 1980 the Pughs’ mar­riage had bro­ken down. Al­though they had agreed to visit a mar­riage coun­sel­lor, Ju­dith Pugh de­cided she would move to Melbourne and her hus­band would re­main at Dun­moochin. There was some an­guish over is­sues such as money and as­sets, but the two re­mained friends. On the day of their di­vorce in 1982, they had lunch to­gether.

Five days be­fore he suf­fered a fa­tal heart at­tack in 1990, Ju­dith vis­ited her for­mer hus­band at Dun­moochin. She has happy mem­o­ries of that day: ‘‘ I’d gone up with Joe and we had a nice time to­gether,’’ she re­calls. ‘‘ He ( Clifton) said, ‘ I want to tell you all the things you did for me.’ ’’ She pauses, then smiles. ‘‘ He had not ac­knowl­edged that be­fore.’’ Un­still Life: Art, Pol­i­tics and Liv­ing with Clifton Pugh by Ju­dith Pugh ( Allen & Un­win, $ 32.95).

Chang­ing times: From left, Ju­dith Pugh; Clifton Pugh, left, and film­maker Tim Burstall with Pugh’s por­trait of then NSW pre­mier Neville Wran in 1976; the court­yard at Dun­moochin; Burnt Out ( 1954) by Clifton Pugh; be­low, a 1997 pho­to­graph of Liz and Peter Petro­vich, li­censees of the Fam­ily Ho­tel in Ti­booburra in out­back NSW, in front of a Pugh mu­ral on the pub wall

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