The Boyd con­nec­tion

David Boyd: His Work, His Life, His Fam­ily

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

THE Boyd fam­ily is some­thing of a phe­nom­e­non in Aus­tralian art — not sim­ply a hus­band and wife team or a par­ent and child suc­ces­sion but what jour­nal­ists have learned to call a dy­nasty of painters, pot­ters, ar­chi­tects and writ­ers. The ear­li­est of this now ex­tended clan to achieve dis­tinc­tion in art were Arthur Mer­ric Boyd and his wife, Emma Min­nie a Beck­ett Boyd, both tal­ented painters at the end of the 19th cen­tury.

The fam­ily came of pa­tri­cian stock, with claims to noble and even saintly an­ces­tors — St Thomas a Becket, no less — al­though it turns out there was also a con­vict lurk­ing among the re­spectable Vic­to­ri­ans. The later Boyds were not all rich, even if Arthur Boyd earned a con­sid­er­able amount of money from his paint­ing, but they al­ways re­tained the sense of be­long­ing to a caste dif­fer­ent from that of the money-grub­bing mid­dle classes.

Arthur Mer­ric Boyd’s sons in­cluded Martin Boyd, nov­el­ist and au­thor of the Lang­ton te­tral­ogy (1952-62); and Pen­leigh Boyd, who be­came the sec­ond sig­nif­i­cant pain­ter in the fam­ily. Pen­leigh’s son Robin Boyd was an ar­chi­tect, ar­chi­tec­tural critic and au­thor of The Aus­tralian Ug­li­ness (1960), in which he iden­ti­fied the vice of ‘‘ fea­tur­ism’’ in Aus­tralian subur­ban houses.

An­other of Boyd’s sons, Wil­liam Mer­ric, be­came a pot­ter and in 1913 set him­self up in a house called Open Coun­try Cottage, in the mid­dle of a for­mer or­chard at Mur­rum­beena, now a sub­urb of Mel­bourne. His son Arthur grew up here dur­ing the war years, when Open Coun­try be­came a fo­cus for artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als com­pa­ra­ble, in a more mod­est way, to John and Sun­day Reed’s home at Heide, fre­quented by Sid­ney Nolan and Al­bert Tucker.

But the am­bi­ence of each house was ex­tremely dif­fer­ent, for the wealthy Reeds were child­less and their guests were fully grown young artists, while Open Coun­try was a much less af­flu­ent fam­ily home ruled by a rather for­mi­da­ble pa­tri­arch.

This home en­vi­ron­ment made a deep im­pres­sion on Arthur, es­pe­cially in the fig­ure of his fa­ther, which re­curs throughout his oeu­vre. The same is true of Arthur’s younger brother David, who in­deed im­i­tated many as­pects of his paint­ing, from style to sub­ject mat­ter. In­evitably, no doubt, David’s work has been con­sis­tently and un­favourably com­pared with Arthur’s. The present sur­vey at SH Ervin Gallery is an in­vi­ta­tion to re­con­sider his work and his place in Aus­tralian art.

The show is ac­com­pa­nied by a cat­a­logue but also co­in­cides with the post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion of a vol­ume of mem­oirs by Boyd — it is not quite clear when these were writ­ten — An Open House: Rec­ol­lec­tions of my Early Life. As the ti­tle sug­gests, the book deals largely with the au­thor’s child­hood and youth at Open Coun­try, and it is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing for the light it sheds on the cul­ture and at­ti­tudes of the Boyd fam­ily. The reader gets a lively sense of a mi­lieu in which ev­ery­one tried their hands at paint­ing or pot­ting, and read books and played the pi­ano, un­like most of their neigh-

SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney, un­til Septem­ber 23 bours, even though rea­son­ably ed­u­cated mid­dle-class peo­ple still read books and ac­tu­ally made their own mu­sic in those pretele­vi­sion days.

The book is en­gag­ing and read­able in many parts, full of those for­ma­tive mem­o­ries that seem to grow stronger with the pass­ing of the years, and is only some­what spoiled by a cer­tain un­crit­i­cal naivety and even smug­ness about the fam­ily and its val­ues. Per­haps the most mem­o­rable, but also grotesque, episode re­lates Mer­ric’s visit to the pi­ano work­shop where the young David has been work­ing in the com­pany of a rather bru­tal work­ing-class youth, whose per­son­al­ity and be­hav­iour have been vividly de­scribed in the pre­ced­ing chap­ter; both of them are em­ploy­ees of a fat, oily and lozenge-suck­ing busi­ness­man who talks about noth­ing but money and is iden­ti­fied only as Mr Z.

What­ever eth­nic­ity is hinted at by the dis­tinctly eastern Euro­pean ini­tial of the pi­ano dealer’s name, the tone of his char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion is cer­tainly rather dis­taste­ful. But the fig­ure of the au­thor’s fa­ther, when he bursts into the work­shop, is un­ut­ter­ably bizarre, and one can see that the en­su­ing events must have re­mained burned into David’s mem­ory: an amal­gam of aris­to­cratic hero, dandy and buf­foon, Mer­ric ir­re­sistibly over­comes pro­le­tar­ian and bour­geois alike, first stu­pe­fy­ing the ag­gres­sive young worker and then pro­ceed­ing to tor­ment and hu­mil­i­ate the un­for­tu­nate Mr Z by feed­ing him lozenges with his fin­gers.

The book in gen­eral — and per­haps this story in par­tic­u­lar — helps to ex­plain the Boyd fam­ily’s ten­dency to self-ab­sorp­tion and even self-mythol­o­gi­sa­tion, with, as al­ready noted, a spe­cial fo­cus on the leg­endary fig­ure of Mer­ric: both Arthur and David reg­u­larly in­clude him in their grab-bag of bib­li­cal and home­made mytholo­gies, and Mer­ric makes sev­eral spec­tral ap­pear­ances in the present ex­hi­bi­tion.

One can have some sym­pa­thy for what is re­ally a predica­ment born of iso­la­tion, and which many of us may recog­nise to vary­ing de­grees. It is bad enough to be, as one of my friends has of­ten told me, the first per­son in his fam­ily ever to read a book, but there is also a more sub­tle dan­ger in grow­ing up within an un­usu­ally in­tel­lec­tual or artis­tic fam­ily sur­rounded by a gen­er­ally ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and philis­tine cul­ture. One has an enor­mous ad­van­tage in many re­spects and ac­quires a nat­u­rally crit­i­cal per­spec­tive on the am­bi­ent val­ues of one’s time, but it is im­por­tant to guard against what can be­come a ster­ile com­pla­cency.

There is a ten­dency to in­tro­ver­sion in Arthur Boyd’s work, from his early pic­tures of the 1940s with their hys­ter­i­cal ex­pres­sions of an­guish, to the some­times in­ept im­ages of his last phase, such as The Aus­tralian Scape­goat (1987). Arthur Boyd was an al­most purely in­tu­itive artist with very lit­tle ca­pac­ity for in­tel­lec­tual anal­y­sis or self-criticism, and an of­ten de­fec­tive level of qual­ity con­trol. But he did pos­sess a po­etic mind that ex­pressed it­self in sub­jects that arose from the imag­i­na­tion rather than from any ide­o­log­i­cal precon­cep­tion; and he reg­u­larly sought re­newal in land­scape, which forced him to at­tend to a world out­side his own thoughts.

This is what David Boyd — no mat­ter how much one would like to come to a more favourable judg­ment — so con­spic­u­ously lacked. Con­sid­er­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion as a whole, it is hard not to con­clude that he never re­ally learned to paint the world at all. That is, not just that he did not learn the art of paint­ing, al­though it is true that his grasp of the tech­ni­cal range of the art ap­pears to be ex­tremely weak, but even more im­por­tantly that he did not ap­ply him­self to look­ing care­fully and pa­tiently enough at the world, that he did not try to stretch him­self, as Arthur in­stinc­tively knew he needed to do, be­yond the or­bit of his own in­ner life.

The re­sult is that the pic­tures fall into two over­lap­ping cat­e­gories, nei­ther of which is sat­is­fac­tory: the pro­gram­matic and the whim­si­cal — the for­mer os­ten­si­bly con­cerned with mat­ters of pub­lic con­cern, the lat­ter with per­sonal sen­ti­ment and an idio­syn­cratic mix­ture of myth and sym­bol­ism.

The first of these cat­e­gories in­cludes the big pub­lic pic­tures, such as the Trial se­ries that dom­i­nates the cen­tre of the ex­hi­bi­tion space. These enor­mous paint­ings are em­phatic and even over­bear­ing in their scale and os­ten­si­ble se­ri­ous­ness, yet in re­al­ity oddly vac­u­ous. The rea­son for this is that the forms them­selves, the

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.