The Boyd connection
David Boyd: His Work, His Life, His Family
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