Ray Crooke’s trop­i­cal vi­sion

The trop­ics have been an en­dur­ing in­spi­ra­tion for Ray Crooke, who talks about life and art to Bron­wyn Wat­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Vis­ual arts

AS I drive north of Cairns, skirt­ing the coastal rain­for­est to my left and the Coral Sea to my right, I’m sur­rounded by coun­try that has been the stuff of Ray Crooke’s dreams and prodi­gious art­works for more than 60 years.

With its bu­colic im­ages, this is coun­try that Crooke, fore­most Aus­tralian painter of the trop­ics and is­land life, has stamped with his sin­gu­lar vi­sion.

Crooke de­picts this land­scape as idyl­lic: a calm, nos­tal­gic place; time is sus­pended, life seem­ingly over­whelmed by heat-in­duced las­si­tude, un­spoilt by re­al­i­ties of high-rise de­vel­op­ment, traf­fic and al­co­hol-fu­elled crime.

It is a set­ting that Crooke, 91, first fell in love with as a young ser­vice­man dur­ing World War II, and was so taken with that in 1951 he left Mel­bourne and moved there.

When I ar­rive at the artist’s home and stu­dio, I’m met at the door by Crooke’s son David, and ush­ered into an apart­ment crammed with books and paint­ings. It’s the portraits I no­tice, par­tic­u­larly one of his friend and fel­low artist Mar­garet Ol­ley, who died in 2011, one of Crooke’s daugh­ter Su­san, who trag­i­cally was killed in a car ac­ci­dent in 1975, and many portraits of June, his wife of more than 60 years, who died re­cently.

Crooke, who still con­tin­ues to paint ev­ery day, has had a dis­tin­guished ca­reer: his haunt­ing por­trait of his friend, writer Ge­orge John­ston, was awarded the Archibald prize in 1969; he is in the col­lec­tion of the Vat­i­can Mu­seum, Rome; and he has painted mu­rals for Aus­tralia House in Lon­don. He is also seem­ingly adored by the art-buy­ing pub­lic, who re­spond to his life-af­firm­ing paint­ings.

In per­son, he seems mod­est, al­most hum­ble, a qual­ity re­flected in his gen­eros­ity. Be­cause he was fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful early in his ca­reer, he reg­u­larly helped out other artists by col­lect­ing their work. Through many years, he bought paint­ings by Ol­ley, Ian Fair­weather, Don­ald Friend and Rus­sell Drys­dale, to name a few. He has now do­nated most of his col­lec­tion, to­gether with his own work, to lo­cal re­gional gal­leries in far north Queens­land.

The week be­fore we meet, he had been to an ex­hi­bi­tion in Cairns where he’d bought the work of a young emerg­ing artist — so he could do­nate that as well.

As an artist liv­ing and work­ing in the far north, he would of­ten be vis­ited by other artists who spent time in the re­gion. Among them were Fred and Lyn Wil­liams, who dropped in when they trav­elled north in the early 1970s. But Crooke was par­tic­u­larly friendly with Drys­dale and Ol­ley.

Crooke first met ‘‘ Tas’’ Drys­dale and his wife, Bon­nie, in 1944 while he was on leave from the army. Dressed in his sol­dier’s uni­form, Crooke was taken along by a friend to a party at Drys­dale’s home in Syd­ney’s Rose Bay.

‘‘ Tas was a bit of an idol for us be­cause in Mel­bourne we were dom­i­nated by [Arthur] Stree­ton and those sort of peo­ple, where you had to learn to paint a thou­sand trees,’’ Crooke says. ‘‘ But Tas was paint­ing the in­te­rior and do­ing things with it. He in­tro­duced the hu­man sit­u­a­tion, which was the way my in­ter­ests were de­vel­op­ing. I liked him but I didn’t re­ally be­come close to Tas un­til we were liv­ing at Yorkeys Knob [on the out­skirts of Cairns]. His fam­ily had su­gar in­ter­ests in Queens­land and so he was al­ways com­ing up to visit.

‘‘ We used to see Don­ald Friend, too, ’ cause he was flit­ter­ing around. Don­ald was a bit more of a flib­ber­ti­gib­bet, and we just de­cided to be po­lite to each other.

‘‘ Mar­garet [Ol­ley] was also thick with Drys­dale, of course, be­cause they had a bit of an af­fair. I think they were con­tem­plat­ing mar­riage but then they got more sense and re­alised it wouldn’t work out. We used to hear all about this be­tween the two par­ties.’’

Ol­ley ‘‘ be­came one of the fam­ily’’, ac­cord­ing to Crooke, af­ter they met through Brian John­stone’s Bris­bane gallery. And Crooke would of­ten stay at her Syd­ney home, where, he says, there was a spare bed for ‘‘ odd peo­ple like me’’. They would talk paint­ing, but more of­ten con­versed about cook­ing and travel.

‘‘ The near­est I got to paint­ing with Mar­garet was in her hat fac­tory,’’ Crooke re­calls. ‘‘ She had pots of paint and flow­ers all over the place and any­where you looked you got a paint­ing, and she had me do that. I wasn’t com­pet­ing with her. I was fas­ci­nated with her sys­tem.

‘‘ She would have a pot here and there, and there would be thou­sands of other things all over the place. She’d do a bit and then she’d come back to it, and if some­thing was wrong she’d fix that up. She had all th­ese un­fin­ished paint­ings all over the place and any­one who was lucky enough to stay there could do the same. I found it a bit con­fus­ing but Mar­garet thrived on it.’’

It was also through Drys­dale that Crooke met writer Ge­orge John­ston, au­thor of My Brother Jack. At the urg­ing of Drys­dale, the Crookes in 1968 moved to Mos­man on Syd­ney’s north shore, close to where John­ston and his wife, Charmian Clift, also a writer, were liv­ing. ‘‘ I got quite in­volved with the John­ston drama,’’ Crooke says. ‘‘ Ge­orge and Tas Drys­dale were bud­dies and Tas per­suaded me to live near Ge­orge be­cause he needed to be looked af­ter, with his de­struc­tive habits, not that I could man­age him. June also got on well with Charmian, but un­be­known to us, both Ge­orge and Charmian were al­co­holics — but they did it in a nice sort of way.

‘‘ But then, be­cause of Ge­orge’s ill­ness and his tem­per­a­ment, Charmian de­cided to kick the bucket. So she swal­lowed all th­ese pills and died, and this drew us nearer to mind­ing Ge­orge.’’

Af­ter Clift’s sui­cide in 1969, John­ston spent much more time with the Crookes and John­ston asked Ray to paint his por­trait. ‘‘ One day Ge­orge said, ‘ I’d like you to do a paint­ing of me.’ For­tu­nately I’d had quite a good train­ing in por­trait paint­ing at Swin­burne [Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, Mel­bourne], so I was quite pre­pared to han­dle Ge­orge.

‘‘ While I was paint­ing him, John Brack­en­reg [from Syd­ney’s Ar­tar­mon Gal­leries] looked at the paint­ing and said, ‘ Don’t do any­thing more to that paint­ing, give it to me and I’ll frame it and put it in the Archibald’, and I said ‘ Fair enough’. So the por­trait wasn’t done specif­i­cally for the Archibald, it was just me paint­ing Ge­orge.

‘‘ He was al­most at the end of his life and it was prob­a­bly show­ing on his face be­cause what stood out in the por­trait was this drama of Ge­orge’s eyes and a man on the edge of the liv­ing world, so to speak.’’

When the news of the Archibald win came through, Crooke was sail­ing with his wife and three chil­dren near Fiji. ‘‘ The win was a bit of a turn-up for Ge­orge, which bucked him up a bit. Be­cause he was stony broke I gave him the por­trait. It was sold to the Syd­ney gallery [the Art Gallery of NSW], and Ge­orge got a bit of money to live, but he didn’t live much longer af­ter that.’’

Crooke’s dealer, Bris­bane gallery owner Philip Ba­con, has known the artist for 40 years and says his serene and oth­er­worldly im­agery could not have been achieved in the ‘‘ hurly burly of the city’’.

‘‘ The lure of the north was, for him, the beauty of it,’’ Ba­con says. ‘‘ Thurs­day Is­land was his first great in­flu­ence with the na­tive peo­ple and when he had the means to travel he went to Fiji and Tahiti and that just re­in­forced that world of another time and place for him, and that be­came his theme.

‘‘ When Ray was at the height of his pow­ers he was thought of in the same breath as [Charles] Black­man and [Arthur] Boyd, but I think there has been a prob­lem for him be­cause al­though he has done beau­ti­ful land­scapes, peo­ple want the is­land pic­tures of idyl­lic peace and gen­tle lap­ping waves and he loves paint­ing them. He be­lieves in the eter­nal search for the per­fect pic­ture.’’

Just as I start to leave Crooke’s apart­ment, he shows me some of his jour­nals, which he started keep­ing in the early 50s, with sketches, photographs and recorded ob­ser­va­tions, which he draws on for in­spi­ra­tion. In one of those jour­nals, from 2000, he wrote: ‘‘ The songs are sim­ple ones ... the beauty lies in the ex­tem­po­ris­ing of the pat­terns, beauty begets beauty and in­fects the jaded city dweller till he also wants only to lie on some green is­land, where the tropic moon rises in a vel­vet sky and the palms sing above the life be­low.’’

Ray Crooke, left; his Archibald-win­ning por­trait of Ge­orge John­ston, above;

Is­lan­ders with Bas­ket of Fruit (2009), be­low

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