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