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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

It’s hard to be­lieve, look­ing at this gen­teel paint­ing, that this was the man who sup­pos­edly taught Fran­cis Ba­con how to paint. The Aus­tralian-born artist Roy de Maistre was al­ways some­thing of a chameleon, though. He changed his artis­tic style and oc­cu­pa­tion, his re­li­gion and even his name more of­ten than most. His name fea­tures a lot in art history but he has sel­dom been looked at as an artist in his own right. As men­tor, friend or lover, he has a walkon part in the sto­ries of bet­ter known in­di­vid­u­als such as Pa­trick White and Ba­con. He was “a ho­mo­sex­ual of ex­treme dis­cre­tion”, we’re told, who or­dered all his pa­pers and letters to be de­stroyed when he died; as a re­sult we do not have a full pic­ture of his re­la­tion­ships.

Born in Bowral in 1894 into a fam­ily with pre­ten­sions to grandeur, Roy de Maistre grew up in Sut­ton For­est, where his fa­ther ran guest­houses af­ter los­ing a for­tune as a horse trainer. He stud­ied mu­sic and paint­ing in Syd­ney, and af­ter be­ing dis­charged from the army in World War I found him­self dec­o­rat­ing wards for shell­shock vic­tims. As a re­sult of this work he be­came in­ter­ested in the psy­cho­log­i­cal uses of colour and, to­gether with a friend from the Con­ser­va­to­rium, de­vised a scheme to trans­late melodies into colour (his pro­to­type colour discs and wheels are on dis­play at the Art Gallery of NSW). His patented De Mestre Colour Har­mon­is­ing Disc was stocked by Grace Broth­ers and sold as a tool for pain­ters and dec­o­ra­tors. He made a film where mu­si­cal notes de­ter­mined colour and was among the first in Aus­tralia to make ab­stract colour paint­ings.

De Maistre’s ex­per­i­men­tal work with colour and mu­sic was ex­cit­ing but short-lived — he more or less gave it up af­ter 1919, although it still

in­formed his in­te­rior de­sign work as well as his paint­ing. His paint­ings in the early 1920s — such as Still life with wis­te­ria — were more con­ser­va­tive. It’s not clear what was be­hind this change of style; per­haps it was to curry favour with anti-mod­ernist crit­ics and au­di­ences. But by the end of the decade, de Maistre came to re- alise that his na­tive land was not a fer­tile soil for the sort of work he wanted to do; he left for Europe, vow­ing not to re­turn.

Set­tling in Lon­don in 1930 he changed his name from Roi de Mestre to Roy de Maistre. Soon he was do­ing up an old Mews garage in the mod­ern style with a very young Fran­cis Ba­con, find­ing some suc­cess with his paint­ing and even more suc­cess so­cially.

He was very well-con­nected. In 1936, he met White and be­came the young writer’s men­tor and lover, de­spite be­ing — in the words of White’s bi­og­ra­pher — “forty-two, tiny, tubby, bald­ing and di­a­betic”. Af­ter the war, de Maistre con­verted to Catholi­cism and in­creas­ingly painted re­li­gious sub­jects. He be­came ob­sessed by the pos­si­bil­ity that he might have aris­to­cratic fore­bears, re­peat­edly chang­ing his name to re­flect his imag­ined lin­eage.

To­wards the end of his life he re­mained in his Ec­cle­ston Street stu­dio where visi­tors were given lunches of cur­ried eggs and sherry. Peo­ple came to ask him about artists he had known who had be­come more suc­cess­ful than him.

Oil on ply­wood, 55 x 45cm

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