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