Janet Holmes a Court’s 5000+ col­lec­tion of art­works re­flects her per­sonal taste, she tells Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Muse: A Jour­ney through an Art Col­lec­tion

Janet Holmes a Court has taken many high-pro­file vis­i­tors through one of the best pri­vate art col­lec­tions in the coun­try — her own. “Michael Jack­son was a clas­sic,” she says, gig­gling at the mem­ory of the megastar’s visit to Perth in 1985 for a char­ity event at Chan­nel 7 (then owned by her busi­ness­man hus­band Robert Holmes a Court.) “Michael wanted two things — to go to an an­ti­quar­ian book­shop, and to see some Abo­rig­i­nal art. So we did the first, and then I took him to the shed to see our col­lec­tion.”

This re­flects much about Holmes a Court’s sup­port for the arts and artists. And her lack of pre­tence: note the ca­sual way she de­scribes the tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled “shed” in which is stored her mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar col­lec­tion of 5000 paint­ings and ob­jects.

Muse: A Jour­ney Through an Art Col­lec­tion is an il­lus­trated ac­count by Holmes a Court of 150 per­sonal picks. In his in­tro­duc­tion, Aus­tralian Cham­ber Orches­tra leader Richard Tognetti (who praises her spon­sor­ship of the ACO) writes that Jack­son “must have seen her as a woman with­out any pre­ten­sion, prob­a­bly a rare ex­pe­ri­ence in his world”.

The book came about af­ter her friend Ter­ri­ann White, who runs Univer­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia Pub­lish­ing, asked her to name works “you would have to res­cue if there were a fire”. Lloyd Rees’s mas­ter­piece Septem­ber Sun, Syd­ney Cove had to be one of them, partly — one sus­pects — be­cause she bought it with Robert, who died of a heart at­tack aged 53 in 1990.

A mother of four, Holmes a Court snuck in sen­ti­men­tal items from her chil­dren’s art­work. But most of the works — and a smaller se­lec­tion of 75 items, on dis­play un­til Septem­ber 23 at UWA’s Lawrence Wil­son Art Gallery un­der the ti­tle Scratch­ing the Sur­face — are a who’s who of Aus­tralian art, from Fred Wil­liams and Rus­sell Drys­dale to Emily Kame Kng­war­r­eye and WA land­scape painter Howard Tay­lor.

She loves Do­bell’s The Char­lady for its un­com­pro­mis­ing por­trait of a tired cleaner. And she ad­mires Rees for pur­su­ing the end­less in­ven­tion of ev­ery true artist. “Even when (he) could hardly see, he was still search­ing,” she says. That striv­ing was also ev­i­dent in Kng­war­r­eye’s work. When 23 women artists from Utopia were dis­played at the Perth In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Art in the 1980s, “I walked into the gallery, and I in­stantly recog­nised Emily’s work. You could see all the artists were try­ing to do what Emily did — ex­cept Emily, be­cause she had now moved on to the next thing.”

One of the thrills of own­er­ship is putting work in front of new au­di­ences, she says. Her Kng­war­r­eye col­lec­tion was in­cluded in the Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia’s 2008 Utopia: The Ge­nius of Emily Kame Kng­war­r­eye that went to Tokyo and Osaka. She was over­whelmed by the Ja­panese re­sponse. “One man was timed stand­ing in front of one of Emily’s paint­ings for 28 min­utes, whereas in Aus­tralia the av­er­age is some­thing like seven sec­onds.”

Holmes a Court’s arts ad­vo­cacy has al­ways been hands-on, not merely hip-pocket. She fur­nished Kng­war­r­eye with a schol­ar­ship to paint for a year with­out hav­ing to sell her work. “It was my white woman’s dream that we would hang her pic­tures and she could see how her work had pro­gressed.” As it turned out, bid­ders jos­tled to buy ev­ery paint­ing be­fore they went on dis­play, shock­ing the el­derly artist.

“Emily went through a bit of a cri­sis,” re­calls Holmes a Court, “she said, ‘How can they say they want to buy my pic­tures when they haven’t seen them?’ She said, ‘I’m not go­ing to paint any more.’ ” Luck­ily Kng­war­r­eye was con­vinced to paint again, and Holmes a Court cher­ishes a pho­to­graph of the artist stand­ing on the PICA steps along­side the much taller Robert. “People would con­stantly say to Robert, ‘Do you know the story of this (Abo­rig­i­nal) paint­ing?’ and he’d say: ‘I don’t re­ally care about the story, I just think this is great 20th­cen­tury art.’ He turned out to be right.”

The cou­ple be­gan their art col­lec­tion in 1968 when they pur­chased their first works from a lo­cal crafts gallery in the Perth Hills. They went on to amass paint­ings, ce­ram­ics, sculp­tures, draw­ings and tex­tiles, of­ten from artists who be­came life­long friends, such as Robert Ju­niper and Brian McKay. “I’d find works I liked and leave them ly­ing around the house so Robert couldn’t miss them,” she says. “I never bought any­thing with­out run­ning it past him.”

The choices have been hers alone since Robert died. So how does she choose works for the — now re­named — Janet Holmes a Court Col­lec­tion? “Gut feel­ing ... I only buy what I like and what goes with other things in the col­lec­tion. And it’s got to be some­thing I think I can look at ev­ery day, for­ever.”

Abo­rig­i­nal art re­mains prom­i­nent. Re­cently, her cu­ra­tor, Sharon Tas­sicker, sent her an im­age from the Kim­ber­ley of two oil drums trans­formed into art ob­jects by a Fitzroy Cross­ing artist. This lat­est pur­chase tips the col­lec­tion over the 5000 mark.

Works by the great Kim­ber­ley artist Rover Thomas are among the most valu­able trea­sures. His dream­ing places and mas­sacre sites, immortalised in bold ochre im­ages, caught Holmes a Court’s eye through her friend­ship with Mary Macha, Thomas’s pa­tron and agent. His Kim­ber­ley Cross­roads is a favourite, in which myr­iad tracks cross­ing the Kim­ber­ley out­back are re­duced to a bold “X”.

Next week, she will fly to Queens­land where she has lent 105 in­dige­nous works, in­clud­ing Rover Thomas paint­ings, to the Gallery of Mod­ern Art in Bris­bane. Mean­while, an­other 100 items are cur­rently fea­tured in Ob­jec­til­log­ica: A mod­ern wun­derkam­mer — a “cabi­net of cu­riosi­ties” re­lat­ing to the nat­u­ral sciences — at the Holmes a Court-owned Vasse Felix win­ery and art gallery in Mar­garet River.

Ev­ery item in the col­lec­tion was in peril af­ter Robert’s death, when it be­came clear his busi­ness em­pire was mired in debt. His widow faced the un­en­vi­able task of liq­ui­dat­ing as­sets to save the fam­ily em­pire. Valu­able paint­ings by Van Gogh and Pis­sarro and a suite of im­pres­sion­ist and post-im­pres­sion­ist works — in­clud­ing one of Monet’s haystack se­ries — were off­loaded. “They were all bought with debt in one crazy cou­ple of days in Greece when the sales were on in New York and Robert and I were stuck in Athens,” she re­counts in Muse. “We’d in­her­ited all this debt so they had to go.”

That the bulk of the col­lec­tion re­mained in­tact was due to Holmes a Court’s ad­vo­cacy. “The Heytes­bury board re­ferred to it as one of ‘the un­touch­ables’, along with Vasse Felix.”

A new gallery is be­ing cre­ated in an old two­s­torey ware­house in Perth’s CBD to dis­play Holmes a Court’s col­lec­tion more per­ma­nently. So tak­ing the fire sce­nario a step fur­ther, what three art works would she choose if she were ex­iled to a desert is­land? “Well, that would be very, very dif­fi­cult. I’d prob­a­bly take Lloyd Rees’s sun­rise paint­ing. I’d take Do­bell’s Char­lady, be­cause it’s so evoca­tive. And I guess I’d take the works my kids did.”

by Janet Holmes a Court, edited by Ter­ri­ann White, UWA Pub­lish­ing ($65).


Janet Holmes a Court by Rachel Coad (2015)

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