Janet Holmes a Court’s 5000+ collection of artworks reflects her personal taste, she tells Victoria Laurie
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).
EVERY ITEM WAS IN PERIL AFTER ROBERT’S DEATH
Janet Holmes a Court by Rachel Coad (2015)