Ian Fairweather: A Life in Letters
by Claire Roberts and John Thompson (eds.)
Published October, 2019
Not very far into reading Ian Fairweather’s letters, I became more than usually conscious of my gender (female), class (white-collar working), sexuality (hetero-), my position in the my family (a middle child), and what I might term my cultural ethnicity (an un-cosmopolitan Australianness).
In the first half of the twentieth century, Fairweather had the freedom as a man to be peripatetic – a wanderer, a beachcomber. As middle-class – his father was a military doctor, and Fairweather himself an officer in the first world war – he could seriously contemplate a life of art.
The following is a rare, if not the only reference to sexuality in the letters. From Manila, Fairweather wrote to William Frater, artist and supporter: ‘I have a boy who is quite useless as a servant but he brings a breath of youth even of romance into my otherwise empty life—and I say this without shame for I think it better to love even pervertedly than emptyness.’ In his 2008 biography, Fairweather, Murray Bail uses the term ‘deviant’ to describe Fairweather’s sexuality, alongside his geographical placements, and his financial and social dealings. In that biography, Bail’s other comments on Fairweather’s sexuality are less direct: Fairweather ‘[a]voided a personal interpretation of the male’; of the figures he painted from Bali, only two were of Balinese boys, and the rest of women. In the painting, Children on Water Buffalo, Bail notes, one, ‘the coquettish posture of the boy half-draped with a fabric’, and, two, that Fairweather visited Walter Spies in Bali, a German artist later ‘jailed on the charge of sodomising a minor’. In a reading of the letters from a contemporary queer perspective oriented to difference, marginality, and uncertainty, one could say of Fairweather’s sexuality, using descriptors from Selden et al, that it was ‘elusive’ and ‘fragmented into local … particularities’, within a broad view that all sexualities are perverse.
Fairweather was the youngest in his family, perhaps typically the wayward one according to popular family psychology, and he was brought up for a significant part of his life by his aunts.
Fairweather’s ‘heritage’ was ‘Scottish and English … and’, born in 1891, ‘of the late Victorian and Edwardian Empire’. For this stay-at-home girl, Fairweather had extraordinary experience of the world, especially of East and South-East Asia, and in that, placed Australia in its geographical home. He travelled to and, in some cases, lived for periods in India, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Burma, Singapore, and Indonesia. Many viewers of his paintings will readily recognise the influence of the East on his style and subject matter. There is much in the letters about Fairweather instructing himself in Chinese, through books and living among the Chinese, rather than apart from them as, the editors note, the majority of expatriates did. Fairweather translated Chinese text into English, published in 1965 as The Drunken Buddha. In 1957, in a letter he sent from Bribie Island to Treania Smith, Australian artist, collector and gallery director, he signed his name in Chinese characters coupled with English lettering: Yan Fei. Then in 1963 he told Margret Olley that he had ‘adopted a new Chinese name’, Fei Huan, and in 1965-1966 he had a seal made: Fei Yi’an yin. During August 1961 on Bribie, when tired, hating the winter cold, and thinking he couldn’t get back to abstraction again after ‘a little dip’ into it, he began reading the I Ching (Book of Changes), which Patrick White had sent to him after a visit in June. Working on the Chinese language both motivated and calmed him when he couldn’t work on painting. Like painting, the Chinese language was ‘an eternal mystery’. In the I Ching, the ‘old Chinese had grasped intuitively what modern physics’ postulated: ‘that all matter consists ultimately of positive and negative particles in various combinations’. Claire Roberts as co-editor of the letters is a scholar of Chinese art, and fluent in Mandarin, and the informative footnotes relay translations of Chinese and relevant Chinese history and publications.
Fairweather was also an escaped World War I prisoner who experienced solitary confinement. He studied forestry briefly. But for money, he worked mostly at manual jobs. For example, in 1944 he submitted an application for the position of Director at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, then ‘commenced work as a labourer in an aircraft factory’! But his commitment to a life of painting was fierce.
These are the exigencies, for me, of understanding Fairweather through ‘A Life In Letters’, the subtitle of the book. I was drawn to the correspondence primarily because of Bail, who was a subject of my PhD. Editors Roberts and John Thompson selected 354 letters written by Fairweather between 1915 and 1974, ‘half of the Fairweather correspondence known to exist’.
Care has been taken to choose letters that are satisfying to read individually but also have a role in revealing the narrative threads that bind together the painter’s life—travel, hut construction, translation, reading, family and of course painting—allowing the reader to dip into the book or read from beginning to end.
The compilation of the collection took them twelve years.
Fairweather’s letters are unsettling enough not to make them good bedtime reading. Just like his two reckless sea trips in make-do craft – one in 1944 on an old boat, from Sandgate, on the outskirts of Brisbane, landing on Bribe Island off the coast by chance, and the second in 1952 on a self-made raft from far-north Queensland aiming for Dili – his letters are a rough ride on rolling waves. He seems driven to seek unsuitable geographic, climatic, cultural and financial conditions. From the low troughs of complaints about people, living arrangements, painting, and impecuniousness, the letters ride on to the high crests of success and engagement, to the troughs again of selected misanthropy and paranoia, and finally to a flattened sea where the enigmatic becomes ethereal.
The early letters are full of requests for financial assistance and the comings and repayment goings of that assistance. ‘I am down to $20 which is a little less than two pounds—and still that £16 hasn’t come’; ‘I have hopes I may be able to repay you’. Together, the letters variously describe difficult living conditions, the challenging production and preservation of paintings, and the fumbling mechanics of sending those paintings off. Of the latter, this is one instance: a box of paintings was so heavy that Fairweather staggered only a hundred yards into the bush with it. He then made a makeshift cart/sledge/sling harnessing himself to drag it.
Like a sea creature, Fairweather had his shells or carapaces, discarded and rebuilt, around the world – by 1958, he had built six ‘houses’, his sixth being on Bribie. Fairweather was ‘a solitary figure’, scarcely known by the world, Bail wrote, because of his reticence and ‘horror of self-promotion’. But in 1963, the Bribie Star announced that the island had a ‘World Famous Artist’ as a resident; that set Fairweather’s ‘teeth on edge—How I loathe em’. Publicity made painting ‘quite impossible’ for him: ‘I am only interested in finishing some paintings—which I can do I believe—If I may remain undisturbed’.
Robert Hughes said of Fairweather that he was ‘the best abstract painter … Australia ever harboured’, and Bernard Smith that he was ‘one of the most inventive, personal and original of the semi-abstract painters at work in Australia’. It’s an interesting way of referring to Fairweather, in part because of his birth place and international sojourns. He did eventually face taxes in Australia, but applied unsuccessfully for the aged pension (refused not on nationality grounds, but because, according to Fairweather, ‘the Sydney Gallery’ said he ‘had assets’ with them.). Shirley Hazzard, expatriate Australian novelist, wrote to Bail from New York on the publication of his monograph Fairweather, saying that the ‘national promptings’ claiming ‘such a man for Australia’ were a ‘silly battle’, for Fairweather was more complex ‘than partisan interests’.
In a letter to his niece, Rosemary Waters, Fairweather, at 80, achingly stated: ‘I have tried so often and so long—to call some place a home’. Fairweather is a painter who did not fit any ‘national boundaries’, wrote Bail, who also claimed that there is ‘nothing like these paintings in Australian art—or anywhere else’.
One way to manage a reading of the letters is to have read Bail’s Fairweather or to have it at hand while reading the letters and slip between the two books. Through his well-tempered assessment of Fairweather’s work and persona, Bail explains much that is confoundingly inexplicable in the letters. But essential to any understanding of Fairweather is the work of the letters’ editors. The editors have meaningfully signalled chronological sections – for example, ‘Questing and ‘Besieged’. There is also a ‘Note to the Reader’ on reproduction of the letters explaining, for example, Fairweather’s idiosyncratic phrasing and punctuation. As well, there are summarising introductions to each section, those informing footnotes, and a ‘Chronology’ and ‘Index’ – all of which I actively consulted, as if I was steering a safe course for a raft in Pacific Ocean winds.
A Life In Letters is a beautiful object. The cover, designed by the incomparable WH Chong, is ochre-sand coloured and textured, with the endpapers a stunning sapphire Pacific Ocean blue, appropriate for Fairweather who was an island person (resident of Jersey, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Bribie). Each of the letters has pages to themselves, with their number and recipient discreetly underlined in that same ochre.
In Bail’s large-format Fairweather, a reader can revel in the beautifully reproduced paintings, two in fold outs, and accommodate Fairweather’s temperament more readily as re-presented through a cadenced assessment of his art.
As Bail notes, Fairweather’s paintings resist ‘easy acceptance’: they can seem ‘coarse or dry’, ‘austere or private’ or ‘a mess at first sight’, ‘with their secretive lines and traces of things’. The ones I have seen on gallery walls have struck me as dark and relatively colourless. In 1962 Fairweather wrote to friend and ‘holiday neighbour’, Clark Massie: ‘In my painting I have almost said goodbye to colour’. Yet Bail notes Fairweather to be ‘a colourist’, and the paintings in Fairweather reveal this, albeit in restrained and subtle use, with the exception of the late energetic use of yellow, the most joyous, and in Fairweather’s oeuvre, outrageous of colours.
Fairweather painted at night. With a kerosene lamp or candles. He was often without a separate or workable studio. All of his residences are memorable for his tirade against their inadequacies, or the later nostalgic memory of them. Among the most odd was a vacant theatre in Sandgate, which he was delighted with initially, as it was such a large space. But it had no electricity, and there were unexplained noises, and the cavernous space made him feel more lonely.
In later years, Fairweather disavowed some of his works as his own.
These repudiations of his own work are among the ‘bizarre’ episodes of his life, as noted by the letters’ editors. Any reader of the letters will find this the most disturbing aspect of Fairweather. For example, in 1966 he wrote that while in Sydney he ‘went to the Gallery’: ‘[t]here were four paintings there with my name on them—Two were not my work at all—One was or had been mine but had been painted over witha lot of meaningless colour’. Possibly his most baffling act was returning $400 for the John McCaughey Prize when he mailed the Art Gallery of New South Wales that the Monastery in the exhibition was not his Monastery. (There is a recognisably salacious but nevertheless ambiguous letter in the Bail correspondence in the National Library of Australia, from someone in Kuta, Bali, claiming to have painted all the works then recognised as Fairweather’s, or the Balinese ones, seeking ‘fairs and expenses’, in anticipation that Bail would pay him for what he would tell.)
A striking synchronicity for me is that Tony Tuckson was Director of the New South Wales Art Gallery when Fairweather was awarded the McCaughey prize. I first saw a Fairweather painting in a 2003 Sydney University exhibition, The Way of the Brush, when I was researching my PhD. The exhibition included Tuckson and Roy Jackson. It was there that I fell in love with Tony Tuckson’s work, having always been engaged by his strategy of foregrounding process, a characteristic also of Bail’s writing.
Hand-written letters, in the electronic age, have become an oddity as a genre. Teaching in the first decade of this century, I sent a birthday card to a twenty-something student. She replied that it was the first she had ever received: hard-copy, via snail mail. (And she has friends and a caring family.) I once had to explain to another young student what I meant by hand- or running-writing. It’s easy to forget – if you’re not looking in the archive, either public or private – in a time of email, smart phones, web interpersonal communications, and social media that we used to live by posted, hand-written letters.
By happenstance, I was reading Helen Garner’s recently published diaries alongside Fairweather’s letters. It stuck me that letters are wild and diaries tame. In diaries, one is talking to oneself. In letters, the writer is engaged in a conversation with someone else; they have the animation of correspondence or conversation. It’s not that diaries are without intense moments – both Fairweather’s letters and Garner’s diaries pulse with some animosity. But I doubt Fairweather was capable of writing a light, airy letter. Or perhaps this is a result of the editors’ selection that best conveys this particular artist’s milieu. The Fairweather letters are a seething, texturised mass, whereas the Garner diaries, and Bail’s Notebooks, seem thin and light, though not insubstantial for that. It’s just that the letters are thickets by comparison to a field of waving wildflowers or native grasses.
What is fabulous about both genres – letters and diaries – are the revelations about artistic methods.
Any artist in any discipline – any worker in any field – will acknowledge in the Fairweather letters the processes and practices of a life of art and the particular vicissitudes of visual art. Fairweather wrote: Art is a ‘lonely furrow’, painting ‘an eternal mystery’: ‘it has taken me … 40 odd [years] to even get a glimmer of painting’. He worked slowly: ‘My things take a long time to do’. Bail shared a similar relationship to time for the production of writing and said this of himself in a letter to Australian novelist, Rodney Hall: ‘I’m working constantly but slowly. My God, I need a lot of time.’ Fairweather worked on several paintings simultaneously: ‘I have to keep them all around me as I don’t finish off one at a time but keep about 20 cooking’. The paintings gave him ‘hell’, one in particular, which he refers to only as ‘Peking gate’ (which possibly became Outside the City Gate, Peking), had gone ‘into a tail spin—Tried alterations—but now a mess—always the way—but must go through the mess’. Abstract art, he wrote to his sister, Annette Waters, is like ‘the Buddhist idea of suspended judgement—The mind is cleared of thought but not of awareness—Always the purpose of art is to find its way through the forest of things to a larger unity containing all things’.
As I keep writing, it becomes a wonder to me that I first found the Fairweather letters scarifying, when most artists complain of the very same things. ‘Into the blue’ is not an uncommon phrase of writers having had books published, and, in the letters, it is repeated by Fairweather about the dispatch of his paintings: ‘sending them into the blue’. Fairweather described the Deputy Director of Queensland Art Gallery (1960-65), on a visit to acquire paintings in 1965, as being a phoney because two of his ‘best paintings’ that had cost him ‘hell to do’ were taken with, according to Fairweather, carelessness and ignorance. In the Bail correspondence, writers are hostile to the business of publishing. Bruce Chatwin wrote to Bail: ‘More and more, the book business tempts me into silence’. And Robyn Davidson, in correspondence with Bail, critiqued the industry robustly: ‘Always regard publishers as the enemy and never be polite them. Bastards. I am equally pissed off with agents … The are all … collections of scum eddying in small stagnant pools’. Fairweather himself, in getting The Drunken Buddha and other work published, said of the ‘publishing business’ that it was characterised by ‘wheels within wheels’.
Fairweather suffered mental illness: ‘I am in such a depression … Got into some kind of fix and cant break out of it.’ His self-portrait, Portrait of an Artist, reminds me of Max Ernst’s sculpture An Anxious Friend. ‘For 6 months I’ve been stuck in the mud—not a step forward in painting and getting a nightmare.’ While fame brought him ‘terrible mail’ from ‘nuts’, he knew that ‘so many of us [are] near the borderline of sanity’.
He wrote that art was ‘not a skill and certainly not a business—it’s a kind of belief’. For all that romanticism or mysticism, he was worldly. He read, and he loved cinema. He commented on Beauty Queen pageants, the 1966 Arno river floods, race riots in the US, the crisis in the Congo, the space race, and nuclear disarmament rallies in Britain. He was sociable with his letters to his family – sisters, nieces, brothers – even loving. The editors note that ‘[f]or one who chose to place his kin at arm’s length for almost the whole of his adult life, these letters reveal an unexpectedly close concern and connection with family that intensified with age’. Other correspondents included artists such as Frater, Olley, and Lina Bryans.
Fairweather could be readily placed among early environmentalists of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Though Bribie is subtropical, minimum temperatures can fall below 20 degrees Celsius. Fairweather complained regularly of freezing at night and was grateful for gifts of jumpers and similar, or he complained of heat. He complained about insects (mosquitoes, sandflies) and possums. However, ‘[t]hank God for the Bush’ he wrote, ‘it renews my soul’. He treasured the kangaroos, emus, black swans, ‘the chant of the butcher birds’, the ‘symphony of the rain’, and the wildflowers of Bribie – many of which disappeared as the island was built out as a suburb of Brisbane. Bribie had bushfires throughout the 1950s and 60s where so much was burnt that Fairweather thought there was nothing left to burn and where he saw ash in the sea. He had an inclination to vegetarianism: ‘all these beautiful patient animals—waiting to be eaten—Waiting till we learn to get along without their misery’. He reused furniture he picked up at the dump and found it ‘[i]ncredible what our affluent society discards’. The editors say of his last unsent letters that they ‘stand as an elegy, the painter’s farewell to Bribie Island, his … sanctuary for a quarter of a century’.
The words, syntax, sentences fought me more than usual in the writing of this review. Perhaps I was channelling Fairweather’s impassioned descriptions of the difficulties of his art practice, and the editors’ twelve-year long journey.
I can talk more readily about wine grapes. Fairweather was a wine lover; he received a gift of a case of McWilliams’ Cabernet Sauvignon, a result, apparently, of a wine judge visiting the annual Bribie fair. Fairweather’s collected letters are comparable to the Semillon grape. It’s an adult grape, not easy to describe. But recognisably complex, one requiring respect and attention.
The last letter in the book may be like Semillon. Or, more likely, a Buddhist koan, or the difficult-to-interpret hexagram answer to a question asked of the I Ching:
How to keep alive—?
Bottom upwards we dont make sense at all!!
The trouble is that everything has to be cooked—and who does the cooking?
Murray Bail, Fairweather. (Miller’s Point: Murdoch Books, 2008).
Murray Bail, Ian Fairweather and Pierre Ryckmans, Fairweather. (Brisbane: Art and Australia/Queensland Art Gallery, 1994).
Murray Bail, Letter to Rodney Hall. 10 February. Nd. Box 2, Folder 9. Papers of Rodney Hall, 1954-1999. National Library of Australia.
Murray Bail, Notebooks 1970-2003. (London: Harvill Secker 2005).
Bruce Chatwin. Letter to Murray Bail. 5 May 1982. Box 4, Folder 4. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950-2001. National Library of Australia.
Robyn Davidson. Letter to Murray Bail. Nd. Box 4, Folder 5. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950-2001. National Library of Australia.
Helen Garner, Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1 1978-1987. (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019).
Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson and Peter Brooker (eds). Chapter 10: ‘Gay, Lesbian and Queer Theories’, in A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Theory. (London: Prentice Hall 1997).
Shirley Hazzard. Letter to Murray Bail. 6 September 1982. Box 4, Folder 6. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950-2001. National Library of Australia.
Unnamed. 29 July 1978. Box 4, Folder 7. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950-2001. National Library of Australia.
Visit Bribie Island, ‘Bribie Island Weather and Climate’.