Art, Paintings & Photography
It was not until I was at High School, I think, that I became aware of art. If credit must be given for this awareness it must be given to Miss May Crouch, the Art teacher at Parramatta High. Everyone in the School came under her influence at least once a week in the Art Class. Some of the girls were also taught needlework by her. Judging by photographs of May Crouch when she was young she had never been notable for her beauty of face and figure. Certainly by the time I knew her, when she must have been near retirement, she was a rather plain old maid, broad of shoulder and dumpy of figure. Her visage was marred by some moles and facial hair. Her manner was tactless and dictatorial. But we all loved her, and we called her, quite affectionately but not to her face, “Auntie May”. Probably the most difficult task she had in the school, and the one least appreciated by the students, was to endeavour to teach First Year Students the social grace of ballroom dancing on those Wednesday afternoons usually devoted to “Sport” but when the weather was wet. The odd thing about these lessons was that the boys were not allowed to dance with the girls, so we were paired up boy with boy and girl with girl! Mind you, at twelve or thirteen I don't think we boys wanted to actually touch a girl, not in public anyway, although at that age we were interested in looking at them and dreaming a bit.
But it was in her role of Arts Mistress that I enjoyed the lessons that Auntie May Crouch directed week by week (or perhaps it was every second week). Besides being shown selections from her collection of art works she gave us insights into composition, colour blending, a mysterious thing called the “colour wheel” (which was a bit like a radial rainbow), perspective, contrasts and other fascinating aspects of drawing and painting. We also had what was then called “practical painting” where we actually handled the brush and a tin of watercolours-what would now be called, I suppose, “hands-on painting”. In this area not many students excelled. I still have a couple of samples which show that I was not amongst those who did. But, more importantly, I became aware-aware of the skills of artists and of the beautiful things they produced. The awareness extended from gum-trees, through flowers and landscapes to the beautiful paintings of beautiful people. Auntie May's collection seemed to be mainly, if not entirely of reproductions of paintings in the N.S.W. Art Gallery and three that impressed me strongly were “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon”, (which had everything from the grandeur of Solomon's throne-room to the beauty of the Queen in her see-through blouse), Hans Heysen's “Summer” with its backlit gum-trees and golden sheep, and Rupert Bunny's “A Summer Morning” with its pretty girls and playful kittens.
But sad to say, my early attempts to handle paints were a pitiful failure and it was not until years later that I tried again. The first revival of interest was when I discovered, when I was about twenty, that David Johnston (another of the draughtsmen at Babcocks) was attending an art class in a studio in Castlereagh Street in the City. He showed me some of the results and I was very impressed. As I said, we were both draughtsmen and were able to control a pencil quite well by that time, although making engineering drawings is a vastly different proposition to making freehand sketches. Dave's work continued to improve and he developed into a useful black & white artist, specially cartoons and the like. He was always in demand to produce a “funny” sketch to adorn a Best Wishes Card for staff people marrying, retiring or leaving for some other reason. But after traipsing into town and trying to get some reasonable likeness on the cartridge paper of the subject for the day (sometimes a still-life, sometimes a model posing, and once or twice a nude model) I realised that I had neither the aptitude nor the time to take my efforts any further, at that time anyway.
I did make another effort. It was about 1981 when I noticed that the North Sydney Community Centre was arranging water-colour classes on Tuesday mornings over a 13 week course with a well-known local artist as tutor. So I joined the group, which started at 10 am and finished at 1 pm. I actually made some small progress in handling water-colour paints and producing some encouraging results. It was my intention to follow this up when I retired-and I may do so yet-but so far I haven't had time nor heard of a suitable teacher handy to where we are now living. I had thought of joining Lois in the classes she was enjoying so much and achieving such excellent results but that was not to be as she is no longer with us and the teacher, Heather Bell, has moved away from the Central Coast too.
Nevertheless, the love of works of art that started at High School has led me into art galleries all over Australia and in some overseas countries too, and has given me immense pleasure. My first visit to the New South Wales Art Gallery was in 1934 and I could not count the number of times I have returned there, every time with gratitude that we have such a treasure-house of beautiful things for us to enjoy-and usually free of charge too! Probably a high moment was when Jean and I were in London and we were able to visit galleries there, particularly the National Gallery with its treasures. Every spare moment we had I would drag Jean back there, perhaps to listen to a talk on a Leonardo study or just to wander through the many rooms filled with rich and precious things.
My love of paintings has also meant that I have, over the years, collected many books of paintings and a few originals and prints which hang in our home. I love these and treasure them, not that they are great works, I suppose, but they remind me of places and people. The first “original” that I acquired was in Townsville of a scene local to that City. Several I bought in Indonesia and in Thailand. Others are by artists in Queensland, Sydney and here on the Central Coast.
Perhaps my lack of artistic ability is not surprising as, although there have been some pretty fair amateur artists like Win Graham and Sister Lois, I am not aware of any professional artists in the Hunt or Pegler families except for Colin Jordan who perhaps inherited it from the Jordan side of his ancestors. In any case his style of painting is not one I understand or fully appreciate, although it has brought him recognition and a place in Australian Art circles, so I am pleased to know that I am a little more than “Distantly Related” to Colin. In the mid to late 1960s, while we were living in Brisbane, he was awarded first prize at an exhibition at the Brisbane Art Gallery who bought his winning entry. I was naturally pleased that Colin had won this prize and when I learned from the newspapers that he was in Brisbane for the occasion I tried to get in touch with him. By the time I tracked him down he was about to leave for the airport and so I took an hour off from work and drove out to see him off. Also there for the same purpose was the Director of the Queensland Art Gallery who, at that time was Laurie Thomas. While we had a farewell drink together we naturally talked about Colin's paintings and I was surprised when Colin said something to the effect that one should not seek any meaning in them. They are not intended, he explained, to convey a story or communicate ideas-in his paintings he strives to achieve visual effects. At that moment I understood, although imperfectly I suppose, a great deal more about his work than I had before, not only about Colin's paintings which, in the samples I have seen have mostly been subtle assemblies of vertical panels of colour, but also of some other art works in which I had been seeking meaning or message where none was really to be found. I understood a little more, but in all honesty, I still don't care for that form of art and most of what is loosely called “modern”, whether done by contemporary dabbers and swirlers or by such “greats” as Picasso. Still, I wish I had kept the hand-painted Christmas cards that Colin used to send to us before he achieved the measure of fame that he enjoys today and which I usually discarded with all my other cards about Easter-time each year! I guess I was looking for a message in the bands of colour with which the cards were adorned, but I now know that the message was in the sending of the card, not the adornment. By the time I realised this we had stopped exchanging cards. A pity.
Colin was born in 1935, the year before we left the orchard at Kulnura and I recall him as a pleasant, clean, happy, well-mannered little fellow. We used to see a lot of the Jordans and at one time, when Auntie Beat was very ill, they almost became part of Mum's family, particularly the youngest, Richard. When Jean and I lived at Herbert Street, Merrylands, the Jordans lived just around the corner in Woodville Road, and Richard was a frequent visitor to our place to play with Judith or for Jean to “mind” for Auntie Beat. For a time I taught Colin at Sunday School. I enjoyed that, but don't know if he did. In the same class was Jeff Ashby who later became a well-known actor, particularly in TV dramas. But after Colin married and moved away from Granville we lost touch except for that morning in Brisbane mentioned above. One of Colin's paintings and an article about him and his work are published in “Modern Paintings 1931-1970” in The Australian Art Library published by Lansdowne.
I suppose it was my lack of success at drawing and painting that prompted me to turn to the camera and photography as a hobby and almost an obsession. For some years I was a keen collector of Australian postage stamps, but my enduring hobby is photography. Mother was a keen amateur photographer and we still have several albums of her work, mainly when we children were young. She also was keen enough to do her own developing and printing. Her outfit comprised a folding bellows type camera with the rather grand title “1-A Autographic Kodak Jr.” The “Autographic” had a small window with a cover that could be slid back and notes made direct on the film which had a pressure sensitive insert in the appropriate place! During the War Dad carried a lovely little “V.P. Autographic Kodak” and one of our family treasures is his album of photos taken in Egypt and Palestine and two accompanying little volumes of diary material. Getting back to Mum's camera, which was the only one she had all her life, it took pictures about 65mm by 120mm on a No. 116 roll film. These were developed in what was known as a Kodak Daylight Film Developing Tank that involved winding the film inside a long black apron in a light-tight box and then putting the apron and film in a metal tank where the developing, rinsing and fixing with “hypo” took place. After drying, the film was printed in wooden frames on “daylight” or “gaslight” papers. The films were incredibly slow by modern standards, as were the printing papers which could be handled in subdued light without fogging. When Kodak introduced “Verichrome” film and “Velox” papers the whole thing got too tricky for Mum and she more or less gave up photography at that time! Mum liked her mechanical and processing procedures to be simple!
My first camera was a tiny bakelite affair that took No 127 film the same as used by the V.P. (vest pocket) cameras, but gave sixteen little pictures each about the size of a large postage stamp, 30mm by 40mm on each film. I think the camera cost 4/6d. I have a small album with some of the pictures it produced. After a while a piece of the bakelite broke off and it was no longer light-tight so I spent 6/- on a Baby Brownie that also took 127 film but produced eight pictures each twice the size of the others. These weren't bad either, considering the small cost of the camera.
One day in 1938 my cousin Joyce Hunt told me that her family still had at the old Hunt home, “Shamrock Lodge”, at Dural where they were then living, a camera which had been owned by my Uncle Morris who had been killed in the war. She thought it was still in working order and I could have it if I was interested. I was interested and the next Saturday morning I rode my bike up to Dural and collected it. It was a lovely old Ensign plate camera with a rising front, a nice shutter and a Ross f:8 lens. The first picture I took with it is still one of my favourites. Before breakfast I rode to Parramatta Park where, between the Kings School Oval and the footbridge over “Little Coogee” there is a group of stately gum trees which reminded me of the Hans Heysen painting “Into the Light”. Just after daybreak with mists rising it had a great atmosphere and I was mightily pleased with the result. I would have been about seventeen at the time. I always regret having failed to hang on to that camera of Uncle Morris's, possibly the only tangible link I had with him except for his war medals which Grandma Hunt gave me after Grandfather Hunt passed away. But, I regret to say, I traded it in on a Welti 120 folding camera which served me well until, shortly after World War 2, I ventured into 35mm photography and have stayed with it ever since.
During the war, while Angus Clarkson, Babcock's staff photographer, advertising manager and general factotum, was serving in the A.I.F I took over a number of the duties he performed including photographing machinery being manufactured in the Works. For this purpose the Company had a huge Thornton-Pickard triple extension camera with a range of lenses and plate adaptors for whole, half and quarter plate films.
It was at that time that I bought a smaller Sanderson half plate camera for the Firm and it served equally well while less cumbersome to handle. These cameras were beautifully made of wood with brass fittings. I wish I knew what became of them, but they disappeared from the scene while I was away in Brisbane Office. They would be real museum pieces now.
After the War we started a Babcock Camera Club. We had quite a few members and occasionally held exhibitions of our work. One advantage of the club was that Kodak sold us supplies at reduced prices and we were able to get a quota from them of things in short supply after the war. This included an occasional Kodachrome film which, in those days, was still rather a novelty. My colour slides were, I think, the first that many people had seen. I know that showings of the slides were quite popular, even though by today's standards the colours and the quality of projectors was not very good. I also joined the YMCA Camera Circle but didn't stay in it for long as I didn't have the time to devote to the meetings and I think I only once went on an outing of theirs. Kodak used to publish a monthly magazine called “The Australian Photo-Review” to which I subscribed and regularly entered their monthly competition. I received several awards and three or four of my photos were published in the magazine, quite a few issues of which I still have.
I did all my own black and white processing, and at one time did a bit of processing for others. In fact for a year or two Ron Robertson and I ran a developing and printing service for people at Babcocks. I did the developing and he the printing. Perhaps the quality of our work wasn't very good, for our enterprise was not patronised for very long. But Ron soon developed considerable photographic skill and, particularly in connection with his work for the Baptist Homes Trust and within his family, produced some outstandingly good pictures, mostly slides, which he was able to put together into most attractive and amusing shows. Another of the Babcock people who became an artist with his camera was Ray Clack who, for the last few years of his life, was Company Secretary. He entered and was successful in exhibitions all around Australia and some overseas. Many of them were published, including one on the front cover of Babcock's London-produced Journal “The Circulator”. Ray used to organise the Club's subscription to several photographic journals and circulate them around the members. Even after the Club ceased to exist he continued on his own account to subscribe to several journals and graciously shared them with some of us who used to be fellow members.
It was, without doubt, the photographic books and magazines that contributed to whatever measure of expertise I developed in photography and the appreciation of atmosphere, composition and content. I used to subscribe to as many magazines as I could afford from England, America and Australia and still find it hard to resist picking them up in newsagencies and libraries. I recall reading once that the difference between a beautiful picture and a pretty picture is not in the eye of the beholder but in his brain. And I suppose my brain has a greater store of pictures seen, studied and appreciated than that of most people. There is so much variety that can contribute to a beautiful picture, ranging from Turners misty landscapes through Renoir's colours and Constables infinite detail to Ruben's curves. Perhaps it is because so much of this variety can be found in the works of one artist, Norman Lindsay, that I have consistently admired his watercolours, oils, exquisitely detailed etchings, and his pen and pencil studies, to which must be added his sculptures and ship models.
And so, because of my own lack of skill with pencil and brush, I have sought to find my artistic creativity in the photographic process. It is now popular to work in colour, but in bygone years photography was mainly in black and white or sepia, uncluttered by the dominance of colour. The better exponents were able to produce the most fascinating impressions of every aspect of pictorial life. This medium has brought me much pleasure, many challenges and continuing enjoyment.