A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 30: Open Country - the Boyds

Chapter 30: Open Country - the Boyds

Author: Alistair Knox

At the end of the year I sat for the final-year exams as well as Year 2, and passed them very easily. I felt these were all the academic qualifications I had time for as opportunities to design increased, particularly because we were able to build what we designed - a rare commodity in 1946. It was during the sojourn of John Yule that I first visited the Boyd House in Wahroonga Crescent, Murrumbeena. Boyd had always been a household name in Melbourne. Arthur's father Merric was probably our first full-time art potter. His brothers were also remarkable men: Martin the author and Penleigh the painter were in the first row of their professions. Until the late 1940s there were very few financially stable artists in any field in Australia, and Merric and his family were no exception. We came to know them through John Yule, who was a close friend, and we were invited by him to visit them on a Sunday evening, the night on which they foregathered as a family.

The Wahroonga Crescent house was like no other suburban dwelling I had ever seen. Murrumbeena was totally suburbanised at this point in Melbourne's development, but Oakleigh, which was just a little further east, was still largely farmland. Its special significance to me was that it was where we had held our Sunday school picnics some twenty-five years earlier. We would always hire Chapman's horse-drawn furniture vans for the occasions, and one felt one had arrived when it was possible to get a seat on the tailboard and sing 'It's a long way to Murrumbeena' to the tune of 'Tipperary'.

Open Country by Emma Minnie Boyd in 1921 Open Country by Emma Minnie Boyd in 1921

The Boyd House occupied a much larger allotment than the average and stood apart from the up-and-coming suburban vernacular of the day. As one walked along the street towards it, the trim-front-garden-and-herbaceous-border syndrome came to a sudden stop at their boundary. The house was set much further back than its neighbours' and was situated in a casual wilderness laced with little unformed paths that led around both sides of the main house to three or four bungalow-like sheds in various stages of in-completion and disarray at the rear. Each one conformed to a different character and style, and each was unfinished. The main house was of traditional weatherboards, which had not been painted for many years. What paint did remain appeared to be light stone, and it was not easy either to discern the colour of the front door or to discover where it was actually located. A large fruit tree was set so close to it that it was hard to gain entry through it at all, and the uneven struggle was generally resolved by entering from the rear of the building. The Boyd family consisted of father Merric; Doris, the mother; Lucy, Arthur, David, and Mary; and their children. Arthur was married to Yvonne; Mary to John Perceval; Lucy to Hatton Beck; and David was the only remaining unmarried person, although he was soon to marry Hermia Lloyd Jones. There were several children, and the whole menage spoke of so much freedom and such an original lifestyle that I quickly became aware I was in the midst of a group of individuals who were as exceptional as they were rare. There was a pervading sense of warmth and acceptance that made the visitor feel he was welcomed for himself as an individual and not because of any advantage he might contribute to a particular cause or person. Merric's aura of other-worldliness was sufficiently strong to prompt other members of the family to comment on it in the company of outsiders; but this only reinforced the sense they had of the importance and power of his personality to the entire family. They usually referred to him as 'Daddy' and acknowledged his eccentricities to those around him; but whatever they felt was only superficial as he had a very real sense of the importance of the fundamental issues.

The brown room with John Perceval at the piano, Open Country, Murrumbeena, January 1943 The brown room with John Perceval at the piano, Open Country, Murrumbeena, January 1943

When we first entered the Boyd house on a Sunday evening in autumn, we were ushered into the Brown Room, a large living room with a fireplace situated centrally along the inner wall. It was more eccentric and heterogeneous than any other room I had ever seen. The walls were covered with paintings, and there were all kinds of frames and pictures leaning against much of the wall space. The family was all sitting around talking as we entered, and John Yule formally introduced us all. Merric was blonde in appearance, and spoke softly and graciously to us. Doris was small, graying, and gracious, and full of wit, energy, and a hidden matriarchal strength that belied her bird-like character. Arthur, David, Mary, and John Perceval were sitting around talking, and as soon as the introductions were dispensed with Doris said, 'It's cold tonight. We need a fire. Arthur, did you get the firewood?' totally aware that he hadn't. 'No, Pussy,' he said simply. 'Oh, that's a pity,' she replied, and then she rubbed her hands and held them out in the direction of the cold fireplace. 'Let's just believe it's there,' and she continued to look hopefully towards it. 'Love governs,' she said, and Merric echoed her remark.

Merric and Doris were both Christian Scientists who believed in the idea of mind over matter and that if you thought something hard enough, it would come to pass. The Brown Room, however, did not grow any warmer that night, probably because of the number of skeptics present. The atmosphere seemed, if anything, to grow chillier. Suddenly John Perceval, the good-looking husband of the youngest daughter Mary, said, 'I will make a fire if no one objects to how I do it.' 'Oh no, John,' said Pussy. 'We really need one.' John rose and walked to the end of the room. He limped due to childhood poliomyelitis, and as he receded from us we were aware of his striking and unusual character and presence. He was a young man very much to be reckoned with in all he did and thought. At the far end of the room were strewn in casual disarray some twenty or thirty picture frames that had been hopefully set aside for future paintings. They were neither new nor of a quality that could complement a good painting. The whole Boyd menage were painters to the back teeth and, at this stage, living in comparative poverty following the Depression and the war years. Doris saw the picture frames as an aid to their survival.

John limped into this heap of gilt, gold, and timber and began to smash them against the wall with his good foot. All of us held our breath for a moment at this act of desecration, but we never said a word. Within a couple of minutes the frames had all been broken , and we watched as John carried them over to the grate, screwed up some paper, and lit the overflowing contents of the fireplace. The dry wood, the gilt, and the odd oil colour mixed up in them soon started to burn ferociously. Smoke poured out into the room because too much was being burnt too quickly. It was like an Old Testament sacrifice, and we all shouted enthusiastically that this 'good' material was being burned with such abandon. 'Good on you, John,' laughed Pussy in gay spirits, although it would have been she, more than the others, who had kept those frames, hoping to use them for the all-to-frequent sales that members of the family made. The sense of the 'spirit' transcending the 'letter' was the essence of the Boyds of 33 Wahroonga Crescent, Murrumbeena.

Among other paraphernalia lying around the Boyds' backyard was a 24-foot model Dodge tourer motor car. It had been bequeathed to Merric years earlier as a legacy from someone's will, but it had never been used because Merric did not drive and because the war had caused the virtual cessation of private-motor-car travel. The vehicle's seats were cluttered with rubbish, the tyres were flat. It had become an immovable object that would only be budged if some irresistible force were to come into contact with it. One day, however, Arthur went down to examine the wreck, and after an hour's quiet tinkering it suddenly burst into life. Astonished birds that had been nesting there for years rose up in squawking dismay, and odd bits and pieces fell or moved about uneasily. With one deft move, Arthur had propelled the family into the age of mobility ahead of most of their contemporaries. Many private motor vehicles were in very second-hand condition because practically no new models had been around for more than ten years. The Boyds' Dodge obeyed all of the current criteria of dishevelment; but artists are always resourceful people. They patched up the old tyres and got the vehicle moving again. The electrical system was decrepit; so whenever the family left home, it was necessary to take along some silver paper just in case it became necessary to make new contacts and bridge old faults. Chewing gum was another essential to repairing fuel leaks; but these problems constitute only minor details in the resurrection of the Dodge.

There were practically no spare car parts of any kind to be had, especially tyres and tubes. It was even more difficult in the case off cars over twenty years old. One day Arthur, John, and their close friend Neil Douglas planned a painting excursion a few miles beyond Murrumbeena, though they knew they only had three useable tubes. After some consideration, they hit on the idea of filling the fourth tyre with cow dung. When it was installed, they proceeded quietly out into the street and set off towards the more rural part of adjacent Oakleigh. Bit by bit, the cow dung was expressed until the tyre was finally down to the metal rim. The three stopped outside a farm and went in to ask the farmer whether he would give them a new supply of cow dung. He looked at them in amazement, and then went outside to examine the phenomenon. 'Come with me', he said, leading them off towards a brand-new tyre and tube hanging on the wall: it would fit the vehicle perfectly. 'It's yours', said the farmer. 'Take it away for free'. No doubt when they returned home and told their story, both Merric and Pussy would have said 'Love governs' with devout assurance. The Dodge became as much a part of the family as their clothes and paint boxes; and whenever the Boyds appeared, the car would not be far behind.

Danila Vassilief working on his Warrandyte house, Stonygrad. Photo: Albert Tucker State Library of Victoria Danila Vassilief's working on his Warrandyte house, Stonygrad Photo: Albert Tucker State Library of Victoria

It was in this same year that Danila Vassilief the sculptor was busy building his stone house - Stonygrad - in North Warrandyte. Danila taught as the art master at the Niel's experimental Koonong School in the same area. It came as a shock to conservative Melbourne, where the universal rule for pupils had not radically changed since Charles Dickens's time. There seemed to be few rules at Koonong designed to intimidate the pupils. The students appeared to have the right to tell the staff where to get off - including the principal. They were free to attend or to stay away from classes as the spirit moved them. They would have been very much at home with Danila, who had enjoyed a colourful existence in several callings and countries. He was a Cossack officer in the White Russian Army at the time of the Russian Revolution. Then he lived and worked in South America for some years. After this episode he came to Australia, where he built nine miles of railway in the Northern Territory. He finally arrived at Koonong during the Second World War. He was a true artist, both as a sculptor and as a painter, and had a great influence on men like Boyd, Perceval, and Tucker. He had an extraordinary energy to go along with his originality and intelligence, and everything he undertook became his own alone.

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