A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 31: Postwar society

Chapter 31: Postwar society

Author: Alistair Knox

Stonygrad was situated on the stoniest part of the stony district. It was virtually stone from the surface down. The tree growth consisted of native red and yellow box and stringback eucalypts that won a grudging acceptance from the unwilling ground, which was still very much in its virgin condition. Danila was only of medium height, but his body was all sinew and determination. His sculptings were from the hardest stone and were generally brought to a high degree of finish through much physical effort. They were like no others we had ever seen and were to a large degree an extension of his own nature. His house was no different. It was composed entirely of stone and tree trunks and looked as if it had been imported from the Russian steppes, with more than a hint of the gulag about it.

Danila Vassilieff, Stonygrad, Warrandyte, by Albert Tucker, 1944, State Library VictoriaDanila Vassilieff, Stonygrad, Warrandyte, by Albert Tucker, 1944, State Library Victoria

Danila man-handled great pieces of the native sandstone into primitive walls that stuck out in jagged contrast stone for stone but which in the overall mass achieved an amazing sense of peace and eternity. In the middle of the plan he sank a round studio room about eight feet below the general ground level; the room's walls were entirely of unremitting solid stone. The only windows were on the low side, where the land fell away about three to four feet. Even Danila had not been able to keep the walls quite perpendicular. They tapered slightly inwards as they descended. The roof emerged from the ground in a free, generally roundish form and looked more like a giant mushroom than it did any man-made structure. It was finished in concrete, employing the surrounding aggregate that identified it very closely with its environment. From inside the house, one could see that it was supported by large eucalypt tree-trunk posts and beams. Between these main members, smaller logs of about eight inches in diameter and nine feet in length formed the ceilings. They had been split down the middle into two and turned cleft-face exposed into the room. They made light work of supporting the concrete covering above and at the same time provided the same eternal quality as the walls did.

The house was built in two sections; it was fascinating that the second part, built some years later, was more liberal in design - though no less powerful in structure - than the initial building. Danila had married the girl who had purchased the house when he could no longer afford to keep it. He proposed marriage to her the day after the sale. He was accepted, and together they completed it by sheer strength and determination. They rolled enormous tree trunks down the steep incline over the end walls to form the largest main beams one could imagine. The added rooms were bigger and more airy than the original ones, and the curtains of red-, white-, and blue-striped blankets heralded an entirely new era of interior design. Is it any wonder that this amazing man became a legend during his life, and one of the greatest influences on our postwar painters and the art movement later called The Antipodeans? Arthur Boyd, Sid Nolan, David Boyd, Bert Tucker, and the Social Realist movement, which had been in vogue some years earlier, proceeded through a Bosch-period phase and into a great postwar Australian-landscape movement.

Danila Vassilieff, Stonygrad, Warrandyte, by Albert Tucker, 1944, State Library VictoriaDanila Vassilieff, Stonygrad, Warrandyte, by Albert Tucker, 1944, State Library Victoria

In 1946 the size and importance of a party was gauged by the size of the barrel of beer around which it was set. A niner cost between £3 and £4 and was adequate for a dozen guests, with a bit left over for the next day. An eighteen-gallon keg indicated a local gathering of some significance. It was important that the barrel be correctly opened, because a loss of gas would mean flat beer. Broaching the barrel became the responsibility of those more experienced partygoers who could successfully insert the bung without losing the pressure. Beer was Australia's most universal social stimulant, and considerable conversation generally took place as to which State provided the best. The artists' parties consisted mostly of young creative men who had just begun to be recognised after the war. They were mostly ex-servicemen and able to consume vast quantities of alcohol because they were in good health and had developed the drinking habit expertly during their war experience.

When Danila decided to have a party in 1946, his studio house was in the first stage of its development, still uncompleted. Some of the guests were taken to the venue in the Boyds' Dodge - which by had now achieved some degree of reliability, so that any doubts about getting there or fear for personal safety were dismissed in view of the importance of the occasion. The studio was situated in a heavy-bush environment close to the Yarra and was quite difficult to find without some clear directions. The party occurred on one of those perfect nights which are the crowning glory of that sacred wedge of colour-and-light magic that formed the heartland of Australia's Impressionist painting movement. Danila's romantic Cossack background and the balmy bush effulgence combined to produce an unforgettable atmosphere. Everything returned to normality only after all the beer had been consumed and the morning star was high in the heavens. No one knew exactly what had happened, but when we left to go home there were more than twenty prospective passengers struggling to board the Dodge and get a ride back to our house at Heidelberg. David Boyd's Byronic figure occupied the driver's seat; the rest of us stood up, hanging on to each other and to any protuberances that might offer support. This made the centre of gravity very high and dangerous, because the hood had been folded back to permit us to stand. The narrow, unmade bush-track and precipitous grades combined to make the journey extremely risky, but we were so busy holding on to one another that one danger drove out the other. After about a mile of this insanity, there was a sudden explosion when one of the tyres blew out. Only David's driving skills prevented us overturning. We finished up half in the bush, between some trees on the other side of the road. There was no alternative but to leave the car and proceed the seven miles back to civilisation on foot. After a time the first streaks of dawn appeared and revived our flagging spirits, but it was after eight o'clock when we finally rounded the Bulleen Road/Banksia Street corner where Heide was situated and looked along the river which led over the bridge to our establishment in Mossman Drive nearby. The little white house with its light-blue shutters was a welcome sight to the entourage, who had spread out over five hundred metres like a defeated army retreating from the battlefield. People occupied the beds, couches, and floors according to the order in which they made it back.

There was a general return to normalcy after two or three hours' sleep and a meal. A faint-hearted few elected to catch the train to their suburban destinations, but the hard-core partygoers were flexing their muscles for the next round. It was a time of drive and optimism, and not an hour of this lighthearted pleasure time was to be wasted. We had become satiated with eating and drinking. It was still fresh in our minds as a contrast to the preceding war years. The most creative moments included long games of charades, which suited the quick, intelligent minds of the participants. Wardrobes were ransacked for costumes, and kitchen cupboards for 'armour' and medieval panoply; the natural acting talent that so many of us possessed helped us pass endless nights that would go on into the dawn. On one particular night, one of the girls happened to be very pregnant, so the act was a confinement. She was laid on a table under a rug and the participants became attendants to David Boyd, the eminent gynaecologist, who had decided to perform a caesarian delivery. After about ten minutes of groans and screams from the patient, the climax arrived as the worthy doctor called for the fire tongs. After a protracted struggle, he delivered the patient of a doll, to the general hilarity of all concerned.

It is highly probable that the years 1946-56 were Australia's golden age. They were certainly the period of the highlight of Eltham, that emerging community on the northeast perimetre of Greater Melbourne. It began with a handful of non-conformist artists, writers, thinkers, and academics attracted to it because it was such a beautiful valley. It had had a comparatively long history as the gateway to the mountains of Victoria, yet still retained most of its early rural character. Better routes were opened up into the hinterland, causing it to be bypassed and become a secondary backwater. Its misty valleys and short, steep hills made it the closest village to Melbourne to be known as the place for picnicking. It was the spiritual home of the Impressionist Painters because of its relatively undisturbed rural beauty, its proximity to the Yarra, and the colour and light - for which it was famous. It had been more significant before the turn of the century, when the goldfields were in full production. In 1875 two coaches left Kangaroo Ground, which was then the centre of the shire, to reach Woods Point six days later. They passed over the Black Spur on their way to the great watersheds of the State and through the great eucalyptus regions and mountain-ash forests that were as high as any species of tree in the world. The trees rose up to three hundred twenty feet of straight-grained high-quality hardwood. Their trunks were smooth and straight, and they stood like giant sea of lances carried by an invading army as it marched over the waves and troughs of the high plains in close regular formation. Many trees reached more than two hundred feet in height before the first side branch appeared. The atmosphere was always damp and misty, which increased the sense of antediluvian power. The significant difference between these ranges and the Eltham landscape was moisture. The ground cover in the high country is damp and soft, and in Eltham it is dry and crunches underfoot.

Melbourne is the most urban city in the world because it contains the greatest number of single-unit houses per capita of any large metropolis. This phenomenon aided and abetted the easy-going terrain and has permitted the generous suburban pattern to form - a universal middle-class attitude that plagues the well-intentioned democratic processes by making them repetitive and deadly dull. The Eltham Shire was largely free of this disease in 1946, when its first new type of inhabitants arrived, because the Shire Council had not yet caught on to the idea of the great future of Melbourne that the termination of the war presaged. There were many square miles of land to the southeast that was market garden country, and much cheaper and easier to exploit than the rocks and moss of Eltham. This geographic opportunity confirmed the artistic movements of the 1930s. The Artists' Colony became the centre of the new society that was beginning to call sex by its proper name and to believe that unhappy marriages were no better than happy infidelity.

Wynn Roberts as Sgt. Bumpher in Picnic at Hanging Rock Wynn Roberts as Sgt. Bumpher in Picnic at Hanging Rock

By the end of 1946, the postwar society was in full swing. The old had gone, the new had come. The second building I started, next door to the first, was for Gerry Moore. It had a flat roof - a very unconventional and daring thing in domestic building. Melbourne roofs built between the two world wars consisted almost universally of terra-cotta tiles. Flat or membrane roofs were the preserve of the maniac fringe, and corrugated iron had been relegated to the working-class areas north of the Yarra. Wynn Roberts, who was on his way to becoming a leading Shakespearian actor, became my first foreman and took control of the construction of this house. He was a close friend of Matcham Skipper and lived at the rear of a Drummond Street establishment close to Matcham's domicile, adjacent to the police headquarters in Russell Street. That part of the city had developed a blight in the Depression that had not yet cleared away to restore it to an elegant address, especially for professional offices. As a result, it was enjoying a relaxing interlude of being well-born without needing to look smart and modern. Some of the residents were Depression leftovers, and it all made for a bohemian quality that suited Wynn and Matcham perfectly. I always felt free and uninhibited as I walked down the lane to knock on Matcham's door, which was right against the towering police building. It was always interesting to conjecture about who might be inside. It was the most fascinating city studio, especially because its rising social climate precipitated the adventurous new age. Our Depression studios had had some charisma, but it was a parochial situation when compared with the aura enjoyed by the postwar freedom of the new society. Wynn was a natural builder, and in common with all those who have come to it as an interesting part-time occupation, he still builds and makes fine furniture in the Dandenongs forty years later. He enjoyed building the stone chimney and the low stone walls that had become part of our vernacular, while I was designing my version of the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonion house, with a courtyard and long lines of french doors and casement windows. We managed to complete this building, but the future was bleak for standard construction methods due to the paucity of materials, and to those that were available being snatched up by the black market.

I was by this time completely estranged from Mernda, although we still occupied opposite ends of the same house. I was out nearly every night of the week as the final shreds of Christian observance left me. I never attended church, but if someone were to have asked me at that time I would have said that I was a believer instead of what I truly was - one who believed that he was a believer. On Tuesdays and Thursdays between 4.30 p.m. and 6 p.m., we all crowded into Mr Jorgensen's Brown Room in the picturesque Mitre Tavern off Collins Street. Melbourne's licensing laws were then prehistoric and known as the 'six o'clock swill'. The bars closed at that precise moment. They were generally filled with a jostling crowd of half-inebriated workers trying to consume two or three pots in ten or fifteen minutes before they went home or the police started to herd them out of the hotel doors. The floors were generally awash with spilt beer, and the dishevelled appearance and the wild eyes that gazed uncomprehendingly from the other side of the bar were the best possible justification for saner licencing laws. Jorgie had for many years enjoyed the privilege of a private room at the tavern for those two evenings each week when he taught at his nearby studio. It became the nexus of artistic bohemian Melbourne. Beer was a shilling a glass. Trays full of glasses would be purchased at the bar and carried, through the jostling mob, to the private room to be consumed in somewhat more orderly surroundings. Jorgie always occupied a brown leather armchair in the corner, receiving and acknowledging greetings from all who were permitted entry, which depended on their knowing him or some of his pupils.

The 6 o'clock swill. Photo: Herald Sun The 6 o'clock swill. Photo: Herald Sun

At closing time, the hotel always rang an aggressive electric bell to advise the drinkers that the law prevented them taking any more money from customers for that day, so they must hurry and get out lest they be charged for being on licenced premises at a prohibited time. Most of the habitues of the Brown Room would proceed to the Latin Club at the eastern end of the city for the evening meal. Little time would be lost reaching this venue, where wine could be consumed with meals until 8 p.m., at which time the long arm of the law would descend and remove the bottles, with the food only partly eaten. The rapi d beer session, followed by half a dozen speedy glasses of claret, left the face flushed and the heart palpitating as at the conclusion of a race. The new age was noted much more for energy than for grace in its social activities. The drinking of vast quantities of beer had been the prerogative of the Australian male throughout the history of the continent; but with the postwar financial freedom, wine began to become popular. Places like Jimmy Watson's, located near the University, established a clientele who drank claret while they barbequed their steaks out in the garden. But there remained an undertone of frenzy surrounding the consumption of alcohol as it became the prerogative both of respectable, law-abiding men and women and of the dungareed labourers drinking great pots and claiming, 'They allus has one at eleven'.

In 1947 I became a regular visitor to Montsalvat, the Artists' Colony, which had gone back to completing the great works it had begun in the 1930s. Justus Jorgensen had welded his pupils into a close-knit organism. Despite his despotic attitude, he introduced them to a freedom that the general community was just gaining a hint of more than ten years later. They called him all sorts of names, deplored his egocentricity, and simultaneously defended him against all outside criticism. His ability to maintain his opinions against all assaults won his pupils' unswerving allegiance and their frustrations, at the same time. He demonstrated his building and design ability every day as the work proceeded, irrespective of the observers' personal opinion of it. It could not be denied. He encouraged the rich to become patrons of his great 'dream', and the poor to do the building. The theme of a French village on the west side of the hill dominated by the Great Hall prospered, while a fifty-five-foot sailing scow made its appearance in the top paddock looking like a modern ark waiting for unpredictable events. The lack of conventional materials directed me towards mud-brick building, which I thought would be both possible and cheap.

Dinner at Montsalvat December 1939. Clockwise from left: Ian Robertson,Lena Skipper, Sonja Skipper, Mervyn Skipper, Arthur Monday, Justus Jorgensen, Lily Jorgensen, John Busst, Helen Lempriere, Max Jorgensen,, Far right: unknown Dinner at Montsalvat December 1939. Clockwise from left: Ian Robertson,Lena Skipper, Sonja Skipper, Mervyn Skipper, Arthur Monday, Justus Jorgensen, Lily Jorgensen, John Busst, Helen Lempriere, Max Jorgensen,, Far right: unknown

I became friendly with Sonia Skipper, Matcham's beautiful sister, who was a great builder as well as a painter, a sculptor, and a person accomplished in all the artistic pursuits. Her equable nature contrasted favourably with Helen's - her somewhat vitriolic older sister's - and her brother Matcham's deviousness. Helen had become Jorgie's mistress more than ten years earlier and had borne him two children - Sebastian and Sigmund. Sonia had a daughter by Arthur Munday, who was a solicitor who had given up his practice to become a full-time member of the colony. Jorgie preached adventurous living - and certainly practised it in the keeping of his wife - Dr Lily Jorgensen - and Helen Skipper under the one roof for many years. Helen was the young and beautiful daughter of Mervyn and Lena Skipper, the original family who left their Eaglemont house to join in the beginning of the escape from the suburbs into a new freedom. Mervyn was the editor of the 'Red Page' of The Bulletin when that weekly was the major Australian literary journal. He was also a well-known writer in his own right and Lena, his wife, was an exceptional woman and mother of the three brilliant Skipper offspring; throughout the remainder of her life, she remained a central figure in the history of the colony.

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