We Are What We Stand On, Clifton Pugh's Success Story

Clifton Pugh's Success Story

Author: Alistair Knox

Clifton Pugh, who now enjoys the highest position, both as a portrait and landscape painter, can look back on those hard early days at Cottles Bridge with some pleasure and nostalgia. There are now no fleas, no rabbits, and no economic worries. He receives calls from many distinguished visitors and his original one-roomed, earth-floored shelter has become a large oppulent establishment. There is a fenced-off area for emus and wombats, which have a special place in the heart, partly as a result of his intimate association with the mysterious landscape that has surrounded him for nearly thirty years.

His ability to survive as a painter was a gradual process. He stopped working for Belch's from whom he purchased his land, but it was still necessary to earn a living for his family and his ever-active building programme. I employed him when I built the second wing at the DowningjLe Gallienne house in 1954. I can still see Clifs athletic figure in my mind's eye, moulding the beautiful mud of that particular location in Eltham into glistening brown mud bricks that looked like blocks of wet toffee. I t was arranged that he would also build the five-sided study, which was on the ground floor, and the brick chimney up to the first floor level. He naturally became very friendly with Dick and Dorian during this process and painted Dick's portrait, which still hangs in the study he built. It was the first portrait he ever sold. One hilarious incident that occurred during the building of the five-sided study was when it was being muddied up after the bricklaying had been completed. One day as I approached the building I could hear noises within this five-sided room which was rather like a bear pit. I t was a cold, foggy morning and as I walked down and looked in I saw John Howley, the painter, stripped quite naked, shouting with joy as he rendered the walls with mud which he scraped from the concrete slab. It looked like a cross between a Kafka nightmare and a happy night at Luna Park. His dark hair kept falling over his eyes and he kept holding it back in place by plastering it with thick handfuls of mud as he worked. His body was pink and blue and there seemed almost to be a steam rising off it with the exertion of his labour.

It was not long after this that Clif painted Dick Downing. He then exhibited and sold a self portrait in an exhibition at Tye's gallery to a rich collector. He was desperate to paint full time and he concocted a scheme to make this possible. He called to see the collector at his Toorak home and was ushered through his Gallery into a study. He found a large man at a table sitting with his back to the window that made it hard to see his face. Clif explained what he wanted to do and offered him all the paintings he produced over a six month's period in return for a regular £6 a week payment during that period. When the collector asked him how many paintings he could expect, Clif could not honestly commit himself to any number, so he said he did not know, maybe none. 'Good', said the client, 'you may have the money. If you had promised me a production number, you would not'. The first exhibition I recollect Clif having was in conjunction with Laurie Dawes, Peter Laycock and John Howley. it made a strong impression on Melbourne, which at this time was in the midst of the great post-war painting period.

It introduced me to Clifs paintings of the local bush, partly abstract and partly representational, that leave an indelible impression on the mind. I am thankful for that painting period in his career because it was at that time he executed and presented a 12' x 4' painting to the Eltham Youth Club to hang in the Hall they had just built. The painting was later sold to the Eltham Council to defray the Youth Club's indebtedness to them. It was placed on the north end of the Council Reception Room. It helped me during some tedious periods when I was a member of the Eltham Council. Committee Meetings were held in this room and it was always possible to get an excellent view of the painting. It's subject matter was the dry bush, the lichen-covered rocks, the gold of the prickly Moses wattle of Cottle's Bridge, overlaid with the geometrically inter-connected wings of the white-winged choughs or apostle birds. It always had the power to translate me from the boring business of drains, bridges and traffic flows into the miraculous landscape that occurs at the junction of the Arthurs Creek Road, Hildebrand Lane and Mine Road, just a little further on than ClifPugh's property. It was a perfect place to comprehend at a glance the natural genius of the whole of Cottle's Bridge with brooding Mt. Sugarloaf just beyond.

This first exhibition was a sell-out and since then his reputation has never looked back. There was another period, however, when five businessmen entered into an arrangement with him to pay him a regular sum of money in return for his painting output for a given period. They included David Yencken, whose life in Australia keeps surfacing in a wide variety of interesting places. He paid the agreed sums, but never accepted the paintings.

Moving into Vice-Regal circles in 1964, Clif signed a contract to paint Lord de Lisle, the Governor General of Australia. He said it was the only contract he ever signed and the only one he ever will. The portrait was started in Canberra and continued at Dunmoochin, because Clif could not return to Canberra again at that time. It is regrettable that I do not know an eye witness who actually saw the Vice-Regal Rolls Royce with its ensign bravely fluttering from the bonnet with police escort motor cyclists on either side dodging the stray dogs and one or two sleepy pedestrians as the entourage swirled through Hurstbridge on its way to the Artists' Community. It was probably the most exciting event that has happened in the town since Hurst was killed by Burke the bushranger in the early days. John Serle the artist was working on a building for Clif the day the Governor General appeared. They had all been alerted and were waiting for him. John said it was a great sight to see the enormous Rolls Royce straddling the water eroded pot holes and dodging the tree stumps as it climbed the steep track that originally gave access to Dunmoochin.

When the Governor General and Clif had disappeared into the Studio for about an hour, John chatted to the driver. He showed him the engine and the huge refrigerator inside. He told him it was painted every six weeks so that when he arrived at the Dunmoochin track he thought it seemed somewhat undignified for such mechanical elegance. He slid back his window to inform the Governor General that he was certain he was at the right location, but wanted to know if he felt they should venture into such a primitive wilderness.

De Lisle put his head out the window, glanced at the situation and with a Wellington-like authority, said 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Push her up son!'

When Clif and the Governor reappeared, a reasonably sized bushfire had started up on a farther hillside and De Lisle was all for driving over to have a close look at it. They did not do so, but it would have been a magnificent occasion to see the glittering black tank-like vehicle carrying the Vice-Regal insignia disappearing into the smoke and flames as if the primitive Dunmoochin environment was locked in mortal combat with"the modern symbol of Crown and State. My son, Tony, was also present taking photographs of the Governor General to assist in painting the portrait.

Lord de Lisle's visit was a great success but the work was not completed and arrangements were made for Clif to return to Government House in Canberra for the week-end.

He commenced relating the events of this unusual holiday, by explaining that he did not usually wear pyjamas, but thought it might be better if he did on this occasion, presumably because of the danger of fire or a sudden declaration of war. It would be embarrassing to be caught naked in the corridor.

Marlene, who was still married to Clif at the time, bought him a pair and he arrived at Government House with a brown paper parcel under his arm as his only piece of luggage. It was a Saturday afternoon, but de Lisle told Clif not to worry, there was nothing important afoot that evening.

Clif has more personal assurance and confidence than almost anyone I know. On this occasion he was wearing a tweed sports coat and trousers and probably sandals. It was during a pre-dinner drink that Clif felt the occasion was stiffer and more formal than he had anticipated. High ranking Navy, Army and Air Force Officers started arriving, resplendent in full dress uniform. When they finally entered the dining room, their names were announced. When the major domo on the door caught sight ofClif, he nearly fainted. They took their places, standing in front of their seats at the table and Clif was about to sit down when he realized that they were all waiting for the Governor General to sit first. As he went to draw in his own chair, he felt it pushed at him from behind and discovered that every guest had a servant in attendance. Clif reported no difficulties with the menu or the cutlery.

After the dinner they moved into the drawing room and he and de Lisle, who was most interested in painting, talked together well on into the night. They consumed a reasonable amount of whisky between them and Clif said he was feeling just a little tipsy. He noticed the Navy representative looking furious and the dispenser of the alcohol hissing at him, 'Would you like another drink, Mr. Pugh?' Lord de Lisle told him not to worry, but to leave the bottle and go to bed. About half an hour later, the guardian of the bottle came again and asked him pointedly if he would like to go to bed. If he wanted more whisky, it could be sent up to his room. Clif took the hint and they retired. When he got there, he found his servant had been so confused by the unusual luggage that he had placed the coat of the pyjamas in one drawer and the trousers in another.

Both Lord de Lisle and Clif were up very early next morning walking in the garden and talking painting. The Governor was attempting to persuade him to stay in Canberra and to teach him how to paint. But Clif was far too familiar with the dry bush the mud brick building and the easy going activities of Dunmoochin to accede to such a request.

The first portrait did not please either of them, so de Lisle arranged to call to Dunmoochin again to have a second one painted. It is now hanging in the King's Hall in Parliament House, Canberra. It may not be one of Clifs best portraits, but it is a big step up on the universal black and brown picture postcard representations that have been the manner of recording most of Australia's chosen representatives, particularly men like Menzies. Lord de Lisle at least looks like a man in his white uniform, as does Gough Whitlam, whom Clif painted at a later date. Clif is still friendly with de Lisle and they always meet when he is in England.

I was in Canberra on one occasion when Clif and Judith, who was to become his third wife, were there. It was arranged th~t we should attend a party in Tom Uren's room in Parliament House that evening. It was to be something of an occasion for it was the last night on which Parliament was to sit before rising for the 1972 election. I remember examining the faces at the table carefully, believing that it would prove an historic occasion. I felt certain that Labor would gain office by a large majority. I remember discussing this prospect with Jim Cairns, who at that time had probably done more for Labor's cause with his anti-Vietnam War marches than any other person, except the charismatic Gough Whitlam himself. Jim said that he thought they could win, but he was not certain. The answer proved to be somewhere between these two extremes. Labor did gain power by a reasonable, but not an overwhelming majority.

Clif s standing as a portrait painter and landscape painter continued to rise in parallel. He was awarded two or three Archibald Prizes and produced several series of landscapes from various places, but I feel he is always at his best presenting the hungry Australian land that he first learnt about at Dunmoochin.

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