The Australian artist John Peter Russell is one of my heroes. In 1884, at the age of 26, he went to France where he stayed for forty years. There, he was befriended by Rodin, Van Gogh and Monet, was one of Matisse’s key teachers, became a highly respected ‘French’ impressionist, and was then wiped out of history. Three weeks ago, on July 21 to be precise, his contribution was finally recognised. A retrospective exhibition telling of his life and work opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; at last his paintings were formally celebrated and he was welcomed home.
As a fan, in 2017 I wrote “I am wondering whether to go to Australia in 2018 to see the promised Russell retrospective” (Lasting Impressionist,14 March, 2017). The promise was fulfilled and there I was in Sydney at the opening ceremony hearing speeches in praise of their lost ‘son’ and then feasting my eyes on over a hundred of his works. It was very moving. I had seen some of Russell’s paintings at London’s National Gallery and many more on the web, but being in touching distance of so many was different and after three visits to the exhibition I knew that his hero status was truly justified.
There was more to the exhibition than art – a moment at the opening gave me an insight into an important change in Australian culture. For years I have known of the terrible way Aboriginal people were treated. A nation who had inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years before the settlers arrived from England, was brought to its knees and almost exterminated. Many of its people were hunted down and killed like animals. Gradually they have been recovering but in some ways they remain a broken people. It was heartening to hear at the exhibition how efforts are now being made to recognise this ancient society. The first words said at the opening were: “On behalf of all us here this evening, I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present.”
A few days later I witnessed a powerful example of resurfaced Aboriginal pride. At the end of a meal in an almost empty restaurant, a woman sitting alone two tables away and who I had assumed was Indian, asked me where I was from. I told her I was from the UK and, as is now my habit, I asked her the same question in return. Her great grandfather from Liverpool and his wife from the Isle of Wight arrived in Australia in 1951. They came with their one-year old son. As an adult that son married an Aboriginal woman and two generations later my raconteur was born. I asked her if, in any way, she felt English. Her reply suggested that her English heritage meant next to nothing. All she said was – “As an Aboriginal woman I go back 80,000 years”. This powerful reassertion of her roots made me, as an Englishman, feel rightly humbled.
Back to our visit. Our stay in the antipodes lasted only two weeks. One reason for the trip was to attend the opening of Russell’s retrospective. But there was a second, and in many ways more important mission – to see and chat with friends and relations, some of those closest perhaps for the last time. For me it was the friends, for my wife, Rohan it was mainly family – she lived her first three years in New Zealand.
Catching up with Mary, Carol, Vivi, Robin, David, Tom, Mark and another Rohan, was wonderful; more profound, however was my week staying with Rob, a close friend for over fifty years. We first met when I was a medical student and he was my obstetric registrar and teacher over from Australia. We clicked immediately; later he called his second daughter after my wife.
Together that week Rob and I were, as ever, totally at ease and on the same wavelength as we walked, dined, cooked, chatted, joked, laughed (even giggled), reminisced, shared old ideas, developed new ones, always resolving with ease positions on which we were at odds.
Our week together was precious. At his suggestion, one evening we even sang together. Imagine, two old men sitting in rocking chairs in front of an electric fire accompanying Bob Hope crooning ‘Thanks for the memories’ and Snow White screeching ‘With a smile and a song’. It was quirky, unexpected and lovely, but that is how our relationship has always been.
All too soon it was time to leave and with our final good-bye hug, we were both close to tears.
A two-week trip Down Under during which I got in touch with so much, was worth every penny of the airfare and every minute of the jet lag. It is probably a journey too challenging to repeat but I will hold the insights and the memories for ever.
The illustration is a photo of John Peter Russell as a young man.