Robert Hughes once explained his reasons for leaving Australia by saying that if he’d stayed he would have ended up as the world expert on Tom Gleghorn. It wasn’t a swipe at one particular artist so much as an airy dismissal of Australian provincialism, but it left me with a lingering impression of Gleghorn as the apogee of narrow local attitudes.
It’s not fair and it’s not true, but it’s amazing how a one-liner can become wedged in one’s mind more effectively than volumes of art history. It’s also a warning about taking someone’s name in vain just for the sake of a joke.
He may have used Gleghorn as a negative example but Hughes couldn’t deny the extraordinary prominence the artist had attained by the early 1960s. In The Art of Australia, first published in 1966, the critic had to take a punt on those contemporaries who would stand the test of time, and Gleghorn’s claims could not be denied.
Five decades later, at the age of 95, Gleghorn is still hard at work although nowadays he’s unlikely to be first choice for the Sydney Biennale. Homeward Bound: The Art and Life of Tom Gleghorn, is a compact survey put together by Sarah Johnson, and guest curator, Scott Bevan, for the Newcastle Art Gallery. During the lockdown the show has been accessible on a video link that enables the viewer to move around the gallery, pause in front of pictures and zoom in for a close-up. It is, however, much better to see the actual works.
The title alerts us that Gleghorn, like William Dobell, John Olsen and Jon Molvig, was brought up in the Newcastle region. Born in the UK, Tom was 2 years old when the family came to Australia and settled in Warners Bay. He would move to Sydney in the mid-1950s when his star was on the rise, then leave for Adelaide in 1969. There, Tom and his wife, Elsie, have remained.
Any truly dedicated careerist would not have relocated to South Australia at the age of 44. There were only a handful of commercial galleries in Australia at the end of the 1960s, most of them in Sydney and Melbourne. The leading Adelaide dealer, Kym Bonython, transferred his base to Sydney in 1966, where he showed Gleghorn’s work at the Hungry Horse Gallery.
Bevan, who has written books about William Dobell and Lake Macquarie, believes our childhood home leaves an indelible imprint on the rest of our lives. Gleghorn feels exactly this way about the Lakes area, to which his memories keep returning. “I like all of it,” he says in the catalogue, “I like the smell of it. I like the sound of it. I like the feel of it. It’s been a huge influence.”
The first work of significance in this show is Twin Gums (c.1950), a robust, amateurish bush landscape painted by a young man whose ideas about art were strictly ‘monkey see, monkey do’. Gleghorn’s origin story is that he found a bunch of dried up paints, revived them with Californian Poppy hair oil, painted his first work, and won a local art competition. He had hoped for a cash prize but ended up with art materials.
He claims to have not considered a career as an artist until he visited the Art Gallery of NSW in 1949 and saw Dobell’s portrait of Margaret Olley, and the landscape, Storm approaching Wangi. The latter felt so exciting he went back to the Lakes, knocked on Dobell’s door and told him he wanted to be a painter.
Dobell would become Gleghorn’s mentor, but it wasn’t long before the young tyro had broken free of figuration and begun to paint in an abstract manner. By 1958 Gleghorn was one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. His work had grown in scale and ambition, with critical opinion seeing him as an exponent of the Abstract Expressionist style that was sweeping the globe. Author, Patrick White was a devoted collector.
Gleghorn says he never thought of his work as Abstract Expressionism, simply “my kind of reality”. He may have never progressed from landscape to abstraction had he not been inspired by the work of overseas artists, but inspiration is one thing and realisation another. Gleghorn borrowed an instrument, so to speak, but he wrote all his own tunes.
The first major picture one encounters in this show is Games in the Late Dawn (1960-61), a work completely in synch with the Zeitgeist, although one thinks of British artists such as Peter Lanyon and Alan Davie rather than their American counterparts. Either way, it’s an impressively physical painting – all spikey forms, sooty outlines, and confident swipes of the brush. It remains, recognisably, a landscape, which may support Hughes’s claim that Gleghorn has “a tendency to look for an abstract image by stylizing a figurative one, instead of approaching the idea from within.”
One could also say the work signals Gleghorn’s sovereign disregard of the theory and rhetoric of abstraction, as he never had the slightest concern about “approaching the idea from within”. His intention, apparently, was to create a powerful painting from those elements of a landscape that struck him most forcibly, rearranging and recombining them for dramatic effect.
Games in the Late Dawn is a time capsule, but one that any Australian art museum would be proud to own. The painting, Ritual of the Rain God (1960), is equally characteristic of its time, being a close cousin of the contemporaneous works of Stan Rapotec and Leonard Hessing. It mingles the dark, doomy existentialism of the period with a tangle of hooping lines from a dense, tropical jungle.
Another major piece, the triptych, Pompeii (1965), is almost cinematic in the way it cuts from the funereal grey of the buried town, to a savage vision of red lava and darkened skies. It’s a great demonstration of Gleghorn’s ability to imaginatively inhabit a particular time and space. He needs more than an an abstract idea to get fully involved.
Despite his love of drama, Gleghorn never seems fully committed to the dark side. On the contrary, he comes across as a naturally upbeat personality trying on a series of theatrical attitudes. The paintings that follow are lighter and more experimental. Even his longevity tells a tale. All the nonagenerian artists I know are positive, good-natured types. Guy Warren, at 99, is one of the youngest artists in Australia.
It’s Gleghorn’s love of the Australian landscape that emerges as the most consistent feature of his long career. Some of the later works, notably Landscape Altar – McDonnell Ranges (1986), pay homage to the antiquity of the desert. A slab of rusty red rock falls like a curtain across the picture plane, drawing the eye into a mysterious back cavern at the base of the picture. In such paintings there is only a hint of abstraction, adding universal relevance to prosaic observation.
I came away from this show with a renewed appreciation of Gleghorn’s work, and a renewed sense of frustration that so many senior artists have never received their due from the Art Gallery of NSW. The case of Tom Gleghorn, who rose to the highest echelons of Australian art, only to fall back into comfortable obscurity, illustrates a point. Rather than simply dismiss artists whose moment in the spotlight has passed, we need to look at the reasons why they once garnered praise and popularity. The public image may be ephemeral but there is almost always a solid core of talent that deserves our respect.
Homeward Bound: The Art and Life of Tom Gleghorn,
Newcastle Art Gallery of NSW, until 9 May – 19 July, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July, 2020