Donald Friend (1915-89).

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Donald Friend (1915-89).


Gray, Anna

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Donald Friend
By Anna Gray

FRIEND, DONALD LESLIE STUART (1915-89), artist, writer, illustrator, was born on 6 February 1915 at Cremorne, Sydney, the second son of the New South Wales pastoralist, Leslie Friend and his wife Gwendoline. His grandfather on his father's side was the great left-hand batsman Henry (Harry) Moses who played six test matches for Australia. After a family quarrel about 1920, Leslie Moses, with his brother Henry and their families, reverted to their mother's maiden name of Friend. His grandfather on his mother's side was the founder of the art auctioneers, James R. Lawson’s. They were a relatively prosperous privileged family and in this respect Friend had a fortunate start in life. He was sent to private schools (Tudor House, Cranbrook and Sydney Grammar) and from an early age was encouraged to have an interest in the arts.

While still at school Donald studied art with Sydney Long at Long's studio at Callaghan House in George Street, Sydney, and came under Long's aesthetic guidance. He learnt etching and became a member of the Ex Libris Society. He admired Norman Lindsay's pen and ink drawings and started using pen and ink himself in response to Linday's illustrations to Petronius's Satyricon.[1] Friend worked in a romantic fashion, dreaming up pictures on the 'delightful and magnificent theme' of moon magic, 'dark mysterious realms of enchanted blackness – abounding in black witches with lovely faces – a great cauldron of moonlighted wishes. Something new and barbarically old to weave and bind with imagination and ink.[2]  When Friend returned to Sydney in 1934, after travels up north (1932-4), he studied art with Dattilo Rubbo. He learnt from Rubbo how to simplify forms and to look at what he was drawing. Friend thought Rubbo was a good teacher because he was sympathetic and able to spot talent in his students, but he did not think much of Rubbo's art.

In 1936, despite her disapproval of his desire to become an artist, his grandmother Moses gave him a cheque for £100, which enabled him to travel to London and enrol at the Westminster School of Art with Mark Gerter and Bernard Meninsky. He came to see himself as an artist when soon after leaving art school he was included in a figure drawing exhibition at R.E.A. Wilson's Gallery with other English artists including Thomas Rowlandson and Walter Sickert.[3]  While looking at art in London galleries Friend was impressed by the paintings of Gauguin, Picasso and Bracque and also those of El Greco and Bosch. He enjoyed the African night clubs with their boogie woogie and jazz, and fell in love with an African.

In 1938 he was inspired to travel to Nigeria. After a period at Lagos he moved inland to Ikerre in Ekiti province where he was given servants and a large house in the Ogoga’s compound. Friend was not interested in following the traditional path of Europeans in Africa, he had no interest in farming or trying to convert the Africans to his way of thinking; rather he sought to understand their way of being. He did not try to teach them to paint in western fashion, but attempted to make sculpture with the native casters’ guild, using their methods of 'lost wax' bronze casting. He travelled about the country looking for examples of Yoruba art, and listening to their stories.

Friend returned to Australia in 1940 when his life in Africa became uncomfortable. Friend did not join the army immediately upon his return to Australia, but took an attic in Kings Cross and mixed with Sydney artists like Drysdale and Dobell. He then went up north to Queensland to visit the Sailor family at Malaytown. Although he had received call up papers, it was not until the Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour in 1942, and he realised how serious the war was, that he enlisted. He was twenty-seven and at a formative stage of his life. Friend was initially assigned to an artillery training regiment in Sydney and then posted to Hume Camp, near Albury and to Greta Camp, near Newcastle. He volunteered to be a guinea pig in an anti-malarial experimental program at Atherton Tableland, and later worked in a labour battalion in Queensland and as a clerk in Special Intelligence.

After the war Friend moved into Merioola, a colonial mansion converted into a boarding house in Woollahra, where the stage designers Loudon Sainthill and Jocelyn Rickards, the photographer Alec Murray, the painter Justin O’Brien and sculptor Arthur Fleishmann also lived. It was the Bohemian centre of Sydney. After a while he tired of this life and searched for an alternative. He visited northern Queensland and the Sailor family and then in 1947 on a trip into western New South Wales with Russell Drysdale he discovered the gold mining towns of Sofala and Hill End. He was so impressed by Hill End that he purchased a wattle and daub miner's cottage and over the next decade lived there with Donald Murray. They received regular visits from Drysdale and his family, Jean Bellette and Paul Haefliger, and Margaret Olley. And he wrote a social history of the town, Hillendiana.[4]  For years he returned to this cottage at Hill End when he wanted to escape from the artificiality of city life or became tired of travelling abroad.

Ever restless, in 1949 he sailed for Italy and over the next few years he moved between Italy, Greece and London. In Italy he met up with Australian expatriates Jeffery Smart, Michael Shannon, Jacqueline Hick and Justin O'Brien and met his lifelong friend Attilio Guarracino. Inevitably, he was impressed by works of the Italian masters, and even created a fake 'unknown 14th century Umbrian' panel painting of a Madonna and child (on which he replaced the words 'Laudate Domino' with 'Laudate Donaldi').[5] On his return to Australia in 1953 he worked alternatively at Hill End, northern Queensland, and Drysdale's studio in Sydney, with an occasional visit to Melbourne; but he was never able to stay long in one place, frequently running away from unhappy love affairs.

Friend lived in Sri Lanka for five years (between 1957 and 1962) and in Bali for thirteen years (from 1967 to 1979), where he became known for his luxurious lifestyle. These visits broadly followed the pattern of his African journey. He immersed himself in the culture and adapted aspects of it in his art, he visited ancient sites and collected artefacts for himself and for sale. He responded to the Buddhist calm and detachment of the culture while at the same time knowing that he could not fully understand Buddhism. His house at Batudjimbar on the beach at Sanur, where he was attended by houseboys and gardeners and was entertained by his own gamelan orchestra, quickly acquired a legendary status. He lived like a feudal lord, surrounded by his collection of Balinese bronzes, carvings and porcelain. He wrote the book Donald Friend in Bali and a picaresque novel based on his Balinese experiences, Save me from the shark. And an English film crew visited and made a documentary, Tamu (The guest), about him.

While on Bali he suffered from tuberculosis and high blood pressure. He experienced continuing difficulties with extending his visa and became increasingly ill and in pain, and so in 1979 he finally returned to Australia. He lived at first in Melbourne with Attilio and Ailsa Guarracino and from 1981 in Sydney. Following his return to Australia he moved away from depicting male nudes and began to concentrate on still lifes, interiors and window views, and returned to printmaking, producing lithographs and etchings. He saw several books published; Bumbooziana in 1979, The Farce of Sodom in 1980, An Alphabet of Owls in 1981 and The Vagabond Scholars in 1983. In his last book, Art in a Classless Society, a satire of the Australian art world, he gathered together some of the thoughts he had first expressed in his Diaries. In 1987, at seventy-two, he suffered the first of several crippling strokes that paralysed the left side of his body. Following this he taught himself to paint with his right hand. He died at his home in Sydney two years later in August 1989.

© Anne Gray 2003

1.Barbara Blackman, interview with Donald Friend, November 1984, NLA, 1793/1, pp.31-2.
2. Donald Friend Diaries, 1930, p.48.
3. Blackman, p.25. 'Figure Drawings by English Artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries', R.E.A.Wilson, Ltd, London, June-July 1938, cat. 8 and 9.
4. Donald Friend, Hillendiana, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1956
5. Friend described creating the 14th century Umbrian panel painting in Don Bennetts film, Donald Friend: a prodigal Australian, ABC, Sydney, 1990.