Paul McGillick: Alun Leach-Jones is one of Australia's most enduring and innovative artists -- painter, print-maker, sculptor, tapestry maker. Alun's work is hugely imaginative and dare I say mercurial. I spoke to Alun in his studio in Sydney to get some insight into this amazing world.
Well, let's start with some chronology. Tell me a little bit about your family background, your early life in Wales, and your education.
Alun Leach-Jones: Well, no education. Working class background. Yes, I think working class background. My father was Welsh. My mother was Scottish-English, and she came from a family of nine children. She went in domestic service as had, you know, most of the family.
And my father was the first one in his family to have education and became a teacher. Otherwise he would have gone down the pit. So that was the background.
My mother and father met in Liverpool, and then immediately moved back to live in Wales. So I had my childhood, you know. Six months old, from then on, until 1947, I was brought up in Wales and Welsh speaking. I couldn't speak English, because Welsh was the language in the family. But I've lost all that now. Now I only speak Australian. [laughs]
Paul: But you had some education?
Alun: Yes, well, my father was a teacher of the local school there, and there were 30 children in the school. All of the farmers' children. I was...my father became my teacher, and so for all my childhood teaching was literally done in the schoolhouse, where we lived. You know, the house was attached to the schoolhouse. My education was pretty basic.
I have no recollection really of what I actually learned, except to be able to sing in Welsh very well. Hymns and things like that, because we were a chapel family, Methodists, you see.
Paul: But the Welsh background became important later.
Alun: Very, very important.
Paul: Later, later it began ...
Alun: Very, very important.
Paul: Well, let's return to that later. At what stage did you decide that art would be your vocation? Was there a particular trigger or a set of circumstances?
Alun: Well, it was both, actually. That question is quite pertinent, because I actually can pin that down. Up to the age of...oh, let me see. What would it be? 1946, that would have made me eight or nine. I had no sense of really the visual arts, but I had a strong sense of the literary arts, because we were a very literary family and singing and music and all that sort of stuff, and hymns.
I had an uncle who I was very, very fond of. He had very bad war, and he was convalescing. He wanted to come and live with us in North Wales where it would be peaceful. You know, for him to recover.
So he came to live with us in 1946. And he was still with us in 1947. His name was Albert Leach. He had no artistic background, but he was vaguely interested. In the terrible winter of 1947, he bought us a pair of snow shoes, the two of us.
And he said, "I've got a lovely idea. We're going to go out into the snowy landscape and we're going to paint watercolours. It was a fantastic experience. We did this. We painted the watercolours. Tramped all over the countryside. It was a remarkable experience, because he could teach me the rudiments of watercolour.
As a consequence of that, he then said, "You know? It mightn't be a bad idea for you to consider becoming a visual artist." He said, "You seem to have the aptitude for it."
It did strike me, although at that very young age, there might be something in that, because the sheer pleasure of doing that painting in the company of somebody I was very, very fond of. And he returned to Liverpool where he went to work in the postal service.
While he was there, I visited Liverpool and all that sort of thing. We eventually moved back to Liverpool. I joined the local post office club, which he was part of. He commissioned me to paint murals for the bar in the post office. That was the first professional experience I had. It was absolutely wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
And then when I went to work as an illuminating ... illuminating manuscript writer, an outfit called the Solicitor's Law Society, a very old-fashioned thing, where you penned wonderful documents on parchment for freedom of the city, that sort of thing.
And I was lucky enough to...another young man, slightly older than me, who was Scottish, and he joined the company. He was keen on painting. We became like that, very, very close friends. So we, him and I...in fact, he became, remained a friend until he died, 10 years ago. All those years.
And he was older than me by about two years. He was very ambitious. He said, "Look, we're going to Paris this week to have a look at a Gaugin exhibition." I had never heard of Gaugin, obviously. And he'd say, "We're going to go to Madrid to the Prado." So we'd go to Madrid. Always taking our girlfriends with us, you see?
And so that sort of background, by the time I was...because I left school at 14 and a half, became apprenticed to be a law writer. From 14 and a half on, I was thinking visual arts all the time. Visual arts all the time.
But my fam ... my family was not wealthy enough or, so I only had my education up to secondary modern school, where you were supposed to leave at fifteen. And I left at fourteen and a half, and that meant I couldn't get a scholarship to go to an art school or a grammar school, unlike my sister, who was born ten years later.
We were more well off then, and she got a scholarship and she went to the Liverpool School of Art, which I never ever had. But she never became a painter, but I did without that education. You know, that visual arts education.
And so that's how it all started. I think I can say by the time I was fifteen or sisteen, I already had it...a vague sense of maybe of a vocation. But there was nobody there around me in the culture, in the context, my family context, that could really say that, "Yes, that is true. If you pursue this, you could go from A to B."
But there was that sense, because of Ronald McKinzie, this friend of mine. It was a possibility, because we both then went to night school at the Liverpool College of Arts, which was, you know ... we started to take ourselves quite seriously.
And that's how it really started. And although I had no idea of what the journey was going to be, and what the destination was, because you can never predict those sort of things, how it goes. But from that moment on I think there was a sense of I want this to happen, you know?
Paul: Now, one important stage in that journey occurred in 1959 when you saw the seminal show, "New American Painting" at the Tate. That had a big impact on you. Tell me a little bit about the impact.
Alun: Well, prior to that I'd become interested in Matisse, as I mentioned to you earlier on.
The idea that painting or colour in painting being an expressive tool to show emotion. Not to describe things or to think philosophically, but colour seemed to be so emotional that it was almost wordless. If you can make a visual image rich in colour, you would have feeling naturally following in its wake. I think I'd learned that lesson from Matisse.
Then 1959, I then saw Barnett Newman, Rothko, and that reinforced that abstraction just married to colour was a powerful tool to express feeling. I'm not sure what the feelings were or are, but from that moment on, I was more or less dedicated to the idea of colour being central to painting. That gives you a very strong sense of vocation.
Paul: In 1960, you emigrated to Australia. Why Australia? And why Adelaide?
Alun: Well, again, fairly clear answers. I just lived through what was known as the "age of anxiety," the postwar period in Britain where everybody was impoverished. My social position in that world was such that I really would have no hope to go to higher education, art school, let alone a Red Brick university, and certainly not one of the great universities.
I had a distinct feeling...north of England, impoverished...there was really no, there's no future to stay here. I was going to be blocked at every way. I had the wrong accent. I came from a working class background. I didn't have education. So what place was there for me to go?
And so I thought, "Well, maybe emigration, going someplace else which was more open to somebody with none of those qualifications, but through energy and through talent you might be able to succeed." I thought maybe America and I thought New Zealand and I thought Australia. I didn't try America. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I should have gone to America.
New Zealand turned me down when I wanted to emigrate there, and Australia accepted me. So I emigrated in 1960, knowing nobody, arriving port Adelaide with ten pounds in my pocket, going into a hostel for about four or five months like a boat person, you know? Just to get my feet. Not knowing anybody, no background, and just made it, because Adelaide was very open and it was very free.
As an old guy who was...I used to see regularly in a pub, because I used to go around on a Saturday afternoon because I didn't know anybody and I'd sit in a pub. I was renting a little room...apartment nearby, and the two of us were in the bar. He was at one end. He came up to me and he said, "You're looking a bit down."
And I said, "Yes, well, I am. You know, I've got no money and I haven't got a job. I'm living in a hostel and I'm an emigrant." And he said, "Oh, perfect qualifications to be an Australian." He said, "We don't anybody seriously until you've been three times bankrupt."
And I was so reassured by that. I thought all I'd have to do is keep going. I did a lot of crummy jobs, awful jobs. Eventually, I got a job as a library assistant at the state library. I enrolled at the South Australian School of Art for night classes and that's where I met Nola, my wife, who is still my current wife. That's where the real professional life started.
The idea of a vocation that was shapeless, Adelaide started to shape that instinct into a plan. What do I study? Where will it lead me? Who should I see? All of that sort of thing. That was 1960.
And having got this job, I'm going to the South Australian School of Art, you start to move around the city. At that time, Kym Bonython had just opened his first gallery...his gallery. Naturally, I gravitated to the gallery.
One day he spoke to me, he said, "Are you enjoying the show?" It was a Louie James show actually. I said, "Yes, it is terrific." He said, "Who are you and what are you," and I told him my background. He said, "Would you like to come and work for me as a night keeper or the gardener?" I said, "Well I can't because I'm working at the South Australian Library as a book shelver" or what have you.
He said, "But no you can come and live here in the gallery in the basement. Before you go off to work you can make sure everything's all right around the gallery and mow the lawn and do all that sort of thing." I took it on.
That exposure with Kym, to a professional gallery, showing people like Laurie Daws, Sidney Nolan, and people like that, Fred Williams. I remember Fred Williams did a show there. I helped to hang it.
All the Fred Williams were £25, and it was panned by the critics. But it gave me a sense of what being in art was all about. You do serious work, you've got somebody to support you, shows it in the gallery.
And so I just carried on with my studies of the South Australian Art Gallery, working part time at the South Australian Library as a design artist, and working for Kym Bonython. Now that's a very generous city that enables a young man with no background, no money, and knowing nobody, that was a wonderful thing. Really fantastic thing.
And to answer the other question, when I went for my interview as to which city I should choose, I said, "Well tell me about all the cities." He rattled off all the cities. He said, "But you might like Adelaide," he said "You know single man" and all that. He said, "It's a city of churches and pubs."
He said, "So you can do a lot of drinking if you want to or you can go to church, you see." He said, "It is also the cultural hub of Australia." Now I don't know whether that was true, but it struck me as not a bad recommendation to go and live in Adelaide. And being a small city, you could make your way.
I think now on reflection if I'd come to Sydney, it might have been too big, and I might have been overwhelmed by it. I was able to incrementally improve my understanding of myself and where my career could go in the visual arts.
And then of course I was lucky because small city, interested in books so I gravitated to Mary Martin's book shop. There were other book shops of course, but Max Harris who was a very convivial book seller. One day he asked me who I was because I was buying books and all this sort of thing. I told him that I was an artist and all this sort of thing.
He said could I see some work. I took in some drawings and that led me to do my first commission when he asked me to illustrate a book of his poetry.
And in the course of that, because I was in and out all the time, he said, "One day Alun, there's somebody here I'd like you to meet. If you want to be a painter, you might like to follow this example, he said "Sydney Nolan, Alun Leach-Jones". It was a fantastic, fantastic experience.
You know, he wouldn't have remembered me as soon as he walked out of the shop, but we suddenly gained reinforcing that sense that you could belong to the arts in that way if you worked hard. The openings were there, people were generous and there was a real visual arts culture to aspire to, which was fantastic.
Paul: Between 1960 and 1963, you studied at the South Australian School of Art, and I think I'm right in saying these were the glory days of the South Australian School of Art. And I think I'm right in saying, these were the glory days of the South Australian School of Art. Amazing people like Charles Reddington, Udo Sellbach, Karen Shapers. Tell me a little bit about those.
Alun: Paul Biegel was the dean of the college.
Paul: Paul Biegel?
Alun: Paul Beagle, the sculptor. Very open minded, and he was the one who employed those you've just mentioned. So I studied along with a bunch of people like myself, you know, Syd Ball, Jennifer Marshall, Bob Boynes...all coming from varied backgrounds.
We all met at the art school and became a sort of, not a clique so much, but we all knew one another and we'd all been taught by the same individuals.
And it was a fantastic period, really fantastic period. People like Udo...Udo Sellbach and Jeff Brown, who was teaching printmaking, who'd learned printmaking in London. They drove this group to form the first graphic art society I think in Australia. Certainly in Adelaide.
We used to meet regularly every month, plan exhibitions, and Udo Sellbach, who printed for Picasso in Germany before he came out here, he was the mentor who guided us all and told us what was what about being professional.
How to organize a show, what to do with your work, how to present it, all that sort of stuff. Reddington, Karen Shapers, Franz Kempf, all provided that sort of truly professional training in attitude, if not in technique, as to what it constitutes to be a visual artist.
I don't think it could get better. It was wonderful. And Reddington of course, he came from America and brought in that sense of, if you're going to go in, you're going to go the abstract expressionist route. He was the spokesman for that sort of thing.
On the other hand you had...Udo Sellbach saying, yes but if you're going to make great portfolios based on Ovid's Metamorphosis, you've got to look at Picasso and learn how to make etchings. Between those sort of things it's quite extraordinary in how it stimulated you.
Paul: That cluster of people led by Sellbach, who I think was head of the school...as you said, brought to your attention issues like vocation, the discipline of the practice. The other thing though, because printmaking has been so important to you, does that date from this time? Because printmaking was so strong under Sellbach and Shapers.
Alun: Yes, absolutely it dates from that time. Absolutely. I can remember the lessons. I remember Udo, we had to do a lithograph, we all had to draw a Coke bottle. I've never forgotten this. I meticulously worked on this stone with this Coke bottle. It had to be fantastic.
And he said that's terrific, he said, "You've produced a really wonderful, banal, useless image." He said, "Now where's the imagination coming into change the Coke bottle" you see. That sort of tuition in relation to a craft was quite extraordinary. It taught you to make risks aesthetically and think beyond the look of the object.
At the same time he was teaching you a craft that went back centuries. Absolutely fantastic. Now I don't know what is...that's a really good foundation, and I think we all experienced it all in our different ways.
Paul: You returned to London in 1964. Why?
Alun: Well, culture in Australia in 1964 was not exactly top of everybody's agenda. Certainly the absence of regular exposure to...I hesitate to use the word, but great works of art. We both felt, Nola and I just thought we both...it would be good to back and live in Europe, so we could go to Paris and the great museums. Go to Venice and all of that sort of thing, which we couldn't do here.
So we decided, not permanently, but we decided to go for two or three years. We stayed for four or five. Of course, going to London, Nola had decided to study further, and so she went to the Chelsea School of Arts. I just did rough jobs. I met a lot of young British artists.
In fact, within a year, I had made a very close friendship with an English painter called Brian Plummer, who is still alive and he's a close friend of mine, who's a geometrical painter. He invited me to share his house and studio in North London, which we did for the three years we were there.
And of course, he then introduced me to people like Gordon House, who was designing the catalogs for Marlborough Gallery, and a whole host of other people that we met by being there, which we wouldn't have met. I met Patrick Heron and I met Norbert Linton and people like that, critics and painters, which we wouldn't have had if we'd stayed here in '64. I think that was quite an important period.
Paul: Now during the London years, you produced your first significant work, if I may say so. The Noumenon series of paintings, which continued for about the next ten years.
Paul: To me, this series of paintings signals the enduring theme running through your work, the transformative power of painting. For example, the use of Celtic imagery, the use of the mandala, which is the circle within the square, which is the key Asian symbol of the mystical essence.