Australian Book Review November 2004


Cultivating Controversy

Sarah Thomas

Janine Burke
Random House, $49.95hb, 552pp, 1 74051 202 2

THE HEART GARDEN was the subject of considerable controversy even before its launch, ruffling art-world feathers and propelling the Heide set once again onto the front page of an Australian newspaper. Janine Burke has a knack for provocation, which must delight her publishers, and this new biography of Sunday Reed makes bold claims that challenge some of the orthodoxies of Australian art. No doubt the book’s sensual and charismatic subject, Sunday Reed, and her famous artist friends Sidney Nolan (her lover for some nine years), Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester and Charles Blackman among others, can also claim credit for the continued public interest. After all, their libertine proclivities make contemporary Australian society seem dull by comparison.

Born into one of Melbourne’s most prominent families, Lelda Sunday Baillieu had a privileged upbringing, dividing her time between family mansions in Toorak and Sorrento while being tutored in the gentle art of being a lady. It was not long, however, before she thoroughly disgraced herself in the eyes of her family, marrying an Irish–American Catholic, Leonard Quinn, from whom she contracted gono- rrhea within the first three years of their marriage. The condition left her infertile and Quinn soon disappeared from the picture. Within a year, she met and married the love of her life, John Reed, who was to be a powerful and stabilising influence, and with whom she created the celebrated Heide chapter in Australian art. The Heart Garden is an attempt to reassess the strength and extent of Sunday’s influence on Melbourne’s cultural life in the 1940s and 1950s. In Burke’s words, Sunday was ‘the engine behind Heide, the ideas person, the critical, seeing eye, an inspiring, quickening force that enthralled, and infuriated, many.’ The book takes its name from the secret garden that Sunday created at Heide after the demise of her passionate relationship with Nolan. Described by Burke as a private love letter, the garden was arranged on the lawn not far from the dining room window and comprised chamomile and small heart-shaped herbs. The conceit is a sentimental one that works well as a leitmotiv for the grand passions at the centre of the book.

For Burke, the intense mix of creative personalities drawn together at Heide has provided a wealth of material (via copious primary sources) to which she has returned many times. In 1983 she published a book on Joy Hester based on her Masters thesis; in 1995 she edited the letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed; and more recently she has written on Albert Tucker, including a controversial biography published in 2002. Burke is a wonderful storyteller — no surprise to those who know her fiction — and The Heart Garden makes compelling reading. There is no reason that art history should not be gripping, particularly when the lives of its protagonists are the stuff of contemporary fiction. Burke recognised this in 1983 when she wrote: ‘Art history can be a form of fiction. It is constructed from the lives and works of individuals who are grouped in hindsight, as a movement, and then viewed at greater distance, as a period of cultural history.’ The trouble is that history often resists being packaged into a dramatic and structured narrative; memory plays tricks and facts can get in the way of a good story.

Burke runs into problems in her attempt to challenge the traditional notion of the muse as a passive force. This is no better (or more contentiously) illustrated than in the discussion of Sunday’s creative relationship with Nolan. Burke provoc- atively suggests that Sunday collaborated with him on some of his most famous works, the Kelly series among them. ‘The Kellys are Sunday and Nolan’s swansong,’ Burke writes, ‘the last brilliant burst of their creative duet.’ What is most problematic here is that speculation — that Sunday painted the floor tiles and possibly the patchwork quilt in two of Nolan’s paintings — is conveyed as fact. Burke’s evidence is unconvincing, the main source being a quote from a subsequent letter from John Reed to Nolan, when the friendship between them had soured, that read: ‘Your paintings were part of your contribution [to Heide], even though you said Sunday painted them as much as you did … you said all your paintings were for Sunday, and I am quite sure you did not think of them otherwise. They were created with her in a sense which is almost literal, and it is certain without her, without your life at Heide, a great many would never have been painted.’ Surely the description of Sunday’s contribution as being ‘almost literal’ runs counter to Burke’s argument?

In addition, the author cites an inscription in an unknown hand on the reverse of a Nolan watercolour that reads: ‘Sydney Nolan [sic] “For the one who paints such beautiful squares” (Sunday: Re Kelly Paintings).’ The misspelling of Nolan’s name does not inspire much confidence in the reliability of the claim. Burke also suggests that Barrett Reid believed that Sunday painted the floor tiles, but proof of this comes second-hand from an interview in 2002 with another source. Burke provides no conclusive evidence that Sunday helped Nolan paint, as the author would have us believe when she asserts: ‘Sunday’s contribution to the [Kelly] series was profound, and profoundly practical. As usual, she assisted Nolan by priming the masonite and mixing the paint. Now she went one step further and began to paint some sections of the paintings.’ What Burke does not emphasise is that many of the Kelly paintings were executed when the Reeds were in Brisbane and that others were made at a time when Nolan and Sunday’s relationship was drawing to a close. In some regards, whether or not the paintings were in part painted by another hand is unimportant; Burke does not diminish Nolan’s brilliance by such speculation. But it is problematic that she is all too ready to make unsubstantiated statements that support her general premise — that Sunday was the ultimate power behind the cultural ferment at Heide. The example given here is just one of many scattered throughout the book.

While The Heart Garden portrays its protagonist as wilful and complex, the voice of her husband is comparatively silent. While a less charismatic figure, John played a pivotal and very public role in the development of Australian modernism, one that has long been acknowledged. Burke is right to highlight the more hidden aspects of Sunday’s contribution, but the couple worked very much as a team and their legacy is a dual one. It is hard not to feel sorry for John at various points throughout the book. It is to the author’s credit that The Heart Garden is no hagiography; indeed, at times, Burke portrays her subject in an unsympathetic light. This is the case in the discussion of Sunday’s idiosyncratic attitude towards child-raising, which comes to light when she is charged with rearing Sweeney, the son of Tucker and Hester.

The Heart Garden will undoubtedly provide much for scholars of Australian art to debate, while at the same time being an entertaining and involving account of one of Australia’s most influential art salons. For now at least, Burke has departed from the Heide ‘family circle’ and is currently working on a book about Freud’s art collection.