Colin Lanceley 1938 – 2015

In December 2014 and January 2015, the great Australian artist Colin Lanceley granted two extraordinary interviews to writer Elizabeth Fortescue for ARTIST PROFILE. Lanceley was gravely ill, but he spoke openly and eloquently. He talked about his childhood, his art education, the things he loved and the people who encouraged him on the “bloody hard” road that is an artist’s life. Lanceley hoped to see these interviews in print, but it was not to be. He passed away on January 30 in Sydney, aged 77. The following is an edited transcript of the two interviews.

Through what was more an extended conversation than a formal interview, Colin Lanceley spoke freely of his life, his work and major influences. Here, we summarise the many topics and recollections which our conversations touched on many times.

Colin on his ill health:
The sad thing is that at the moment I can’t work in the studio at all. I just don’t have the energy or the concentration. I hadn’t realised just how physical my own work was. Normally I just get on with things in the workshop (but) I can’t do that any more. It’s the breathlessness that knocks me sideways. And that’s to do with this thing called pulmonary hypertension. The heart just doesn’t produce enough oxygen. When I’m forced to look at one end of life I’m really interested in the other. I know it’s a cliché to say that as you get older you start remembering more things about your youth. And that’s true, of course it is. And it is a way of tying up the string into a connection. But I have so many things that I (still) want to say as an artist.

On living in London after winning the 1964 Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship:
When we first went there, there were still women sitting on their front steps shelling their peas or slicing up their vegetables, with victory rolls in their hair. There were cops who strolled along the street with their hands behind their back like benign Dixon of Dock Green kind of stuff. And I thought, “This is just amazing, how does this survive?” And where we lived, near Portobello Road Market, was a sort of treasure trove for me, because I’m a scavenger. I love materials and finding pieces. And so the sort of costermonger thing was still, you know, still Steptoe going up the road every day and so on. So all of this stuff was still going. And it was as though this was a society where this was still coming to the surface, which it was. I don’t know how much people’s attics can hold, but it seemed to me that this was a perpetual kind of marketplace.

His return to Sydney in 1981 and making an important friendship after 18 years overseas:
We landed in suburban Northwood. Though I grew up in suburbs all that time ago, I never belonged. And there was an old man, a very elegant man, in a black corduroy suit, a lot of whispish white hair, always sitting in the sun on the bus seat at Northwood. When I went wandering around, which I always do, I always saw this fellow. But he was the only person I saw. It was the sort of suburb where everyone had gone to work on the ferry or the bus or whatever, and then the curtains started twitching, because you were the only strange person wandering about. Anyway I decided to sit down next to this guy one morning, and he said “Hello, Colin Lanceley”, and I said “Hello, Lloyd Rees”. I’m glad I got that right! And that became a really important connection. Because he was such a delightful human being, and we loved each other’s work. We had some nice times. Slow times. I mean Lloyd was already about 90, I think. He’d known all the time who I was walking past, and I’d suspected (Rees’ identity).

And then some years later I got a phone call from him, and he said: “Years ago I gave a certain amount of money to the University of Tasmania to be used for some art purpose (and) they haven’t done anything with it and it’s accrued interest and so on. Could you do a painting for Tasmania for that much?” And my tears – tears were just running down my face. And I said “Oh, Lloyd, of course I’ll do a painting; I don’t care what they pay for it”. I thought, “This is just getting incredible, you know? It’s like having a surviving Impressionist like Monet or something or other, who’s known all the others and so on.”

I was born in New Zealand and brought over here as a babe. My childhood was on the north shore (of Sydney) at Chatswood/Willoughby. I had a pushbike which was my great release, really, my freedom from (suburbia). The bushland around Middle Harbour and Roseville Bridge, all that stuff became my familiar patch and there was a little gang of us that all had bikes. “Just make sure you’re home before it gets dark” – it was that kind of growing up.

Studying art at the National Art School:
Well, I felt my education was beginning. I had a terrible secondary education at a very poor school, and really was uninterested in most of the things that the school had to offer. I was sort of saved there by Clive Nield, who had a school in Warrandyte in Victoria in the ’40s which was quite famous, I think, with (Danila) Vassilieff and people like that. There was a kind of artistic community down there. Anyway, he’d obviously run into problems with the education department because I suddenly had him as a teacher at Naremburn Intermediate High School. And he transformed things for me, because he wasn’t like any of the other staff. He had me painting sets and doing illustrations and getting involved in all sorts of creative things, and I think it was my first glimpse of an alternative that seemed to be more about what I could do. (Lanceley’s desire to study art caused ructions between him and his father.) I wanted to study art, and he wouldn’t have it, because it didn’t involve a trade and some secure form of employment, so we had terrible rows about that. I was going to evening classes, I think twice a week from memory, at North Sydney, and there was a wonderful guy there called Peter Laverty who’d just arrived from Winchester. (Laverty went on to be the director of the Art Gallery of NSW.) So he was a young teacher, very enthusiastic. And he inspired me a lot actually. But more than that, he was kind of moral support. So when I talked about studying art properly, full-time, he said “Yes that’s what you should do”. And he gave me his imprimatur, if you see what I mean, and he smoothed the way for me to get the courage to leave my apprenticeship in the printing industry. So I sort of walked in. He set it all up. I think I got into the full-time course without doing the first year or something like that. He was an enormous help to me, anyway.

(Laverty) was really very dynamic and very serious and I used to go painting with him at weekends out in the bush around Sydney, around Ku-ring-gai, places like that. I loved being a student at the National Art School. It was the opening of my life, really, because I was learning what I wanted to learn in a milieu that was created by a whole lot of artists.

“Aesthetic chess”, the game invented by Lanceley and some of the other National Art School students:
We’d hang out in wine bars and coffee shops and so on, and in particular one coffee shop near Taylor Square which was run by a Jewish woman named Magda. She wanted to have a kind of Viennese cake and coffee shop with the kind of intellectual buzz that such a place in Vienna always had. And so she didn’t mind the fact that we students occupied every table in the place and she was slowly going broke, or quickly going broke. But it was there that we started. We were always arguing and jousting and all this kind of business – young artists trying to understand things and get on – and that was where aesthetic chess was born. I had a lot to do with the naming of that, actually. There was a hard core group of us, maybe five of us, including a New Zealand artist who we met there called Ross Crothall. (Crothall, Lanceley and Mike Brown would form the Annandale Imitation Realists, a bold triumvirate whose work reacted against the so-called Sydney Charm School. The group made strident, deliberately provocative assemblages from a variety of junk materials.) We used to take things out of our pockets and purses and so on, things like boxes of matches or cigarettes, keys, key rings, lipstick – all the detritus. Their identity didn’t interest us as much as the shape of the space that they occupied. So we began to see these things as patterns, and it was a marvellous exercise actually, because by moving these things around, either on the square top of the coffee table or on a big pad or whatever (and we criticised moves) we gradually built up a composition. And it was a terrific part of our training, not that I realised that at the time. And that’s always been the way that I’ve worked. Bringing things together in a way that I thought was right, and that’s how the paintings grow. They grow from things like that, which is kind of illogical in a way, but it’s got its own inner logic. But you have to trust that for it to work. You have to give it the authority.

John Kaplan’s contribution to art education:
A really crucial person I mustn’t forget was the librarian (at the National Art School) whose name was John Kaplan, and he was a German Jewish scholar. I don’t know what his field was, but probably philosophy. He ran the library there and was a huge influence on creating the cultural values that the students adopted, because there was a great deal of philistinism in institutions. So he would arrange musical performances and talks and a film society, and these are all very important parts of an art education. So we saw early European films and so on, and got a grasp of a total kind of culture, and that’s important, you know?

Being connected to the chain of civilisation:
I’ve always loved the layering in human culture. There are flint arrowheads and things that we dug up on a Neolithic settlement site in south-eastern Spain, for instance. And somehow the connection with something that happened two or three thousand years previously adds dimension to what you are doing then. And to be down on a pretty grimy and industrial kind of beach near an old copper mine in southern Spain with a guy who took the screwdriver out of his car and said “I’m taking you to see a Phoenician necropolis”. And he was digging in the sand like that and pulled out a skull. And so it’s all there. And in the sands of the beach were the shards of broken Roman pottery, with figures in relief. And I always found that sort of thing terribly exciting, because I don’t want to be the only person who lived on the Earth, and it’s an important connection to make. So that you think “Well, my experience here can’t be too different from that person’s experience here”

The famous Palaeolithic cave paintings of Altamira, Spain:
That’s a fantastic place. And I’ll tell you one thing that is fantastic about it. When you see those images photographed in books and so on, they look like flat reproductions. But they’re not. Those artists used the curves and bumps of the wall to add bulk, say, to the forelegs of animals or the rump or something or other. They made use, a very creative use, of the surface they were working on. And that was a great thrill for me because I thought “These guys have been making paintings that were virtually three-dimensional. And they’re about to come off the ceiling.”

Colin Lanceley passed away by his wife’s side on the morning of 30 January 2015. His work is represented in public and private collections around the country.

Images courtesy the artist’s estate, the Art Gallery of NSW and Australian Galleries

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