Project Description

Ian Fairweather – Britain’s Gauguin

Britain’s Gauguin

One night in April 1952 near Darwin, a strange, shy man, sixty-years old, with a cultured voice and intense pale blue eyes, climbed aboard a raft that he had constructed from aircraft drop tanks, and shoved off into the Timor Sea. He carried a sack of dried bread to last ten days and a thirty-shilling compass. Within minutes the waves slapped up between the planks.

A week or so later, after search-planes gave him up for dead, the obituary of Ian Fairweather appeared in newspapers in Britain and Australia.

To Australians at least, his story is as familiar as a slouch hat. He was British, the youngest son of a distinguished surgeon-general in the Indian Army, and had grown up on Jersey, in a large house with a butler. A prize-winning student at the Slade, he had known Augustus John, Somerset Maugham and the Antarctic explorer Robert Scott – whose brother was engaged to his sister Queenie. He had shared a successful exhibition with Walter Sickert in London, and one of his paintings hung in the Tate. Up until the moment of his disappearance, he was living in Gauguinesque squalor in the stern half of a derelict patrol boat. Locals in Darwin referred to him, not without derision, as “Rear Admiral”.

“If he had died on that raft, as he nearly did,” says Murray Bail, whose recent book on Fairweather is the fruit of virtually four decades of patient sleuthing, “he’d be a pleasant sort of minor footnote; a Post-Impressionist, with a Chinese flavour, of what he called his ‘tourist pictures’.”

But Fairweather did not die. He touched shore after 16 days at sea and, profoundly altered by his near-suicidal journey, survived to become one of Australia’s most revered artists; a figure comparable to the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, who himself looked up to Fairweather as a model of commitment to art. (White wrote with Fairweather’s painting Gethsemane above his desk and borrowed characteristics of Fairweather for his novel about a reclusive artist, The Vivisector). Ten years after Fairweather was discovered alive, Time magazine’s critic Robert Hughes queued all night in a sleeping bag outside Sydney’s Macquarie Galleries so that he might buy one of his “post-raft” works. “The emotional range and sheer breathtaking beauty,” Hughes wrote of another of these, Epiphany, “seem to me surpassed by no other Australian picture.” Bail in his biography-cum-monograph goes further: “There is nothing like these paintings in Australian art – or anywhere else.”

In 1951, one year before Ian Fairweather’s mysterious sea-voyage, Sir Sidney Nolan O.M. arrived in Britain and based himself there until his death forty years later. Most educated Britons will have heard of the urbane Nolan, Australian artist of the iconographic Ned Kelly series (“Sir Ned Kelly,” Patrick White called him). The same cannot be said of Fairweather: a British painter of arguably greater interest and depth who, though well-read, quite learned, fluent in four or five languages, concealed himself on his own in the Australian bush on and off for the same length of time – and whose work, mingling the styles of East and West, bridges two cultures that grow closer by the minute. As Bail writes: “Due to the nature of things, reticence and distance on Fairweather’s part, the rest of the world scarcely knows, or even knows now, of his existence.”

I first came across Ian Fairweather when researching a biography of Bruce Chatwin. I was staying south of Brisbane with a friend of Chatwin’s who had on her wall a grey abstract painted in gouache on pages of the Courier Mail. The painting, says Bail, “knocked Bruce’s socks off.” (A Swedish critic, John Sundkvist, has likened the effect of standing before a Fairweather to that of a mineshaft opening up in front of you: “Whether it’s like something else or not doesn’t matter. What it communicates is complete unconditional necessity and of resistance overcome.”) Chatwin wanted to know more. Who was this neurotically reclusive artist who signed his works “IF”? Where had he come from? How had he arrived in Australia?

After getting hold of the first (and substantially different) edition of Bail’s book, published in 1981, Chatwin wrote to the author: “I read Ian Fairweather from cover to cover. Absolutely A1. I haven’t read so enjoyable an ‘Art Book’ (which it isn’t) ever… What a figure! And what a destiny!”

A key to Ian Fairweather’s mysterious life and art is held by his nephew Geoffrey, the owner of his copyright and, at 90, a tall, spry lightning-rod to a separate age. In his small upstairs drawing-room overlooking the Malvern Hills, Geoffrey Fairweather points at a portrait of his walrus-moustached grandfather, Surgeon-General James Fairweather ­– “a man of the most perfect temper,” according to his commanding officer – who fought in the 1857 Indian Mutiny and afterwards was responsible for the sanitary conditions of 19 million Punjabis. “That was Ian’s father.”

Geoffrey fishes out a few belongings: Ian’s jade seal, with his name engraved in Chinese. A photograph of Ian in his twenties, rather resembling D.H. Lawrence. “He’s distant. I don’t know what it is. I’d say bereft.” And two albums: one bulging with blue airmail letters sent by Fairweather to his brothers and sisters, all written in the same wavering hand, as though on bark; the other containing photographs of the family at Forest Hill, the grand house on Jersey.

I flick through the photographs, pausing over a child’s watercolour of a boy hiding up a tree.

“Who’s that?”

The boy has on pink-striped pyjamas and stares down at a man and a woman in evening dress, about to kiss. Underneath someone has written in pencil: The incident of a certain small boy who sat up a tree and saw and heard things he should not.

“That’s Ian.”

He was born in Scotland in 1891, the year that Gauguin landed in Tahiti, the youngest of nine children. His solitary childhood smacks of Kipling, Saki and Somerset Maugham, all brought up by stiff starchy strangers. When he was six months old, his father was recalled to India to be medical adviser to the Maharaja of Kapurthana. With reluctance, his parents left Ian behind in the care of two pious, alcoholic spinster aunts. He would not clap eyes again on his mother until he was nine.

The aunts took him to live in Brechin, Sydenham and Jersey. It is likely that he experienced the same traumatic incident as his siblings. One morning, says Geoffrey, the aunts thought that the world was coming to an end and dressed the children in Sunday clothes. “The blinds were drawn and they had to wait for the end of the world and it didn’t come.” When one of the aunts fell tipsily out of a window in Jersey, Ian’s mother made him go and see her body lying in its coffin.

In 1901, his parents had returned from India and scooped him up to Forest Hill, but scant attention was paid to Ian, least of all by his mother, an irresponsible and extravagant woman who spent a fortune on hats. “She always looked astonished and a little alarmed,” he remembered, “as though some strange bird had flown into the room.” His best friends on Jersey were ravens which perched on his head, gouging beak marks in his scalp. Aged ten, he ran across the rocks, staying out all night on an inlet cut off by the tide: he wanted to experience what it would be like to be alone on a desert island, he said. Islands, isolation, escape – already, he was determining his themes. A favourite novel was Knut Hansen’s Pan that sent him one winter to live in Norway. “I still remember the opening lines of it in Norwegian. Translated they are. ‘I sit here and think of that time, of the hut I lived in, of the forest behind the hut.’”

His father made him go into the army. Australian bushfires afterwards recalled for him the inferno at Louvain. Mentioned in despatches, he witnessed one of the last ever cavalry charges at Mons on 22 August, 1914. Two days later he was captured with his regiment en bloc and spent the rest of the war as a POW, though managing to escape three times. “I even got onto the frontier once and saw freedom just a few hundred yards away, but I failed.” His “department” was map-making and stitching German uniforms from Russian overcoats, in which disguise he marched out of Freiberg Camp pretending to be part of a Drainage Commission. His two fellow escapees have left us this image of Fairweather: “My brother and I watched him crawl – a strangely pathetic figure in spite of the brave uniform – into the centre of a dense patch of Indian corn growing alongside the path, and then we made off at our best pace.”

Once on being recaptured, he was placed in solitary confinement in a “cage”. Three weeks without food. Only the smells of fresh bread from a bakery nearby to sustain him. His family believed this experience may have unhinged Fairweather.

“He’s a very difficult man to work out,” says Bail. “I don’t understand him. Some sort of schizophrenia may have kicked in, triggered by the war.”

Fairweather saw it a different way: “I think perhaps those years I spent as a prisoner of war were some of the happiest of my life – no responsibility for practical things like money, food and shelter, endless time to devote to something I enjoyed doing.” Because in prison he had begun to draw.

The war over, Fairweather enrolled at the Slade, studying drawing under Henry Tonks who found him “profoundly melancholic.” He was 37 when, as he confessed, “my world collapsed.” It was 1928 and his artistic career leading nowhere. “My family were fed up with me. They paid me off as I saw it.” They handed him £100 and a one-way passage to Canada, where he worked on the prairies harvesting grain for poor farmers. “I have to steal from the granary and spend my odd moments masticating wheat,” he wrote to his long-suffering friend Jim Ede, who would encourage collectors like Eddy Sackville-West to buy a painting. “My people would not raise a finger to help towards anything to do with art.” (Ten years later, when he was living in a deserted cinema in Brisbane and using bill-boards for easels, Fairweather’s mother wired £30 – which gave him a “belly-ache” to accept – writing: “My dear, what is a cinema compared to a healthy, honest life?”). Sickened by his family Fairweather confided to Ede: “Though I wish to return home one day, I do not wish them to know of me any more.” In loco parentis, Ede sent him a paint box. It reached Fairweather on an island off Vancouver where he was looking after the property of an absent landlord. “I am all alone on this island,” he replied.

Then, this harbinger: “I am making a raft of drift wood.”

And, much later: “I sometimes wish I had stayed there.”

Geoffrey Fairweather rereads that last sentence and laughs. “This is looking back; he didn’t like it in the end – he fell out with the owner, who was a bit of a basket and didn’t pay him. It’s all better when he looks back. Always something would go against him and he moved on.”

Fairweather’s next billet was Geoffrey’s home in Victoria.

Geoffrey would have been the same age as the boy in the pink striped pyjamas when he met his uncle in Canada. His eyewitness account is not much, but it’s all we have: the one glimpse by someone still alive of Fairweather before he arrives in Australia.

It was the winter of 1929. Geoffrey was nine years old, sitting in his parents’ kitchen when there was a rap on the door. “Next thing I heard was my father shout  ‘No! No! I’m your brother.’ I looked out and I could see my father holding this really shabby man on the verandah by the scruff of his coat. What he’d said to my father, I don’t know.”

Fairweather stayed a week at 165 Joseph Street. He sat upstairs in his room “like a hermit”, drawing, not wanting to be disturbed. “Mother would knock at the door and leave a plate and he’d pick it up.” Geoffrey had not met any of his relations. “That’s why it was a big thing for me. Once, the door was slightly open and I went in. He’d hung lines of string across the room and sheets of paper over them. I looked at what he was drawing on the desk and thought, That’s funny. He then explained: ‘This is a depiction that I’m studying with a French artist, to get the essence of a child in one line.’ To me that was a load of rubbish. I was nine years old. But it was quite suggestive. You could see the child in these lines, a baby’s face.”

A baby with its mother. Fairweather’s favourite motif. Only through drawing and painting was he able to travel back to infancy, to “the denied paradise” as Hughes puts it, and recapture a relationship he never knew.

Not long after that, Fairweather boarded a Japanese ship bound for Shanghai, from where he called for the contents of his steamer trunk to be sent on, filled with his line drawings of children. Geoffrey stood beside his mother in the garden as she opened the trunk’s curved-top and tentatively peered inside – and recoiled. “It was an absolute mess. It was heaving with silverfish. They had eaten everything.”

Geoffrey watched the glittering silverfish stream out as his mother shrieked to his father: “Neville, this stuff cannot be brought into the house!”

China was the making of Fairweather. He learned Mandarin and studied calligraphy, excited to discover that the art of writing and the art of painting were closely interlocked (thirty years later, he would translate and illustrate The Drunken Buddha: The Life of the Great Ch’an Master Tao-Chi). To pay his way, he worked as a park attendant, a road inspector and as “manager” of an asphalt plant. When the Japanese bombed Shanghai he drifted down to Bali, and in 1934 stepped ashore in Melbourne with £2 left in his pocket and unrolled some drawings tied up in a singlet. “I was absolutely staggered,“ remembered the first person to view them. “I was dumbfounded at the beauty of those things.”

Fairweather hawked the drawings for £1 and £2 a piece, giving as his address the Mission for Seamen in Flinders Street. “In five long years of wandering,” he wrote to Ede, “it is here for the first time I feel I am not a criminal – trying to make a living by painting.” But after six months of work – “frenzy rather” – for a commission on a mural for Menzies Hotel, “I had to tear it up.” He explained: “It was wrong from the start.”

Moving on, he abandoned Australia for the Philippines and was back in China when Ede reached him with the news that Bathing scene, Bali had been bought by the Tate, and enclosed cuttings of his exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. But Fairweather was “too miserable to write.” He was living, rent free, in a freezing room in Peking’s Chung Hua College of Art – stone floor, paper windows with holes and a sheet for a door: “Right now my teeth are chattering.” He could not afford to buy paint. He was thrown off trams because he stank. And hopes of gaining assistance from the British community had gone up in smoke after a lunch party where he met Harold Acton (“he seemed quite nice”), but by everyone else was treated with frigid suspicion that he had come to Peking with the intention of crashing its social portals. “Please for goodness sake wire me £50 and let me get out of here for goodness sake.”

And so a self-imposed pattern entrenched itself.

Back in Australia, Fairweather avoided the art world like a plague. Few artists in Bail’s opinion can have enjoyed such poverty and in such inhospitable surrounds. He worked as a bush cutter and lived variously in a deserted cinema (Brisbane); an empty goat dairy (Cairns); a concrete-mixer and wrecked patrol boat (Darwin). By the time he clambered aboard his triangular raft he was, Bail writes, “incoherent with despair.”

The waves drenched his sack of bread and soon it was mouldy, green and pink with a gamey flavour. “The rest I used as a cushion.” Saltwater sores made the least movement painful. He could not look at anything in sunlight or even the stars at night. On the fifth night he began hallucinating. “The sea was quite black and the haze took on the appearance of a mosquito net hanging down over the raft. On the net I could see lines, drawings of figures behind which the stars danced. I lay contemplating these with much pleasure for they were better drawings than I had ever made on land.”

Late in the evening of Fairweather’s sixteenth night at sea, his raft bumped heavily onto a reef. The next wave slid him over it into a calm lagoon where men holding red flares were fishing.

Geoffrey was living in Lima when he heard that his erratic uncle had scraped ashore 470 miles from Darwin, on a remote coral island west of Timor. “It was,” he remembers, “world news.”

Given Fairweather’s temperament, it is not so far-fetched to regard the output of his remaining twenty-two years as a conscious attempt to pin down, in paint, the visions buzzing him when adrift in the Timor Sea, abandoned by his family and himself for dead.

Murray Bail has no doubt that the raft journey was central. After it, Fairweather is at peace, less restless, his art more abstracted. His subject matter is never English and hardly ever “Australian”. His combination of Chinese line and European space is not like anything else. This is the period when he produces his finest works, described by Bail as “layered meditations”, of China, Bali, the Philippines. The effect is like looking at medieval stained-glass, or butterfly wings trapped beneath old brocade.

He is nostalgic to a pathological degree. The many layers of paint reflect layers of memory, usually of experiences long past “as if the present was far too unpleasant.” Shalimar, for instance, consists of 74 white and yellow overlays in which the artist struggles to net an Edwardian song that his sisters used to sing on Jersey. “Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar. Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?”

When questioned about one of these paintings, Fairweather was evasive. He had had little to do with it. “It just happened like a piece of driftwood.” But he admitted that each time he started a new painting it was like preparing to climb the Eiger.

He was more expansive in a PS to his sister Queenie, with whom, needing money, he had got back in touch: “You ask about abstract art – it is something I think like the Buddhist idea of suspended judgement. The mind is cleared of thought but not awareness. Always the purpose of art is to find its way through the forest of things to a larger unity containing all things. I often had the idea in Jersey that running over rocks (of which I was inordinately fond) had some psychological or psychical significance – to balance, one must run quickly from point to point. You cannot rest on one point.” It was why, he suggested, modern art tended more and more to the abstract – “to get away from our stricken world.”

Following what he called “my ill-fated raft journey”, Fairweather built a palm-thatched hut on Bribie Island, twenty miles north of Brisbane, “about as far out of the world as it can get.” Here, dressed in striped pyjamas, he painted at night by the brownish glow of a hurricane lamp, using whatever materials came to hand; newspapers, thin stiff cardboard, even mixing ash from a mosquito coil into a tin of Dulux housepaint. A perfectionist, he destroyed the drawings and paintings he did not like – those the white ants, cyclones and bushfires did not get to first – so that, despite a career spanning more than half a century, barely 500 examples of his art survive.

Settled inside his leaking, mosquito-ridden hermit’s hut, the act of painting was the thing. “It gives me the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people.” He did not much care what happened to his work afterwards, to the extent of disowning and even not recognising it. Of Epiphany, singled out by Robert Hughes as one of the masterpieces of Australian art, Fairweather’s terse comment was: “I don’t like it.” On the unique occasion that Murray Bail met Fairweather, bringing for verification a slide of a 1956 gouache of a bridge in Huchow, the artist barely glanced at it and said, “I don’t remember it.” About critics, he wrote to Queenie: “Today they smile on me – for no good reason. Tomorrow they may damn me for equally no reason. I damn them all the time. My teeth are chattering. Must stop.”

Even so, after the raft trip it became harder for Fairweather to escape the world’s scrutiny. “Art seems to attract the worst kind possible. I am getting very sick of it all.” Reports of his 1962 show in Sydney brought unwelcome visitors, as well as mail from “every kind of soft touch artist. One 50 pages about flying saucers. I am a nut they think, so they let down their hair to me.” The publicity rattled him. “I’m so jittery I can’t paint.” In this nervy, disillusioned state, he toyed with the idea of coming home.

One unlikely reason given for his raft trip was to get back to London – 8,500 miles away – to rescue 130 badly-packed gouaches that had gone missing. Whatever the truth, he now hankered for “old Chelsea”, writing to Queenie: “Chelsea has been home ever since you and mother came round in a cab with me and we found one in Yeoman’s Row, my first lodging.” What he longed for most was “a bath for Christ’s sake – a hot bath to relax in – and clean clothes.” In another letter he wrote: “Tomorrow 6 months washing have to be faced. Quite hopeless without hot water.”

Early in September 1966, he flew to London, but his return home spiralled into yet another disappointment. He had known the horsedrawn city before “the coming of the motorcar, the flying machine – and all the gadgets – the plastics.” Swinging London was no place for Fairweather. He did not last the month, scribbling a note to his brother Harold who was travelling from France to meet him. “It is too late – we are all getting very old – I would like to see you but as we are all getting deaf – communication in any real sense is a thing of the past and only makes one sad. There is no turning the clock back. I am impatient to get back to the ‘Bush’ which never changes and the sun… “

He flew back to Bribie Island, dying on 20 May, 1974, of heart failure. He was 82.

Even now, thirty-six years on, Fairweather is still a very difficult man to work out. He might have recognised himself in Voss, or Strickland in Somerset Maugham’s Moon and Sixpence, an anti-materialist who turns his back on the world. Patrick White, who visited him once in his squalid studio, said to Bail: “He was pleased to see the back of me.” But unlike many bohemians whose work is a disappointment and false, Fairweather’s paintings are mysteries that did not let down his life. To Queenie, he wrote: “In the end one has to choose – the painting or one’s personal interest – one can’t have both, with me the paint wins in the end but only after a struggle.” His work – the product of “complete unconditional necessity and of resistance overcome” – exceeded his life.

You can spot a Fairweather from 80 paces. He takes Cézanne, Cubism, Aboriginal art or Chinese calligraphy, and he is so distinctive a person that he makes it his own. He superimposes himself on world movements and marries them. To Robert Hughes, he is the best abstract painter, “one of the very few modern artists to make a convincing bridge between Eastern calligraphic traditions and Western drawing.” And yet there is nothing unfigurative about his abstraction, or semi-abstraction. Henry Tonks, his mentor at the Slade, where Fairweather won the Slade prize for figure drawing, regarded him as one of the most talented draughtsmen he had taught, writing of him: “it is very rare to have a man who can see anything exceptional.” The result can be dizzying – as if, to borrow Hughes’s phrase about Monsoon, “Fairweather has written the work in sheet lightning.” In his greatest paintings, Fairweather’s colours, unlike Gauguin’s or Van Gogh’s, are almost deliberately dull: East German greys and brown lit by artillery flashes of crimson or intense Fauve blue. But these are paintings that engulf you. They give you the vertigo – the sense of something caving in to the core – that is the signature of true art. Hughes again: “Forms are pressed into a flat dense surface (stamped there, you feel, as by a Chinese seal), but the space also folds in and out, shallow and buckling, like a screen.”

Ever since his solitary death on the fringes of another continent, Ian Fairweather has gained a reputation as Australia’s most original artist, with his works commanding hundreds of thousands of pounds – on the rare occasions when they come up for sale. And yet at a time when London art-lovers have been streaming once again into retrospectives of Van Gogh and Gauguin, this British Gauguin remains virtually unheard-of in his native land. Aside from the Tate, the only public galleries to own a Fairweather are in Leicester, Lincoln, Cheltenham and Belfast. Both Murray Bail and Geoffrey Fairweather hold out the tantalising prospect of masterpieces still awaiting discovery in Britain. Since 1981, Bail has tracked down 40 new paintings and a few drawings, almost a tenth of Fairweather’s oeuvre, but there are at least twelve works from four exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery that are still in England somewhere, untraced.

Not all missing Fairweathers are in collectors’ hands. Says the artist’s nephew: “He used to pay for nights in hotels with a painting.”

So if you are a Pom who has not heard of Ian Fairweather, or an Australian who knows his worth, next time you stay in a British B&B and you pass a strange painting on the landing, it might pay to stop and investigate – to see whether it is signed with a Kiplingesque “IF”.

Fairweather, by Murray Bail is published by Murdoch Books, £50