The Prime Minister and the Artist


The Art of Albert Namatjira , written by the anthropologist Charles Mountford, was published in 1944 by the Bread and Cheese Club, Melbourne. In the 1940s, a time when paper was rationed and publishing difficult, this eccentric conservative literary group celebrated the arts. Most importantly, Mountford’s study praised Albert Namatjira’s life as an artist and demonstrated that his painting was an expression of his relationship to his land.

The foreword is by RH Croll, who is best known for his biography of Tom Roberts and his compilation of Arthur Streeton’s letters, From Smike to Bulldog. The popular success of the Namatjira book heralded the establishment acceptance of Namatjira’s art in the years immediately after World War II. My copy of The Art of Albert Namatjira was once owned by the artist Sir Lionel Lindsay, and bears an inscription from Croll.

Books, private letters, and photographs from that time, held in public and private collections, document circles of friendship between artists, writers, lawyers and one politician. It was the politician who felt honoured by his connection to the country’s intellectual life.

The further we move away from the years when Robert Gordon Menzies was Prime Minister, the better he looks. This is probably because many of his virtues are missing from his successors. He may have been a loyal son of the British Empire, but many of the policies of the Menzies Era laid the foundations for future prosperity.

Most importantly, he was the great education Prime Minister, responsible for inculcating a culture of research into Australian universities. He was a ‘scholarship boy’ himself, and extended a system of scholarships to enable tens of thousands access to the best education the country could offer.

Sir Bob and Sir Lionel in the latter’s garden, Wahroonga, 1948

In the 1930s when he was an ambitious Attorney-General, Menzies had a well-established reputation for enjoying good food, good wine, and the good company of first class minds. It is hard to imagine now, when intellectuals and artists are abused for being an elite, but for many years it was conservatives (in the true sense of that term) who supported the life of the mind in this country, and were proud of their personal links with the arts.

The most enduring friendship of politician and artist was that between Menzies and Lionel Lindsay, a friendship that only ended with Lindsay’s death in 1961, but was remembered by Menzies even in his fragile old age when he wrote the introduction to a Lionel Lindsay exhibition at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

When the two first met in early 1937, the Spanish Civil War was in the news and the politician greeted the artist with the words, ‘I hear you’re a bit of a Red.’ In Australia, accepted wisdom was on the side of Franco. Lionel Lindsay, who was deeply politically conservative, had a close connection to Spain, so knew enough to become an effective vocal opponent of the Fascists.

The friendship between Robert Menzies and Lionel Lindsay was initially triggered because of the Creswick connection. The ten Lindsay children were from the mining town of Creswick, Victoria. By the 1890s the town had settled into rigid social stratification. The Lindsay boys, as sons of the local doctor, were not supposed to socialise with the offspring of miners and shopkeepers, but they happily broke that barrier. Although she was considerably older than him, Lionel was friendly with Kate Sampson, the daughter of a miner who married James Menzies, a shopkeeper from Jeparit.

Early in their friendship, Menzies commissioned Lindsay to make a bookplate for him, and so a frequent correspondence developed. Most of the letters were written by Lionel, but sometimes Bob replied, asking for more of his friend’s ideas and opinions. He once wrote of ‘having a sneaking feeling that some day my grandchildren may live handsomely on the proceeds of selling [Lindsay’s letters] at Sotheby’s’.

Bob did all that was in his power to encourage others to admire his friend. The first time he was Prime Minister he was responsible for Sir Lionel Lindsay’s knighthood, which was announced in the New Year’s Honours of 1941.

Later he praised Lionel on ABC radio as ‘a scholar of art, student of affairs, voracious and penetrating reader, citizen of the world, lover of exuberant talk, hater of pedants and humbugs; at once sceptic and believer, a man of years and experience, a perennial child who gazes on a breathlessly wonderful world.

In 1956, when Kirribilli House became a Sydney residence for visiting VIPs and Prime Ministers, Lionel was Bob’s first dinner guest. The only time Lindsay ever boarded a plane was when he shared a VIP flight to Toowoomba with Menzies, who opened the Lionel Lindsay Art Gallery, and praised his friend’s ‘divine and disordered conversation’ and his many libellous letters.

Lionel wrote regularly to Bob on art, politics, the world situation and life. He warned that the creation of the State of Israel would cause a long-term disaster for the Palestinian Arabs. When Jean, Lionel’s wife, was in the last stages of her terminal illness, he argued for the legalisation of heroin for pain relief. But none of these letters were written as entreaties, and while Bob enjoyed reading them, they had precisely no impact on public policy.

This was even the case when Lionel wrote on a matter where he had genuine expertise. For many years, any work of art that entered Australia was charged a prohibitive import duty. This effectively prevented Australia from joining the international art market, and increased our cultural isolation. Lionel had railed against Labor’s support for this policy while Menzies was in Opposition. He did not raise it once his friend was Prime Minister as ‘affairs of State [were]at hand’. The friendship was more important than any policy.

How Australia has changed. Would it happen now that a conservative politician would feel honoured by the friendship of an artist? Would someone so close to power be content to argue ideas and issues for their own sake, without attempting to exert political influence? Fifty years ago we were a different country.

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