When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? I usually wander without purpose, other than the sheer pleasure of being amid books and looking for something that grabs my eye; non-fiction, fiction, I don’t mind. If I think, ‘That looks interesting’, I tend to pick it up. Which means I usually leave with more books than I intended to buy.
What inspired you to start writing? Since I was a boy, I’ve been writing. It wasn’t a case of being inspired; it was just how it was. I can’t imagine not writing. When I get it right, few activities give me more satisfaction. So I spend a good deal of time feeling dissatisfied, trying to get it right.
Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you? I’ve been a journalist since I was 19. There’s a saying that journalism is where culture meets adventure. Journalism has afforded me the experiences to plonk me at that extraordinary intersection of culture and adventure. But above all, it’s allowed me to meet, and to get to know, people, to listen to their stories, to learn from them, and to be entrusted with telling their stories. Journalism has also given me an opportunity to improve my writing. And it fed me with the ambition to tell stories in a longer, deeper form. In other words, to write books. I won’t always be a journalist. But I will always write and always tell stories, because I love what I learn from the process, and from the people I meet along the way.
Were you interested in art before you moved to Wangi Wangi? I’ve loved art since I was a teenager. I grew up in Newcastle, as did William Dobell (although we were born 65 years apart), so I could see paintings by Dobell at the city’s art gallery. I spent a lot of time in front of his ‘Portrait of a Strapper’. The person who really opened my eyes and mind to art when I was young was a commercial gallery owner, writer and adventurer named Anne von Bertouch. She was an extraordinary person, and extraordinarily generous with her knowledge and time. Through her, I met many artists, she exhibited my wife’s work, and she helped me to see the beauty of art, and of life.
What was the best thing about writing this book? I think the best thing was being able to research and explore an aspect of Dobell’s life that hadn’t really been looked at in much detail; that is, his life after the 1943 Archibald Prize controversy. So that meant I got to spend a lot of time in, and write about, Wangi Wangi. It is a beautiful village on the shores of Lake Macquarie. Wangi is where Dobell found himself – literally and artistically – after the Archibald Prize controversy, and it’s where I lived for a while.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? I considered any moment where people were sharing their memories and thoughts about Bill, and their relationship with him, important. Without those people being generous with their time and memories, I would have had a much harder time writing this book.
What do you admire most about William Dobell’s work? I love not just the way Dobell paints a person, but the way he invests his portraits with humanity, with all its beauty, frailty, shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. Dobell was often called a ‘people painter’. He was more than that. He was a humanity painter. And, because of his sensitivity, he was a humane painter.
Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? I’ve spent many satisfying hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. And I love to drop into the Art Gallery of New South Wales whenever I can and wander around the Australian art galleries. But my favourites, for opening my eyes in the first place, are the Newcastle Art Gallery and the von Bertouch Galleries in my hometown.
Who are some of your favourite artists and what are some of your favourite works of art? Apart from Dobell … I love the work of Goya, for his unflinching view of what war does to people. But my favourite war artist is a man I met while writing my book, ‘Battle Lines: Australian Artists at War’. His name is Alan Moore, and he witnessed – and sketched – the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. His drawings of the horror are harrowing, and they are of enormous historic value. Alan is also a wonderful human being, a mentor, and a dear friend. Yet my favourite artist – and I may be a little biased here – is my wife, Jo. She is a still life painter, and her works are as light-filled, gentle and beautiful as she is.
What are you working on next? Nothing firm yet. But there’s always an idea …
Read my review of ‘Bill; The Life of William Dobell’ here.