Paul Delprat is an Australian artist and principal of the Julian Ashton Art School. The school was established by his great grandfather Julian Ashton in 1890 after frequenting the artists’ camps at Balmoral in the 1880s. In this interview Paul talks about growing up surrounded by art, working on the films Age of Consent and Sirens and more recently his participation in Mosman’s art world and the establishment of his Principality of Wy.
An iconic Mosman man. A local treasure we should all appreciate.
He developed a great love for this country and the light, and he painted the first en plain air painting, which is in the Art Gallery of NSW. The first painting that had been fully out of doors, quite a major picture, it’s rather dark, it’s interesting, it’s not a – you’d expect it to be full of light but it’s quite dark, but a beautifully luminous painting.
He went to Melbourne and discovered a group of young painters working at The Heidelberg. At this stage Julian was a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW and he discovered these paintings, which were full of light, young Streeton, young McCubbin, and the young Tom Roberts and Condor. I don’t know whether Condor was there, and they were painting pictures of light, the Australian light so he went back to Sydney and he said to Montieforie who was the chairman of the – or the President of the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. ‘I will vote for this painting that you want it collected by this British artist of ‘Staggart Bay’ or ‘Dog with a wet nose’ – who knows what picture it was, ‘if you will vote for this young artist in Melbourne that I’ve just discovered called Arthur Streeton and there’s a painting that I particularly want to acquire of his called ‘Still glides the Stream, and shall forever glide’. It was so poetic the titles they gave weren’t they, which is an absolutely marvelous painting, ‘and if you vote for that I’ll vote for your ‘Dog at Staggart Bay’. and of course Streeton and Roberts subsequently came to Sydney thinking the streets of Sydney must be paved with gold and they setup their camp at Sirius Cove.
Julian, previously had a camp at Balmoral Beach with Fullwood and they worked there, painted there, in fact there’s quite a lot of paintings that emanate from there. Syd Long was there, one of Julian’s students, and Lambert came out there. Julian’s first student Ethel Stevens was there, the daughter of Professor Stevens, and they painted. This was before actually, Julian setup his school so you might really say the beginnings of the Julian Ashton Art School were on Balmoral Beach, and there’s a flagpole there to mark the position of that, which was put up under the auspices of the wonderful Barry O’Keefe who was Mayor of Mosman for many years, an absolutely marvelous person, a patron of the arts, and President of course, of the National Trust.
When he was Mayor we held an exhibition and a re-enactment of the artists’ camp that Julian had had there with Fullwood in the 1890s, or 1870/80s. That was a lesson for us because we didn’t realise that god can sometimes be a little bit jealous of artists, and we setup these tents on the water’s edge and a huge storm came and washed a lot of it away. We had big talking (query) down there, we had music. we had a re-enactment of the whole thing. There’s a painting here of my Uncle Dick’s, Dick Ashton, of the camp
Well I was brought up then by my mother’s side of the family, both families were very interesting, my father’s family, Dion Delprat was the founder of Broken Hill Pty, and he was also a sculptor and he did a Bust of Braille for which he won a silver medal in Paris, and he did The Bust of Braille so that blind people could feel the face of their benefactor, and he was a damn good sculptor. There’s a sculpture in the corner of the house, a self-portrait he did at the age of 60 or 70 I think he was.
So that was my earliest memory, and then of course, growing up with Howard and his studio with the high skylight and his paint, and the smell of the oil paint, and his palette. I remember being fascinated by this palette with the colours, the shiny little tubes, little cylinders of colour, vermillion, the golden yellows, yellow ochre, shiny white, and then the ultra-marine, the depths of the ultra-marine and the cobalt blue, all these wonderful colours and the way he’d draw them down with his brush into the body of the palette and the smearing it around and then picking it up or sometimes applying it to the canvas with his palette knife. I was you know, five, six, seven, and these are my earliest memories of – I suppose, things of interest to me.
This house was built in Howard’s garden.
Absolutely, I was surrounded by wonderful paintings including a marvelous painting by Norman Lindsay and various other artists it was a great collection that Howard had in his house.
I did art at school I was at Sydney Grammar School and I was drawing all the time. I liked drawing nudes, which has been something that I’ve done all my life I don’t know why that is, it’s just something that I do, and in any case a French master objected to me doing these nudes and took me up to the headmaster thinking that perhaps I was going to be beaten.
In the event the headmaster who was an enlightened man – an Oxford man called Mr. Healey, I think we called the ‘the rod’ for some reason. He told the teacher that the teacher should get back to his charges and he would look after this boy and then he examined my drawings and it was a turning point in my life because I thought he was going to whack me, I’d never been whacked, but anyway I was going to be reprimanded for doing these drawings of nudes you see. And he looked at them and he said, ‘you know, they’re very good, but you don’t know anything about anatomy, and I’ve got an anatomy book here and we’ll take it down’, and he showed it, he opened it up, he said, ‘see this knee, there’s a structure’, I didn’t realise what a multi-faceted man he was, my headmaster at Sydney Grammar. And he said, ‘now I’m going to give you permission to draw at all your classes but that’s something that’s got to be between just you and me’. He’s dead now so I can tell this. ‘It’s only between you and me and I will instruct the staff at the next common-room meeting that they are to let you draw, but you are not to tell anybody that’.
And so I had a charmed life through grammar, I used to draw all the time. I don’t know whether the current headmaster would approve of that sort of behaviour there.
I went to the Mosman Daily, the Mosman Daily, Great Northern Pty Ltd. It was opposite the Town Hall, and I used to go to the council meetings and I used to do drawings and you know it was a very small little firm run by the Walker family, in fact, one of the Walker’s had been a year ahead of me at Grammar, I think that’s one of the reasons why I got the job. There was a great Goss press at the back rumbling away and they had linotype operators and there was Miss. Foley who had glasses that thick from looking at copy, I used to recite Shakespeare, and it was just a hive of activity, it was an old fashioned country press in the middle of Mosman, of course it’s all gone now.
It was in Myahgah Road and I was there for a year and then I joined the Julian Ashton Art School as a night student and my contemporaries there were Salvatore Zoffria, Brett Whiteley had just left and he was somewhat legendary in the school. Nigel Thompson was there who of course, was a very eminent Mosman painter – became a very eminent Mosman painter, Salvatore Zoffria who – you’ve got a painting of his in your foyer of the gallery. He and I were very close and did portraits of each other and there were many artists at that time that have since made great reputations in the school. Eventually after a year at the Daily I went and started fulltime at the school with Mr. Henry Gibbons, and Mr. Henry Gibbons was one of the most extraordinary people in the art world. He had taken over from Julian Ashton in 1942 when he died and he ran the school right up to the ’60s, and amongst his students – he’s like a who’s who of Australian art. Dobell, Passmore, Eric Wilson, Dadswell, you know, it just goes on and on, and then later on John Olsen and Brett Whiteley and Michael Johnson.
The thing about that school I think, that has to be remembered is that it’s not only the people that went there and became great names it’s the others who went there and then went to other institutions to create them – for instance Freeman and Baddam, and all of those people went to what became the National Art School, so in fact, for a while the National Art School was really an extension of the Julian Ashton Art School and of course eventually now they’re producing – that changed after a while, they became a more modernist school and we remained more classical. But they’re both great schools.
I was very lucky because – I was showing at the Bonython Gallery, the great Kim Bonython who you know was the great art dealer of Australia he was the Lorenzo the Magnificent. He is still alive, god bless you Kim. I’m showing with Kim, just started showing with Kim, and he rang me up and he said, ‘Paul, there’s a man here who wants to meet you’ and his name was Michael Powell, he was an English filmmaker who had made a film called ‘The Red Shoes’, you would remember ‘The Red Shoes’, the lovely Moira Shearer. He also did ‘They’re a Weird Mob’, and ‘The Battle of the River Plate’.
Anyhow, he was there in the gallery and he said, ‘I’m going to make a film about one of Mr. Lindsay’s novels and I’ve been recommended to you, that you should do this by Mr. Lindsay himself, and now I find that Mr. Bonython is recommending you, so would you like to take the job, and I said, ‘yes, I’d be delighted’.
And so I went to Dunk Island with Helen Mirren and James Mason and Jack McGowan. It was a wonderful cast and we were there on the island for three months and made that lovely little film, and I did all the title. I had a naked Columbia in the titles and all the actors naked and so on, and that was all cut out by Columbia Pictures, they decided they were a bit naughty all these drawings that I did. But they’ve just brought out a director’s cut – they put them all back in along with Peter Sculthorpe’s music, so it’s a visually beautiful film and an aurally beautiful film. Helen did a drawing – I’ve got a drawing here of me that she did when I was drawing her nude, and of course later on I could probably say that I’m the only person in the world to have painted the Queen in the nude because after all, she later on, she went on to play the Queen and she was a damn good Queen too.
With Sirens, lovely Elle McPherson of course, and Portia de Rossi, and oh, they were lovely, and of course Sam Neil played the role of Norman Lindsay himself in that. One of the amusing moments in that was when the ladies were posing nude they had what they called, a closed set, which meant that nobody could actually look except the person of course, who was looking through the lens, the camera man. But as the artist, of course, I mean I was seen by the ladies as being quite ok and quite innocuous really, and so when that scene was being shot everyone turned their back when the ladies came in, except the director I think, maybe the director was allowed to look. I was able to stand there and look because I was the artist, after all. And the girls said it was most peculiar. One of the ladies said, ‘it was most peculiar looking out there to the vault of the – you know, the camera set and so on, and there was nobody there they had all turned their backs, or they were looking aside except you’, they said they were rather glad to see me because then they could smile at someone. (laughs)
But it was a lot of fun and lovely – filmmaking is a great art of course, it is an enormous art, and I wonder whether Rembrandt would have been a filmmaker, I wonder, in another age whether – you know, some of those – Rubens I’m sure would have made films, you know, it’s just got everything hasn’t it, I mean some of the greatest works of art in our time are films, are motion pictures aren’t they.
So when they come to the Art School to learn to draw and paint I say, ‘put all theory aside, just look, and learn to coordinate your hand and your eye to actually put something down accurately and observe it’. That’s what we’ve been doing at that school for 100 years you know, and I think that’s the key to it all, keep it simple, just draw, and after a while your own style emerges anyhow. You know, whatever you are will come through, and it’s a journey where the language you invent yourself, and the freest people in our society are our artists.
If you think of all the arts, a producer needs a crew for a film, a musician needs a backing, an orchestra, all the artist needs is that blank canvas, and I think that’s why we value art because it is the soliloquy, it is the personal journey.
I’m the patron of the society – that was very curious the way that came about because I was here in Balmoral in my studio minding my own business and this lady rang up and she was very assertive and she said, ‘we want to form a Mosman Art Society’, and I said, ‘why?’ She said, ‘we want a place to paint together’, I said, ‘I don’t like painting with other people. She said, ‘well, we want you to be our patron, we were told by somebody in Mosman Council that if you became our patron they would give us somewhere to paint’. I said, ‘I find that most unlikely’.
But, I thought to myself – hey, there’s an angle in this, I said, ‘have you got a manifesto?’ She said, ‘what’s that’, and she said, ‘no we don’t want a manifesto’, and I said, ‘yes you do, I will become your patron if you let me write your manifesto, or at least the first point of your manifesto’. She said, ‘oh, of course’, she said, ‘ok’. So we draw up a manifesto and the first point of that manifesto was, ‘we will work with Mosman Council to help create a regional gallery – a Mosman Gallery as part of the Regional Gallery Association’. And I got a call from Kay Clarke about a year after this society had been running and we’d been haranguing the council, and the councilors had said, ‘this is great because we’ve got a lobby group’. I got a phone call saying, ‘we’ve done it Paul, we’ve just voted the money, and we’ve just got the grants and we’re going to have a gallery’. Good, good.
And of course the artists of Mosman – the Mosman Art Society still don’t have anywhere to paint but we’re on the track. (laughs)
We talk about Aboriginal sacred sites and of course all honour, all our respect to the Aboriginals and all compassion to what happened to them as a result of our coming here, but we are a society too and it is appropriate that we should have our sacred sites and I think that The Rocks, for instance where the first settlement was made is a sacred site for white people too. And there was this wonderful exhibition for instance, that’s showing on the early art of The Rocks with Julian Ashton’s paintings and Howard Ashton’s and Syd Long and all of those early people who were there at the time, very important and of course Mosman has Balmoral Beach – so many artists, Lloyd Reese who I gave the Mosman art prize too for one year.
Port Jackson Press put a lot of work by various artists into the Mosman art prize and you know there was a wonderful work in there. Tim Storrier’s and Charlie Blackman’s, and I saw this wonderful lithograph by Lloyd and I thought – well I have to give it to the grand old man, you know, he was the hero of art at the time, still is, and to my astonishment he turned up at the council chambers for the opening. Barry O’Keefe, I think was the Mayor at the time, or it could have been Dom Lopez, another wonderful Mayor of Mosman, and he said to me, you know, he said when he received the thing, he said, ‘I am unique in Australian art’, in this wonderful quavery voice, ‘I am unique in Australian art because I am the only artist in Australia who has received an art prize from a great grandfather, and a great grandson because when I was a boy, came down from Queensland and your great grandfather said to me, ‘you are the young man who will draw light, not paint light, but draw light and you know, he was right, that’s what I’ve done. And if I have any advice to pass on to all of you young artists, all of you artists here, learn to draw, learn to draw and remember art is long, life is short, and never get to full of yourself’.
That was wonderful, I’ll never forget that, I’ll never forget that, dear old Lloyd.
Oh, absolutely, I mean Kevin Connor lived up there in Moruben Road did glorious paintings. Brett Whiteley was painting here, so many artists, I could just go on and on and on, and of course contemporary artists now, Ann Cape and Sue Frew and god, so many wonderful, wonderful painters. You know, you’d probably never have to go outside of Mosman to fill that gallery continually.
Balmoral Bathers are very good, and of course up at George’s Heights, we have a gallery there now too, and we have 9 to 5 exhibitions there, which are echoes of the Streeton/Roberts shows that they held, when impressionism started. And you know things have come full circle. We’re up there we’ve got a studio overlooking the greatest harbour in the world. We have festival of sun and skies every Christmas time for the art school; we’re in the company there of many other wonderful artists, Guy Troughton who teaches with us and it’s a place that has been painted, I’m sure, – well it all goes back to the carvings of the Aboriginals on the edge of The Rocks and they would have done paintings too of course, but they’re lost. The paintings are much less permanent than sculptures. But no, it’s a great place to grow up, it’s been a great place to live, and it’s been a great place to paint.
Well, my little Principality of Wy, which is my wife’s too of course and the children’s, it’s the families’ principality, we are, and our rabbits of course, the rabbits are involved, two rabbits – five people.
And things were pretty bad before we setup the Principality because things kept on going wrong you know. We tried to get access to our property but things kept on going wrong and mistakes were being made which have subsequently been admitted by the council and you know, we thought – well what have we got to – you know, we really felt as though we needed to create a playing field of our own, and so on the night that we were – as it were – cast into the wilderness because we didn’t have access to our property, which we had a right to, and it was only an error in the writing of the documents, the LEP that caused us not to be able to have that access.
So we thought – what can we do? We rang up an old friend, or an old friend rang us on the night, and we were discussing – and Sue said, ‘Paul thinks we should secede from Mosman, he’s got this character called ‘The Prince of Wy’ and you know, he painted him in the ’60s and so on and you know, perhaps we could create the Principality of Wy, and she said – she was a lawyer, ‘go for it’, and so we drew up the manifesto and contacted the council and the Mayor who was a really lovely lady said, ‘I’ll accept your (indistinct) declaration of independence’, and she put on her regalia and the press came and the journalists and the television and everything like that, and we presented her with our (indistinct) and she gave us a document and we were seceded.
As far as I know we’re the only Principality in Australia that’s actually received recognition from the other side. So there we were, and we proceeded to start making regalia and doing all that sort of thing, and we’ve had a hell of a lot of fun with it since, and we have a Wy Day every year to which lots of people come and they sing songs and show pictures and generally, you know, behave in a bohemian fashion, I suppose you would call it.
Wild, caves, sea, harbour, houses, trees, Zoo, Balmoral, figures, village, friendliness, light, wild, caves, sea, harbour, houses, trees, Zoo, Balmoral, figures, village, friendliness, light
The Principality of Y
‘What does Y personify if gorgeous Mosman is a whale, why a dolphin with a golden tail just as lovely on a smaller scale’