Graeme Charles INSON.
(1923 – 2000)
On his last day alive, Graeme Inson was sharing his skills and experience with a class of students at his studio in Sydney, as he had done for the past 46 years. Suddenly he felt severe pains in his abdomen. Concerned students rushed him to St Vincent’s Hospital where he was treated with antibiotics and spent a peaceful night. But on Wednesday morning, May 10, 2000, Australia’s greatest living exponent of the Max Meldrum school of Tonal Impressionism suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Graeme was born in the New South Wales country town of Cootamundra on February 8, 1923. His father Charles Inson owned the largest General Store in town. Young Graeme was educated at Canberra Grammar, where Gough Whitlam was a classmate and where an extensive collection or Inson artworks is now displayed. Graeme Inson completed school in 1941; with high marks in art and history, and a growing interest in painting.
At this time, Max Meldrum had been a controversial figure in Australian art circles for over two decades with his theory of tonal impressionism, which fostered maximum effect from minimum brush strokes and a ‘plein-air’ style. Meldrum, who was a member of the Heidelburg School before establishing his Tonal Impressionist movement, had been branded a Radical-Modernist by the art establishment, but he insisted that truly modern art must be founded on a knowledge of the tradition of art. His Melbourne school encouraged its students to realise the beauty and significance of natural phenomena, and to paint that reality "with courage, joy and reverence, but without distortion."
Meldrum’s theories and results appealed to Graeme who, after finishing his education in 1942, caught a train to Melbourne and immediately applied to join Meldrum’s school. Not only did Meldrum like the young man’s enthusiasm, he was impressed by his talent. So Meldrum took Graeme into his home, treating him as a son and teaching him the Meldrum Method. Within a few years Graeme was running the Meldrum school when Max was absent. Graeme Inson spent ten years with Meldrum, and eventually developed his style way beyond Meldrum in handling atmosphere, colour, subjects and the use of light. Graeme also began exhibiting in Melbourne and in Hobart, receiving laudatory reviews.
After Meldrum died, Graeme Inson moved to Sydney and opened a tiny studio in Rowe Street in 1954. Records of his early days there are now preserved in the ‘Rowe Street Project’ at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
Initially Graeme Inson’s portraits and landscaped did not pay the bills and while his reputation was growing, he supported himself by painting Pub Art for Penfolds and Lindeman's Wines, and for Tooths Brewery around Sydney and in many country pubs. Today these have become highly collectable. A collection of Inson’s pub art is preserved in Sydney's Powerhouse Museum.
In 1957, Graeme entered the Archibald Prize with a portrait of his friend and fellow artist Rod Shaw. This was hung as an Archibald finalist, and was sent on tour around Australia with other finalists. It was then immediately purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for its collection. Following this purchase, in 1957, Graeme Inson was made a full member of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales.
Recognition by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Royal Art Society encouraged Graeme to hold his first Sydney exhibition later that year, and it proved successful enough to attract many students who wanted to learn his style. So Graeme began the first of his regular classes teaching the ‘Meldrum Method’. One of his earliest students was Ivy Shore, who became his life partner. Graeme called Ivy “my greatest student” after she won the Portia Geach Memorial Art Award (Australia’s richest art prize for women artists only) in 1979. (See Ivy Shore's official bio: http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0777b.htm )
Graeme now began to divide his time between teaching at his studio, portraiture commissions, and painting landscapes around Australia. He loved "Australia’s vast, stark horizons." For the next 25 years, he travelled extensively through Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, the A.C.T. and Queensland, painting city and rural scenes. His work began to attract the interest of state and national galleries, while prominent political, judicial, academic and business people began to seek him out to paint their portraits.
Graeme expanded his natural talents well beyond painting. He became renowned for his great knowledge and love of Australian history. This resulted in two coffee-table books on our early history: "The Restless Years" (which won him a Moomba Award for Literature), and "The Glorious Years", both published by Jacaranda Press. He also developed an interest in photography – which had been a school-boy passion of his.
Graeme was also in demand as a witty after-dinner speaker, with a wide knowledge of Australian politics and a large fund of jokes. He once told a gathering of Supreme Court judges about a Tasmanian woman who pestered him remorselessly to paint her in the nude. "I finally gave in, and agreed to do it," he said. "But I begged her to let me keep my socks on, so I had somewhere to put my brushes!"
Graeme was often invited to speak at functions and open shows. He was made a member of Brisbane’s Johnsonian Club and Sydney’s University Club. He was honoured as Artist In Residence at CanberraGrammar School, made a Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society, and a Fellow of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Graeme always insisted that no paintings should ever come from a photograph because "you need to see the reality of the subject in all its dimensions, if you hope to bring your painting to life."
As the greatest painter to come from Meldrum’s school, Graeme expressed his philosophy this way: "I endeavour to let the subject tell me its own story, and do not impose myself upon it. I extract the important visual facts. Landscapes painted on location aim to capture the immediacy of that time and place. Portraits from life aim to capture the complexity of character revealed by the interplay between artist and sitter. Still Life, the most intimate of all, capture a flower’s fragility, or the interest of personal memorabilia. My paintings are meant to be lived with and aid in the appreciation of the visual world, not to shock or charm. After 50 years of painting, subjects still excite me and I hope never to become bored with looking, for it would be ‘a poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’."
In 1972, when Rowe Street was closed for redevelopment, Graeme moved his studio to the old Dundee Arms Pub at 171 Sussex Street, Sydney. He painted some of his greatest portraits and still-life works here. (Today, the Dundee Arms Pub displays on its walls large self-portraits of Graeme Inson and Ivy Shore, plus a sample of their artworks and a permanent display of memorabilia relating to their life in that building).
Inson was now travelling regularly around Australia, painting landscapes and commissioned portraits. However, he had never painted overseas, until a "sightseeing-only" trip in 1979 opened his eyes to the possibilities of foreign landscapes. Thereafter, in addition to his frequent trips within Australia, he began to take his oils and canvas to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He visited England, France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Oman, Dubai and Iran in a long series of trips from 1980 to 1998. A near-fatal car accident in Greece on one trip did not dampen his enthusiasm, nor did a brush with the Shah’s secret police in Iran before that country’s Islamic revolution.
Meanwhile his solo exhibitions continued, mainly at the Verlie Just Town Gallery in Brisbane and the Wagner Gallery in Sydney, though he also exhibited in Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, Launceston and Adelaide. His reputation was such that one exhibition at Brisbane’s Town Gallery completely sold out before it even opened. In total, he held over sixty solo exhibitions.
Demand for Graeme Inson portraits continued. At first he regarded painting interesting faces as a pleasure. But commissions came in so often that Graeme began charging higher prices for them simply to keep the numbers manageable. His portrait commissions included Prime Ministers, cardinals, judges, academics and businessmen and women throughout Australia, as well as the spouses and children of many prominent Australians. Many Inson portraits now hang in national collections. For instance his portrait of old school chum Gough Whitlam was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and now hangs in Kings Hall, Old Parliament House, Canberra alongside the portraits of other Prime Ministers by top Australian artists. His portrait of Australian poet Robert Campbell was purchased by the National Library of Australia, and now hangs proudly there.
In 1999, Graeme lost his life partner, Ivy Shore, to a rare form of cancer. This personal tragedy was compounded a few months later when Graeme discovered his own eyesight was failing. Despite these tragedies, he continued to paint and to teach right to the end. In his last year, Graeme went on painting trips to Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands, and to the Snowy River. He was planning another overseas painting trip at the time of his death, and was in the early stages of writing his autobiography. He had also just been nominated for an Order of Australia. But his sudden death occurred before this was awarded and before his autobiography was completed. His friends and students said Graeme really died from a broken heart - since he never really go t over the death of his life-partner Ivy Shore in August 1999, nine months before his own death.
Graeme was a frequent contributor to the Archibald, and a finalist on several occasions in the Moran. His awards include the Charles Lloyd Jones Memorial Portrait Prize, the Rothman Prize for Still Life, the Rural Bank Prize for Landscape, the Troy Roche Prize, a Moomba Award for his book “The Restless Years”, and the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales Art Competition Grand Prize.
His works now hang in the National Gallery, Federal Parliament House; Parliament House Hobart; The National Portrait Gallery; Old Parliament House (where his portrait of Gough Whitlam hangs in Kings Hall); the Australian National Library; the Australian High Court; the Supreme Courts of NSW and Queensland; the State Art Galleries of NSW, Queensland and Tasmania; Rockhampton Art Gallery; Universities of NSW, Sydney, Queensland, Newcastle, Armidale and Griffith; Private schools; Royal Colleges; Colleges of Advanced Education; company and private collections; and the Commonwealth Artbank.
In April 2004, the Four Points by Sheraton Darling Harbour (which also owns the historic Dundee Arms Pub at 171 Sussex Street, Sydney) discovered that Graeme Inson held the lease on the Dundee Arms for over two decades and had painted most of his major works there. General Manager Wayne Buckingham decided to completely re-decorate the Dundee Arms as a permanent tribute to the artist who was its most celebrated resident. The Dundee Arms Pub at 171 Sussex Street Sydney now features a permanent exhibit of original oil paintings by Graeme Inson, plus framed memorabilia, his favourite portrait of his life-companion Ivy Shore, and his lifesize self-portrait ‘Me and Me New Hat’ (which won the Sydney Royal Easter Show Art Contest in 1971.)
Graeme Inson is survived by his two step-sons - Harvey Shore (a Logie-winning TV writer/producer) and Russell Shore (a ocean-going ship’s captain now working as a skipper with Sydney Ferries).
Graeme Inson is listed in the following standard references:
* McCulloch, Alan and Susan. Encyclopedia of Australian Art. 3rd Edition, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994. Page 363.
* Germaine, Max. Artists and Galleries of Australia, Volumes 1 & 2, Third Edition. Craftsman Press, Sydney, 1990. Page 336
The Art Gallery of New South Wales approached Graeme Inson’s executor soon after his death, seeking to acquire and preserve his papers in their archives. Because of his sudden death, it took four years for his executor to settle his estate. But as soon as this was finalised in October 2004 his stepsons donated all Graeme Inson’s documents, records, papers, letters, unpublished manuscripts, books, photographs & slides, extensive press clippings, exhibition catalogues and his many awards to the safekeeping of the Art Gallery of NSW Archives where they are now preserved for future art researchers and historians.