I am learning the piano, more than half a century after I last played. I would like to be able to play Erik Satie. My father was a piano teacher and we even had two pianos in the house for a time when I was a child—one stood in my bedroom. In a London music shop in the 1970s I found a book of sheet music by Satie and, with fond memories of his music enhancing the mood of European films such as Carlos Saura’s Elisa, Vida Mia, I brought the book back to Melbourne and presented it to Dad. He was not familiar with the early twentieth-century French composer but he quickly learned to play the quirky melodies with their odd time signatures and plaintive chords.
Today, at the end of my first lesson for decades, my teacher starts to play the first of the Trois Gnossiennes. As I watch him play, his smooth fingers on the keys fade into the gnarled fingers of my father: their slightly swollen joints after he developed arthritis; the split nail on the index finger of his right hand, relic of a long-forgotten accident. My eyes blur with tears.
Pianos and the music of Erik Satie have become family motifs. Jamie, my new teacher, is my son Matt’s partner. His serene and airy music studio with the sun-dappled tree fern beyond the window is in the front room of the elegant Californian bungalow they bought recently in the Blue Mountains. I share a smaller house of the same period with Lizzie, my partner of more than 30 years, just a few streets away. Jamie’s piano is shiny black, like the one that stood against the cyclamen feature wall in the living room of my childhood house in Melbourne and that now resides at my daughter Astrid’s house a few kilometres down the mountain. The curling silver ‘R. Lipp & Sohn’ that snakes its way across the front of that piano is replaced on this sleeker model by a bold, square ‘Yamaha’. The book of Satie sheet music open above the gold lettering is the one I brought back from London in 1976.
Our address in Oakleigh was 7 Simmonds Street. In the 1950s it was a suburb on the outer fringes of Melbourne, fanning out into open paddocks where we would pick blackberries in summer and forage for mushrooms in autumn. Now Oakleigh is a multicultural metropolis in a sea of suburban sprawl that stretches to the Dandenong Ranges. Our house was originally built by the Housing Commission, one of about four designs lining both sides of the street, concrete three-bedroom houses with small front porches and sizeable gardens. Most of these houses had, like ours, been bought from the commission and were owned by middle-class families, thus altering the association of public housing with the poor and needy. I had girlfriends up and down the street—Lauris next door, Jenny across the road and the twins Michelle and Deirdre a few doors down.
Tommy Minns’ sister Maree, who lived opposite the twins’ house, hovered on the edge of our circle, partly because of her obnoxious little brother but also, I suspect, not fully accepted by our families because the Minns were the only ‘renters’ in the vicinity. We would play at each other’s places after school until our mothers came out to their gates at tea time calling the relevant daughter’s name. Mum’s trained operatic voice projected well as she sang out my name and I was never able to pretend I hadn’t heard her. Others played deaf until someone eventually said, ‘Yer mother’s calling.’ On fine days we played skippy and chalked hopscotch on the road, running to the nature strip when the occasional car approached.
I was born at the end of the war when the baby boom meant teachers were in short supply and urgently needed. My mother responded to the Education Department’s call and said she could return to teaching when I was old enough to start school. Graeme, my brother, was five years older and well-established by that time at the local state school. A keen pupil, I had been taught to read by mum when I was about four. So, although children weren’t enrolled until they were six years old then, I was permitted to start at Hughesdale State at five when I impressed the school principal by spelling ‘beautiful’ correctly.
My father was a country boy from Colac in the Western District of Victoria. He had been a sickly child, often unable to attend school, and he left formal education at the end of primary school. Because he couldn’t play sport or join the other kids in outdoor pursuits he was given piano lessons by a local teacher and proved a willing and talented student. His other talent was cooking and he excelled in making pastries. He joined the RAAF during the war and was stationed around Australia in places such as Dalby in inland Queensland, Lapstone at the foot of the Blue Mountains and Marrangaroo near Lithgow where, he told us, ‘a row of fake shops’ hid the air force base from the highway.
From the blazing plains of Dalby to Katoomba’s seeping mists my mother followed Dad’s trail with my toddler brother, staying in dreary boarding houses with bossy landladies. The young Englishwoman, who hated the heat, described Dalby as ‘a hell-hole’. I have photos of my dashing father sporting an air force cap worn at a jaunty angle over his dark, wavy hair, but I know he never took to the air except in exercises. Apparently, his facility for playing dance music on the piano and his cooking skills made him an indispensable fixture of the officers mess wherever he was stationed. After the war he became the pastry chef at the grand Windsor Hotel in the city, where political dignitaries, theatre and film stars and famous sportsmen stayed. I waved to the Queen on her 1954 royal visit from an upper window of the greystone building as her motorcade passed along Spring Street.
Soon after the war, Dad landed an extra job as organist at the local Christian Science church. I used to accompany him sometimes in our little green Morris Minor with the smart new addition of a lever that popped out of the side of the car at the flick of a switch to indicate that Dad was turning right or left. It was a big improvement on the semaphore hand signals drivers used before, especially when it was raining. The Sunday service was a bit boring but I enjoyed the Wednesday evening Testimony meetings when churchgoers would stand up to tell their individual stories about healing. (I had the bowerbird instincts of a writer even then.) My father was not a Christian Scientist but the church paid well to have a professional organist and he was given free rein in the choice of repertoire. Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science manual specified that the music ‘should be of a recognized standard of musical excellence’. My mother had a fine mezzo soprano voice and she was employed as a soloist on occasions. Dad continued his gig as the church organist for nearly 40 years, long after the family left Oakleigh, finally giving up only when he was no longer able to drive the distance from Kilsyth at the foot of the Dandenongs to the church. He became a respected quasi member there, establishing some long-term friendships, although he was never tempted to join.
Just a few kilometres across the paddocks from Oakleigh, past Hughesdale, lies the suburb of Murrumbeena where the Boyd family of potters and artists lived on their rambling property. In 1913, when potter Merric Boyd was 25, his parents had bought him a block of land on the Wahroongaa Estate, where he established the place he called Open Country and gradually his extended family—his parents, his wife’s mother—built on adjoining parts of the estate. One reason the family chose Murrumbeena was because Dr Springthorpe, a relative by marriage, lived nearby and Merric suffered from epilepsy. Although the condition was considered to be mental rather than medical then and was the subject of much stigma, Dr Springthorpe looked after Merric’s health until his death of kidney failure in the 1950s, caused by the crude drugs that were available at the time.
Merric Boyd and his artist wife Doris, whom he married in 1915, had five children—Lucy, Arthur, Guy, David and Mary—who all became talented potters, painters and sculptors, several of them marrying artists too: Lucy’s husband was the potter Hatton Beck; Arthur married painter Yvonne Lennie; David and Hermia Boyd became well-known artists; and Mary was to marry John Perceval and, later, Sidney Nolan. As the family grew, so did the house. A range of additions were built as the children and their families set up home at Open Country, but Merric’s pottery kiln and the family room known as the Brown Room provided the lifeblood of the place. Arthur had a studio in the grounds designed for him in 1938 by his architect cousin Robin Boyd. Open Country gradually became an important artistic community guided by liberal and humanitarian ideals, welcoming creative people to it over the years: artists, writers, sculptors, potters and filmmakers. It eventually fell apart when Merric died in 1959 and Doris followed soon after in 1960. The property was sold four years later and Open Country was demolished to make way for a block of home units.
Doris and Merric Boyd were deeply religious. As a young man, Merric had considered becoming an Anglican minister. He always had strong spiritual beliefs, drawing his artistic inspiration from nature, particularly the colours and shapes of Australian flora and fauna. For him, the creative spirit was the source of everything. Doris, whose mother Evelyn Gough was a committed Christian Scientist and women’s rights activist, introduced Merric to the faith in the 1920s and it became increasingly important to them in the difficult years of the Great Depression when times were lean and the children, though well fed, wore tatty hand-me-downs. Founded in 1875 in the United States, it was a religion that attracted progressives because of its assertion that Christianity was relevant to a scientific age and also because it was established by a woman.
Doris and Merric were never ‘orthodox’ Christian Scientists, although Lucy Boyd remembered that her mother was assisted in her understanding by ‘a Christian Science practitioner … a wonderful old man’. David Boyd recalled that Merric was a keen reader of Mary Baker Eddy’s teachings but ‘used to sort of maul her metaphors’, reducing them to aphorisms such as ‘love governs’. The children were advised to give their religion as Church of England if they were asked so as not to have to explain Christian Science, not an uncommon practice, especially since many people confused it with Scientology. But Guy Boyd remembered being taken on occasion to the Christian Science church in Dandenong Road across Warrigal Road—the church where my father became the organist.
Merric Boyd was something of an eccentric figure around Murrumbeena, a handsome, dignified man with impeccable manners but with long hair and shabby clothes, who tended to live in a world of his own. His daughter-in-law Phyllis Boyd recalled, ‘He’d tell you he was Merric Boyd, Australia’s fine-art potter, and that he’d worked at Wedgwood at the end of the 1914–18 war.’ The 1940s saw a decline in his delicate health. Artist Jean Langley, a friend of Arthur’s, who first met Merric during those years, recalled that he wandered around a lot. ‘He’d pick up a little grub and put it in a tree. In a way, he had a marvellous, God-like personality.’ Although he still produced thrown pottery, he resorted more to drawing and would walk the paddocks and streets of the suburb with his sketch-pad and drawing materials. If he found a shrub or flower in a garden he liked he would ask permission to draw it and then give the owner the finished work. He often wrote phrases on his drawings that combined his Christian Science beliefs with a contemporary ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style of expression, for example:
I am Merric
Boyd held through
all eternity here and
now love governs me
Lucy Boyd said ‘Daddy just had no idea about money’ and David recalled that his mother used to get annoyed with her husband for giving away his work, particularly his pottery, because he would often give away his best pieces. ‘He had a great capacity for generosity,’ David concluded.
My father was a recipient of Merric Boyd’s generosity, and that of his son Arthur. For as long as I can remember, two beautiful pieces of pottery stood in our lounge room at 7 Simmonds Street and were also prominently placed in the houses my parents lived in subsequently. These pieces have now been handed down to me and I treasure them. Both were given to Dad when he was organist at the Oakleigh Christian Science church. I do not know the circumstances of just how they came to be in my father’s possession and my parents are no longer here to ask, but my understanding is that they were gifts from the Boyds offered by the church in lieu of payment on certain occasions.
One is a large bowl decorated in wild swirls of deep blue and cream and brown; windswept trees are suggested and at one point the rich blue glaze bleeds down a branch incised with the outlines of two koalas. It is a tactile and textured piece and I love to run my fingers over the mounds and indentations of its otherwise smooth surface. The interior is partly lined with a glaze of vivid green. Thick drips of the green hang from the inside rim as if the potter had forgotten to wipe them off before firing, not a mistake but an example of Boyd’s blend of handcrafted rusticity and professional expertise. I keep lemons from the prolific tree in our back garden in this bowl, their yellow a bright contrast to its moody blues and greens. On its base one of Merric Boyd’s inimitable sayings is inscribed in his hand:
Photographs supplied by the author
The other treasured piece of pottery is a rare example of his eldest son’s ceramic work. Like his brothers and sisters, Arthur Boyd learnt to make pottery at his father’s kiln but he is better known as one of Australia’s foremost artists. As a young man in 1944, just back from war service, he joined his brother-in-law John Perceval and Peter Herbst in buying the studio of another brother-in-law, Hatton Beck, in Neerim Road, Murrumbeena. He renamed it the Arthur Merric Boyd (AMB) pottery and the artists made pots in simple forms and bright colours, primarily to support their more serious work, in Arthur’s case, painting. He did, however, also experiment with figurative and landscape painting on plates, bowls, jugs and tiles. The piece I have inherited is a coffee pot, with handle and lid, painted in an all-round landscape of gum trees. There is a suggestion of a fence near the handle of the pot (on which the scene is continued) and where the trees part we see distant rocky hills and sky, all painted in soft blues and greens with a few highlights of mustard yellow. It is impressionistic and sublimely Australian and I turn its position on the dresser frequently to reveal afresh the different details of the scene. Around the base of the pot is incised ‘Arthur Merric Boyd’, indicating that it was one of his experimental pieces created in the 1940s, not one of the more commercial pieces made for the pottery, which were always inscribed AMB or AMB pottery.
Photographs supplied by the author
‘The Boyds’, as we refer to these pieces of pottery in family shorthand, have always been in my life but I have only recently considered how their materiality carries traces of my childhood in them, how they contain meanings beyond their status as beautiful objects. For me, they embody the complexities of class and culture in Melbourne suburbia in the first half of the twentieth century. I never crossed paths with the Boyd family in my youth even though we lived in such close proximity; they belonged one to two generations before my own. But in Colin G. Smith’s book Merric Boyd and Murrumbeena (self-published, 2014), I have found resonances with my own history. Reading the interviews Smith conducted in the 1980s with some of the members of the Boyd family and their friends and neighbours has helped me frame and understand my memories of my own childhood. The participants in the interviews also look back decades to their childhood and young adulthood. David Boyd, 20 years older than me, believed there was a paradox when looking at the Boyds and other families in Murrumbeena.
On the one hand, there were all these tidy, suburban houses all around the area. On the other hand, there was this raggle-taggle family with this incredibly dignified and very polite figure and his well-spoken young kids, living in what appeared to be pretty rough conditions. This puzzled a lot of people. It didn’t puzzle me greatly … though I did feel there was something different between us and those living around us. It was a distinction that I felt was imposed from the outside, rather than coming from within. It was not so much a problem, but a strange contradiction.
Guy Boyd’s wife, Phyllis, described Open Country as ‘a funny little old weatherboard house that never got painted, with all these lovely big trees around it and grass that was never cut and growing up everywhere’. The children were all encouraged to express themselves creatively, making pots with Merric and drawing anywhere, even on the walls of the house. They thought all children did ‘art’. David remembers bringing boys home from school one day when his parents were out and they ran amok, jumping in and out of the windows of the Brown Room. One boy said ‘This place is like a slum.’ Yet David had been to that boy’s little house—all prim and proper, polished floors, where children had to take their shoes off before they entered—and couldn’t understand how he could prefer it.
The children had differing memories of the neighbourhood. Guy, the middle child, who was more conventional than his siblings, felt that Murrumbeena was against them, that they found the family odd and eccentric. He would have preferred a manicured lawn. While David said he did not find their ‘difference’ to be a problem, he acknowledged that he hated his time at Murrumbeena State School, where he was surrounded on his first day by children calling him ‘Girly! Girly!’ on account of his long hair. Guy became a champion fighter at the school, a skill that grew from defending his siblings from taunts. But a child of one of their neighbours, Kate Crombie, remembered going to visit Merric after school to watch him work and to share his afternoon tea of bread and golden syrup; sometimes her mother would send over a batch of scones. Her recollection was that there was a good relationship between their families, although her family’s visitors did think the Boyds were ‘odd fish’.
Doris Boyd might have used a cowbell to summon her children home for tea rather than calling from the gate, but this was a shared practice in suburban Melbourne. My mother’s operatic voice was the difference in our street and her ringing tones were capable of making me squirm with embarrassment. The houses in Simmonds Street where I grew up were more like the neat dwellings of Murrumbeena than the Boyds’ Open Country, but, like the Boyd children, I grew up feeling different from my playmates. Our garden was not wild and overgrown like Open Country but nor did my green-thumbed father endorse the manicured lawn, rosebushes and uniform paths that were the suburban norm. He mixed hydrangeas and camellias with grevilleas and callistemon long before the use of native plants became trendy; a neighbour complained that runners from our coarse couch grass were invading her soft kikuyu lawn and, most radically, Dad removed the picket fence and extended our garden onto the verge.
Another difference was that, unlike my friends’ mothers, mine worked. The image that prevails today of 1950s mothers in their starched aprons baking cakes in gleaming kitchen appliances was not one I was familiar with. Lucy Boyd insisted that the Boyd women were mothers and family people, creative but not career women. But they were all accomplished artists and worked in their studios even if the work was, as in Doris’s case, decorating their husbands’ pots rather than continuing their careers as painters.
Mum would often leave before me to get to school early and then I was the last to go, locking the house and making my own way round to Hughesdale State a couple of streets away. A dreamy child, I dawdled and was often late to assembly in the large asphalted schoolyard, trying to slink unobtrusively into my class line before we marched into our rooms to the strains of ‘Colonel Bogie’ crackling over the loudspeakers. At school I too was teased: for my red hair (‘Ginger! Ginger!’ chanted the boys) and for the fact that my mother was a teacher. Like Guy Boyd’s daughter, who was of a similar age, I was also made fun of for my ‘English’ accent, a legacy of mum’s determination to drum any Australian vowels out of my speech. Lenore Boyd’s teacher at Oakleigh State criticised her speech and told her there was nothing wrong with having an Australian accent.
In outer Melbourne suburbia in the 1950s, Australian vowels were uttered with pride, in contrast to our upper-class counterparts in Toorak and South Yarra, who were often happy to ‘pass’ as English. We were nationalistic, aspiring to make the most of our new middle-class status, to work hard, make a decent living and stay safe in our neat houses and fenced gardens. Oakleigh was largely populated by white Anglo-Australians then and was yet to see the wave of Greek and Italian immigrants who would broaden our horizons and improve our bland diets. My girlfriends in Simmonds Street expected to follow in the footsteps of their mothers, to get a job when they left school while they waited to marry and have children. That was never my dream. I wanted to be famous—an actor or dancer or musician or writer, I wasn’t sure what. (‘She was always a bit up herself,’ I hear Lauris from next door whisper.)
I never became famous but I did become a writer. When Aileen Palmer, the subject of my latest biography, returned to Melbourne in 1945 after a decade working in European war zones, she found Australia to be a complacent ‘steak-and-eggs country’. She had grown up in the Dandenongs with her writer parents, Vance and Nettie Palmer, who, like the Boyds, were talented and creative but poor. Living as she did in a rural hamlet and being home-schooled by her mother, Aileen’s experience of difference was not as marked as that of the Boyd children in aspirational suburbia, although she was their contemporary. But she too grew up instilled with the idea that artistic creation—whether it be writing or painting or making beautiful pots—was the most important aim in life. And that was the difference in my upbringing from that of my friends and the reason the Boyd pots carry the marks of that difference for me.
My musical parents encouraged me to learn the piano and listen to music. They took me to the opera and the ballet. We made the long train trip into town and sat in the gods at Her Majesty’s or the Princess Theatre where I saw most of the Borovansky Ballet Company performances as well as visiting dance and opera companies and stars such as Margot Fonteyn and Joan Hammond. I was not always appreciative of my parents’ generosity, though, and I remember struggling to stay awake during Joan Hammond’s performance in Tosca, amusing myself by wondering how long she could keep singing with her head dangling over the edge of her death bed (clearly an unreliable memory as Tosca falls to her death from a parapet). We went to concerts and visited art galleries. My parents collected paintings by Melbourne artists such as Norma Bull and Max Middleton (some of them now gracing the walls of my home).
I continued to shadow the Boyds in my first career on the stage. Arthur Boyd painted the backdrop for a production of Macbeth by his friend Peter O’Shaughnessy in 1957, using his brother Guy’s sitting room in Caloola Avenue, Oakleigh, as his workshop. In December that year he painted a costume of feathers for a young Barry Humphries to wear in the bush musical The Bunyip and the Satellite at the National Theatre. I performed in the second of Peter O’Shaughnessy and Barry Humphries’ bunyip plays Mumba Jumba and the Bunyip at New Theatre two years later. Humphries’ friend, the artist Clifton Pugh, painted a glorious backdrop of white-trunked gum trees for that production as well as decorating our costumes. I also learned ballet at the National Theatre and my first drama teacher was Peter O’Shaughnessy, who gave me private lessons at his gracious old home in Kew.
My upbringing was nothing if not eclectic, though. Before my teens my father left the Windsor Hotel and my mother left teaching so that they could open a homemade cake shop in an industrial part of the new suburb of Huntingdale, just beyond Oakleigh. I worked there over the next few years on Saturday mornings and in school holidays, buttering mountains of white bread for sandwiches for the factory workers and helping Dad behind the scenes, chopping vegetables for Cornish pasties and piping jam and cream between the delicate pastry sheets of the matches.
My parents’ goal for me was to go to university, the first in my family to do so. My older brother was not academically minded and left school at 16 to become an apprentice printer at the Herald. After attending a selective girls high school geared towards the scholastic, I would take an arts degree at University of Melbourne, majoring in music and philosophy. Liberal arts degrees and the humanities in general have been subject to a steep decline in value for several decades now as universities become more and more narrowly vocational, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to receive a broad education in the arts in and outside the academy. It may not have brought me great wealth but it has enriched my life in ways that I believe are far more rewarding.
The shadow of the Boyds did not fall directly on my later career as a writer but my early experience and training as an actor did give me the skills that inspired my choice to write biography. That training proved invaluable in enabling me to put myself in others’ shoes and see the world from their perspective; it also helped me interpret archival material such as letters and diaries as I am always alert to catching the ‘voices’ of my subjects and to discern subtext. Interestingly, although I had read Brenda Niall’s fine biography of the Boyd family, it was not until I came upon Smith’s book of interviews, in which their individual voices rang out so vividly, that I was inspired to explore connections with my own life. It is probably no accident that the women I have chosen to write about created rich lives for themselves despite coming from relatively poor backgrounds. Some of them had parents, like mine, who remained cognisant of values such as respectability that were rigidly imposed on the emerging Australian middle class, but who also reached out beyond the accompanying pressure to conform and transcended it.
I was interviewed on ABC radio’s Midday Interview about Ink in Her Veins, my biography of Aileen Palmer (UWA Publishing, 2016). The format of the program demanded that the interviewee choose five pieces of music they love and that may have personal resonances. One of the pieces I chose, the first of the Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, was for my English mother, who spent many of her childhood years visiting cousins in Aldeburgh, the fishing village on the Suffolk coast where Britten lived and that was the setting for his opera. Mum had family connections with Britten (who was known as ‘our Ben’ by her cousins) and I visited the village in 1976 just after the composer’s death when mounds of flowers from musicians and orchestras around the world covered his grave in the local churchyard, marked then with a simple wooden cross. It was on that trip, my first to England, that I bought the book of sheet music by Erik Satie for my father. The piece I chose for him for the radio program was, of course, the first of the Trois Gnossiennes. •
Sylvia Martin was awarded the 2008 Magarey Medal for Biography for Ida Leeson: A Life. Her latest biography is Ink in Her Veins: The Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer.