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How Philip Bacon's 'genius for friendship' has fuelled five decades of collections and recollections

Visual Art

Philip Bacon Galleries is regarded as Australia’s finest commercial art gallery  – also a warm and welcoming space that is about to celebrate 50 years in business.

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When Philip Bacon Galleries celebrates its 50th anniversary this month the memories will come flooding back. For all sorts of people.

Because over the past five decades Bacon’s eponymous gallery has built a reputation as Australia’s finest commercial gallery. It’s the gallery of choice for so many people and one which, at times, hosts museum-quality shows that trump anything seen in the larger art museums where curatorial fashion rules.

It’s why Philip Bacon Galleries is sometimes lovingly and laughingly referred to as the New Farm Regional Gallery. Okay, officially it is located in Fortitude Valley but it’s on the cusp and it seems more a New Farm destination.

The area has a colourful past – and sometimes a colourful present. There was a time when those practicing the world’s oldest profession used to solicit business on the corner just outside Philip Bacon’s window. Charming. Those days are gone, thankfully.

Writing on the arts in Brisbane as I have done since the late 1980s, I have a few decades under my belt as an habitue of the gallery. It’s somewhere I have plied my trade but it has also become a favourite place for social gatherings – the openings are always wonderfully warm and gregarious affairs. It has a special place in my heart and the hearts of generations of art lovers and their families.

I was privileged to launch my book of poetry, An Accident in The Evening, at the gallery in 2001. My son Hamish was a babe in arms at the time. It was a great night. I was grateful for such an auspicious venue and to Philip, who is an amazing patron of the arts, all arts.

Arts minister of the day, Matt Foley (sometimes known as The Minister for Poetry) officiated. I had just met and interviewed the late great Diane Cilento that week and she turned up for the launch, which was a bit special. And no, I didn’t ask her questions about Sean Connery.

When I wrote for Brisbane News magazine, which I did for 20 years or so, I had a weekly visual arts column and was regularly at Philip’s (as I call it) interviewing artists and reviewing exhibitions.

Philip Bacon’s stable over the years has been staggering – Arthur Boyd, Fred Williams, Robert Dickerson, John Olsen, Davida Allen, Wendy Sharpe, William Robinson, Jeffrey Smart, Margaret Olley, Sam Fullbrook and local heroes including Ralph Wilson, Peter Anderson, June Tupicoff and John Honeywill, among others.

Even Philip Bacon’s close friend the late Barry Humphries exhibited with him on a couple of occasions and the gallery was first stop on Humphries’ many visits to Brisbane. Philip Bacon spoke beautifully and from the heart at Barry Humphries’ State Memorial at the Sydney Opera House late last year. They were very close.

Phil Brown, baby Hamish Brown, Philip Bacon, Phil’s wife Sandra McLean and former arts minister Matt Foley at Philip Bacon Galleries in 2001.

Philip has what some might call a genius for friendship. He is a friend of the good and great – he knows King Charles, is close to Lord Jeffrey Archer and others – but is equally at home talking to students or newcomers to the arts who may find themselves at his gallery without knowing too much about it.

It’s a beautiful welcoming space that was refurbished in 2001 by Cox Rayner Architects with Jayson Blight as lead architect. It’s still a gorgeous reno, if I can use that term.

Once beyond the heavy front doors you enter a cool world (the air-conditioning is often a blessing) of the most magnificent art you will ever see.

I’m lucky enough to have met most of the great artists Philip has represented and still represents. I recall taking afternoon tea there one day with the great Margaret Olley, the humblest lady with the rare gift of bequeathing beauty to the world through her work and philanthropy.

Writing about how cool the gallery can be reminds me of the time I interviewed Ray Crooke there some years ago. Crooke is an iconic artist sometimes known as the Gauguin of Australia, a description he didn’t altogether approve of. I went to interview him on a normal summer day and there he was in the gallery wearing the kind of cardigan your grandad used to wear. Well, he did live in Cairns, after all, so Brisbane seemed a tad chilly.

Getting to know William Robinson – Bill to his friends – has been a joy. Philip Bacon describes him in one of the catalogue essays for the forthcoming anniversary exhibition as “Australia’s greatest living artist”. I don’t imagine anyone would argue with that.

Robinson’s exhibitions of sublime landscapes and other works have been a tonic for many of us and you will see his work in the anniversary exhibition, which features paintings from Philip Bacon’s private collection (not for sale) and other works from the estates of significant collectors (these will be for sale, so for collectors it’s going to be quite the opportunity).

One of the most significant artists I interviewed at Philip Bacon’s was the late great Jeffrey Smart, who used to come from his home in Tuscany (they called him Lord Smart of Tuscany) to exhibit with Philip Bacon in Brisbane. Those exhibitions were always nationally and internationally significant.

The day I arrived to meet him I was ushered downstairs to the stockroom where Smart had set up an easel and was doing some final touch-ups to his work. That may have explained the fresh paint smell at the exhibition opening.

On another occasion I interviewed Smart upstairs and he was at it again, touching up a small painting of a nude man standing by a beachside caravan. No, the nudity wouldn’t do, Smart decided, so I sat and watched him paint on a pair of swimming trunks. That was gold.

Our conversations were always warm and funny with personal touches. On one occasion the balding Smart, noticing my receding hairline, proceeded to give me some tips on how to massage the scalp to prevent hair loss. What a hoot. It has worked only to a point.

I have so many other memories … of talking about poetry with Tim Storrier, meeting Lyn Williams, widow of Fred Williams, talking about bushwalking with Davida Allen, one of our finest artists, and getting to know up-and-coming artists such as Michael Zavros (who’s pretty well arrived) and Robert Brownhall and Jun Chen, who insisted on painting my portrait for the Brisbane Portrait Prize – twice. He’s a beggar for punishment.

Always one of the treats for me is sitting chatting to Philip in his office (the holy of holies), flanked by gorgeous art, enjoying his sometimes wicked sense of humour, candour and his passion for the artists he represents. And hearing those stories that are sometimes off the record. They’re the best!

So happy 50th Philip Bacon Galleries! You don’t look a day over 49 …

Philip Bacon Galleries’ 50th Anniversary Exhibition runs February 13 to March 9 at 2 Arthur St, Fortitude Valley;

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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