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NGA Logo  Home Sweet Home: works from the Peter Fay collection

I have a strong belief in rattling the walls. I want to get people asking, Why is that here? Why is that art and that not? ‘Outsider’ artists have as much to give as established or ‘insider’ artists.
Peter Fay 2003

Of course, the great collectors are themselves creators: either they are already artists and so use their finds as sources of inspiration (or rather as reminders of what inventiveness can be), or else they group their acquisitions into constellations which reveal a personal aesthetic perspective. Sometimes they can be ecstatic about things whose origin and meaning are entirely alien: they can afford to take chances.1
Roger Cardinal  2000

  Pat Thompson: Pink 1972
Pat Thompson
Pink 1972, Peter Fay collection
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To be part of this exhibition Home Sweet Home: works from the Peter Fay collection is to be part of an adventure. This exciting show of predominantly Australian and New Zealand contemporary art is about a collection that comes from a domestic context and examines the way the idea of ‘home’ — and by extension our hearts and minds — can be transformed by art. It is an eclectic, idiosyncratic, at times iconoclastic collection that reveals the passions of a collector who is himself an artist. It reveals a collector who has supported emerging and outsider artists as well as others who are well known. This exhibition challenges established conventions through bringing together art by both mainstream and marginalised artists to blur the boundaries between the two. Roger Cardinal’s comments in a recent catalogue, Marginalia: perspectives on outsider art, might equally relate to Peter Fay’s vision: ‘The art offers us the prospect of an alternative and potentially revolutionary way of seeing.’ It is work that ‘may provoke a steady rapturous ache in the beholder’.2

It was with something of this kind of ‘rapturous ache’ that Peter Fay acquired his first work of art, Pat Thompson’s Pink for £1 in 1972. At the time, Fay was working as an English teacher in the UK and recalls rushing to catch a bus through freezing sleet past an Art Society event ‘where the prize-winning works were under cover and the lesser works were hung outside’. Outside was a woman wearing mittens, wrapped in blankets, who had work that caught Fay’s attention: ‘I had my eye on the bus and yet I had to go back. It was one of those road to Damascus moments.’ Although the artist herself tried to guide him to the winning works, he remained intrigued by her painting of two figures in a bed. ‘I said to her, “Pat, why didn’t you paint the faces and their feet?”, and she said, “I was sick the night they did faces and feet.” ... But it is a painting that holds its own through all its   internal qualities, ambiguities, contradictions.’3

In the early 1970s, however, Fay was still a way off becoming a serious collector of art. His early years and family background in Australia had not prepared him for a life in art. There was never much money and life was lived by conventions. One touchstone that he believes is a metaphor for his later life occurred around the age of 12. At the time, he was given a copy of Dickens’ David Copperfield by a Brother at his school. The prospect of reading such a large tome was daunting but through the experience he suddenly found that it was possible to enter another world. He recalls his sense of immersion and empathy: ‘I was going into the city in a double decker bus one day, and I was at the point in the book where Dora’s dog died and I burst into tears. The lady sitting next to me said, are you all right, and I said, the dog’s just died, and she said you poor thing I’m sure your mother will get you another one. For me it was real, I was in that world … When the art kicked in, it built on the same foundation, the same passion.’4

After his stint in the UK, Fay returned to Australia in 1974 and started teaching at the Kings School in Sydney, at which time he met Mick Blunden who introduced him to a whole new way of living:

I was mowing the lawn for some friends in Castle Hill ... I came back from England without a brass razoo and lived in this tiny room. I would mow lawns to get a bit of space and air and light ... One day this friend told me of a delightful elderly lady who had a beautiful place in the Blue Mountains whose garden had become overgrown. She had offered my services for some lawn mowing ... I went there and we just talked all day. Her name was Merle but everyone called her Mick. Norman Lindsay had been her husband’s patron and she had been part of an artistic world ... Mick was one of the most beautiful people you could ever hope to know. I went up there every weekend and one day she said, ‘Why don’t you come up here and we’ll grow the flowers, the whole thing?’

It was in the early 1980s that Fay’s passion for collecting art really came to the fore. He began frequenting galleries in Sydney on a regular basis. Also important was a large show of work by emerging Australian artists acquired by Director James Mollison with the Philip Morris Arts Grant for the National Gallery of Australia. ‘I remember how excited I was about the National Gallery coming onto the scene. They’d been in those sheds for years and it was a real opening up of contemporary art for me. I went around the gallery making copious notes, taking down artists’ names.’ From the start of the 1980s Fay experienced considerable enjoyment in the work of emerging artists Narelle Jubelin, Fiona MacDonald, Susan Norrie, Peter Cooley, Tim Maguire and Adrienne Gaha. ‘I became friends with a lot of them and I’d have lunches in the mountains on a Sunday. There might be fifteen of us all sitting around the log fire and going for walks in the garden. I also showed some of their works in the shed up there.’

Peter Atkins: United States journal 1990  
Peter Atkins
United States journal 1990, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Click to enlarge image

Among Peter Fay’s early acquisitions were works by Noel McKenna and Peter Cooley, whose art he has continued to collect in depth over the years. Another was Peter Atkins. Fay acquired, among other things, works on pieces of found slate and the artist’s first ‘journal’ work, United States journal 1990. This work is significant to the wider context of Fay’s collection because of Atkins’ identification with outsider artists and his use of found materials. This journal reveals Atkins’ perspective as a traveller, searching for meaning and connections from a plethora of intimate encounters and personal associations. Incorporated in the journal is Atkins’ homage to the black American folk artist Bill Traylor and a collaborative work with a woman Atkins met outside the White House who had lost her son in Vietnam. Also included in the journal is a found painting For Baltimore that is, in Atkins’ own estimation, better than anything he could have come up with to encapsulate ‘the achingly desolate atmosphere of a place made famous in one of Nina Simone’s songs’.5

With hindsight it is possible to discern strands of interest evolving in Fay’s collection including his fascination with artists who are also ‘collectors’ of objects such as Atkins, Mikala Dwyer, Fiona MacDonald and Robert MacPherson. As Trevor Smith wrote of MacPherson: ‘Certainly the activity of the collector is parallel to the artist in one important respect, which has to do with the intensity of “looking” — of examining artifacts for particular qualities or resonances.’6 Fay also responded to the playful humour and conceptual rigour of the artist’s work. Initially, he acquired some of the Robert Pene drawings (works in which Pene becomes MacPherson’s 10-year-old alter ego) and, more recently, an important painting, Mayfair: fresh cut 2 frog poems and a rose for William Neaves 1998, ‘a painting about a painting, a big double board: one half is a bowl of flowers, and the other half is black. It’s about the mark — a black square with a white edge that picks up the reverse or the obverse of the flower, black, red, white’.7

In the course of collecting, an important person in Fay’s life was Ann Lewis, who became one of his closest friends. As he recalls, ‘Ann’s house was like a cornucopia ... art covered the walls and ceilings. It was just a part of her life. I’d known her as a parent when I taught her boys at King’s School. She is a person who has opened up so many lives through her generosity … This sense of generosity has also been true of Colin and Liz Laverty who have shared their enthusiasm for collecting. They have been great role models.’

Rosalie Gascoigne:  Down to the silver sea 1981–1982
Rosalie Gascoigne
Down to the silver sea 1981–1982, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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Peter Fay notes that he met Rosalie Gascoigne through Ann Lewis. He recalls that the meeting occurred at a fortuitous time when he had begun to move towards a greater focus on objects, both in his collecting and own object-based work. For Fay, Gascoigne was a kindred spirit, like Mick Blunden. Their friendship grew in the 1990s through Fay’s visits to Canberra and through their correspondence and mutual encouragement. Fay felt a real affinity with Gascoigne’s early work ‘her boxes of dollies, a sideshow banner depicting Jim Sharman’s boxing troupe salvaged from the tip and old jugs ... things invested with time and memory’. The works that he acquired reveal this preference, such as Down to the silver sea which marries so-called high and low art. It was also a catalyst for Fay’s own art. As John Cruthers notes:

‘Amazingly, it was a single act of creation that showed the way forward. On one visit Rosalie pulled out a work to show Peter. It was a box called Down to the silver sea, 1981–82, comprising three black and white cut-out figures based on Georges Braque’s monumental cubist Grand nu, 1907–08, set against a sheet of corrugated iron. It was her homage to ‘the one that got away’, Braque’s Nu debout, which James Mollison wanted for the ANG in 1976, only to have it quashed by the Fraser government.

Struggling to make it work, Rosalie had attached a pink plastic leg onto one of the flat, cut-out figures. It was a creative leap that worked, moving the piece away from the literal and bringing the whole construction to life. Seeing Rosalie make art like this, working intuitively with old materials, released Peter into what his art would become.’8 continued