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The James Gleeson oral history collection

James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists | SUBSCRIBE TO iTUNES PODCAST

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image: Noel Counihan, Not titled [man],  1939, a bound book of 161 pp. including 2 linocut and 2 lineblock illustrations and a linocut pictorial cover. Collection Title: Tales of Australia, by Pincus Goldhar. Melbourne:[The Author],1939

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Noel Counihan
Not titled [man]
1939 A bound book of 161 pp. including 2 linocut and 2 lineblock illustrations and a linocut pictorial cover. Collection Title: Tales of Australia, by Pincus Goldhar. Melbourne:[The Author],1939
more detail

Noel Counihan

2 November 1979 [unknown location]

James Gleeson: It just struck me that it must be of some significance that some of your best portraits were of important writers.

Noel Counihan: They were all personal friends. That is the reason that none of them were commissioned. Each of them was painted because I asked the writer to sit for me and each of them was somebody I admired. Katherine Prichard and Vance Palmer were the mother and father of modern Australian literature—Henry Handel Richardson and the others came before. So far as the modern novel is concerned, Katherine Prichard and Vance Palmer are the parents. A lot were my personal friends, people like Judah Waten. Brian Fitzpatrick was a very close friend. Brian wrote a novel, which has not yet been published. From the age of about 17 I was constantly in the company of musicians who were members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The focal point of the group that I associated with was the violin maker William Dolphin. Bill handled the instruments for the Symphony Orchestra and for the local string groups. He also handled the instruments for all the visiting celebrities—Cecchetti and Heifetz and so on.

So the five years I had as a cathedral chorister provided me with a musical basis. I was fascinated by music and musicians. During the thirties I earnt my living as a freelance newspaper artist and my obsession with the human face played a big part in my caricature. A lot of my income came from caricature. I used to draw the visiting celebrities for papers like Musical News and Tabletalk, which meant I got free tickets into the concerts. I was able to go to rehearsals and meet them and draw them. Although I was very badly paid, these other things were the compensation. I met some wonderful artists, and then there were the musicians who used to drink at Bill’s place and at the Swanston family hotel, as well as the writers, the journalists, the pilots and a big group of painters.

image: Noel Counihan, The new order, 1942, Melbourne / Victoria / Australia Painting, oil on composition board Primary Insc: signed and dated l.l., oil "Counihan .42" 61.7 h x 80.1 w

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Noel Counihan
The new order
1942 Melbourne / Victoria / Australia
Painting, oil on composition board
Primary Insc: signed and dated l.l., oil "Counihan .42"
61.7 h x 80.1 w
more detail

James Gleeson: How do you regard The New Order? How do you think it stands?

Noel Counihan: It stands as an example of what I felt, and of my philosophy at the time. But otherwise I think it is a theatrical and rather clumsy thing. It is certainly not painted without feeling—I was very deeply involved in the whole thing. When you come to this, you come to it out of personal experience and observation.

James Gleeson: We don’t have a date on that, Noel. Can you remember?

Noel Counihan: We can check it from Place, Taste and Tradition.

James Gleeson: Is it reproduced in that?

Noel Counihan: No, but the Australia at War show is dealt with in some detail.

James Gleeson: It was shown in the Australia at War show.

Noel Counihan: There is no date on it. I did not start dating the signatures until much later. I think it would be 1945, but we can check that.

James Gleeson: Good.

Noel Counihan: That exhibition was organised by the Artists Advisory Panel, which was created during the war for the purpose of trying to see that governments made more sensible and effective use of artists than they did in the First World War—other than official war artists. It was called the Australia at War exhibition and it dealt with the work, not only of people in the armed forces but also of people in the essential services, in the munitions industry and so on. I was not in the army. I was very much at that stage in the grip of feeling that I had to draw on personal experience. The miners were working flat-out to produce enough coal for the emergency and had been maligned and calumniated in the press for their militancy over the years, despite the awful tragedies that had occurred at Wonthaggi and other places. So I thought I would pay the miners a tribute. I asked the state mine management if I could go down the pits at Wonthaggi, the state coalmine, and study the men at work. They were terribly reluctant because at the time I was the cartoonist for the Communist Party Weekly, The Guardian, and they thought I was motivated purely by the desire to make political propaganda. I was not at all. I had interviews with the management, and they said they would let met down a particular pit, the VIP pit—the Governor’s wife could go down there. It was all vacuumed—

James Gleeson: Good lord!

Noel Counihan: It had everything but a red carpet. Nevertheless, that particular drive had caused terrible havoc in the ranks of the miners. It was a white elephant; it was not really in production. Carving the tunnelling of that particular drive filled the lungs of many a miner with dust, with sandstone. I deal with it in the linocuts, The miners. There is one called The cough. That was the only area they were going to let me down. So I went to the miners union and said, ‘This is the situation’. I explained why I wanted to go down. I said, ‘I want to go anywhere a miner goes, but I will go with my sketchbook. I want to see the whole thing at first-hand’. So they sent a message up to the mine management from one of the pits that, if the artist bloke was not allowed down, there were going to be pit top meetings. So I was allowed down. I stayed in a miner’s home.

James Gleeson: How long were you there?

Noel Counihan: I was there a month. I went down every day; I went everywhere they went. It was a revelation, and something I have never forgotten. When I came up I had a sketchbook full of very rough documentary drawings for these paintings.

 

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