The James Gleeson oral history collection

James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists

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Costume design for Obsessions 1939-40
Theatre art, drawing, gouache and pencil
image 36.6 h x 27.8 w cm
sheet 37.9 h x 27.8 w cm
Purchased 1978
more detail

Florence Martin

28 May 1979

James Gleeson: Well, it probably was. Yes, I think they were probably were in by that time. I’m not sure.

Florence Martin: I think it might have started.

James Gleeson: Yes, yes. So it was wartime in New York?

Florence Martin: But you wouldn’t know. It was wartime New York but, good heavens, you wouldn’t know it. I mean, all the old fat ladies used to get upset because they couldn’t get their certain brands of things. But it didn’t have anything to do with the war.

James Gleeson: No, no.

Florence Martin: it was terrible. Of course, it was all going on at home and we felt sort of pretty awful because we’d hopped off at the critical moment, but you couldn’t do much by staying. Dr Heiderman said that if I hadn’t gone then, he said, ‘Every year you’re getting older. If you want to get independent, get onto your better callipers. You should get going now’.

James Gleeson: I see, yes.

Florence Martin: That was really what drove us to it. There was a great worry going on about whether it was the thing to do. I suppose it wasn’t but, anyway, there we were. Having got there, we didn’t want to come back. It was so wonderful, you see, and we were learning so much. I had lessons from Sergei S Souderkine, he was an old Russian ballet designer.

James Gleeson: Had you trained in Melbourne before you left?

Florence Martin: Well, I hadn’t. Because during the 12 years I was sitting around with my back worries, not able to sort of get around, I did a lot of drawing and illustrating fairy tales. Kathleen and I, we had little exhibitions. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of old Margaret McLaine. Did you ever know Margaret McLaine?

James Gleeson: No, I don’t believe I did.

Florence Martin: Well, she had a gallery in Collins Street, and we had this sort of fairy tale exhibition. It was Grimms and Hans Andersens. No theatre at that stage. This was long before we met Doyle or anything.

James Gleeson: I see.

Florence Martin: So then I had lessons from Edith Allsop. She used to come out to the house. She was a great cubist. She’d been in Paris studying under Andre Lote.

James Gleeson: Oh, yes, yes.

Florence Martin: She tried to get us on to this. Well, I was not a cubist. I was a painter. But we tried hard; it was all quite good. At school, of course, I’d learn from old Archibald Colquhoun, and did plaster casts. But apart from that, and doing autograph books for all the various ones, well, that’s the extent of the learning.

James Gleeson: I see. So this contact with the Russian designer in New York was really the first—

Florence Martin: He said ‘You have an awful lot to learn’, so he showed me a lot.

James Gleeson: What was his name?

Florence Martin: Sergei Souderkine. S-O-U-D-E-R-K-I-N-E

James Gleeson: I see.

Florence Martin: A ballet that we’d seen and loved when we saw it in Melbourne was Paganini, remember that?

James Gleeson: Oh, yes, yes. I remember it well.

Florence Martin: He did quite a lot for the Russian Ballet and a lot for the ballets over in New York. He was living in New York now. A Russian friend of ours introduced us and said, ‘He does give some lessons but he’s more or less sort of given that up because he’s been so busy’. He was doing all the Radio City things at that stage and a whole lot of musicals and goodness knows what as well as ballet. Anyway, we went along one morning and he was in a funny old studio over on the west side. When we arrived he came to the door. We knocked about 16 times and thought he’s not in. He came; a little short fat thing with a dressing gown on. He just looked at us, you know. I was petrified. Anyway, we went in and all around the walls, just instead of wallpaper, it was just masses of his designs everywhere you look. Lovely, gorgeous things, and all the Paganini designs and everything. So, anyway, we said what the thing was. I said, ‘I’m doing these ballet designs and I’m still not on the union and I don’t think I can get on it for a while because you have to pay $500 hundred dollars’. It’s now about 20 times that. You had to do a big exam, and also the waiting list was very long. You had to wait for the old chappies, you see, to die off before you could get started. So, anyway, I said, ‘I'm plugging along. I’m doing things for Igor Schwezoff now’ because he had some ballets he wanted to put on and he thought he could wangle things to get me in with the Monte Carlo Company. So there was great arguments going on. That’s when this Malediction thing came up and he liked them very much and he wanted to use them but couldn’t, you see. It was awful.

So Souderkine said, ‘No, I can’t take on any more pupils. I’ve given up teaching. You’ll have to learn from someone else’. He was very abrupt–didn’t talk too good English either. So we had a bit of a chat and he introduced us to his nice–very large, enormous Valkyrie type, she was an opera singer–wife. An American. Huge; about twice as tall as he was. And very, very nice. Anyway, back we went to our apartment and that afternoon there was a knock on the door. It was Souderkine. He said, ‘I thought it over’. He said, ‘My cat died lately and I think I might take on a pupil’. Sort of instead of the cat, you know. It was the funniest thing. He came in and he said, ‘Now, I’ve brought a lot of pencils and (inaudible)’. He said, ‘Now look around and see what you’ve done’. He looked at some things I had there and he said, ‘Oh yes’. He used to come every day and give me lessons.

James Gleeson: I see. Oh, well, that was good.

Florence Martin: He got interested. He was a marvellous man. He showed me such a lot and taught me such a lot. Anyway, he was very keen on draftsmanship and I had to, you know, work at that thing. That went on for quite some time and then he was on a very strict diet and he knew he’d die if he ate ordinary things. He had to live on bananas and milk or something frightful. Of course, he said, ‘It’s no good to me. I think I’ll go off it fairly soon and then I’ll probably die’. Well, he did. He had a heart attack and he died. But, anyway, in the meantime he’d become a great friend and we liked him very much. He was a dear little man and very kind.
So from then on I kept on with all this designing business and there were various companies like Grant Mouradoff had a small company. It was going over to Europe and he made me do a lot of circus designs for him. Couldn’t use my name–it was all very sort of under the hat–because if you did you’d be clamped into jail or something, not being on the union.

James Gleeson: Because you weren’t a member on the union, yes.

Florence Martin: So then Kermit Love, who was doing also a lot of designing for big musicals and things, I met him and he was on the committee of this United Scenic Artist thing, Woodman Thompson was the president. I was talking to Kermit and he said, ‘You know, I think the only way—now, I’ll put in a word for you. I think you can get into the next exam. I think it comes up in February’, He said, ‘Anyway, I’ll see what can be done’. Well, believe it or not, I did, I got into the next exam. But I had to go up to Montreal, take out first papers. We went up there for about four days and we became resident aliens. We got on the quota, came back to New York and the exam. Chagall was doing it.

James Gleeson: Was he?

Florence Martin: Because he had to do the designs for Eleka from Assin.

James Gleeson: Yes.

Florence Martin: He was not allowed to do them. They were not accepted until he did the exam. This dear old boy, he was there doing it. Eight o’clock in the morning till four in the afternoon. You had to do a whole lot of designs beforehand to bring in, and then you had to do a lot of stuff while we were there. You had to answer all the oral part, and also fill out papers; a colossal thing. Kermit, very nicely, had told me more or less the kind of questions they would be likely to ask and the kind of books to get, so that’s a great help, enormous help. So I got 90. Ninety. I thought I’m made, you know, no more trouble. But that was only the beginning. You then had to dig your toes in. We’d somehow got the money over. I’ve forgotten. Oh, I know. I broke my ankle. Tats dropped me. She was carrying me into the bath and we fell over the mat and I broke it. It was a marvellous thing to happen because the doctor was able to write out to our doctors in Melbourne and the bank and things and say that I had to stay on over there and needed more money.


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