Review of Letters of Norman Lindsay

The death of Guy Howarth at a time when he had made substantial progress towards assembling his edition of Norman Lindsay's letters of course has changed the shape of this publication and also delayed its appearance. Deeply as one may regret that tragic event one must in fairness say that Mr Barker has produced a handsome and valuable book, whose content adequately honours Professor Howarth's researches. The publishers, perhaps, found themselves in something of a dilemma in issuing a volume of letters written by a famous artist, and it occurs to me to wonder if this is why they have given it the heavy, quasi-collectable format it has. It seems to me better designed for turning over a few pages at a time and just glancing at the illustrations, than for reading. But it will be read, even if not comfortably.

Biography is a flourishing Australian art. but not one that is very competently practised. Lindsay needs a more penetrating biography than John Hetherington's. With these letters now before us perhaps we may hope to be given one which will look more deeply into the man, and also into the mental world to which he belonged and into which he fits. The Embattled Olympian (1973) is a useful survey but the material does not seem to be there to bring out. as now the letters make possible, the full Lindsayan complexity. The fact is. there were clearly two men at least perhaps more inside that one skin, and they were often, if not constantly, in conflict. Whether one looks for Lindsay in his drawings and paintings, in books (his own, or those which have been written about him), or in the legendry (mythology?) which has grown up around him in the popular mind, there seems always to be a contrast of views. The same contrasts appear also in the letters, though with an interesting difference. The letters are his speaking voice; they give the intimate perspective. Few even of the paintings really do that. I do not refer to confidential intimacies: Lindsay is not in the habit of spilling his emotions indiscriminately. But in the letters, as nowhere else at any rate so clearly, you see what motivates the man. And the sight, or insight, can be disarming. The venerable cliche holds: viewed in detachment, not everything we see in the portrait commands approval and admiration, yet as we find this man here self-revealed, clearly tout comprendre e'est toutpardonner. Or if not tout, at any rate most things. What I am trying to say, perhaps, is just that in the letters Lindsay appears purely himself, and on that level, simply as a man. an ordinary one much like the rest of us, he attracts a sympathetic understanding more readily than he does when one way or another he stands behind some kind of a public mask. As a public man he was seldom altogether free of the vanity of dogmatizing; as a quite private one he may even have been given to a certain amount of self-deception, but that is a vanity of another kind, and understandable in another way. In the letters we see frequent evidence of a dominating conflict, deep in his nature, between the great and the petty, the grand and the trivial. His soul hungrily demanded a large scope, broad visions, a big canvas. Yet in his largest works it is often the detail that is memorable, and the vision itself, the great effect, lacks impact. He spent a great deal of his creative energy in making political cartoons for the Bulletin, but hardly one of them survives to be remembered. He was a good illustrator, especially in his early days; less so, at least in my opinion, when he became too confident and rested on his laurels. Pen-and-ink was his first (and perhaps always his favourite) medium, then watercolour which he mastered, then blemished with an excess of virtuosity; then etching; but all of these left him dissatisfied, perhaps because his interest in the techniques themselves outweighed his subject-matter. He came to oils relatively late in his career, and not very confidently, but once again, enamoured of the technique and in despair of mastering it.

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Published 1 October 1979 in Volume 9 No. 2.

Cite as: Elliott, B.. ‘Review of Letters of Norman Lindsay.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 1979.