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Lin Bloomfield

Norman's Conquest

I F it was not love at first sight, it was certainly infatuation. When Lin Bloomfield first spied a Norman Lindsey painting, something inside her melted. It was 1949, and the self-confessed "naive NSW country girl" was 18 and just left home. "You have to remember how very straight times were then. But when the art lecturer at Armidale Teachers College in our first lesson held up a Lindsey watercolour and said "I want you to appreciate this", we all went oooohhh!!

"I'd seen pictures by Rubens before but I couldn't believe that here was an Australian actually doing this kind of work. It was so sensual and accomplished, and it inspired me to become interested in art, especially in Norman."

Nearly half a century after that first glimpse, the passion remains. As does the broad Aussie accent and the can-do pioneering spirit. But not the naivete. The effervescent Bloomfield is now a sophisticate of many accomplishments, a world traveler acknowledged as 'the' Lindsey authority, an art gallery director, publisher and author who has just released her "big book", The Complete Etchings of Norman Lindsey (published by her own press, Odana Editions).

Big also on fronts other than expertise and scholarship, it weighs in at 3kg, is nearly 500 pages long and reproduces for the first time all 375 Lindsey etchings (plus another 160 pictures) in catalogues raisonne. And besides its thorough life and history of the etching Lindsey, it includes value-added chapters on the artist's philosophy and inspirations, his emotional and financial relationship with his printer wife Rose, the history of their galleries, the art of etching, the complexities of sales and marketing, plus tables of comparative prices. And more. It was a "huge gamble", she says, costing more than $300,000 "and six years of my life" to produce. And it grew beyond normal commercial publishing constraints. "When I started," she acknowledges ruefully, "I thought this will be easy, I'll knock it out in no time - and then I found out what I didn't know ... only everything."

Less than a month after publication, the years of research in Sydney's Mitchell Library archives, the sifting through the 16 boxes of uncatalogued papers and letters left in Melbourne's LaTrobe by Lindsey biographer John Hetherington, the interviews with Norman Lindsey's daughter Jane, the research travel to London and interstate, and the gamble to self-publish look like paying off. Nearly half the 500-copy de luxe edition (at $800 each) and 2000-copy standard hard cover edition (at $190) has sold, with a substantial number sought by American interests. "It means I won't have to mortgage the house after all" she laughs.

BLOOMFIELD HQ, the house is only a shanghai-ed stone away from Sydney's traffic maelstrom yet it is an oasis of serenity and style. Part office/reference library/gallery storage, it is all efficiency in a welcoming way. Its diversion of artworks, sculptured sentinels, groaning bookshelves and objets d'(many)arts offer Holmesian clues to the many facets of Lin. The Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreyes, for instance, reflect her deep study of, and trailblazing affection for, Aboriginal art, while postmodernist Frank Hinder prints and Lindsey lithographs vie for the eye amid a potpourri of eclectic images. Scattered Buddha statues, Pacific totems and Middle Eastern mementoes speak of a cultural voyager rather than tourist, while well-thumbed books tell of a fascination for literature, Middle Eastern politics and archaeology. There's more, the idiosyncratic and the surprising, all placed with casual sophistication, but the quirky contradictions find best expression in the backyard where a cobbled path weaves through an incongruously lush rainforest garden to a Fijian bure shed. And there, amid the ferns and fronds, stands a marooned Tardis, a superannuated red Telstra phone-box with leadlight glass.

Bloomfield is, in the words of one friend, "a great eccentric, very upfront yet weirdly shy, a funny, loving larrikin who embodies the best side of that down-to-earth, Sunburnt country womanhood." Another emphasizes her humour and determination. "She's always battled against the odds, but she really believes in the arts. She's prepared to back her judgment, and holds to her opinion whether others approve or not. At heart she's a humanist, a profound anti-racist who was thrown out of numerous Sydney dinner parties in the 70s for her anti-Vietnam War views."

In 1973, after 20 years of being a full-time mother-of-three on a wheat and sheep property near Trundle in NSW's far west, and a part-time gallery owner in the town, she read "Life is rather dull and grey and we are dead a long time" in a Maugham novel. It resonated strongly and "I left the next day for Sydney with my two daughters (her son was in boarding school) to start my gallery." It was, she says, "the biggest gamble but one I had to take." She was 42, and it wasn't an easy transition. The family camped in raw flats above service stations, combed the markets for discarded fruit and furniture; Bloomfield worked 16-hour days, seven days a week. Over time, her self-belief was rewarded, and the gallery established its credentials in what is probably the toughest game in town.

Later she was able to indulge her other passions: travel (she takes off regularly on "mad adventures abroad", has lived in a Bedouin settlement, with Afghanistan tribespeople, in Fijian and Vietnamese villages) and blackjack. An accomplished player ("my daughters banned me from the casino over the last six months so I would finish the book"), she's competed in tournaments and in casinos around the world. She can often be found at 4am ("when the dilletentes have gone home") vying with the high-fliers in the Star Casino's serious school.

"I do like to gamble, to assess the odds," she admits. "It's as much a psychological challenge, reading your opponents and backing your judgment as anything else." Then she worries aloud that clients may get the wrong impression, think she's fickle. Given her track-record of achievement and productivity, that's hardly likely.

But back to Lindsey. The Complete Etchings is her third book on the artist (she has written others on Hinder, L. Roy Davies and Vincent Brown), and far the most involving. "I think that's it," she tells me. "I've put everything I know in there." That, of course, is substantial, and in this edition includes such previously proscribed knowledge as his affair with the artist Margaret Coen (later wife of poet Douglas Stewart), and revelations of Rose Lindsey's nervous breakdown.

Bollomfield's initial Lindsey infatuation grew, she says, as she read and studied his work. She bought her "first Lindsey (she talks of him always as 'Norman') Lindsey watercolour when I was a country schoolteacher, and paid it off with the child endowment - but don't say that," she whispers before laughing uproariously. In 1960, she met Jane Lindsey (the book is dedicated to "the two Janes", Norman's daughter and her own, who has taken over the running the "family business") and we became friends. When I first opened the gallery she gave me Lindseys to sell."

In the 70s, she met Rose Lindsey, who "was elderly and crippled by arthritis then caused by pulling the wheel of the etching press. She printed all the etchings - can you imagine it? it would take about 45 minutes per etching. There were 200 published etchings, some in editions of 55 ... and then all the unpublished ones as well. Without her, we wouldn't have anything because Norman wouldn't have been able to do it. She was his partner, lover and workhorse, an immensely strong woman of enormous spirit and great style. They had a passionate love for each other but their marriage was always hard for her - Norman was a workaholic ..."

That trait, though, or its result, is one of the Lindsey qualities she most admires. "He was such a renaissance man - he wanted to usher in a new order of poetry and Australian literature. It was such an admirable obsession. In many ways he was before his time, in others he was a 19th century artist stranded in the 20th. He was a great etcher, a hugely difficult medium, a painter, a cartoonist for The Bulletin, he could draw, he could sculpt, he wrote more than 15 books ... and he never succumbed to fashion, even though he received great criticism for his subject matter.

"He sacrificed virtually everything for his work. He'd sleep in the studio, etch in the morning, paint in the afternoon, and for recreation at night would build ship models, or write books. What a man."

But surely his time has passed for modern audiences, I lead. Not at all. "There is a lot of current criticism of him, but it's because he's a figurative painter who dealt primarily with nudes. But criticism today is not from the prudery that affected him in the 20s and 30s - it's more a perception that he never moved on. People who dismiss him miss out on so much, the prophetic quality of his work and the deep thought that lay behind it.

"He admired women, you know, regarded them as the creative force. He was also a bit of a larrikin and that appeals to all Australians doesn't it? He bucked the system, was threatened with jail, had court cases brought against him, fought off censorship, fought for freedom of expression ... I admire him tremendously, and one of the key things about him is that he did stick to his guns. There are artists who will change direction under pressure. He never did." That's a quality the artist and the author obviously share.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright Murray Waldren 1998

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