George Duncan

G e o r g e   D u n c a n

AWI President 1958-1964

Alison Rehfisch (1900-1975, Portrait of George Bernard Duncan c. 1936, Oil, Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

The Australian Watercolour Institute’s annual exhibitions have traced the development of Australian watercolour from realism and misty romanticism to experimentation and, today, the beginning of a breakthrough to a wider use of this medium as an expression of the power of creative accomplishment. – George Duncan, Foreword, AWI exhibition catalogue, 1962

In his office as president, George Duncan’s astute administrative skills provided impetus to the Institute, which he directed with ardour and aplomb for six years. He was a towering figure not only in his herculean physical proportions but also in the context of Australian culture through his unstinting service to fellow artists and organisations, for which he should not be forgotten.

George Duncan was born on 7 January 1904, in Auckland, New Zealand, to Australian parents, George Matthew Duncan, blacksmith, and Mary Veronica, née O’Connell, the name on his birth certificate having been recorded as George Cromwell Duncan.1 Subsequently, he would be known as George Bernard Duncan. His father, George Matthew Duncan (born 1872 in Bendigo, Victoria, to Matthew Fraser Duncan and Margaret Nichol Gordon, both Scottish emigrants to Australia), had previously wed Hannah Louisa Hill on 18 January 1894 in Victoria, but later filed a petition for divorce on the grounds of her desertion.2 After a protracted public court case involving the intervention of the Attorney General, a decree absolute was ultimately granted and George Matthew Duncan married Mary O’Connell in 1905 in Sydney.3

Sadly, the artistic proclivities Duncan demonstrated throughout his childhood aroused scant interest or encouragement on the part of his proletarian parents. Owing to the family’s straitened financial circumstances, he was forced to work at the age of fourteen, securing a position in an oil company, which required him to complete a diploma in mathematics and science at Tempe Technical High School. However, Duncan’s propensity for art remained unabated and he soon became a long-term student of Italian-born maestro, Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, at the Royal Art Society, producing meticulously executed academic drawings. His inherent skill and steadfast application would earn him the Royal Art Society’s student exhibition prize in 1926.

A congenial giant measuring 6 feet 7 inches in height and weighing 20 stone, Duncan was, according to friend and colleague, Margaret Coen, ‘the guardian angel of the Royal Art Society. Big, blonde, blue-eyed obliging George – if anything went amiss in the place, we said, “Let George do it.” “Let George do it” was the class catchword.’4

Dattilo-Rubbo would become an instrument of Duncan’s destiny in more than matters of art when, one day in class, he introduced him to fellow student, Alison Rehfish, saying, ‘George, this is Alison. I want you to look after her.’5 Duncan would heed that instruction for the rest of his life, later recalling, ‘We seemed to belong to each other on that first day.’6

Alison Baily Rehfisch, née Green (1900-1975), had studied at Julian Ashton’s Art School prior to her marriage, in 1919, to businessman, Rodney Rehfisch, with whom she had a daughter, Margaret (known as Peg), born in 1920. Vivacious, unconventional and with a disinclination to domesticity (her culinary efforts extending solely to apple charlotte), Rehfisch had reprised her art studies as soon as practicable, consigning Peg to a boarding school at the age of seven. Rehfisch’s daughter would later aver, ‘I resented George from the word go, and regarded him as an idiot. I didn’t think he was up to Mother’s standards in class, speech, intelligence, anything. Doubtless, I was a little snob! In my child’s eye, he was the cause of my parents’ marriage break-up – but that wasn’t wholly true, of course.’7

Despite the ostensible disparities of social class and character, the mutual devotion of Duncan and Refisch to each other, as well as to art, was manifest to all and by 1930 they were sharing a studio with Dora Jarret in a condemned Electricity Commission building near Circular Quay, Sydney, before relocating to Bridge Street,8 an artists’ enclave of cheap rental premises. However, Rehfisch was, for administrative purposes, still residing at the address of her estranged spouse and Duncan officially domiciled with his mother and younger sister, Beatrice Margaret Nichol, at 8 Lymerston Street, Tempe.9 In addition to their common modernist aesthetic ideals, they shared an irrepressible joie de vivre, hosting at their Bridge Street studio themed evenings of roisterous, ribald revelry, including the notorious ‘loincloth party’ during which some of the female attendees stripped to the waist while Duncan cavorted naked, apart from a length of rose-flowered curtain netting to gird his loins. Among the guests were AWI members Margaret Coen, Dora Jarret and Norman Lindsay, the latter memorialising the event in a watercolour, The Party 1933, a photo of which he sent to Rehfisch with a note that read: To Alison with thanks for the best of all possible parties.10

Duncan and Rehfisch held the first of their many joint exhibitions in April 1933 at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, which received a favourable review from the art critic of the Sydney Morning Herald:

There is some excellent work in the exhibition of pictures, which Alison Rehfisch and G.B. Duncan have placed on view at the Macquarie Galleries. Mrs Rehfisch is slightly the more definite and mature of the two artists. Though her work has hitherto been little in the public eye, she here shows herself worthy of a position in the front rank of the younger and more progressive painters….Mr. Duncan’s is a slighter and more variable style but he, too, is always stimulating and, in his tempera subjects, shows a delightful play of fancy.11

Shortly after that exhibition, Duncan prepared to embark for Europe, occasioning another themed foregathering of friends at their address, which was reported in the social pages of The Australian Women’s Weekly:

The artist dwellers in No. 12 Bridge Street gathered together all their kai kai bowls and other island treasures last week to give local colour to the ‘Prehistoric and Primitive’ party in honour of Mr George Duncan who, as the invitation announced, is leaving ‘Sordid Sydney for Peppy Paris.’ Mrs Alison Rehfisch and Miss Dora Jarret welcomed the guests to the jungle wearing the primitive grass skirts of the shy Marys of Samarai. As a missionary ready for the pot, Mr Albert Collins kept the primeval savages of the studio well amused.12

Duncan arrived in London on the Orient Steam Navigation company vessel SS Orsova on 31 August 1933.13 After spending some time in the country painting pastoral English landscapes, he occupied a studio in St John’s Wood,14 later studying at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, at 33 Warwick Square, Pimlico, under Scottish wood engraver and painter, Iain McNab, and Claude Flight, pioneer of colour linocut techniques. Following Rehfisch’s solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in November 1933, she abandoned her husband and thirteen-year old daughter to join Duncan, arriving in London aboard the SS Orsova with her friend, artist Ellen Gray, on 18 January 1934.15  The trio stayed in a studio rented from expatriate landscape painter, Norman Lloyd, and his wife, Edith, who operated a boarding house at 66 Avenue Road, Swiss Cottage. Artist (and AWI member), Elaine Haxton, had met Duncan and Rehfisch while in her teens at an annual exhibition of the Society of Artists and joined their Friday night Sketch Club. In the 1930s, while studying in London, Haxton would visit the couple in their studio at Swiss Cottage, later recalling:

It was a remarkable Victorian studio, of one vast room, warmed by a fireplace at either end, and had a wide, sweeping balcony that overhung the studio. In the garden was a delicious folly of a summerhouse, set in a leafy garden. The house itself resembled a Swiss mountain chalet and was utterly enchanting.16

During his six years abroad, Duncan travelled extensively, painting in France, Germany and, frequently, Spain, where he and Rehfisch spent three months. It was his experience of Spain that was decisive in the development of his mature style. There, having finally found direction, Duncan felt that he had truly become a painter.17

Professionally, Duncan gained significant public recognition in London. His work was included in the 1934 Six Colonial Artists exhibition at the Cooling Galleries, New Bond Street (with Rehfisch, Elaine Haxton and Gerald Lewers), and he also exhibited with the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Royal West of England Academy, British Empire Society of Arts, Leicester Galleries and New Burlington Galleries. In 1936, two of his paintings were hung ‘on the line’ at the Royal Academy, London, notably Puente Nova at Ronda and Pastoral with Ruined Priory, a cachet that was reported in the press from Sydney to Cairns. Conjointly with Arthur Murch, he obtained a contract to design the wool pavilion at the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition. In December that same year, Rehfisch received word that her husband, Rodney, had passed away suddenly and she returned to Australia on 28 December 1938.18 While Duncan remained in Europe, Rehfisch took an apartment in Edgecliff with her daughter, then nineteen, to whom she was a virtual stranger. Twelve months later, soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, Duncan returned to Australia on the Orient Line SS Oronsay, which berthed in Sydney on 23 December 1939.19

Working as a camouflage artist during the war under the aegis of the Allied Works Council, which took him to remote areas of regional New South Wales, Duncan developed a heightened receptivity to what can be described as the ‘psychology’ of the Australian landscape. The years he spent abroad had sensitised him to the ephemeral, brooding, primeval, animistic qualities of the Australian bush (so graphically and poignantly evoked by D. H. Lawrence in his novel, Kangaroo, written in the course of the British author’s stay in Thirroul in 1922). Until Duncan’s transfigured perception of the landscape, his work frequently included genre subjects and still lifes, such as his Breton women and social realist male labourers. However, in an aesthetic transition, Duncan would seek to express what he characterised as ‘the elemental’ in the landscape. Working en plein air and eschewing the predominant ‘truth to nature’ principle, he transcended geophysical features to visually capture in pigment his own metaphysical sense of the relativity of time and space in the landscape.

In 1944, he would be represented in the Allied Works Council Artists’ Exhibition held in the Myer Mural Hall, Melbourne, and the 1946 Australia at War exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Duncan and Rehfisch continued to exhibit both jointly and individually at the Macquarie Galleries. In November 1940, Duncan mounted a solo exhibition there comprised of paintings he had executed abroad, one of which, Arab Bridge, Ronda, was acquired by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. That same year, he and Rehfisch began exhibiting with the Society of Artists, the Contemporary Group and the Contemporary Art Society (CAS). In subsequent years, Duncan would manage CAS exhibitions and serve as treasurer. From 1941, he also exhibited with the Australian Watercolour Institute, being elected a member in 1949, and consistently participated in AWI annual exhibitions until 1973.

At long last, the girl Duncan had the good fortune to meet in his early student years and whom he described as ‘an inspiration, who encouraged me throughout all the uncertain periods of my life,’ consented to be his wife.20 George Duncan and Alison Rehfisch were married on 4 December 1942 at the registrar-general’s office, Sydney, and settled in the studio-apartment Rehfish had acquired at 214 George Street Sydney. They continued to participate in group exhibitions and, in successive years, each held solo exhibitions at Macquarie Galleries (Duncan in 1944,1947 and 1950 Johnstone Gallery, Brisbane, in 1952) at Macquarie Galleries. No one could have foreseen the tragedy that would befall them.

On 15 June 1947, a catastrophic conflagration ravaged their George Street studio, destroying a vast quantity of their work. The spectacular fire, which started on an upper floor of the Postmaster General’s transmission laboratory off Underwood Street (between George and Pitt Streets) before spreading to adjacent buildings, attracted 20,000 spectators, who jammed the streets.21 Fellow artists rallied to their aid, holding a benefit exhibition and auction, arranged by the Contemporary Art Society, at Desiderius Orban’s studio, 2 Henrietta Lane, Circular Quay.22 In October that year, Duncan held a one-man exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries, which was largely damned with faint praise. It was the view of the critic of the Sydney Morning Herald that, while the freshness of Duncan’s former years remained present in some paintings, the artist’s immediate technical concerns should be to correct a certain rawness of his colours, suggesting that he had reached the last phase of one expression and was slowly turning to another. However, the writer added the qualification:

It is but temporary. When he regains what he is on the point of losing, when he adds to this the experiences of a new vast field which belongs to the mature man, he may yet create an art which will survive the changes of local history. This is more than one can say for 95 percent of our artistic output…This is the very interesting show of a painter capable of much more.23

From that exhibition, the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased Church in the Tyrol, having acquired the previous year his Deserted Barns at the Oaks. The two other paintings by Duncan in the Gallery’s collection, Torremolinos, Spain (1936) and Heave Ho (1940) were purchased posthumously, in 1976 and 1982 respectively.

Following the fire, the Duncans took up lodgings in a Sydney hotel before rusticating for over a year in a cottage in Berrima, where they painted the undulating, bucolic landscapes of the Southern Highlands and environs. Afterwards, they rented rooms in a house, Barrangarry, in Felton Road, Carlingford, while Duncan supplemented their income by working in a nursery.

When Rehfisch’s father died in 1951, the inheritance she received provided sufficient funds for the couple to purchase an old, Federation-style house, Hillgrove, at 89 Livingstone Avenue, Pymble, on Sydney’s North Shore, with verandahs all around and an expansive garden, which would be a haven for them.

In August 1953, Duncan assumed the directorship of David Jones Art Gallery in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, a position he would retain for a decade. In that role, he was instrumental not only in bringing to public attention the work of artists such as John Coburn, Tom Cleghorn and Robert Dickerson as a visionary curator but also in changing the fortunes of the Australian Watercolour Institute by providing a prestigious, popular venue for its annual exhibitions until his retirement in 1964. Throughout his six-year tenure as AWI president and Director of David Jones Gallery, Duncan would assiduously promote watercolour as a medium on a parity with oil painting, as the founders of the Institute had formulated upon its inception. In his latter years, Duncan felt that the exposure and encouragement he gave to artists and new artistic expressions was gratifying but conceded, in retrospect, that he was rueful about the personal cost in relation to his own artistic production.24

George Bernard Duncan succumbed to cancer on 8 May 1974, Lloyd Rees having delivered a eulogy at his funeral. Disconsolate with grief and suffering from deteriorating eyesight, his widow, Alison, took her own life by ingesting poison on 12 March 1975, survived by her daughter. While the long, loyal alliance of George Duncan and Alison Rehfisch is among the great romances of Australian art history, their oeuvre is integral to that narrative.                         

A joint retrospective exhibition of their work was held in memoriam at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney and Canberra in 1976, about which abstract artist, Geoffrey De Groen, waxed lyrical in his review published in the Canberra Times, citing it as ‘sublime, poignant and as exhilarating as a dream.’

They are visions of lost domains: tranquil landscapes in the south of France, medieval houses at Nuremburg, chrysanthemums and fruit in the London of 1937.

All the works are painted with a deliberate and romantic innocence. There is not a glimmer of anxiety or pessimism. It is a thoroughly beautiful, solidly painted show. Duncan’s landscapes shimmer with swelling hills and emerald-green grass…Alison Refisch’s works are not quite as spirited. What they lack in virility is compensated for by a langour and a slumberous quality, never seen today.

Duncan died in 1974. Alison Rehfisch could not bear his absence and suicided a few months later. But in the scattered trees and bushes, the crouching shapes bent by the wind, one can see the spirit of the two. 25

Although major critical acclaim eluded them in their lifetime, they could not have wished for more.

Duncan’s work is held in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Queensland Art Gallery and University of Queensland, as well as in private collections in Australia and the United Kingdom.

ENDNOTES

  1. New Zealand Birth Index, 1840-1950, Folio Number 48, Registration Number 1904/17001.
  2. The Argus, 3 February 1904, p. 5.
  3. Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, Registration Number 1694.
  4. Stewart, Meg, Autobigraphy of my Mother, Vintage Australia, 2007, p. 148.
  5. Ibid, p. 149.
  6. George Duncan interviewed by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 116, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  7. Hawley, Janet, ‘Art, Love and Motherhood,’ The Age, 22 April 2002.
  8. Power, Rachel, Alison Rehfisch, The Beagle Press, 2002, p. 46.
  9. Australian Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980, 1930.
  10. Power, Rachel, Alison Rehfisch, The Beagle Press, 2002, p. 48-49.
  11. Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Mrs Rehfisch and Mr Duncan,’ 21 April 1933, p. 7.
  12. The Australian Women’s Weekly, ‘The Mirror of Sydney,’ 22 July 1933, p. 27.
  13. UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960.
  14. The Australasian, 23 December 1933.
  15. UK Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960.
  16. Haxton, Elaine, ‘A Reminiscence by Elaine Haxton,’ Catalogue, George Duncan and Alison Rehfisch Retrospective Exhibition, 8 – 25 April 1976, Macquarie Galleries, Manuka.
  17. George Duncan interviewed by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 116, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  18. UK Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960.
  19. Ibid.
  20. George Duncan interviewed by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 116, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  21. Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1947, p. 1.
  22. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1947, p. 17.
  23. Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 1947, p. 9.
  24. George Duncan interviewed by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg Collection, DeB 116, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
  25. De Groen, Geoffrey, ‘Sublime Landscapes,’ Canberra Times, 8 April 1976, p. 17.

Copyright © Linda van Nunen & David van Nunen

Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)