Peter Pinson

P e t e r   P i n s o n   O A M

AWI President 2003-2006

Peter Smeeth, Portrait of Prof. Peter Pinson OAM 2012, Watercolour

The essence of watercolour is its intimacy, its nimbleness and its swiftness. Watercolour painting is to oil painting as fencing is to Greco-Roman wrestling. – Peter Pinson

Although Peter Pinson came from a family unfamiliar with art, his cousin, Max Cullen, would become a distinguished character actor, as well as a practicing painter and sculptor, while Max’s elder brother, Fred (known as Cul Cullen), made a career as a cartoonist, actor, scriptwriter and art director at Channel 7. The protean Pinson would similarly gain prominence in the visual arts as a painter, educator, curator, gallery director and author.

Pinson was born in Sydney, in 1943, to John William Pinson and Mona Barbara Vale. His father, John, was a second-generation plumber who later became a Head Teacher of plumbing in the NSW Department of Technical Education. He also undertook a sequence of self-designed ‘spec builder’ projects, the Pinson family having lived in two of them. The early 20th century house where Peter Pinson grew up in west Chatswood was remote and surrounded by bush, no other dwelling being within sight. It was, at that time, the house closest to the spot beside the Lane Cove River where, two decades later, the bodies of Dr Gilbert Bogel and Mrs Margaret Chandler would be found. Their unsolved murder, with its intoxicating mix of intellectual-set parties, adultery, theories of obscure poisons, possible espionage and, later, notions of deadly miasmas bubbling up from the depths of the Lane Cove River, bestowed upon the area a certain piquancy and mystery – but, by then, the Pinson family had moved to East Lindfield. 

Pinson completed his secondary education at North Sydney Technical High School (NSTHS) in 1960 — two years before the enactment of the Wyndham Report which, in its extension of the curriculum, provided the opportunity for all secondary school students in New South Wales to study art. In Pinson’s time, NSTHS, like most Sydney boys’ schools, did not teach art, nor did the school’s bleak, barren walls offer any intimation that such a discipline existed. Paradoxically, this unpromising scholastic setting would produce some senior art educators. Neil Brown, Pinson’s contemporary, would become Professor and Head of the School of Art Education at the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Arts (COFA) and Richard Dunn, a student in the year below Pinson, would become Professor and Director of Sydney College of the Arts. Pinson himself would hold the position of Professor and Head of the School of Art at COFA.

Fortuitously, at the conclusion of his secondary studies, Pinson’s family came upon a vocational guidance booklet indicating the existence of a potential career as a secondary school art teacher. As the number of art teacher training scholarships was being increased to accommodate the expansion of secondary school art classes, with the roll-out of the Wyndham Scheme, Pinson was admitted to the four-year program despite not having studied art at school. 

In 1961, Pinson commenced his art studies at the National Art School (NAS) and the Sydney Teachers’ College. Martin Sharp and John Firth-Smith were student contemporaries at the NAS, though he would not come to form friendships with them until much later. In retrospect, Pinson points out, he is bemused by the rudimentary facilities at the National Art School in the early 1960s and the unscholarly setting of creative projects. Nonetheless, there were lecturers who left their mark on him. Among them was John McGrath, a teacher of design, who set the class imaginative tasks requiring analysis of the paintings of Paul Nash and Constable’s cloud studies. From his personal library, which he made available to students, McGrath lent Pinson Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which would prove influential in sparking his interest in Buddhism. Another inspirational teacher was Tom Gleghorn, who had just returned from overseas, having been awarded the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Art Scholarship. Gleghorn, who was entering the most commanding phase of his abstract expressionist career, impressed Pinson with his ‘pictorial swiftness and audacity, as well as his technical innovations.’ 

At the Sydney Teachers’ College, he attended a psychology class taught by Bill Collins. Collins, who would become a renowned film commentator on television, presented weekly screenings of great American and European films. After their National Art School classes concluded, Pinson and his classmates would pile into taxis and hasten to Sydney Teachers’ College to view and discuss Collins’ selections. Also at the STC, he developed an admiration for Frank Hinder (a former student of Italian-born modernist, Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo), who was then head of the art education faculty. In 1964, Hinder invited Pinson to work with him as an assistant to his American-born wife, Margel Hinder, in the construction of her large copper and steel, abstract Free-Standing Sculpture sited outside the Reserve Bank of Australia in Martin Place, Sydney. This marked the beginning of an enduring friendship with the Hinders. In 1992, Pinson would speak at Frank Hinder’s funeral.

Pinson won his first art prizes during 1964, the last year of his studies, at Sydney’s Mirror-Waratah Festival Art Prize. One of the prizes was for watercolour, although Pinson did not foresee that, two decades later, watercolour painting would become his central practice. Other winners of the Mirror-Waratah Festival Art Prize that year would become AWI colleagues, notably Guy Warren, Hector Gilliland (then AWI Vice President), and Graham Austin (later AWI President). 

In 1965, Pinson was appointed to Bathurst High School where he met, and forged a long friendship with, John Conway, who was then lecturing at Bathurst Teachers’ College. Conway would later be elected to the AWI on the basis, according to Pinson, ‘of his watercolours’ very original and very English variant of surrealism’. While in Bathurst, Pinson met his future wife, Jennifer Brownlee, an English and History teacher whose father was a Staff Inspector with the NSW Department of Education. They would have three boys. 

In the High School art room, with its panoramic views over the Bathurst plains, Pinson prepared a body of paintings and drawings to submit for the 1966 biannually awarded New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship. He was placed second that year, and decided to compete for the Scholarship again in 1968. This time, he was successful. One of the three judges that year was Eric Thake. Pinson would develop a firm admiration for Thake’s surrealist paintings and for surrealism as an inexhaustibly persistent seam in modern painting.

The Scholarship was for three years overseas travel, of which two years had to be spent undertaking studies in a formal institution. The Scholarship committee recommended that Pinson meet with the painter who won the Scholarship in 1962 and had just returned to Australia — Robin Norling (who would serve as AWI Vice President). Norling spoke of his time at London’s postgraduate Royal College of Art, whose painting school abutted the Victoria and Albert Museum, and whose students had their own private doorway into the V&A’s rooms of treasures. The RCA had achieved renown earlier in the 1960s when students, including R.B. Kitaj, David Hockney, Richard Smith, Peter Phillips, and Derek Boshier, had placed English Pop Art firmly on the international map.

Travelling to London, Pinson was admitted to the painting school of the Royal College of Art. However, before commencing his studies, he took a residency in the University of Sydney’s Power Institute Studio, at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, in early 1969. There, he established a friendship with the social realist painter and fellow Cité resident, Noel Counihan, whom Pinson admired for his capacity to combine a painterly élan with realist subject matter. Pinson particularly recalls a work Counihan completed during this time, which was a sympathetic representation of a clochard living in the rue St. Antoine who, for some inexplicable reason, had green house paint poured over his head (where it stayed for some days). Pinson drove Noel and Pat Counihan to Saint-Denis, to view the basilica, which was a pioneering exercise of the Gothic style and, perhaps no less importantly to the Counihans, was the site of revolutionary activism. Pinson sensed a certain residual tension in the Paris air after the previous year’s volatile student-workers’ unrest and attempted revolution. Police units were prominently stationed at street intersections. Pinson watched the melding of security and pomp as George Pompidou was invested as President of the French Republic.

At the Royal College of Art, he completed the customary three-year master’s degree in two years, undertaking a thesis that examined connections between Zen and contemporary art. It was a project that brought him into contact with Benedictine priest and concrete poet, Dom Sylvester Houédard, and with Christmas Humphreys, a judge who was England’s foremost writer on Zen and founder of London’s Buddhist Society. Pinson was unaware at the time that Humphreys had been the Attorney General’s prosecuting counsel at the trial of nuclear spy Klaus Fuchs, as well as having led for the crown in securing the conviction of Timothy Evans, who was hanged for a murder subsequently found to have been perpetrated by notorious serial killer John Christie (the subject of Brett Whiteley’s Christie series). Humphreys had also been an assistant prosecutor in the post-war Tokyo War Crimes trials  — an unexpected background for the most prominent English interpreter of Zen. Pinson’s exploration of Zen was helpful when, in 1980, he curated the first survey exhibition of abstract expressionism in Sydney, at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, as some of the artists involved, including Peter Upward, had to some extent embraced Zen attitudes and practice. Following his post-graduate studies at the Royal College of Art, Pinson subsequently completed a PhD at the University of Wollongong. 

The Pinsons returned to Sydney in late 1971 via the Middle East, travelling on an overland bus whose mechanical condition became increasingly unreliable. On one occasion, the bus broke down at night in the remote Afghan countryside. Tall men emerged from the darkness offering melons for sixpence. When the bus broke down again in Kabul, most of the passengers set out independently for Pakistan and India, travelling through the fabled Khyber Pass by public bus. It was a journey that would be unthinkable today.

On his return, Pinson was appointed to Wollongong Teachers’ College as a lecturer. Col Jordan, a leading formal colour abstractionist, was already on the staff. It was probably Jordan’s precedent that prompted Pinson to adopt a greater use of resonant colour in his palette.  

Meanwhile, the Pinsons bought a ‘Sydney style’ house at 29 Stonecrop Road, North Turramurra, which previously had been the home of Barry Cohen (also a North Sydney Technical High School alumnus), who would become Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Environment in the Hawke Federal Labor Government.

Appointed Chief Education Officer at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1974, he moved to a 1880s baker’s house in Denbigh Road, Armadale, replete with capacious stables that had housed the horses that delivered the bread. The stables easily accommodated the large canvasses Pinson was painting at this time, which were exhibited in Melbourne’s Warehouse Gallery.

Pinson returned to Sydney in 1977 to take up a senior lectureship in the School of Art at Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education (which, in 1990, became the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales). There would be a stimulating array of colleagues at this new workplace, including Rodney Milgate, Emanuel Raft, Col Jordan, Chris Gentle (about all of whom Pinson has written monographs), Kevin Connor, Idris Murphy, Louise Fowler-Smith, Brian O’Dwyer, Sylvia Ross, as well as AWI members Earle Backen, Ian Grant and Graham Kuo. 

When the College established the Ivan Dougherty Gallery later that year, it was decided that the inaugural exhibition should be a survey exhibition of the work of 60-year old painter Elwyn Lynn. Survey exhibitions being comparatively infrequent at that time, such a show could be expected to generate public interest in the new gallery. The Head of School, Ken Reinhard, invited Pinson to write the catalogue, which became the first in a long sequence of books and articles he would produce.

One of these publications was a major catalogue for an exhibition at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery examining the late paintings and drawings of John Passmore. When Passmore died in 1984, his executrix, gallerist Elinore Wrobel, had wisely preserved intact his library and also the many stained scraps of paper on which Passmore had written fragmentary thoughts about his attitude to art. To write the catalogue text, Pinson pored through these documents, which were in effect Passmore’s sometimes insightful, sometimes rambling notes to himself (“How do I know what I think unless I write it down?” Passmore wrote). Pinson found himself sifting through material like a detective, finding that Passmore had circled in an old television program a show relating to his jaundiced attitude to art dealers. The exhibition co-curator was Ivan Dougherty Gallery director, Nick Waterlow. Pinson was distraught when, in November 2009, Waterlow’s mentally ill son, Antony, killed his father and younger sister, Chloe, in a frenzied knife attack. 

It was around 1980 that Pinson arranged for former Sulman Prize-winner, Brian Dunlop, to speak to College students about his work, Dunlop focussing particularly on his watercolour painting. Fascinated by Dunlop’s presentation, Pinson immediately adopted water-based painting on paper as the core of his art practice, becoming a member of the AWI in 1983. Fittingly, both Brian Dunlop and his daughter, Sophie Dunlop, later became AWI members.

His role enabled Pinson to bring a number of interesting speakers to the College, but there were occasional surprises. He arranged a lecture by Françoise Gilot, a painter whose work had cubist origins, who had had a decade-long relationship with Picasso and had written the frank and compelling memoir, Life with Picasso. Gilotmanaged to speak for two hours without once mentioning Picasso.

In 1986, Pinson was appointed Official Military Artist by Defence Minister, Kim Beasley – the first such appointment in peacetime. In that capacity, Pinson visited various military bases, concentrating on matériel as subject matter. Some of his work, like Eric Thake’s paintings, alluded to anthropomorphic properties in still life forms. During this time, he also wrote about Eric Thake’s work as Official War Artist with the Royal Australian Air Force between 1944 and 1946.

In the late 20th century, a number of institutions established programs of artist-in-residencies, which offered artists the opportunity of working within, and responding to, new physical and social settings. Relishing the fresh ‘angle’ a new context could offer his still life paintings, Pinson received residencies including: The Gunnery, Sydney; the Arthur Boyd property, Riversdale; the Haefliger/Bellette house at Hill End; and a total of four residencies at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. During another residence of Pinson’s at the Bundanon Trust, the Writer’s residence at Bundanon was occupied by novelist and sinologist Linda Jaivin, who was completing her novel about the turbulent affair of American Mae Perkins and Australian George Ernest Morrison, the Peking correspondent of The Times. The affair was played out against a background of tensions between Russia and Japan for control over northwest China. Over wine, Jaivin read passages of her manuscript-in-progress to the Pinsons and the other two resident painters, inviting their responses. In 2009, her manuscript would be published as A Most Immoral Woman.

Elected AWI President in 2003, Pinson continued to vigorously support the concept of inviting a small number of guest artists each year, a process he had championed while a Committee member. This provided an enticing pathway for senior artists of high repute to exhibit in the AWI’s annual exhibitions, with the strong possibility of their being elected to membership. He also expanded the idea of including sketchbooks in the Institute’s annual exhibitions, acknowledging the traditional role of watercolour as a medium for undertaking preparatory sketches or plein air studies.

Affable, articulate and astute, with a quirky sense of humour, Pinson was much esteemed by his AWI colleagues. Certainly, his academic, literary and art administrative skills were an asset to the Institute during his tenure as president, not least in his production of the tome, The Australian Watercolour Institute: A Gallery of Australia’s Finest Watercolours, published in 2006. Among the salient issues he addressed was that of seeking permanent premises for the Institute.

From 1977 until 2010, Pinson lived in Hunter’s Hill, a suburb that looks across Ryde River to the former convict prison and later naval dockyard on Cockatoo Island. With the closure of the dockyard, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust sought to revitalise the island. Ostensibly, the introduction of creative industries seemed compatible with the imperative to preserve the island’s historical and cultural significance. The National Art School (NAS) was considering taking a lease on a quite large area suitable for studios. Pinson thought that one of the former workshops, on the water’s edge, would be viable as an exhibition site for AWI members’ work, together with two or three rotating studios for members, especially those interested in marine subject matter. Symbolically, a waterfront site for the headquarters of a watercolour society seemed irresistible to him. Members of the Committee visited the site and similarly embraced the possibility. However, questions remained about what Cockatoo Island’s visitor flow would be and whether members wished to assume responsibility for the refurbishment and maintenance of a site that was somewhat inconvenient in that it had to be accessed by ferry. In the end, neither the AWI nor the NAS proceeded with applications to establish themselves on the Island. With the failure of other creative industries to relocate to the island, the Federation Trust subsequently began looking to attract maritime businesses. 

In 2008, Pinson set up an art gallery at 143 Edgecliff Road, Woollahra, exhibiting the work of artists who had established their reputations in the 1960s and 1970s, including Milton Moon, Col Jordan, Darani Lewers & Helge Larsen, Ken Reinhard, Bernard Sahm, Bernd Heinrich, Sandra Leveson, Bert Flugelman, Frank Hinder, Emanuel Raft, Ingrid Van Dyk, Shay Docking, Jocelyn Maughan, Barry Blight, Pamela Gittoes, Leonard Hessing, John Conway, John Coburn, Peter Laverty and Alan Oldfield, as well as the Hermannsburg Potters. While administering an art gallery had its professional satisfactions, it came at the cost of deflecting him from the studio. Hence, in 2014, Pinson largely withdrew from the role of gallerist to concentrate again on painting, a shift that was lent momentum by his being awarded a year-long residency at North Sydney Council’s historic, early 19th century Don Bank Museum in Napier Street, North Sydney. There, he continued to work in the style he had largely resolved a decade earlier, a manner that was characterised by emphatic design; painterly surfaces; a generally subtle palette offset with passages of pungent colour; flatness; and a feeling for pattern that relates to synthetic cubism and art deco posters. His themes continue to centre around the still life, but he seeks to invest these forms with metaphoric resonances, such as life and death; the enclosure of an interior and the changing winds of nature beyond; and tranquillity and disruption. 

Peter Pinson was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2007 for service to the visual arts as an educator, painter and writer, and for his contributions to a range of arts organisations. 

Dr Peter Pinson OAM passed away on 25 June 2017.

Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen

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

Copyright © Australian Watercolour Institute