Colin Lanceley 1938-2015

March 7, 2015
Colin Lanceley, 'Songs of a summer night (Lynne's garden)' (1985)
Colin Lanceley, 'Songs of a summer night (Lynne's garden)' (1985)

Although he withdrew from the art scene suffering from declining health and a growing sense of disenchantment, Colin Lanceley’s work was one long chorus of joie-de-vivre. To look at his paintings from any period is to see an artist who believed, with Matisse, that art should be a celebration of life and beauty. In Lanceley’s case, a taste for vibrant colour was allied to the most painstaking composition. His best pieces are notable for their lyricism and visual intelligence.

Lanceley was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on January 6, 1938. His father, John Lassegue Lanceley was of French-English stock, while his mother, Mary Ann Agnes Ayers, came from New Zealand and Scottish parentage. In 1939 the family moved to Sydney, where two sisters, Gaynor and Joy, would be born. John worked for the RAAF throughout World War II.

Lanceley was undistinguished at school, but developed an interest in art and literature that would determine the course of his future life. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a photo-engraving company, and enrolled in night-time art classes at North Sydney Technical College.

By 1956, against his father’s wishes, he was studying art full-time at East Sydney Technical College (AKA. The National Art School). The Tech was the Mecca for art education in those days, the dominant personality being John Passmore, who preached the gospel according to Cézanne. Many former students recall these lessons fondly, but Lanceley was bored by Passmore’s obsessions, being more interested in artists such as Braque and Picasso, who built on Cézanne’s legacy. His favourite teachers were Godfrey Miller, whose own work was heavily influenced by Cubism and Anthroposophy; and the Viennese émigré, John Kaplan, who ran the school library.

Mike Brown (centre), Ross Crothall (left) and Colin Lanceley (right), with their collaborative work Byzantium (1962), at Melbourne's Museum of Modern Art and Design in 1962. Photo: Gordon De Lisle

Mike Brown (centre), Ross Crothall (left) and Colin Lanceley (right), with their collaborative work Byzantium (1962), at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art and Design in 1962. Photo: Gordon De Lisle

Lanceley’s breakthrough would not arrive at college, but in Claridges, Magda Kohn’s coffee shop in Taylor Square, where he met two other aspiring artists, Mike Brown and kiwi, Ross Crothall. The three friends moved into a share house in Annandale that quickly became an Aladdin’s Cave. Art critic, Robert Hughes, was an earlier visitor and has left a vivid description of “a palace of incrustations, a colonial Merzbau jammed with icons and effigies made from junk, a cave of drongo-droppings, as though the accumulated contents of lower-middle-class Australian life in all its kitsch, pathos and grinding insistent force had been dumped onto the walls and then provisionally stabilised with splots and gouts of paint.”

The Annandale Imitation Realists were Australia’s closest approach to the anarchy and iconoclasm of the Dadaists, but their moment was brief; the highlight being a riotous 1962 survey show at John Reed’s Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. By 1963 the group had dissolved, as Brown pursued an overtly political stance, and Lanceley became preoccupied with aesthetics.

When Lanceley appeared in a famous group photo of artists standing on the balcony of the Hungry Horse Gallery in Paddington, Brown included him in a blanket denunciation of the Sydney artworld. This notorious protest work of 1964, called Kite, marked Brown’s transformation into a self-styled outsider, while Lanceley took his first steps into the mainstream. He had become increasingly fascinated with Modernist techniques such as collage and bricolage whereby scraps of paper and other objects were added to a work to create a dialogue with the everyday world.

Colin Lanceley, 'Love Me Stripper' (1963)

Colin Lanceley, ‘Love Me Stripper’ (1963)

Pieces such as Love Me Stripper (1963) and Kindly Shoot the Piano Player (1964) may have looked anarchic, but Lanceley was fastidious in his sense of detail. At that time he became friends with sculptor, Robert Klippel, who had just returned from the United States. The two shared a devotion to the poetry of T.S.Eliot and the collage aesthetic. When Lanceley and Klippel found a cache of old wooden patterns used for casting machine parts, they knew it was a treasure trove.

In 1965 when Lanceley won the 1965 Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship, his major work – the freestanding sculpture, Icarus (1965) (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia) – was partially constructed from these wooden patterns. He set off for London that year as a rising star of Australian art. His companions on the trip were Kay Morphett and her two children. Kay had left a failed early marriage, as had Colin, who had been briefly hitched to the artist, Leonora Howlett. Kay and Colin would spend the rest of their lives together.

In London, as the young Arthur Streeton had found, success in Australia counted for little. Lanceley’s trump card was a letter of introduction, written by curator, Daniel Thomas, to the British critic, John Russell. Impressed with what he saw, Russell arranged a meeting with Marlborough Fine Art, who gave Lanceley a solo exhibition in 1966. One of the visitors to the show was Joan Miró, who would be a guest at the young artist’s studio.

For the following decade Lanceley lived and worked in London, where he showed with Marlborough Galleries and taught at the Chelsea School of Arts. Two sons were born – Tristan in 1970, and Felix in 1973. In his work Lanceley continued to experiment with adding three-dimensional objects to the canvas. There were many pieces in a circular, or tondo, format, such as Suddenly Last Summer (1977) and The Lark Ascending (1978).

In 1980, after briefly relocating to Burgundy, the Lanceleys decided it was time to head home. Arriving back in Sydney in 1981, Lanceley was excited to rediscover places he hadn’t seen in a decade. It was a fertile period that resulted in major works such as What Images Return (1981-82), Balmoral (1984), and Songs of a Summer Night (Lynne’s Garden) (1985).

Colin Lanceley in his studio in Surry Hills with paintings for his 2010 show based on Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi's work. Photo: Tamara Dean

Colin Lanceley in his studio in Surry Hills with paintings for his 2010 show based on Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi’s work. Photo: Tamara Dean

Lanceley was given a survey exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1987, with a catalogue essay by his old friend, Robert Hughes. Shortly afterwards he purchased a warehouse in Surry Hills that had belonged to legendary art dealer, Rudy Komon, and to then to his equally colourful successor, Ray Hughes. The home-studio became a private museum, crammed with works of art, pottery, sculpture and bric-a-brac collected over many years. It was a congenial space, scene of many memorable dinners and gatherings.

Honours and appointments followed, including an Order of Australia in 1990. Lanceley became heavily involved in the fight for an independent National Art School, and ended as Chairman of the NAS Advisory Board in 1994. This was a matter of conscience for a man who was the most formidably articulate of artists. He had a passionate belief in the school’s hands-on teaching traditions in an era when most colleges had become immersed in interdisciplinary theory.

Over the last decade of his life Lanceley grew gradually more distant from an artworld for which he felt little affinity. He believed art was a vocation, not a profession, and disliked the scene’s increasingly bureaucratic tendencies. In many ways Lanceley remained an inspired amateur, preferring to remain in the studio rather than spend his time networking. He had always worked slowly, revising each piece innumerable times before it was released for exhibition. While he knew that perfection in art was impossible, he strived to get closer and closer. Integrity was far more important than productivity.

Lanceley’s later works, shown at Australian Galleries, were looser than before, with parts of the background drawing left visible. There was the same devotion to beauty that makes one think of Matisse lying in his sickbed, drawing on the wall with a long stick. Although his energy may have been sapped by a chronic heart condition, Lanceley’s late paintings retain the same buoyant, positive feeling that was present in his groundbreaking works of the 1960s, and those of his triumphant homecoming in the early 1980s. We can look back and see that for over half a century his approach never wavered. The only confirmation now required is a full-scale retrospective.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, January, 2015