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Ray Hughes 1946 – 2017 | John McDonald

Ray Hughes 1946 – 2017

December 15, 2017
Lucy Culliton's memorable portrait of Ray from 2011
Lucy Culliton's memorable portrait of Ray from 2011

With the death of someone truly unique it seems the only words that leap to mind are clichés. I’m already counting the number of times I’ve heard that Ray Hughes, who died last week at the age of 72, after a bout of pneumonia, was “larger than life”, a “legendary” art dealer. Such epithets may be flattering but they diminish a man as complex and contradictory as Hughes.

I’ve tried to remember where and when I first met Ray Hughes. I think it was at Roslyn Oxley’s Macdonald Street gallery in Paddington, in the early 1980s, when he was still based in Brisbane. Ray was considerably leaner in those days, with only the beginnings of the belly that woud become his trademark. Sporting a Fedora and the flashy clothes of a punter, he looked like he’d just left the racetrack. His eyes projected a keen intelligence, although “shrewdness” might be a better description.

Hughes was born in Brisbane in 1946, where his parents ran a corner grocery store. He went to art school, but began his working life as a school teacher. It would be fascinating to hear from anyone who ever attended his classes.

By 1969, at the age of 23, Hughes opened his first gallery in Musgrave Road, Brisbane. In these early years he had a reputation as a bower bird, picking up the leftovers of commercial exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. As a young dealer he followed the local example of the Johnstone Gallery, which featured many of Australia’s best-known artists from 1950-72.

When his ambitions became more far-reaching Hughes would host shows by New Zealand’s most famous artist, Colin McCahon in 1975, and by French modern master, Jean Dubuffet in 1984.

In February 1985 Hughes opened in Sydney, in the gallery once owned by another ‘legendary’ art dealer, Rudy Komon (1908-82). That was the first time Sydney had seen work by William Robinson, who showed farm yard paintings; or Davida Allen, whose exhibition was a bizarre, expressionist love letter to actor, Sam Neill.

Early days, with work by Gavin Chilcott

Early days, with work by Gavin Chilcott

Three years later Hughes had bought the remaining stock of the Rudy Komon Gallery, along with a warehouse and a multi-storey building in Surry Hills. It was a huge financial risk that would pay off, as the Ray Hughes Gallery became one of the most vital, trailblazing forces in Australian art. Along with the Queenslanders to whom he remained fiercely devoted – including Robinson, Allen, Ian Smith, Joe Furlonger, Tom Risley and Robert Morris – Hughes cultivated younger talents such as Lucy Culliton and Del Kathyrn Barton.

Most importantly he expanded his horizons globally. He was the first dealer anywhere to show Anish Kapoor’s works on paper. He developed a crush on contemporary African art, and made three memorable purchasing trips. A 1996 show of sculptured coffins from Ghana generated huge publicity and would draw up to 1,000 visitors a day.

Hughes showed German Expressionist prints, American Outsider art, Anatolian rugs, and was a pioneer of contemporary Chinese art. By the early 2000s he was exhibiting works by Li Jin, Qi Zhilong, Liu Xiaodong, and many others who have since become superstars. Hughes would sell Liu Xiadong’s paintings for about $20,000, but nowadays his auction prices are in the millions.

This breadth of vision, his extraordinary energy and willingness to take chances made Hughes a highly respected figure in the Australian art world. Everyone would talk about his “eye”, which is the greatest compliment that can be paid to a dealer or collector.

Hughes’s case was slightly different because the “eye” comments were also a form of compensation for behaviour that alienated clients and artists. Hughes had a knack for insulting and abusing people who might have been valuable supporters. He had no patience for the way wealthy collectors always want to negotiate a better price. He was a passionate but jealous art lover who demanded total loyalty from his stable, even to the extent of not allowing artists to exhibit with dealers in other cities. For some this meant not being able to show work in their home towns.

No-one could spend time around Hughes without seeing the dark side, although he could be the most ebullient and generous of hosts, holding weekly lunches in which artists and journalists mingled with business people, lawyers and politicians. In his own domain Hughes was a benevolent despot, dispensing largesse to anyone who came through the door.

Lunches chez Ray

Lunches chez Ray

Take him out of the gallery and put him in any social situation and his insecurities rose to the surface. He would become furtive and awkward, bear-like and aggressive. His notorious wit would be transformed into spite and paranoia. He was the archetypal control freak, who hated being at the mercy of any host or hostess. Travelling with his artists at the Venice Biennale one year, he confiscated their passports to prevent anyone going off on their own.

These domineering traits would appear more frequently when financial or personal pressures impinged. Hughes played strictly by his own rules, but those rules were subject to sudden, violent change. The more he raged and cursed, the more he mistreated people, the more pressure he would inflict upon himself. And so the cycle continued. Dozens of artists and collectors have stories about the way they parted company with Hughes. At his worst it was a Shakespearian tragedy. Having made the reputations of artists such as Robinson and Allen, he would part acrimoniously from both.

What’s amazing is that almost everyone who fell out with Hughes still retained an affection for him, as if realising that his demons were beyond his control.

Hughes himself could have played Mephistopheles in a pantomime. He dressed in brilliantly coloured, made-to-order suits, with a tie collection any design museum would envy. Fuelled by a fearsome consumption of booze, Hughes’s belly grew and grew until it appeared to have a life of its own. In later life he finessed his image with a long, shaggy beard, straight from the Victorian era. He was the one man in the room that could never be overlooked or forgotten.

There is an exhibition to be done of the many portraits of Ray Hughes that have appeared in the Archibald Prize, without ever winning. Tantalisingly, Jun Chen’s portrait of Hughes in a wheelchair was declared this year’s runner-up.

Among his feuds, Hughes would endure a catastrophic split from his second wife, Annette; and an estrangement from his adored and only son, Evan (b.1976). The latter would soon be patched up, because Ray’s love for his son was so absolute it was the one rift he couldn’t sustain. In 2012 the Ray Hughes Gallery became The Hughes Gallery, with Evan at the helm. In December 2015 the gallery quietly closed its doors, while Evan devoted himself to politics, going on to run against Malcolm Turnbull in the seat of Wentworth.

Father & son

Father & son

Despite his ever-increasing girth, and his gargantuan intake of cigarettes and red wine, Hughes’s stamina was almost supernatural. He would be the first up in the morning and the last to leave at night. When sober he could talk about art with an enthusiasm and insight that could rarely be matched. His sense of humour was scabrous, with marvellous stories, and nicknames for everyone.

Because his lifestyle would have killed most people before the age of 50, it seemed as if Hughes would go on forever. When ill health finally struck, in the form of diabetes and knee problems it was as if a towering monument to Bacchus had been toppled. The wheelchair and the tee-totalling took a toll, but when I met Hughes for lunch a couple of months ago he was as sharp as ever, full of plans and ideas.

Perhaps the greatest moment during the twilight of Hughes’s career, came in 2013, with a visit from Chris Dercon, then director of Britain’s Tate Modern. To the frustration of his minders, Dercon spent hours at the gallery, and later told the Art Gallery of NSW, in a public address, that it should hold an exhibition celebrating Hughes’s achievements. If no one will do it here, he threatened, “then I’ll do it at the Tate.”

Dercon would leave the Tate shortly afterwards without having made good on his boast, but it would be a fitting tribute if the Art Gallery of NSW or another public institution were to take up the challenge. All those aspects of Hughes’s personality that made him so remarkable and terrifying, have now passed into folklore. It’s time the museums threw open their doors and paid their respects to a dealer who could not have been more Australiian, while embracing the entire world. If they still hesitate, well… it’s a story for Hollywood.

Ray Hughes is survived by his son, Evan, and daughter-in-law, Kate; along with grandsons, Harry and Teddy. Evan has plans to open a new gallery in 2018.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 December, 2018