Modern Love – Lesley Harding & Kendrah Morgan, The Strays – Emily Bitto

From the preface of ‘Modern Love’,- ‘When John and Sunday Reed purchased their semi-rural property on the outskirts of Melbourne in 1931, they could hardly imagine that eighty years later it would be the site of a renowned museum and widely regarded as the birthplace of Australian modernism. The intricate way in which the Reeds’ lives unfolded has given rise to beguiling mythology – the romanticised tale of Heide and its bohemian inhabitants – that has long captured the imagination of the public and scholars alike.’

Heide’s mythology has certainly beguiled me over the years. I thought I knew a fair bit about it. For a while I toyed with the idea of a story, written from a child’s perspective – a watcher; drawn to the very different people she espied at the farmstead; reporting on the comings and goings there on the property then fringing Melbourne. Nothing came of it, being replaced by other fascinations in my post-retirement world. Then Emily Bitto’s book ‘The Strays’ up and won the Vogel, the award for female writers, last year. This authorly bar-owner (of Heartattack and Vine, near Readings in Carlton) had the honour of having this, her first book, published by Affirm Press’ new fiction list. She, too, is obviously steeped in that aforementioned mystique of the Reeds. What she has come up with, though, is a paralleling story of the Trenthams, a similar couple who operated a sort of open house for their ‘strays’. These were bods of artistic intent, picked up along the way. As it turned out, the fictional Trenthams were a far more conservative couple than the Reeds, as I discerned from ‘Modern Love’. Evan T is not John Reed. The former was an artist with the temperament that stereotypically goes with those taking to that vocation. Reed, a man of independent means (wife, Sunday, possessed a silver spoon background as well), was an artistic mentor – a word he disliked – of talent; a sometime lawyer and a writer/editor to boot. Unlike the Reeds, who adopted Joy Hester/Albert Tucker’s child, the couple of Bitto’s imagination had three daughters before semi-adopting ‘The Stray’s’ narrator, Lily. The latter befriended one intriguing daughter, Eva, with, in doing so, joining the family’s fluctuating circle. The matriarch, Helena, was a charismatic figure, letting all the children have the run of the place. But as the quartet mature, sexual attraction raises its head and the real world intrudes on Eden. Bitto traces the narrative through to present-day times. Whereas once often reviled, by the artistic establishment, the pair eventually become the darlings of modernism – a resurgence of Aussie art that had its flowering in the forties as war raged around the world. It petered out under the stifling conservatism of the Menzies years when many of our best deserted for the more progressive UK scene. Finally they become lauded gods as they were embraced by the mainstream in the latter decades of last century. Some of the events that affected the Trenthams are factual, such as when, in 1937 RGM, as Attorney-General, formed plans for an Academy of Art to provide a bastion against modern, ie communist, influences, then gaining some traction locally. The Reeds, as well as fictionally, the Trenthams, were outraged by this and were at the vanguard of opposition, forming the Contemporary Art Society (CAS). This period of discourse has prominence in both publications. As one would expect, Lesley Harding’s and Kendrah Morgan’s ‘Modern Love – The Lives of John and Sunday Reed’ is full of the who’s-who of the art world during their lifetime. As well there are other prominent identities, one such being Doc Evatt – a friend and valued confidante. He gets a mention in the fictional take as well.

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‘The Strays’ is described in its advertorial blurb as ‘…a beautifully written novel, lyrical and wondrous. Emily Bitto is an elegant writer who knows how to sustain suspense.’ This humble scribe would definitely agree. The book is structured beautifully and her wordsmithery is quite sublime in places. The reader is led through the vicissitudes that play out for the Trenthams and their four girls, if we count Lily, as the years advance. It was a fascinating read, a positive page-turner. Ms Bitto’s follow-up will be eagerly anticipated.

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Fascinating as well is ‘Modern Love’. What an incredible story – if this was fiction it would be difficult to believe. I ploughed my way at, for me, a very fast clip through it over a couple of days. I was transfixed. I had prior knowledge of some of the goings on at Heide – Sunday’s affair with Sidney Nolan, for instance – but, dear me, the sexual machinations that went on at that place and within their circle. Sidney’s passion for Mrs Reed was only the tip of the iceberg. It seems Sunday had an attraction for both genders. There were also some other intriguing combinations involving her, as well as some other pairings, mentioned in passing, that would be interesting to investigate further. The authors, both curators at Heide, did state that they refrained from using some particularly sensitive material available to them, so ‘Modern Love’ will not be the last word on the Reeds – that will have to wait till the parties concerned are further in the past. But this tome didn’t only dwell on the politics of attraction. The contribution the Reeds made to Australian art, just as it was rediscovering its own uniqueness, was astronomical and fully examined here.

Modern_Love cover

Other enlightenments provided by the publication included the damage the constant threat of conscription did to the Heide residents during the war years. There was also the role of the couple in the Ern Malley Affair and the way the pair morphed from being privileged gilded youths to the best known representatives of Bohemian free-spiritedness our country has produced. Then there were the vast array of household names (art-wise today) who succumbed to the bucolic charms of their household. It was also interesting that there were Tasmanian connections as well. John R was born here. His family owned a substantial pile, by our standards, at Mt Pleasant, outside Launceston and Nolan also spent time on the island. Examined were the trips the Reeds made to other parts of Oz and overseas. Then there was the curious question of John’s sexuality – just what did he receive in turn from the sexual dalliances of his wife. Finally, heart-breakingly, was the battle to keep their adopted son on the relative straight and narrow before his tragic end.

modern love

And to join it all full circle, it was more than interesting to read Emily Bitto’s review of ‘Modern Love’, as published recently in the Fairfax Press. She points to the thoroughness of the research involved and its readability, even if, from her point of view, nothing earth-shatteringly new was added to their legend. ‘Modern Love’, she concurs, had all the rigour of an academic text, but its lightness of touch ensures it will reach a wider audience as well. There is a judicious use of photographic images, some quite touchingly intimate, bringing to life the major players. Added are some of the seminal works of art of the period. These include paintings by Sam Alyeo (Sunday’s initial lover at Heide), Moya Dyring’s beautiful portrait of her, Adrian Lawlor’s ‘John Reed’ and several notable daubings by Joy Hester who, with Albert Tucker, are prominent in the book’s pages. There’s Charles Blackman, John Perceval, Mirka Moya and Arthur Boyd featuring as well. They are all participants in Heide’s tale, a riveting account of a couple whose iconic status in the cultural history of Australia is unrivalled. And I submit that it will only grow in stature and mystique – there’s that word again – as time progresses.

And for this punter, there’s only one thing left to do now that I am fully versed in the life and times of the Reeds, thanks to Bitto, Harding and Morgan – and that’s to visit Heide myself. I’ve been promising myself to do it each time I visit Yarra City, but the transport logistics to actually getting there so far have proven too daunting. I’ll eventually sort it out and make it – one day.

Heide Museum of Modern Art website = https://www.heide.com.au/

Emily Bitto’s review of ‘Modern Love’ = http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/modern-love-by-lesley-harding-and-kendrah-morgan-the-couple-at-the-heart-of-the-magic-circle-20151027-gkiuo0.html

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