The Real Sirens

‘It wasn’t like that,’ she stated firmly. ‘It wasn’t like that at all.’

And it would be hard to imagine it being so, I have to admit. It was another time, the ‘wowsers’ were in their ascendancy – but we do know that Springwood was out of kilter with the rest of strictured Australian society then. But what was displayed in the ‘that’ she spoke of would surely have been beyond the pale. The ‘that’ was the early nineties movie, ‘The Sirens’.

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The movie didn’t really set the world on fire critically – but it was popular because of the amount of flesh it exposed. And with the subject matter – well it would be necessary to have some bare maidens involved, wouldn’t it? But it was a thin premise. A newly arrived to Oz English priest, Tony Campion, played, by Hugh Grant before he became famous for being Hugh Grant, is instructed to visit Springwood and check out the rumours that aspects of what was going on there were blasphemous. This was particularly the case with a painting of the crucifixion, reportedly soon to be on display for all to see. Tony dutifully takes the train out bush to the property with his newly wedded and innocent wife, Estella (Tara Fitzgerald). At Springwood both are radically changed over the course of their stay by what they espy. Esther receives her sexual awakening and Hugh’s character leaves with a different set of attitudes to the ones he arrived with. This is the result of witnessing, as well as later participating in, the goings-on at the residence. Tara F’s character joins Elle Mcpherson, Portia de Rossi, Kate Fischer and Pamela Rabe as one of the sirens, the artist’s in-house muses and models. The coterie would slip off their clothes at a moment’s notice to either pose or cavort. I guess by now any reasonably savvy reader would have figured out the identity of the master of the house where the disturbing goings-on were occurring – none other than the country’s leading thorn in the side of the wowsers of society; those we’d perhaps now call the fun police. They were predictably shocked to their cotton socks about the hearsay of copious lewdness emanating from the homestead, with the proof of the pudding being the resulting works of art that were thoroughly scandalous to the minds of the establishment. Sam Neill, starring as Norman Lindsay, must have thought all his Christmases had come at once being surrounded by such a cast of stunning women.

But what was it really like at Springwood? Well let’s visit real life siren Pearl, of whom a punster could say had a purler of a life. She made the opening remark that, to the contrary, it wasn’t as the movie portrayed at all. Now I first came to her via a newspaper column, rather than the movie. Researching further, I found she blamed Elle and the lorelei (apt collective noun that) of other sirens in the movie for besmirching Norman Lindsay’s good name. From her Gold Coast apartment, in a recent on-line interview, she was still in sprightly and vivacious form when she recalled posing nude for the artist. She forthrightly stated that, through numerous sessions, when she wasn’t wearing a stitch all those decades ago, he never laid a finger on her. Admittedly, by the time the striking Joan Crawford look-alike posed for him, the grand man of Aussie painting was 60 or more.

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The connection between the two came when NL saw a photo of her in a newspaper. He realised that this eighteen year old girl had a special quality that he could translate onto canvas. Getting her to do it, though, was another matter. The photo he espied back in 1937 came about because she managed to win that year’s Miss Bondi Surf competition. Norman wasn’t the only one to spot her qualities. He asked his son to track her down, which he duly did, but by the time he got to her the young beauty had already been submerged in offers. That she was also a self-starter saw her almost immediately becoming one of Sydney’s most sought after mannequins for magazine work, fashion parades and in-store promotions. Pearl claims that, back then, she had nil knowledge of men when it came to the ways of the world, was still a virgin and was terribly naive. At that stage she knew of Lindsay only as an illustrator of children’s books, such as the ‘Magic Pudding’. There was no inking of the scandal he constantly caused with his racy art work. It was almost a year later, when she was returning on foot from a fashion shoot in the Rocks, that she happened to pass Lindsay’s studio, remembered the approach and on a whim, knocked on the door.

At first the ageing dauber was content with just painting her portrait. But as she continued to answer his calls to pose, she became more trusting. So when he did broach the subject of nudity, she was willing. He remained completely professional during all her Bridge Street sittings, right up until Pearl Goldman moved on in 1943. You can check out the results in paintings such as ‘Mantilla’, ‘The Amazons’ and ‘Imperia’.

Posing for Lindsay bought Pearl into a world she knew little of, educating her immensely. The bohemian life style that abounded in artistic circles in the Emerald City would be an eye-opener for anyone, given the conservative nature of the era – but for a girl still in her teens it must have been quite shocking. But she handled it with aplomb – evidence of her growing sophistication. She became friends with some others in the artist’s circle, particularly the poet Douglas Stewart and the woman who was later revealed as Lindsay’s mistress. But another notable, Buster Fiddess, a well-known comedian at the time, set her on yet another course. He arranged an audition for her for a Tivoli show called ‘Okay for Sound’. She was successful and so was off and running with another string to her bow. She toured the country and overseas in numerous productions, sometimes even playing the leading role. This treading of the boards also intrigued Lindsay; so much so he based his 1950’s novel, ‘Dust or Polish’, on her tales. For Pearl this inevitably led to movie roles. She was an Egyptian spy in Chauvel’s ‘Forty Thousand Horsemen’ and spent a fair bit of 1959 on the set of ‘On the Beach’, becoming firm mates with Gregory Peck.

And at age 27 she married into money, not so innocent of worldliness any more. Hubby was nearly twenty years her senior, but he showered her with jewels, furs and even a sporty white Jaguar.

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And sadly, as to my first contact with Pearl in that newspaper article? Well, it was her obituary that sent me searching for more in the ether. She passed away in June, 2016.

But it is a very different story when it comes to Pearl’s pal and another of Lindsay’s muses – Margaret, the aforementioned mistress. As I was looking into Goldman I came across her, so I decided to glean what I could about this artist model’s story too. As it turns out, Pearl was not alone in having a remarkable one to tell. In doing this I came across a certain depiction of this other woman, one that stopped me in my tracks.

Perhaps I am not quite as worldly myself as I thought when it comes to the artistically presented undraped female body – but this portrayal of Margaret, if it didn’t exactly shock, it did cause a sharp intake of breath. I assumed I was also reasonably familiar with NL’s works, but this was somehow different and more confronting than anything else I’d observed on his canvases. It’s frankness, I suggest, must have really stuck it up the wowsers way back when. Pearls, mate looked fearless in it.

Originally this scribbling was to just focus on Pearl alone, but, by contrast, the legendary painter certainly did more than just lay a finger on Margaret. She was the opposite of Pearl. So off on a tangent I went, pursuing her as well. Now as far as may be ascertained the dauber had just two affairs, one being when he dallianced with Margaret. The other was earlier, whilst married to his first wife, Kate. The object of his desires then was a very young model, Soady. Lindsay left Kate to marry Soady. And whilst he was attached to her, along came Margaret Coen and NL was again tempted.

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As with Pearl, there was much more to Margaret than merely being prepared to take her clothes off for man holding a paintbrush. It was through his brothers, Percy and Ray, that Coen first came into contact with the Lord of Springwood. Trying to establish herself as an artist in her own right, she visited Lindsay in 1930, at his residence in the Blue Mountains, with the hope that he would educate her in the use of water colours. He certainly did that – and more it seems. It wasn’t long before she and the man she described as ‘...tremendously alive…like quicksilver, constantly moving, with an extraordinary lightness about him.’ were lovers. Later on, Lindsay’s daughter classed Margaret as ‘…a very beautiful, gentle creature.‘ She possessed a milky white complexion, sparkling blue eyes and a mass of lack hair. She was smitten by him and Norman reciprocated. Their liaison lasted until 1939. Their friendship, perhaps more importantly, lasted until death.

She was still in NL’s circle when Pearl arrived on the scene, but by 1945 MC was married to the artist’s other great mate, the poet Stewart. Although Coen’s artistic pursuits proved to be underwhelming in the years prior to Springwood, the fact that she was gifted a studio in Sydney bought her into contact with the local artistic set, most notably Grace Crowley and Thea Proctor, as well as the Lindsay Brothers. Post Springwood she honed her skills with a jaunt around Europe during the fifties. On her return to Oz she received some recognition through exhibitions and prizes for her works. These days she is represented in numerous collections around the country. She is noted primarily for her still lifes and floral arrangements. Margaret passed away in 1993.

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Her daughter Meg, a noted journalist and film-maker, during the eighties, wrote and published a biography of her mother. In it there was no mention of the true nature of her relationship with NL – Meg simply had no knowledge of it at that stage. She added an extra chapter in a later edition of her tome once it was uncovered.

Now of course the paintings mentioned in this piece are all easily available on-line but, if you seek them out, be aware of where you are in doing so as the man’s work still can be NSFW, even in these enlightened times. As the artist’s muses these two women kept as much hidden from the eye as they revealed. I enjoyed spending time with them. An artist has given them the ability to intrigue for generations to come. They may intrigue you too, as they did me.

Official trailer for ‘Sirens’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTzat7vRdCQ

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