Donald Friend

Donald Stuart Leslie Friend (6 February 1914 – 16 August 1989) was an Australian artist and diarist. Friend was one of a remarkable group of figurative artists, his paintings are a fascinating of temperaments quaint and light-hearted in mood. Althought in spite of a tendency amongst a number of Sydney painters of the period, towards abstraction.

Born in Sydney, Friend grew up in the artistic circle of his bohemian mother and showed early talent both as an artist and a writer. He studied with Sydney Long (1931) and Dattilo Rubbo (1934–1935), and later in London (1936–1937) at the Westminster School of Art with Mark Gertler and Bernard Meninsky. During World War II he served as a gunner with the AIF, and while stationed at Albury began a friendship with Russell Drysdale, which led to their joint discovery of Hill End, a quasi-abandoned gold mining village near Bathurst, New South Wales, which in the 1950s became something of an artists’ colony. He also served as an official war artist in Labuan and Balikpapan in 1945. After the war he lived for a time in the Sydney mansion-boarding house Merioola, exhibiting with the Merioola Group.

Much of Friend’s life and career was spent outside Australia, in places as diverse as Nigeria (late 1930s, where he served as financial advisor to the Ogoga of Ikerre), Italy (several visits in the 1950s), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka; late 1950s – early 1960s), and Bali from 1968 until his final return to Sydney in 1980.

Friend’s critical reputation in the 1940s equalled those of William Dobell and Russell Drysdale, but by the time of his death it had sunk so low that his work was totally absent from the 1988 Australian Bicentennial exhibition, a show meant to include every artist of importance since white settlement.

Friend made “no attempt to disguise the homoeroticism which underlay much of his work”, despite winning the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1955.

Friend was well known for studies of the young male nude, as well as his wit. His facility as a draughtsman may have contributed to the undervaluing of his work, which art scholar Lou Klepac said “always looked too easy – decorative, flowing and natural”. In the mid-1960s, Robert Hughes described him as “one of the two finest draughtsmen of the nude in Australia,” and noted his humanism and lack of sentimentality, while still maintaining that he was not a major artist. Barry Pearce, however, writing in the study which accompanied Friend’s posthumous retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1990, said that Hughes’ judgement seemed harsh and called for a re-evaluation of Friend as an artist whose “contribution to the richness of Australian art is due for much greater recognition”.

Friend published a number of illustrated books, almost all in limited editions.

Friend’s diaries were published posthumously from 2001 to 2006 by the National Library of Australia in four volumes. He had kept a diary since the age of 14. It chronicled in half a million words a life peopled with such artists as Drysdale, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart, Brett Whiteley and others.

Friend did not mince words about his sexual preferences, depicting himself as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed” in his journal.His relationships were mostly with adolescent boys, some of whom became his lifelong friends, particularly Attilio Guarracino.

Volume Four dealt in part with Friend’s time in Bali in the 1960s and ’70s. Publicity claimed “this volume confirms Friend’s quicksilver creative brilliance and extraordinary insight. He is perhaps Australia’s most important twentieth-century diarist”.


The fortune teller, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Donald Friend’s ‘The fortune teller’ was painted in Brisbane after he and I had been on a painting trip to North Queensland. Donald was looking through Life magazines and saw some photographs of an Indian ceremony which included elephants decorated with elaborate designs. Donald was fascinated and later incoporated the patterns into this painting.

The street, Labuan, Australian War Memorial

Donald Friend accompanied the Allied invasion of Labuan, an archipelago off the coat of Borneo, in June 1945. Of the town of Labuan he wrote in his Diary on 20 June 1945; ‘To the town, sketching all morning, with some interesting results. One could spend a couple of months here drawing nothing but the ruins…much of the town has been cleared up- great rubble heaps removed’.

This painting is based on one of these drawings which the artist worked up with oils on his return to Australia. The tropical conditions meant that use of oil paint was nearly impossible in the field. A closer inspection of the work reveals elements of its pen and ink beginnings.

Sofala, Art Gallery of New South Wales

“Its single street, deep in the Turon valley is lined with a forest of verandah posts: the whitewash on shanties and abandoned stores cannot disguise their age-hitching posts, spring carts and bearded old-timers drowsing in the shade create the atmosphere of a different world …”.

Jaded by a frenzied city existence, Donald Friend and fellow artist Russell Drysdale made a trip from Sydney to the Bathurst area in August 1947, prompted by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the former gold-rush towns of the area. Stopping in Sofala, described in Friend’s diary entry as ‘a lovely crazy old village – perfect’, the two artists made sketches of the main street from the same viewpoint.