Jeffrey & Me
Oscar-nominated filmmaker BRUCE BERESFORD remembers his lifelong mentor JEFFREY SMART and their friendship, which began at a Sydney high school.
I was 15 years old when I first met Jeffrey Smart. It was 1955 and he was the art master at The King’s School in Parramatta (New South Wales). I was a gormless pupil. Some years later, Jeffrey told me I was the only student he ever met who clearly contradicted his belief that “anyone can be taught to draw”.
A few years later – around 1958 – I was working as a camera assistant in the newsreel department of the ABC. Being young and strong it was my job to load and unload the mountain of heavy equipment we seemed to need for the simplest assignment. Equipment that today, in our digital age, is either scrapped or in a museum.
With the chief cameraman, a chain-smoking, charmless old cynic, I went to cover an art show in a gallery somewhere near Circular Quay. To my surprise the paintings on display were all by Jeffrey Smart, who amazed me by remembering my name: “Beresford . . . the boy who likes films.”
I had assumed, with no foundation whatever, that Jeffrey was teaching at my school because he wasn’t a success as an artist, in the same way that people teach screenwriting and film directing because they were dismal failures when they attempted to actually write and/or direct.
My first look at the paintings on display was a revelation. Not only could Jeffrey Smart draw, but he created such compelling images. He saw beauty in the everyday – modern buildings, highways, road signs, airports. I realised he was reacting to his world just as the Heidelberg school had painted the world of their era or the Impressionists had painted the France of their daily lives.
I never much cared for interpretations I read of Jeffrey’s paintings that stated the few human figures included were lonely, alienated, symbols of an unappealing era. First, it seemed to me that Jeffrey saw beauty in the era, which many did not, and the figures were included to give scale to the compositions. Why, I thought, would someone on the balcony of a tower block necessarily be lonely or unhappy? He’s probably just admiring the view for a few minutes before going back inside for a G&T, or into the arms of a lover.
Dissolve now to 1963. I had graduated from Sydney University, having spent four years struggling through an arts course while spending far too much time making films and giving inept performances in minor roles with the drama society.
Film production in Australia was minimal, so I decided I should move to London. A very elderly lady, vaguely related to my mother, generously bought me a ticket for a berth in the grim hold of an Italian ship, the Castel Felice.
During the six-week voyage I spent quite a lot of time chasing attractive young girls around the decks. Curiously, most of them found me eminently resistible. Fortunately, quite early in the voyage I discovered Jeffrey Smart in the breakfast room. He was quite pleased, I think, to encounter a passenger who was such an enthusiast for his paintings. We talked endlessly through the entire voyage. Most of the talking was done by the erudite Jeffrey, who, along with chunks of gossip about Australian artists, fascinated me with his passions — the works of Cézanne, Matisse, Léger (with whom he had studied in Paris), Lucian Freud and many of the great Italians, particularly Piero della Francesca. The genius of Piero never ceased to fascinate him; Jeffrey was obsessed with his compositional skill, use of perspective, placement of figures, delicate use of colour.
His interests stretched far beyond painters. He was widely read, with an incredible memory. He seemed to have total recall of the most arcane plot twists of the immense novels of Anthony Trollope. Even more impressive was his ability to recite all of Eliot’s Four quartets from memory.
Over the years – from 1962 until Jeffrey’s death in 2013, and as my film career flickered into life – my wife and I visited Jeffrey many times at his house near Arezzo, in Tuscany. He was always cheerful and courteous, but nothing could distract him from painting in his studio (a converted chicken house?) from 9am to 6pm every day. On one occasion I called him from the Arezzo railway station to tell him I’d arrived and would he pick me up? The answer was an instant “No. I’m working. Get a taxi.”
On my visits, he didn’t mind if I sat in the studio as he worked. His concentration was formidable. His paintings were detailed, not just a couple of scribbles in the style of Cy Twombly. Most took months to complete. Classical music was played at top volume from an FM station. “Why don’t they play more Delius?” Jeffrey yelled at me. “Bruce, can you get in touch with them and ask why?” (Despite strenuous efforts on my part I have never been able to share his passion for Wagner. The lugubrious plots defeated me, while his admiration was the musical equivalent of his adoration of Piero della Francesca. A visit to Bayreuth was the high point of nearly every year.)
The day’s painting over, a sociable Jeffrey Smart emerged. Visitors often arrived for dinner on the patio. The conversation was usually laced with salacious gossip, much of it about the foibles of famous artists. I remember a startling revelation regarding the length of Sibelius’s virile member.
Before bed there could be a movie. Jeffrey’s taste tended towards works of the ’30s and ’40s. He was fascinated by the films the director Josef von Sternberg made with his lover Marlene Dietrich at the height of her beauty and charisma. He admired Sternberg’s stunning pictorial sense and ignored his lack of skill with plot or characterisation. But Dietrich he adored even in the absurd Morocco. He could imitate the great Marlene singing the classic ballad “Go ’way from my window”, not omitting her inability to pronounce the letter ‘r’.
On my last visit to Arezzo, a few months before he died, I noticed a large print of a painting by Piero della Francesca on the wall opposite his bed. Jeffrey, frail and failing, was propped up with cushions, ambitiously reading a huge biography of Catherine the Great.
I am lucky, I know, that my career as a film and opera director has taken me all over the world and into contact with many remarkable people. Jeffrey Smart is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable, certainly one of the kindest, wittiest and most gifted. His paintings give me the same thrill today as they did at that exhibition in 1958.
Jeffrey Smart opens at the National Gallery of Australia 11 December 2021. Tickets are on sale now.
This article is from the Winter 2021 issue of Artonview, the National Gallery’s magazine for Members. Become a Member today.