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Ian Fairweather: A life in letters

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Ian Fairweather: A life in letters


Once you’re famous there’s just no way to keep your letters out of the hands of the curious! Letters give us a humanising insight into the private world of an artist. They can provide a glimpse into their daily life, travel, friendships, moments of joy and despair as well as their creative process – that’s why we love to read them. And there’s a strange pleasure too in seeing the handwriting of an artist that we admire.

Pages from the album of Ethel Fairweather

Pages from the album of Ethel Fairweather showing a photograph of her brother Ian, pressed flowers and photographs of the island of Sark, where the Fairweather family holidayed c.1908 / India and Channel Islands: Fairweather Photograph Album 1898–1908 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / © QAGOMA

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RELATED: Ian Fairweather

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Testimony of friendship: The letters of Ian Fairweather to Marion Smith

After leaving the peaceful English Channel island of Jersey where renowned artist Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) was raised, his life was characterised by travel and turbulence until he settled on Bribie Island off the north coast of Brisbane, Queensland, at the age of 61. During the next two decades, the famously reclusive artist frequently corresponded with friends and family and many of his letters survived, including those he wrote to Marion Smith which are now held in the QAGOMA Research Library.

Marion Smith (1938-2008) was born in Sandgate in Brisbane and after living in Deagon, Red Hill and New Farm in Brisbane, she moved to Paddington in Sydney. She worked as a stenographer at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, and helped Fairweather type the manuscript for The Drunken Buddha (University of Queensland Press, 1965), his English translation of a popular Chinese tale which he illustrated with his paintings. Smith visited the artist on Bribie Island and through that initial contact, they became penfriends.

RELATED: The Drunken Buddha

Ian Fairweather

Robert Walker, Australia 1922–2007 / Ian Fairweather (from ‘Hut’ series) 1966, printed 2006 / Gelatin silver photograph / 39.8 x 29.3cm / Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Robert Walker/ Copyright Agency, 2019

Marion Smith

Photograph of Marion Gwendolyn Smith from her British Passport, Commonwealth of Australia, issued in Brisbane, 2 July 1959 / Image courtesy: Eugenie Law-Smith

As well as being a testimony to their friendship, the letters shed light on Fairweather’s personality, his day-to-day existence on Bribie Island and his sadness as Bribie changes with the opening of the bridge connecting it to the mainland, his enduring love of nature, fascination with the Chinese language, reading habits, quirky and quarrelsome nature, and his evolution as a painter.  The letters between the two friends are at times poignant, funny, troubling and occasionally, a heartbreaking read.

Read a selection of 23 letters and their transcripts from Fairweather to Smith

Letter from Ian Fairweather to Marion smith, Bribie Island, June 8 [1959] / Gift of the Estate of Marion Smith through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2013 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

Letter from Ian Fairweather to Marion Smith, Bribie Island, c.1955 / Gift of the Estate of Marion Smith through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2013 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency
Envelope addressed by Ian Fairweather to Marion Smith, Deagon, postmarked 25 June 1956 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / © Ian Fairweather/ DACS/ Copyright Agency

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The letters in the QAGOMA Research Library were donated by the Estate of Marion Smith through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation in 2013 and include 59 holograph [handwritten] letters by Fairweather, four Christmas cards, 19 original draft letters from Smith to Fairweather, and scrapbooks containing press clippings, photographs and drawings.

A selection of original letters written by Fairweather to Smith is currently on display in the QAGOMA Research Library until Friday 8 November 2019, along with a photograph album compiled by Fairweather’s sister, Ethel. This display gives anyone fascinated by the paintings of Fairweather an opportunity to look at the man behind the work.

Visit the QAGOMA Research Library on Level 3 of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), open Tuesday to Friday from 10.00am to 5.00pm, explore the online catalogue or visit the onsite studio.

A selection of original letters written by Ian Fairweather to Marion Smith is currently on display in the QAGOMA Research Library along with a photograph album compiled by Fairweather’s sister, Ethel.

Ian Fairweather: A Life in Letters

The display coincides with the launch of a new book, Ian Fairweather: A Life in Letters (Text Publishing, 2019), edited by Claire Roberts and John Thompson and supported by the Australian Research Council, QAGOMA, and former Gallery trustee Philip Bacon AM.

Ian Fairweather: A Life in Letters includes 354 transcripts from the 700 known letters written by Fairweather. Given the Fairweather’s solitary and singular life his dedication to correspondence can be seen as a paradox and a form of communication that best suited his choice of lifestyle.

Available from the QAGOMA Store and online.

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Feature image detail: Letter from Ian Fairweather to Marion Smith

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