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.
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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.
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
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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.
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.