Back in the middle 1970’s I stood in the recreation hall of he nurse’s quarters of the Fairfield Infection Diseases Hospital, to watch my teacher, Ms Shirley Bourne O.A.M. demonstrate portrait painting to a large audience of students and painting enthusiasts. She had selected as her subject my wife Marie who looked radiant in a beautiful white blouse and with her generous mane of auburn hair. Looking at her I could fully understand Shirley’s desire to paint her, but in front of an audience?
Earlier in the evening we had assisted Shirley to set up the lighting and the drapery as well as position the chair for the demonstration. I know that Marie was nervous but Shirley was anxious. She was not known for demonstrating and would very rarely even take a brush from a student’s hand during a class. In the previous year I had been ‘on safari with a group headed by Shirley and never saw her paint during the whole week even though we knew that she had done so.
Shirley was of the old school of painting teachers to whom discipline was the watchword. No talking in class, no coffee breaks just stay at your easel and work. After firstly finding this method a bit hard going I buckled down and now credit that system with giving me the skills that I now value much. I still don’t know if her reluctance to demonstrate came from her training or if she was just nervous. My impression of Shirley is that she was a very private person. She lived alone and on the few times I visited her found her to be kind and generous but very self contained and yet here she was preparing to demonstrate one of the most difficult of painting techniques, portrait painting in front of an audience of a hundred or so.
The convenor of the evening was Matron Vivienne Bullwinkel A.O. M.B.E. who was famous for her wartime experiences and was at that time the Matron in charge of the hospital. She was also a great friend of Shirley who had painted her portrait which now hangs in the National War memorial in Canberra. Shirley was among friends and the audience wanted to see how she was able to produce such beautiful work but added to the fear of failure was the fact that she had to wear a wired microphone so that she could explain her method to the enthusiastic crowd.
With the introductions over Shirley set to work in her disciplined way, closely observing, marking her measurements, mixing tones and placing the marks on the canvas just as she instructed us to do and we were all spellbound. Moving between her viewing spot and the easel or ‘hurtling’ as she called it, was somewhat complicated by the dangling microphone wire dragging around her feet, but to see our teacher do all of those things that were drilled into us, things that we all whinged about having to do, was to me a revelation. The non-painters in the audience were also impressed and showed their appreciation enthusiastically at the end of the demo.
When Shirley ‘hand passed’ me on to Alan Martin after 9 years, I found a teacher who demonstrated at the drop of a hat whether landscape, portrait or whatever. Another great teacher but with a different approach. Fortunate am I to have had two teachers of such quality who have inspired me since I first started painting in a realist manner fifty years ago. I continue to hurtle.
Don James September 2021