Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed
By Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan
The Miegunyah Press, An imprint of Melbourne University Publishing 2015
RRP – $45
Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald
John and Sunday Reed are arguably Australia’s most famous art patrons and a saucy and deeply unusual couple they were too. Part of their patronage involved free love and they didn’t mind the occasional ménage a trois either. Yet despite their Bohemian tendencies, the Reeds hailed from establishment families in Hobart and Melbourne.
The artists who benefitted from their patronage include some of the greats of Australian art – Sidney Nolan, Sam Atyeo, Albert Tucker, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman and Noel Counihan. But as Modern Love explains and elucidates, some of these artists were at the same time emotionally, if not artistically, damaged by their relationship with the Reeds.
In 1943, John Reed and the editor of the Adelaide-based avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins, Max Harris, joined forces in the publishing firm Reed & Harris. However John was able to distance himself from the latter’s misfortune when, a year later, the Ern Malley poems that Harris published were revealed to be an elaborate hoax concocted by two anti-modernist Sydney poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Eventually John Reed and Max Harris fell out.
John and Sunday Reed were also particularly close to the talented Australian poet and editor Barrett (‘Barrie’) Reid – with whom their relationship was relatively unproblematic and which lasted right up until the final days of both of the Reeds.
Of fragile and delicate disposition and prone to nervous breakdowns, Sunday, who in the early 1930s studied art under George Bell in his Bourke Street Studio School in Melbourne, was a member of the rich and powerful Baillieu dynasty. In contrast, John, who worked as a solicitor in Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD, was much more emotionally stable. But like his mercurial wife, John Reed was a great supporter and patron of the arts and of modernist painting in particular.
In 1934, John and Sunday (who had married on 13 January 1932) purchased a semi-rural property on the outskirts of Melbourne. They dubbed their new home, which came to boast a fine garden, ‘Heide’ – an abbreviation of Heidelberg. As Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan point out in their helpful preface to Modern Love, the Reed’s “could have hardly imagined that eighty years later ‘Heide’ would be the site of a renowned art museum and widely regarded as the birthplace of Australian modernism”.
A key to understanding the Reeds’ highly volatile open marriage and also Sunday’s desperate need to adopt a child is to be found in her unhappy first marriage to an Irish-American. Much to her parents’ concern, for three years from 31 December 1926 she remained married to Leonard Quinn – who was also a Roman Catholic, which was a decided negative, especially to her father!
A serial philanderer, Quinn gave Sunday gonorrhea, which necessitated her having a hysterectomy. Tragically, Sunday was pregnant at the time and the baby was aborted. All of this meant that she couldn’t have any of her own children.
The process of constructing this compelling narrative was, the authors explain, “akin to putting together an immense jigsaw” – after which a detailed picture of the Reeds slowly emerged.
In their beautifully illustrated book, Harding and Morgan are mindful that those who knew John and Sunday Reed may find that their account “will bring to the surface memories both good and bad”. This especially applies to sometimes harrowing details about the Reeds’ own tangled relationships and in particular the interactions with their adopted son Sweeney (1944-1979) who was actually the child of artist Joy Hester, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma shortly after Sweeney’s birth. Moreover, it later emerged that Albert Tucker, who married Hester in 1941, was not Sweeney’s biological father. In 1960, when Sweeney was only fifteen, Hester died of a cancer that had seemed to be in remission.
Despite the sometimes lurid descriptions, especially of interpersonal relations, in Modern Love the authors hope that this joint biography (in both senses of the word) will “extend the understanding of the Reeds as individuals – with all their strengths and shortcomings – and as historical entities.”
In the main, Modern Love succeeds in this task – in that, after reading this challenging book, most readers will surely be left with an appreciation of John and Sunday’s determination in promoting their modernist artistic vision and their own often convoluted and sometimes destructive sexual and personal lives. Indeed, what clearly emerges, at least to this reviewer, is the Reeds’ powerful, if often idiosyncratic, devotion to each other characterised by what Harding and Morgan describe as “five decades marked by love, loss, achievement, estrangement and heartbreak”.
Yet not all that the authors know has been put to paper and published. Hence Harding and Morgan, rather tantalisingly, write that: “In some instances we found the truth was stranger than fiction, and decided to withhold some particularly sensitive material out of respect for those still living.”
What a shame that, 82 years after establishing Heide, we are still not being told what the authors regard as the full and unvarnished story of John and Sunday Reed and of all the Australian artists who formed such a pivotal role in their lives.
One of the great strengths of Modern Love is the vast array of characters who crisscross the lives, not just of the Reeds themselves, but also of those who visited Heide. These include future erratic Labor leader Dr HV Evatt and his hugely talented wife Alice. Indeed, when Evatt became Minister for External Affairs he took with him, as an untrained aide and personal adviser, Sam Atyeo – whose controversial utterances and antics well and truly got up the noses of other diplomats, both Australian and otherwise. This was until Liberal Party heavyweight, Robert Gordon Menzies, on becoming prime minister, promptly dispensed with Atyeo’s “services”.
Yet, as much as they admired Sam Atyeo, John and Sunday – who had spent time in Paris with young Sweeney – seem to have been envious of the fact that Atyeo had been able not just to meet, but to continue to mix with, famous identities of the Parisian and wider European art world.
Sometimes sexual freedom at Heide took its toll. By the end of 1941 and before Sidney Nolan left, ostensibly to fight in World War II, his relationship with Sunday Reed had developed into much more than a passionate physical attachment. As the authors explain, “There was no doubt in the minds of those close to them that the pair had fallen deeply in love and that John’s role in the ménage was threatened.”
Despite the fact that he had resumed an affair with artist Moya Dyring, John Reed found the Nolan complication to his unorthodox marriage deeply upsetting. The situation became even more complicated when Sunday was utterly devastated by Nolan’s departure. Predictably though, the artist of Ned Kelly fame did not remain long as a member of the armed forces of Australia.
Eventually, on 25 March 1948 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney Nolan married John Reed’s sister Cynthia. Their marriage resulted in an estrangement from Heide and the Reeds. John Reed came to regard the loss of Nolan from their lives as one of what he termed a “litany of defeats”.
In the autumn of 1967, John and Sunday moved into a revamped house, which they named “Heide 11” – to distinguish the new dwelling from “Old Heidi”. But things became extremely painful when, in 1971, Nolan published Paradise Garden, an intensely personal account of his tumultuous life with the Reeds in the 1940s. John and Sunday Reed found this extremely hurtful.
In 1976, Cynthia Nolan committed suicide in London. Within three months of Cynthia’s death, Sidney Nolan moved in with Sunday’s close friend Mary Perceval, nee Boyd. Nine months later Sidney and Mary were married, In March 1979, Sweeney Reed, who was just 34, also suicided.
Even though she continued to work on her much-loved garden at Heide until shortly before her own demise, Sunday never recovered from Sweeney’s death. Three weeks after the opening of Heidi Park and Art Gallery, on 5 December 1981, the seemingly indefatigable John Reed, after a long battle with cancer, died. His final words to his wife were overheard to be: “Darling, you have made my life.”
Ten days later, stricken with grief, Sunday Reed took an overdose of sleeping pills and died on 15 December 1981. Only the extremely loyal Barrie Reid was with her. When her doctor visited the following morning, he allegedly remarked that she had died of a broken heart!
Fittingly, John and Sunday’s ashes were joined beneath a river red gum tree at their beloved Heide.
Professor Fitzgerald, a columnist with The Australian, most recently co-authored the political/sexual satire Going Out Backwards : A Grafton Everest Adventure. Professor Fitzgerald is currently researching and co-authoring, A Dozen Soviet Spies Down Under?