He grew up in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, but Australian John Russell was to become one of the most influential impressionist painters in 19th-century France. He was friends with Rodin, painted with Monet, mentored Matisse and studied with Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh, who also became a close friend. Catherine Hunter has had a long career covering the visual arts on Australian television. She was the arts producer on the Nine Network’s Sunday program for over 20 years. Since then, she has worked as a freelance director and producer. In 2019, her documentary Australia’s Lost Impressionist, shown on ABC TV, brought John Russell’s achievements to Australian audiences in new ways. Catherine Hunter addressed The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 20 November in conversation with The Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson.
JOHN RUSSELL: AND THE IMPORTANCE OF THE AUSTRALIAN ARTS DOCUMENTARY
CATHERINE HUNTER & GERARD HENDERSON
Gerard Henderson: Catherine, we’ve got about half an hour before coming to questions and discussion. So, firstly tell us something very brief about John Russell – when he was born, when he died, when he left Australia and when he returned to Australia. Just give us a few of his biographical details.
Catherine Hunter: Russell was born in 1858 in Sydney. He lived overseas for about 40 years, which is probably the reason he’s not very well known in this country. He came back in 1924 and settled at Watsons Bay and died virtually unknown in 1930. His paintings remained in Paris and nobody really recognised what he’d done – including the Art Gallery of NSW.
He came back in 1924 and settled at Watsons Bay and died virtually unknown in 1930.
Gerard Henderson: So, tell us a bit about yourself. I remember you from the days on Nine’s Sunday when a commercial television company used to devote a lot of resources to putting high quality current affairs and other material to air on Sunday mornings. Tell us a bit about your career on Sunday and how you moved on to other things after Sunday.
Catherine Hunter: Well it probably surprises people to know that Kerry Packer was very supportive of the arts. He started the Sunday program in 1981 and it was always meant to be a magazine program with solid current affairs but also political interviews, music, film and the arts. He wanted to be able to wake up and get a really good coverage of what was happening in Australia and abroad. He always supported the arts, albeit very quietly in the background. He only complained once, I think, which was about a Brett Whitely film which lasted for 45 minutes and he thought that was a bit much. But that was the only time I ever got a personal complaint.
Kerry Packer was very supportive of the arts. He started the Sunday program in 1981
It was the golden days of television – for me, for the arts – because we could do virtually whatever we liked. We could be reactive. We promoted exhibitions, books. Jana Wendt is in the audience tonight; she and I worked together on a number of arts stories. When Shirley Hazzard was up for the Miles Franklin Award, we did an interview with Shirley. Nobody else was doing interviews with Shirley Hazzard. That sort of thing became quite important. It was in the time that people bought the books, people went to the exhibitions, and we had a great audience who responded. And that also happened recently with the Russell exhibition.
It was in the time that people bought the books, people went to the exhibitions
Gerard Henderson: I suspect that Kerry Packer was right about the Brett Whitely film. I remember leaving after five minutes, going out, reading War and Peace and coming back and it was still going on. But, seriously, those documentaries in one sort of way live on because they were done for Sunday but every now and then you see them popping up in some other documentary. So, the work Kerry Packer created there, in say 20+ years, seems to live on, although I’m not sure whether you and your colleagues get the credit for it.
Catherine Hunter: No, we don’t. But I guess that’s the other thing. If you go back to the National Film and Sound Archives, in the 1950s and 1960s, we really did love our artists and we documented them. I’ve seen fantastic footage of Dobell, of Margaret Olley and Sydney Nolan, and it was just part of the national discussion. In the 1970s it started to trail off for a while, but in the 1980s and 1990s they were great years. Whether it was 60 Minutes, or Sunday or the ABC’s Four Corners. There was Peter Ross on Sunday afternoon – as I’m sure many of you remember. There was a very vigorous artistic conversation (on television) which no longer exists.
I’ve seen fantastic footage of Dobell, of Margaret Olley and Sydney Nolan, and it was just part of the national discussion.
Gerard Henderson: But if you listen to a number of commentators today, they will tell you that the 1950s and the 1960s were a cultural desert in this country. But what you’re saying is that they weren’t.
Catherine Hunter: Absolutely not. And I do believe what I do is about building an archive. It’s really important. It’s part of, sort of, our history. One of the great resources in the Russell documentary were the letters. He was a great letter writer. I don’t know how many of you actually saw the film, but he wrote letters to Tom Roberts back in Australia. He and Van Gogh exchanged correspondence. He wrote to Rodin probably between 40 and 50 letters. So, you get the voice of Russell through those letters. These days, we’re not going to have that voice. We’re not going to have those letters. People aren’t writing; they aren’t discussing their art practice or how they’re making colour. Russell was very keen to get the word back to Tom Roberts in Australia that impressionism was so important and what was happening. Tom Roberts didn’t really want to know. Although, he did take note of it in his painting Shearing the Rams. If you saw the film, Russell paints Will Maloney, a mutual friend of theirs, wearing a pink and white striped shirt. He really wants Tom to see what he’s doing with impressionism. He doesn’t get much response from Tom Roberts until he sees the painting Shearing the Rams where the shearer is wearing a pink and white striped shirt. Exactly the same shirt. That’s a subtle response, I guess.
He and Van Gogh exchanged correspondence. He wrote to Rodin probably between 40 and 50 letters. So, you get the voice of Russell through those letters.
Gerard Henderson: So, what distinguishes a documentary maker like yourself, an arts documentary maker, from a historian like Ann Galbally who appears in your documentary. As you know, she’s done a book, two books I think, on Russell. Where do you start off? Do you start off with the work of the historian or do you start off on your own and then delve into the work of the historian? What’s the process for putting something like this together in your arts documentaries?
What distinguishes a documentary maker like yourself, an arts documentary maker, from a historian like Ann Galbally who appears in your documentary.
Catherine Hunter: I start off with a huge respect for somebody like Ann Galbally, who literally discovered the Russell paintings which were buried in the Rodin museum at that time. They’d been given to the French state in 1948. His daughter bequeathed them to the French state on the basis that they would be permanently able to be seen – they never were, they never have been. That was the great tragedy of it all. They had also offered the collection to the Art Gallery of NSW on the basis that they’d have a permanent space. The Gallery said it could not do that so the works stayed in France.
Ann Galbally was the one who went into the basement of this building and found the Russell paintings. She had a little camera and took photos of them. Her first book was all black and white with not very good photographs of the paintings. But Ann started unearthing the story. Then she wrote that wonderful story A Remarkable Friendship about Russell and Van Gogh’s relationship.
Ann Galbally was the one who went into the basement of this building and found the Russell paintings. She had a little camera and took photos of them.
Gerard Henderson: So, you start …
Catherine Hunter: So I start with Ann Galbally; she is absolutely intrinsic to what I’m doing. I interview her in the first instance. In this case, I went back a second time when I knew more, when I knew what I needed from her.
Gerard Henderson: This documentary, which many of us have seen, was a remarkable success. So, tell us about your own travels. Ann Galbally lives in Melbourne but you’ve gone further than Melbourne, haven’t you? What are your own travels?
Catherine Hunter: It was a bit of a gamble. My films rarely get funded at the outset. Maybe, I’m not quite cutting edge enough or whatever. I have to basically almost finish making the film before I get commissioned, let alone funded. I did get a bit of support from the Art Gallery of NSW and from Create NSW which helped me get overseas. The ABC said if they were to take it they were not interested in just a straight biopic so I thought, well, I’ll take a couple of younger artists and maybe to realise Russell’s intentions through them.
I have to basically almost finish making the film before I get commissioned, let alone funded.
I asked Luke Sciberras, who had been interested in Russell since he was about 15, and knew his work very well. And Euan Macleod who didn’t know anything about Russell’s work but thought it would be fun to come along for the trip. He became convinced by Russell after spending time on the island. We travelled to this island called Belle-Île in France, where Russell had built his house, which sadly is not there anymore. We spent a week filming. I don’t set up anything when I film. There’s no script. It really is just as it happens. The painters were out there painting and I was out there interviewing and filming and hoping for some big storms to come through. We didn’t get any storms, but I found some other footage later on. And it just goes from there. I don’t have a script when I go out to make a film.
We spent a week filming. I don’t set up anything when I film. There’s no script. It really is just as it happens.
Gerard Henderson: I couldn’t quite make out what the artists were doing there but now I know. I noticed they were well kitted out, but they put on some fine costumes or perhaps they wear that all the time.
Catherine Hunter: They wear that all the time.
Gerard Henderson: Oh really?
Catherine Hunter: I’m sorry about that. Yes, they do. I didn’t want the film to just be that sad ending with Russell getting back to Australia unknown. I liked the idea of him being rediscovered. Not just through the art gallery exhibition. With Euan and Luke coming, it actually resulted in an exhibition at Manly which ended up being very popular. It was their interpretation of Belle-Île. From across the harbour, the contemporary paintings at Manly gallery and the Russell paintings at the Art Gallery of NSW spoke to each other which gave Russell’s story a bit more life.
Gerard Henderson: You got a support from the Art Gallery of NSW and Create NSW. So how did you go with Screen Australia?
You got a support from the Art Gallery of NSW and Create NSW. So how did you go with Screen Australia?
Catherine Hunter: Look I don’t think they thought it was cutting edge enough. I can’t go into too much detail there because I hope they’ll support me in the future. I think they felt Russell was for a certain audience of a certain age, but I actually think it’s probably for over the 30s myself, judging by the response I’ve had. It was tough. I only got commissioned in June, for the film, which is four months before I went to air, by which time I’d done most of the filming. I just took a gamble. I thought they’ve got to realise what a great story it is. It’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned.
Look I don’t think they thought it was cutting edge enough.
Gerard Henderson: Well you never know. If you were more frank you might get more support from Screen Australia.
Catherine Hunter: Maybe next time. But we also had a great organisation called Documentary Australia Foundation where people can make tax deductible donations. We set that up and put the word out there. Kind friends, whether it was $100 or $50, people put in money. And I raised a fair bit of money that way. It’s up to me now to raise a lot of the funds for making my own films.
Gerard Henderson: We ought to get back to Russell. Have you got another documentary lined up?
Catherine Hunter: I’ve got quite a few lined up. I always work on a number at any one time. I’m doing one on Arthur Boyd for the Bundanon Trust, for a travelling exhibition. There’s a lovely old painter who died in 1996 called Justin O’Brien. I’m doing a film on Justin. I got a bit of funding through Cranbrook school where he was a teacher, and through the Margaret Olley Trust who have always been incredibly kind to me. Margaret and Justin were great friends so there’s a bit of interest in that one. I’m revisiting Justin. I’m doing two other films probably – one on Streeton, for 2020, because the Art Gallery of NSW is planning another major exhibition. Ann Galbally is very much a Streeton person as well.
Gerard Henderson: Yes. Now your documentary on John Russell rated very well, didn’t it?
Your documentary on John Russell rated very well, didn’t it?
Catherine Hunter: It did. It beat Nine and Ten, apparently.
It did. It beat Nine and Ten, apparently.
Gerard Henderson: On the night. The ABC usually comes in third or fourth.
Catherine Hunter: We did a lot of publicity. The arts rarely gets a promo but the ABC promoted it day in day out for the couple of days before it went to air. The value of a 15 second or a 20 second promo, before the news or after 7:30 translates to viewers, because I don’t think everybody reads their TV guide. If they’re watching ABC TV and they see something coming up and it’s got the word “impressionist” that’s a positive. I did my research because the ABC had a few other ideas about the title. I said well you have to get the word impressionist. Everybody loves impressionism.
Gerard Henderson: But you worked pretty hard yourself, didn’t you? You did a lot of interviews, right?
Catherine Hunter: Yes. I did do a lot of interviews on both television and radio to promote the film. I also work with my old team from the Sunday program. We have all stuck together pretty closely. I have my same cameraman and editor who used to work at Sunday. People in television know how to make things quite quickly. You don’t have the luxury of a long time to make a film.
I have my same cameraman and editor who used to work at Sunday. People in television know how to make things quite quickly.
Gerard Henderson: I was thinking of that because you say it commenced in June and it’s all wrapped up by November, that’s a pretty tight deadline.
Catherine Hunter: We had six weeks and two days to edit the film.
Gerard Henderson: Well this could an argument for less funding for the ABC.
Catherine Hunter: I think it’s an argument for dividing the spoils so we all get the same amount. I get a bit more, they get a bit less.
Gerard Henderson: So, before we come back to Russell, with the work you’ve done on Sunday and the work you’ve done since and the work you’re planning you’re building up a sort of archive aren’t you?
Catherine Hunter: You don’t make much of a living from a documentary film. I also make films for galleries. The Bathurst region art gallery will commission, maybe, five films from us a year. I did something for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Japan on Australian architecture, a one-hour documentary. They were quick films we could turn around. While these are great subjects, they don’t get seen out there. So, you have to diversify. You have to do a lot of different things. You can’t just sit around waiting for the money to come for one film. It doesn’t work like that.
Gerard Henderson: Your ratings for the Russell documentary on the ABC were very good.
Catherine Hunter: Yes. And the iView was twice the average which is really good.
Gerard Henderson: That’s right provided someone will buy it. Nothing wrong with selling your soul provided you’ve got a market.
Catherine Hunter: I want an audience. I want people to see the films. And what happened with the NSW Art Gallery was an unprecedented upturn in visitors.
Gerard Henderson: Tell us about the gallery; what was the upturn after the documentary aired?
Catherine Hunter: I think it doubled except for Saturdays and Sundays when it was more. People were saying they’d never heard of Russell. They’d seen the film and they were coming. They were very happy.
People were saying they’d never heard of Russell. They’d seen the film and they were coming. They were very happy.
Gerard Henderson: Now I know you weren’t the curator of the gallery, for that exhibition, but would that have been the most substantial collection of Russell?
Catherine Hunter: There was a really fabulous exhibition in 2001 which was the work of Matisse, Monet and Russell, side by side, which was a very beautiful exhibition. Probably the best Russell paintings, and hung alongside his peers at the time. That was the last time they did an exhibition. There was a retrospective about 40 years ago.
Gerard Henderson: That was in the 1960s? In Melbourne?
Catherine Hunter: Yes. But most of his paintings have now gone back to France. They’re back in the miserable storage room. I just wish the French would give them back to us.
Gerard Henderson: So, where are they now?
Catherine Hunter: In Brittany. A small museum.
Gerard Henderson: But they’re not on display in Brittany?
Catherine Hunter: They’re never on display. Except they came out for a really important exhibition at the National Gallery in London at the end of 2016. They had a big exhibition of Australian impressionism. They had Streeton, Roberts and Conder and Russell. Russell was the hit of the exhibition. That was fantastic. They borrowed a lot of good works from here as well.
They had Streeton, Roberts and Conder and Russell. Russell was the hit of the exhibition. That was fantastic.
Gerard Henderson: It was his daughter that gave them?
Catherine Hunter: She did. She gave them to the French State because they said they would exhibit them but they never did. But Jeanne also kept the paintings. Russell had left them all packaged up for his six surviving children. They were in piles with their names on them. But he never went back to Paris and Jeanne, his daughter, kept them. And the family split after that. Jeanne subsequently gave a lot of them to the French State.
We haven’t really talked about Belle-Île. That was a fantastic place for such a painter to be in. It’s one of the few places that is still virtually the same as the impressionists found it to be. No different. The buildings are all low-lying, there are the Breton houses. The landscape is unchanged. There’s still no guard rails. A few falls every year. It’s a wild place.
We haven’t really talked about Belle-Île. That was a fantastic place for such a painter to be in. It’s one of the few places that is still virtually the same as the impressionists found it to be.
Gerard Henderson: Ian Macfarlane, former head of the Reserve Bank, has just done a yet-to-be published book on figures at the turn of the previous century who were known at the time but soon forgotten. He makes the point in his chapter on Russell, that Russell’s the other way around. He was forgotten but now, due to your work and others, like Ann Galbally he’s now quite a figure.
Catherine Hunter: Oh no, no. I don’t think most people would know John Russell, John Peter Russell, as I prefer him to be. They dropped the Peter in the last year. The curators made the decision he was going to be John Russell. He always signed his paintings JPR or John Peter Russell, which I think sounds more interesting than John Russell. No, I don’t think so. I disagree. I think people know Tom Roberts, they know Arthur Streeton, they know Brett Whiteley, they know Sydney Nolan.
Gerard Henderson: Well that’s only four.
Catherine Hunter: Russell’s not the fifth.
Gerard Henderson: But he might be in the top 50, right?
Catherine Hunter: I don’t know. I’m not sure. Had anybody in this room ever heard of John Russell.
Random person: Yes. I remember the exhibition of 2001.
Catherine Hunter: Well that’s two of us.
Gerard Henderson: But has anyone in the room not heard of him now?
Catherine Hunter: Look, we love stories in this country. We love great Australian stories and he is one of those stories. The letters are evidence. We’re not making him out to be more significant than he was. And he was significant because of his impact on other painters and his relationships, as much as his painting itself.
We love stories in this country. We love great Australian stories and he is one of those stories. The letters are evidence. We’re not making him out to be more significant than he was.
Gerard Henderson: Well, he could have looked on himself, around the time he died, as something of a failure because no one much knew him. He never worked for a living in his life, he sold very few paintings, he exhibited very few paintings. What was his problem? I mean, did he need a hat like Tim Fisher or something? He didn’t seem to have any props.
Catherine Hunter: He was well funded from his Australian family’s trust. Early on, when he saw a lot of his fellow painters in Paris who were incredibly poor, whether it’s true or not, apparently, he made a decision that he would not sell his work. He would not compete with his fellow artists. He didn’t need to sell. He was ambitious for his paint, and making the paint, the way he painted, but he wasn’t ambitious for himself. I don’t think he was looking for recognition. I don’t think he needed it. He had his fantastic life on Belle Île. Back here, he didn’t paint a lot, he did water colours and built his boat. I don’t think he was looking for that recognition. I don’t think all painters do.
He was ambitious for his paint, and making the paint, the way he painted, but he wasn’t ambitious for himself.
Gerard Henderson: Do you think he would have been better now if he’d been starving in a garret rather than getting his funds looked after by permanent trustees? It was all very easy. He had an easy life in a way, didn’t he?
Catherine Hunter: He did. But, it was a brave life, I think. The film makes the point that when he went to Paris, it was to study art at a French atelier. He threw himself amongst it. He didn’t go to the big studio where all the Americans were. Paris in 1880s was huge. It was full of artists. It was the place to be. Van Gogh came onto the scene and the people he mixed with thought him very strange, but Russell saw something in him.
When he went to Paris, it was to study art at a French atelier. He threw himself amongst it. He didn’t go to the big studio where all the Americans were.
That was his thing. Seeing something in somebody else. What he saw in Matisse. He had quite a profound influence on Matisse. Hilary Spurling, who wrote the biography of Matisse, devotes a whole chapter to Russell and says that he changed Matisse’s palette. You see that in the paintings. At the end of that summer, he gives Matisse one of the twelve drawings that Van Gogh had given him. Matisse really valued that drawing, which is now in the Philadelphia museum. Russell saw the talent in others. Even going to Rodin, who was relatively unknown, when he was about to marry Marianna, his mistress of three years, and commissioned a bust to commemorate their wedding. That’s an unusual thing to do. But he had the money.
Russell saw the talent in others. Even going to Rodin, who was relatively unknown, when he was about to marry Marianna, his mistress of three years, and commissioned a bust to commemorate their wedding.
Gerard Henderson: Around the other way, what did they see in him? He was from Australia. He’s an English speaker. I guess he learned pretty good French right?
Catherine Hunter: I think he probably bought them a few meals from time to time. Van Gogh saw him as a true friend and colleague, as you can see in their letters, there was also respect. And Van Gogh loved the blossom paintings he’d done in Sicily. There was that conversation. He just had good friendships with them. Perhaps, Monet not so much. Monet just liked the hospitality that was offered by Russell and his wife.
Gerard Henderson: So, he had money, but he also had a bit of charm?
Catherine Hunter: I think he was very charming. He was gorgeous looking. He was a boxer. He was a sailor. He was very Australia. I think he would have had a great impact. And he had a fantastic wife. As Hilary Spurling said in the film, it was unusual to have such a supportive artist wife. And they had 12 children, a fact we left out of the documentary. It got lost in everything else. That was the bit I wish I had mentioned. Because that was the amazing thing.
As Hilary Spurling said in the film, it was unusual to have such a supportive artist wife. And they had 12 children, a fact we left out of the documentary. It got lost in everything else.
Gerard Henderson: How many survived?
Catherine Hunter: Six survived. And I guess it wasn’t that unusual.
Gerard Henderson: And she died at the age of what, 42?
Catherine Hunter: 42-43.
Gerard Henderson: So, she’s pregnant a lot of her life? A lot of her adult life.
Catherine Hunter: Yeah. And I don’t think that would have been terribly hard on them. But it was not that unusual.
Gerard Henderson: And she was living isolated off the coast of Brittany, having her babies.
Catherine Hunter: Later in life they’d go to Paris a fair bit as well. They’d spend the winters in Paris or the south of France. The house we rented as an Airbnb on Belle Île, we discovered later was the house Matisse spent two summers in. So that was nice. And we can read the descriptions about this house in Hilary Spurling’s biography.