Marking time with Martin Boyd

We have been living in Bemboka for seven months now, marking time in a rented house while our new house and gallery is being built. I say marking time but in practice the months are speeding by. We spend part of each day buying and cataloguing stock for the gallery and learning about Australian potters and their marks. To build up some extra capital, we have each taken on part-time consultancy work. This keeps us busy at the computer for a couple of days a week and takes us quite often on the road.

Blackberry

When we are at home, we visit the block almost every day. Seeing the house plans take three-dimensional form is fascinating. There are always decisions to be made and we are deep into plans for the garden as well. The block slopes down to the Bemboka river. On our side a backwater is separated from the main flow by an island choked with blackberry and honeysuckle. We have taken on the challenge of eradicating these interlopers and spend hours on the island armed with riggers’ gloves, fire rakes and secateurs.

When not engaged in more energetic activities, my favourite way of marking time is to sit on the north-facing back veranda of our rented house overlooking the mountains, with my feet up on a chair, reading. We are both catching up on Australian authors and our latest find has been Martin Boyd. I have just finished Lucinda Brayford , the Langton quartet (The Cardboard Crown, Outbreak of Love, A Difficult Young Man and A Blackbird Sings) and the Montforts.

Full of wit and poignancy, these novels deal with early Melbourne life, what it was to be a well-heeled Anglo-Australian in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the breakdown of authority during the first world war.  The scenes set in Heidelberg, Warrandyte and the Dandenongs evoke the raw beauty of the Australian landscape that has drawn us to Bemboka and me to my seat here on the veranda.

When Lucinda Brayford was published in 1946 Martin Boyd had been living in England for twenty-five years.  The novel was an immediate success there, and in the United States, but when he returned to Australia in 1948, he found that his nephews were better known. “In Sydney”, writes Brenda Niall, “Guy and David had established a business which, without consulting their uncle, they called the Martin Boyd Pottery. There were no accolades for Lucinda Brayford. Instead, Martin Boyd was asked how he found time for writing as well as pottery” (The Cardboard Crown, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2004, p. viii).

The Langton Quartet and the Montforts each rework the story of the Boyd family in different ways. Martin’s older brother Merric inspired some aspects of the characters of Dominic and Jacko but Merric’s interest in pottery does not feature in any of the novels. This may have been because Martin did not continue the story of the Langtons beyond the end of the first world war. However, I think that he was also less interested in pottery than in painting or drawing as ways of manifesting the artistic impulse. In his 1965 autobiography, he describes Merric’s career as a potter in the following words:

…my sister-in-law spent forty years as the strength and stay of her husband and children, the former filled with creative passion, and desperately anxious to provide for his family, but with an unaccountable aversion to making any work of art when once he had been told that it was saleable. At least this is what dealers in Melbourne have told me. He was the first person in Australia to cast individual hand-made pottery and to bake it himself. He worked harder than any of my family, in fact harder than anyone I have known, sitting up all night attending to his kiln, with the added mental strain of anxiety as to the result of the burning, which finally injured his health; and for all this he had a negligible reward. In his obituary notice he was described as :the father of Australian pottery” (Day of my Delight, Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1974, p.50).

I was amused to read in the autobiography (p.241) that Martin Boyd also had problems with blackberry during the three years he spent in Australia at the Grange, Harkaway, his mother’s childhood home. He resorted to a spray but hated seeing “the beautiful young shoots not fallen to the axe, but hanging sick and poisoned”. Sixty years later, this plant “introduced in the early days to make Australia home-like” is as much a pest as ever and we feel no such distress wielding our spray guns.

Postscript

I read in a fact sheet produced by Bega Agricultural Services today that blackberry was actually imported from Germany to stablise erosion in gullies exposed by farmers as they cleared Gippsland’s open forests.

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