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June Dally-Watkins - Sheilas : a companion to Gents / Peter Kingston

What about the sheilas?

Elizabeth Fortescue
Extraordinary portraits of prominent women

Peter Kingston, photo by Toby Zerna, News Corp
Peter Kingston, photo by Toby Zerna, News Corp
ABC chief Ita Buttrose is family, so she’s in. Wendy Whiteley’s a mate and neighbour of 50 years’ standing, so she’s definitely there. The late Margaret Thorsborne, who campaigned to save the dugongs of Hinchinbrook, is evoked by her very absence on her rainforest veranda. And former Governor-General Quentin Bryce, a friend who sportingly dressed up as the Phantom’s girlfriend to open an art exhibition about the comic strip hero, simply couldn’t be left out.

These are just some of the 27 extraordinary portraits of prominent women in a new artist’s book by Peter Kingston, the Lavender Bay painter, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor whose work the State Library of NSW has been collecting since the 1980s.

Kingston, whose aesthetic often tends towards the vernacular, titled the book Sheilas and has generously given it to the Library. The loose-leaf portraits it contains are so fresh they were still drying on racks in the conservation department while I was writing this article. Kingston believes Sheilas is the best of the artist’s books he has produced since he embraced this tactile and beguiling art form many decades ago. Apart from the artist’s proof he retained, there are no other copies of this book, which makes the gift particularly special.

Sheilas : a companion to Gents

Now that the prints are dried, it’s a magical experience to open the work’s custom-made wooden box and browse through the pages nestled securely inside. The portraits are linocut prints in Sakura inks on Iwaki Mulberry paper. Kingston hand-finished the prints with a forefinger dipped in the inks. Each portrait is separated by a sturdy piece of tracing paper which records an anecdote or quotation related to the portrait subject. ‘Art is the only survivor’ is the aphorism accompanying architect Penelope Seidler’s portrait. Although Seidler isn’t keen on the portrait, it’s one of Kingston’s favourites.

‘She didn’t like it at all. She probably thinks she looks tough. I just think she looks strong, you know?’ says Kingston.

Wendy Whiteley, Kingston’s nextdoor neighbour, didn’t like her portrait. So Kingston gallantly withdrew it from the book and did another one, depicting Whiteley training a hose on her award-winning Secret Garden below her house on the hill above Lavender Bay.

‘She didn’t like the first one I did of her, so this is the other one which I haven’t even shown her — which I won’t,’ says Kingston.

Wendy Whiteley has been a good friend and next door neighbor since the early 1970s when she, husband Brett and daughter Arkie moved in with two small dogs Sense and Reason ... She created a magnificent garden from a messy wilderness.

Wendy Whiteley - Sheilas : a companion to Gents / Peter Kingston
Wendy Whiteley

The inscription on businesswoman June Dally-Watkins’ portrait reads like a newspaper headline: ‘Gregory Peck kissed me for the first time at the Bocca della Verita during the filming of Roman Holiday.’ Famously, the Sydney deportment queen met Peck in Rome when he and Audrey Hepburn were making the 1953 film. Eager to know more, Kingston sought out Miss Dally (as generations of modelling students called her) at her flat in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It was in the months before Miss Dally’s death in February 2020.

‘She was in reduced circumstances,’ says Kingston. ‘But she had all her couture from the 1940s and 50s all stacked in the living room.’

Miss Dally had been ‘a bit of a hero’ to Kingston since she went door to door in Watsons Bay, trying to find anyone who had seen her employee Caroline Byrne before Byrne’s body was discovered at the foot of a cliff at The Gap in 1995.

I met the very charming deportment queen June Dally-Watkins in her flat in Old South Head Road a few months before she died in 2019. She was my hero …

June Dally-Watkins

All the women in Sheilas are strong and inspirational, says Kingston. Not all are wildly famous. Those at the more boutique end of the spectrum include Margaret Ramard, who runs the Trust Cafe at the SH Ervin Gallery on Sydney’s Observatory Hill. ‘She is a tyrant, but it’s a big act,’ he wrote. ‘She is one of the reasons people turn up to order her real food.’

In the same category is Noreen Hennessy, who played the Wurlitzer organ at the Prince Edward picture theatre in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Other women Kingston selected to portray in Sheilas were cartoonist Victoria Roberts (‘She lives in Mexico and she contributes to The New Yorker’ ), Lady Sonia McMahon (‘She made headlines around the world when she wore an extremely revealing gown chosen by her husband Sir Billy to a dinner hosted by President Nixon at the White House’), ‘tiny, dynamic’ Indigenous artist Rosie Napurrurla Tasman, who is represented by a reproduction of her etching Seed Dreaming, artist Elisabeth  Cummings, and actor and old friend Robyn Nevin as Lady Macbeth.

Robyn is a Diva … When I asked her to sit for a lino portrait for SHEILAS she immediately became Lady Macbeth and delivered her lines in fluent Italian.

Robyn Nevin

And then there’s the late artist Kerrie Lester, who was hung in the Archibald Prize many times but never won. ‘She was in it 15 or 17 times. Why didn’t they give it to her? Mean, isn’t it? I mean, it was probably one of her greatest disappointments in life,’ Kingston says.

Kerrie is an artist who always stitches her name backwards. She has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize fifteen times but never won.

Kerrie Lester - Sheilas : a companion to Gents / Peter Kingston
Kerrie Lester

Ita Buttrose, a powerful force in Australian broadcast media and publishing, happens to be Kingston’s cousin and was part of ‘the gang’ at Parsley Bay, where Kingston grew up in the 1940s and 50s. Buttrose’s portrait is accompanied by the lyrics to the eponymous song Cold Chisel wrote for her. ‘If she ever gives a talk, they always blast it out before she comes on the stage,’ says Kingston.

Getting her lips right was the key to capturing Buttrose’s likeness, says Kingston. Buttrose hadn’t taken to an earlier version of the portrait, but a subsequent one passed muster. ‘She said, “Go to the head of the class, cousin”.’

Ita grew up in a family of extroverts. She became one of the most recognisable personalities in the country dispensing no nonsense wholesome good advice in all forms of the media. She is also my cousin ...

Ita Buttrose

None of Kingston’s subjects in Sheilas has been intentionally flattered. It’s more that the portraits seek to uncover the essence of the sitter. Interestingly, when Kingston did a linocut of Queen Elizabeth II to include in the artist’s book, he uncovered the essence of someone else. Kingston thought the finished product looked more like Sydney actor Gerry Connolly doing his satirical stage portrayal of the monarch than the Queen herself. ‘I was going to have that as Gerry Connolly as the Queen,’ he says.

When it came to his portrait of Julia Gillard, Kingston was stirred to the kind of righteous indignation that propelled him to campaign for the preservation of Luna Park, May Gibbs’ former home Nutcote, Sydney Harbour’s quaint wooden ferries, and the finger wharves which jut into Sydney Harbour opposite his gorgeously ramshackle home with its downstairs studio.

Gillard’s tracing paper inscription recites a litany of sexist verbal attacks endured by her when she was prime minister. Her shock and revulsion culminated in her stinging ‘misogyny speech’ to Parliament in 2012. ‘It was so mean what they wrote about Julia Gillard because she had the temerity to be Prime Minister,’ says Kingston.

Kevin Rudd chose Quentin Bryce to be Governor General. When I asked Quentin what she thought of Julia she replied ‘You couldn’t help but like her’.

Julia Gillard

One of the Sheilas portraits is reserved for Jan Cork, a friend of Kingston’s since they met in the 1960s. Cork is shown at the helm of Kingston’s half-cabin fishing smack, the MV Anytime, which bobs on a mooring in Lavender Bay when Kingston is not using it as a mobile studio.

It seems appropriate that the Library will count Sheilas as part of its Kingston collection, because it was Jerelynn Brown, manager of the Library’s collection strategy and development, who inadvertently caused the artist’s book to be made.

In about mid-2018, the Library acquired two artist’s books from Kingston titled Blokes and Gents, with sitters including photographer Jon Lewis, artists William Dobell, Garry Shead, Euan Macleod and Alan Jones, cartoonist Bruce Petty, and artist and former Art Gallery of NSW curator Hendrik Kolenberg.

‘I said, “Peter, this is all very well, but what about the sheilas?”,’ Brown remembers. It was really a bit of gentle ribbing. But Kingston took up the challenge.

Australia once had a female Prime Minister, Governor General and Governor all at the same time. Quentin Bryce was a very steady hand as our Governor General and we became friends as she used to stroll past my house.

Quentin Bryce

Kingston is a perfect fit for the Library with his eye for heritage and the historic, and his environmental and built history campaigns that have worked their way into his art. After all, the Library’s remit is to document the changing face of Sydney and New South Wales. And that’s exactly what Kingston has done.

‘We have most of his artist’s books and documentary work,’ Brown says. ‘We have an extensive collection of his etchings and prints. Some of the material is held uniquely by the Library. Peter is an iconic and renowned New South Wales artist — I would say Australian, as well.’

I saw Rosaleen Norton only once deep in conversation downstairs in a Darlinghurst coffee shop. The surrounding walls were covered in her paintings of covens and signs of the occult.

Rosaleen Norton

The Library holds about 20 artist’s books by Kingston including Rain, 2018 (inspired by the artist’s trip to stay with Margaret Thorsborne and help her campaign to protect the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area), Sydney Deckie, 2018 (featuring Sydney Harbour and its  ferries), A–Z , from about 1989 (in which Kingston used humour to confront his battle with agoraphobia), and Mackerel Beach: A Winter’s Tale, 2014 (featuring fairy penguins and Carinya, Pittwater’s lovely ‘frangipani house’).

The Library also has many of Kingston’s hand-coloured etchings, including Southerly Buster, 1985, Busy Bondi, 1985, Pooling, 1985, May Gibbs’ Studio at Nutcote, 1989, Death of the Regent Theatre Sydney, 1989, and The Elephant House [Taronga Zoological Park], 1984.

Sheilas is the latest in a long line of Kingston’s work to enter the collection, and Brown is tickled that Kingston thought to dedicate this important artwork to her. ‘Credit where credit’s due,’ Kingston says simply. Sheilas now takes its permanent place at the Library and is currently on display in its Amaze Gallery.

Elizabeth Fortescue is Arts Editor for the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.

This story appears in Openbook autumn 2021.