published in Ulitarra - 15: 1999
(c) Jenni Mitchell - 1999
Some Reflections on Alec Hope
I first met Alec Hope in 1982. At that time I was quite a young painter in my twenties. Alec had come to Eltham to attend the Montsalvat National poetry festival. I had over the years hosted many of the poets who came to Montsalvat, would hold a soup kitchen and have an array of poets sleeping in my house.
I was asked to play host to Alec for five days. This was longer than the festival, and I would have to entertain him. At the time, I was rather in awe of this great man coming to my cottage, he was the emeritus professor at ANU, I just a young art student!
As a way of filling in time I decided to paint his portrait. I didn't
really know what else to do with him for five days! He was delighted to sit
for me. So, for three or four days, we sat in the studio together getting to
know one another. He wore a suit and tie, and in the beginning held a very
stern expression, very much the Prof. A. D. Hope. As time wore on we both relaxed with each other and a fondness and
friendship developed. He loved looking at my painting behind me of the Little
As the painting progressed and we came to understand each other, his
expression softened. There was a very cheeky sensitive man inside the hard
expression he wore. He loved to listen to me talk about my trips to the
desert, the landscape and light. He had not spent a lot of time inside the
Just as the portrait was finished on the final day, my mother Grace walked into the studio with a red hat on her head. He playfully grabbed it off her head and put it on his own. It looked great, and I said to him, Hold it there and proceeded to paint a small 20 minute sketch of Alec with the red hat on his head. We were both very pleased with the loose sketch when it was finished. He used to then refer to the four day first painting as the sketch for Alec in the red hat.
Alec must have been in his late 70's at the time. He was unsteady on his feet and walked with a stick. The uneven Eltham ground made it difficult for him to walk, and I would often take his arm to help him. On one occasion we were heading up the side steps to hear an outside reading at the Montsalvat poetry festival. The wonderfully organic rock walls and steps give Montsalvat its character, but make it difficult going for the elderly. I was being so careful with Alec, realising we were going to have to step over a small wall to avoid arriving in the middle of the stage and interrupting the current reader. We stepped out over the wall and down we both went, rolling down a short grassy bank in front of the whole audience. It was quite embarrassing. Thankfully he had not been hurt, but thought it amusing.
This trip of Alec's was the beginning of a long friendship where I would
Alec came and stay with me in Eltham on several more occasions. We also corresponded regularly. I still have all of his letters, they were very expressive.
After Penelope died I went to stay with him in 1989. It was a very difficult time for him. He put up a good front, but his profound grief was evident. I painted anther portrait of him at this time. He is sitting in his lounge room with a piece of their furniture in the background, a chest of drawers. The painting depicts the loss and sadness of an old man. This painting is more about the person, and not the emeritus professor.
I had continued on with painting a series of poets
portraits, (today there are 65 completed.) Alec enjoyed my company and I
would stay for a few weeks at a time while I painted the portraits of the
Our evenings together were spent over longish dinners, conversation and wine, sometimes I would sketch him. Sometimes we would go out to a restaurant. He loved dining out. Alec also loved his scotch and water. Just a finger of water please.
Alec thought the book I am working on with the poets portraits and poems was a wonderful idea, and he had begun to write the forward to it. Unfortunately, time has gone against us and he is no longer in a position to complete it.
In the end, I believe I have Alec to thank for inspiration and teaching me the importance of focusing on the work you are doing. Not getting distracted by other issues. This of course is extremely difficult to do.
On one occasion during his stay at my home in Eltham, we had some forthcoming Shire Council elections. I had been quite active in conservation issues in the area, working closely with Alistair Knox on many occasions. I was a known activist and was being sought after to stand for election. Alec sat there quietly on three occasions as I was being asked to stand. When the residents and former councillors' left, he would look at me and ask, Did you succumb? I was able to reply No, but did later succumb to the role of shire councillor for one term. He was not happy with me for this, felt an artist should be entirely dedicated to the work at hand. I only stayed on council for one term, and have since been involved in other issues, but Alec's words are often close, and I have now left all committees to totally focus on my work.
On, another occasion when he stayed with me, I thought it would be
interesting to get Alec Hope and Barrett Reid together, given the years of
history with the Ern Malley
hoax and other literary differences that had separated them. I organised with
Shelton Lea (a poet and friend of Barretts) an
afternoon tea at Heidi. Barrett of course resided at Heidi in Bulleen and was
quite receptive to the idea of meeting with Alec.
It was awfully sad when I visited
He was a great man, and like a lot of great men, had a great humbleness to him.