Painting A. H. Hope

Some reflections on my friendship with Prof. Alec Hope

extract 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 desert in Victoria. It had a sandy track which he said he could spend hours walking along. Later he told me he had seen the track on a trip through Dimboola, where it had been painted.

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 heart of Australia, preferring to stick to the coast. He talked of growing up in Tasmania.

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 travel to Canberra and stay at his home with Penelope, who was then still alive. I remember many dinners with Alec and their friends, particularly Bob & Rosemary Brissenden and Mark & Jan O'Connor. Sometimes Manning Clark would drop by.

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 Canberra poets (Mark O'Connor, Geoff Page, Rosemary Dobson, Anne Edgeware, Alan Gould and Bob Brissenden). I enjoyed my time with him and felt a part of the family. His daughter Emily had died of cancer when she was in her 30's. She also was an artist, jeweller and sculptor. I was then doing a lot of silver-smithing as well as painting and printmaking. I enjoyed being with Alec, learning about Emily's work and our quite times together. Often, having been out for the day working on one of the portraits, I would come home and Alec had cooked dinner for me. Other times I would cook for him.

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. Shelton and I walked around the garden and wished we were flies on the wall as we left the two gentlemen to talk of the past over cups of tea.

It was awfully sad when I visited Canberra a couple of years ago and Mark O'Connor took me to visit our mutual friend in the nursing home. The man who's face would light up and beam when I came into the room, my old friend who now didn't even appear to recognise me. He was in a room that had no books or paintings - nothing to distinguish him from any other old man.

He was a great man, and like a lot of great men, had a great humbleness to him.


Painting of A.D. Hope

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