The Last Grande Dame of Australian Art



Mitty Lee Brown, art student, circa 1959 – 1963 Sydney.Mitty Lee Brown in Dec. 2011.

DAZZLING in a sarong of a shade best classified as unspeakably orange, Mitty Lee Brown emerges regally from a nap through Sri Lanka’s tropical torpor to receive an unexpected well-wisher.

She’s a little startled at the intrusion because these days, at 89, Mitty doesn’t get too many guests at her estate at the island’s wilder reaches. “I’m rather sick, so stay away from me,” she croaks, squinting through air dappled with seaspray suspended from the Indian Ocean surging metres away. “I’ve got a fever and I’m not with it. I’m very annoyed with myself because I very rarely get ill.”

Mitty’s shrivelled body is shocking, much reduced from the hale woman I first met here seven years ago after the tsunami that nearly drowned her, her partner, Les, and their local Tamil staff.

But she’s quite magnificent in her decrepitude, anything but the prickly battle-axe described in recent reviews. Indeed, she evinces the courtly charm and clipped speech of the privileged, of an era when Sydney’s beau monde was a waspy clique that moved elegantly and entitledly between Bellevue Hill and Bowral, Belgravia and the Balearics, and, if you were arty like Mitty and her rich, often louche collaborators, to places such as Bali and Sri Lanka too.

This beachside hideaway has been Mitty’s home, atelier and muse since the 1970s. Nearly 40 years on, she’s one of the last surviving members of the fêted Merioola Group, named for the bohemian Woollahra boarding house of the 1940s that was patronised by Donald Friend, Russell Drysdale, Margaret Olley, William Dobell et al.

They all were Mitty’s friends and collaborators; indeed they all remain her friends. Mitty speaks lovingly of them in the present tense even though most are long departed. “Bill Dobell… a very shy, gentle creature. I sat with him all the way through his court case, a lovely man.” Sadly, also soon departed might be their various works that Mitty displays, deteriorating on her villa walls. Her once-glorious paintings are faded and untended, alive only with colonies of equatorial bugs and geckos nibbling away what may well be one of the more significant private collections of Australian art abroad.

Decades ago, abandoning an ill-advised marriage in Australia, Mitty “bolted” to this place with a then-new lover, a Cooma tradesman called Les Barwick, scandalising polite society as they fled. Sprawling 15 hectares along the island’s desolate eastern coast, here was paradise then, with its peacocks, monkeys, elephants and epic flora, a utopia she’d found with Les, who would become her rest-of-life partner.

But Les was never to become her husband. She’d already had three of those; an intellectual, a filmmaker/poet, and a pastoralist. They and the punctuating lovers and fiancés whose hearts she broke were quite enough for a woman who has lived well and large, sometimes a little too much so for some.

Today, both Les and paradise have long gone. Les died by Mitty’s side in 2005, his body blighted by years of asbestosis and cigarettes. And her Shangri-La has been blighted, too, by Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war. Mitty’s part of this shattered island has been a no-man’s land hellhole, fought over by Tamil Tiger separatists and the Sinhalese-led government army commanded from faraway Colombo for 26 of her 35 years here. “Les went out for a swim once and a shell exploded next to him,” Mitty recalls, with a giggle. “It blew his bloody sarong off.”

Civil wars have a habit of discouraging guests, and Lankans have died in crossfire on Mitty’s estate. In any event, most of Mitty’s friends, patrons and artist contemporaries are long gone. And for those still going, including James Fairfax, Jeffrey Smart and John Olsen, the long flight to Colombo, then seven-hour drive – with 30 military checkpoints – deterred. Sri Lanka’s government brutally vanquished the Tigers just near here in 2009 – “both sides were always very polite to us,” notes Mitty – and only recently allowed public access to this devastated corner of a land which nature presciently fashioned in the shape of a teardrop.

Mitty’s beach is an exotic, abundant place, where bamboo and frangipani, Palmyra and tropical ferns grow as if on steroids, where bread is baked from coconut, where giant turtles track across the sands. It’s where passionfruits, papaya and pineapples grow wild, where breakfast is a lunu miris over manioke and dahl, a fiery onion sambal on tapioca with a lentil curry. Since the war’s end, it’s also become a sleazy Paedophilia-sur-Mer for obese German rockspiders touching up slim-hipped paramours plucked from impoverished local villages.

This paradise has other limitations, such as appalling health care. And Mitty’s world is troubled. She fears she is being steadily killed, even poisoned, though she’s not entirely sure by whom. “I’m frightened, I’m bloody frightened,” she says. “I don’t feel secure here. I’m worried about me. I’m expecting to be attacked, to be killed.”

Who is trying to kill you, I ask. “God only knows, I wish I knew,” she says, “I’d try to get them first. There’s some very questionable people who have no morals at all wanting the house; Lankans, foreigners, a bit of both.”

Friends dismiss this as fabulist paranoia, saying she’s always been given to fantasy and dramatics. I tell her there are people who are concerned about her welfare. “Including me,” she declares. “I’m top of the bloody list!”

I’ve brought her some wine, plantains and roasted cashews from Colombo. “That’s very sweet but you’ll have to drink the wine, I’m over 100 and I don’t drink anymore.” [The National Gallery of Australia has her born in 1922.] She offers cold water and beer, summoning Thervan, her loyal butler for 25 years, with a well-practised tap of her cane to a fridge that rarely works for lack of power.

“I’m scared silly. What I want to do is get the hell out of here before they get me,” she says. “I’ll throw [the art] out to sea. They are trying to kill me.… I’m sounding like a sixpenny thriller now but I’m ill, I don’t usually get ill and I fear it could be poison.

“What I want is for somebody to take me over, lock, stock and barrel, to sell this, get what they can out of it, and get me out fast.”

She claims much of her art has “vanished,” though some friends dispute this. “I’ve lost all my collection,” she laments. “It went astray. I did have a very nice collection, oh, of this and that, of … hmm, let’s not make lists.” It may have disappeared in the tsunami, or some other more sinister manner. “I don’t know, it hurts too much [to think about it],” she says.

I remind her of a John Olsen she proudly showed me in 2005, which she said the artist had given her after a “you-beaut” evening with him somewhere in Europe. It seems a revelation to her, at the edges of dementia. “Oh, yes … what’s happened to that?” she asks herself. “What has happened to the Olsen?” She despatches me to the guest wing to see if it’s hanging there. She has many paintings decaying there, including some by her own brush. But none is by John Olsen.

ADVANCING mortality is the certainty we endeavour to bear with as much resignation and dignity as declining mind and body allow. For most of us, family steps up to comfort our last days. That is probably not going to happen for Mitty Lee Brown. And she’d probably be the first to admit, she’s got only herself to blame. Or perhaps not.

Born in San Francisco, where her doctor father, Robert, was studying medicine, and raised in an establishment family on ‘Pill Hill’ at Sydney’s Palm Beach – a locale so named for the moneyed Sydney physicians who owned houses there – Juanita Lee Brown’s has been a theatrical, eventful life.

Known as Mitty since childhood, she lost both her parents before she was 21; her father crashed his self-piloted biplane on a Botany Bay beach when he was 39 and she 13, and her 45-year-old artist mother, Ailsa, who had remarried a pilot, perished in a traffic accident in 1943 as she returned home from volunteer coast-watching for Japanese warships at Palm Beach. An only child, Mitty is thrice-married and has been 60 years abroad; in Paris, an island in Rome’s Tiber, the Greek island of Kos, Bali, Sri Lanka, Ischia and, she claims, Kashmir, Japan and Hong Kong.

Mitty’s been a people collector, and her admirers over the years have been Fairfaxes, Packers, Lloyd Joneses and myriad establishment dynasties, even if the admiration wasn’t always reciprocated. A daughter of the establishment, she lived amongst it through the 1960s as the wife of a squattocratic grazier.

Gwen Friend, Donald’s 87-year-old sister, remembers Mitty as “a real stunner, a knockout” in her younger years. “She had eyes like a Siamese cat, she was tall and always slim, with jet black hair and a wonderful, low voice, and a string of young men behind her. She constantly fell in love with everybody, and everybody adored Mitty. She was absolutely a magnet. And when Mitty talked to you, she absolutely talked to you – you were the only person in the world.”

Mitty was quite the social fixture around Sydney’s eastern suburbs in the 1960s, after she married into the squattocratic clan of the grazier and racing indentity William Gordon. In particular, she drew admirers for her elegant gardens and tasteful restoration of their landmark Runnymede mansion in Woollahra, where the NSW Governor from 1891-93 Victor Child Villiers, the Seventh Earl of Jersey and a godson of Queen Victoria, once kept a mistress.

But Mitty ultimately found it all rather dull and stifling, and she escaped to a peripatetic bohemia, eventually alighting on Sri Lanka with Les. She’s painted along the journey, and by universal agreement she is immensely talented, if not prolific. Gwen, herself resident at Merioola for a time, says Mitty was “a bloody good painter but wasn’t prolific because she didn’t have to be.”

National Gallery of Australia board member and art dealer Philip Bacon says that though Mitty wasn’t productive enough to be better known, he admires her limited portfolio. He has one of hers – a 1944 work called Escaped Convict on sale at his Brisbane gallery. Friends say she didn’t paint so much in Sri Lanka because she didn’t want to abuse her visa status with the Colombo government. But others say that’s nonsense. Says Gwen Friend: “Other painters had to sell a picture in order to get some bread and cheese on the table, but Mitty had plenty of money and she could afford to take her time.”

What isn’t in much dispute is how Mitty has entertained, amused, appalled and alienated many with her loves and feuds, her tantrums and myriad fallings-out. But widowed, childless and an only child, Mitty today is alone, virtually abandoned on this remote foreign beach save for her loyal Tamil retainers.

A friend says that Mitty’s closest direct relatives are a distant Sydney family who haven’t seen her since the early 1980s and “couldn’t care less about her anyway.” Then there is the clan of NSW pastoralists related via her third marriage to William Gordon.

Mitty recalls: “I was married to Bill Gordon, the main gentleman of the Gordon family and that was a great mistake, disastrous.

“The one that messed me up was Bill Gordon. I refused and refused [his proposals] and he convinced me he was going to kill himself if I didn’t accept. Bill was waving a pistol at me … he threatened to blow his brains out, and mine, too.” Gwen Friend says this “sounds about right. Bill Gordon was always waving guns around, full as a tick, I would think.”

Gwen remembers Mitty leaving Runnymede for the move down south to Bobingah, the Gordon family seat outside Cooma where the art critic Robert Hughes penned much of his magisterial study of her brother, Donald. Packing up a removalist van, Mitty almost forget a Dobell she’d hung over the fireplace. Bobingah famously had Mitty’s Dobells displayed in the toilet. “She worked like a Trojan on the house and garden at Bobingah,” recalls a friend, “and she was doing some wonderful paintings at the same time.”

But Bobingah couldn’t hold her either. In 1967, she “bolted” from Bill Gordon, running off with Les Barwick, the builder she’d met while he was fixing Bobingah.

Her affair with Les – “the great love of my life” – caused huge ructions with two families, the Gordon clan and Les’s family in Cooma, that resonate even today.

Mitty claims it was “love at first sight” with Les and insists that she “managed not to do anything until I’d left Bill.”

But memories are still raw at the Gordons. One septuagenarian relative-by-marriage we contacted, a rural grande dame of the extended clan, was generous about Mitty when we called, describing her as “great fun” and “a hugely entertaining and brilliant woman.” But when The Global Mail described Mitty’s current situation, and recounted her pleas for help to return to

Australia, this matriarch didn’t quite say “she reaps what she has sown” but she may as well have. “I think it’s probably better for all of us, and Mitty in particular, that she die there in Sri Lanka,” she said.

Sydney society clearly has a long memory.

Gwen Friend says the Gordons were a bit stuffy and didn’t approve of Mitty because she was bohemian. But another of the artist’s friends says, “Mitty treated Bill Gordon appallingly,” adding that she exhibits “extraordinary generosity but has also been appallingly selfish and a bully. And she makes things up, and then forgets what she has said.”

Not that Mitty articulates any regrets. Sydney, she dismisses with a cavalier wave, “is about as snobbish as any place can be,” while Melbourne is “constipated.”

So why didn’t Mitty and Les marry? “Why bother?” Mitty says, “I married Bill and then I said I’d had enough of marriage. And I was with my beloved, remember – Les, a darling, an absolute darling.”

MITTY’S second husband, the Italian film director Nelo Risi, was also a darling. “He’s ringing me up even now, he’s a poet, Italy’s best poet, an absolute pet.” She lived with Nelo in an apartment on the Isola Tiberina, the storied island in the middle of Rome’s Tiber River, and in Paris, too.

“I had a darling little house in Montparnasse,” she recalls. It was described in November 1953 in the Sydney Sun-Herald‘s gossip column, Mere Chatter, as a “sweet, if startling tiny home … decorated in a scheme of pink, purple and yellow.” The item cited Mitty’s “one-man show” in Rome and her marriage to Risi, too, while hinting at “a rumour she may come home for a visit at the end of the year.”

Indeed, the archives of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald and The Australian Women’s Weekly social pages are littered with Mitty titbits: her 1937 graduation from Sydney’s Alliance Française; a 1939 account of her entertaining “in a frock of white chantilly lace … a party in town from Melbourne and the country for the spring race meeting;” a 1941 despatch describing her “adding colour to Palm Beach gaieties … in a heavy seashell necklace, mauve jumper and grey slacks;” her 1942 engagement to a Free French naval officer, François Paul Fourlinnie; the 1944 notice of her marriage to Dr Peter Vasquez Russo – “a Melbourne University scholarship winner, Dr Russo went to Japan, where he became Professor of European Languages in the University of Tokyo. His bride this year was runner-up in the New South Wales Art Travelling Scholarship;” a follow-up picture of her radiant self, honeymooning in Melbourne with Russo; a 1958 item from Vogue about her Rome apartment, “one of a row of old church properties, a 14th Century house that has been turned into a 20th Century flat where the sound of the water comes in through the windows.”

I remark how she’s often appeared in the social pages. “I’ve got an awful habit of, wherever I am, however much I hide under the table, I seem to get written up,” she ventures.

With Mitty’s links to an important art movement at Merioola, and her deteriorated, faded Drysdales and Friends and Dobells, hers is an estate that is part of Australian history. Her old friend and noted collector James Fairfax said her collection is “meritorious.” The Australian High Commission in Colombo claims it is in regular contact with her. Mitty says that’s nonsense.

Her property should be a museum but instead it will most likely pass to Thervan’s family of servants, who don’t know much about her colourful past. They know how she likes her tea and that she likes breakfast papaya with a squeeze of lime. “I’ve been through a lot with these people,” Mitty says. “We were bashed around by the tsunami together, but we all managed to survive. They are marvellous.” But Mitty worries about the integrity of the professional advisors in Colombo handling her affairs.

For Philip Bacon, this is all-too-familiar terrain. He’s well acquainted with the plight of the artist who escaped Australia’s suffocating philistinism only to decay and die unacknowledged and unknown in foreign climes. “It’s a tragically familiar story, I’m afraid,” Bacon says. And Sri Lanka has more than its fair share of the unscrupulous, foreigners and locals alike, exploiting the country’s rampant corruption and lawlessness.

MERIOOLA was a grand mansion in Rosemont Avenue, Woollahra, the family seat for generations of the prominent legal dynasty, the Allen family, who founded Australia’s oldest law firm, Allens – today’s Allens Arthur Robinson. In 1941, when the then-patriarch Arthur Wigram Allen died, his heirs decided to lease Merioola as a boarding house, to be run by a Melbourne chatelaine called Chica Lowe. The art historian Christine France describes Lowe as “an exceptional character … she had already run several boarding houses, she was interested in the arts and liked to have interesting people as tenants.”

Writes France: “[Lowe’s] warmth, generosity and ability to amuse, as well as her maxim that the house should be run for the convenience of the tenants not the landlady, attracted artists.” One of them was Mitty, studying art under William

Dobell and others at the nearby East Sydney Technical College, the old Darlinghurst Gaol and today’s National Art School. “I lived at Palm Beach and it was too far go home every night,” Mitty recalls, “so I moved in there with Chica.

“Chica is one of my greatest friends,” she recalls. “She got her hands on [Merioola] and turned it into the best boarding house there ever was.”

According to France, “Part of the success of Merioola also came about from [Lowe’s] belief that it was bad for artists to live in isolation. In post-war Sydney, Merioola was probably the most exciting place to live.”

“It was marvellous,” remembers Mitty. “We had such fun there, everyone was falling in love with everyone else, but it was also very creative.”

As an artist colony, Merioola was a more hedonistic, free-spirited antidote to John and Sunday Reed’s rather more earnest Heide Circle in Melbourne. In Woollahra, matronly eyebrows were raised in neighbouring drawing rooms about the real or imagined goings-on at Merioola, shockingly perpetrated by wayward scions of the elite, their kind. “I think Victoria was more stuffy than New South Wales,” says Mitty. “But we weren’t out to shock, we were artists and it was great fun.”

Mitty’s lover at Merioola was the debonair Alec Murray, who would enjoy a celebrated career as a celebrity and fashion photographer in London (and who famously shot a cherubic six-year-old Kerry Packer by a Sydney fish pond).

But her best and lifelong friend was the artist Donald Friend, who also would live and love extravagantly in Ceylon through the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, several of Friend’s works adorn the walls and garden of Brief, the magnificent but little-visited estate of Sri Lankan lawyer and aesthete Bevis Bawa, elder brother of the architect Geoffrey. Friend died in 1989, and though his life on the island pre-dated Mitty’s time here, I ask if he ever visited her here.

“Oh, heavens yes, wherever I go, he goes. I’ve known Donald virtually all my life, being a painter and all.” She talks of Friend in the present tense. “We are brother and sister … not lovers or anything like that.”

She recalls grand times with Friend in Bali, where Mitty initially fled in 1968 with Les Barwick after she left Bill Gordon in Nimmitabel. Before Les died in 2005, he and Mitty told me he built Friend’s house in Bali. Friend’s Sanur residence, Villa Batujimbar, is much celebrated. Inspired by the architecture of the ancient aristocratic Balinese seat of Klungkung, it was designed by Geoffrey Bawa and later acquired by the Czech-Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha of Aman Resorts fame. Not only does Friend’s art adorn the walls still, his ashes are sprinkled around the grounds. But the connection with Friend has long past; Batujimbar is now a boutique hotel owned by the controversial mining magnate Graeme Robertson, brother of the celebrity barrister Geoffrey.

There is plenty of discussion about Mitty and Les in Friend’s meticulous published diaries, though no mention of Les building the Friend residence. Friend described a long and great friendship with Mitty, but also a steadily declining one as the years wore down. Indeed, Mitty’s friendship with Friend – he often described her as his sister – seems to have been severely strained when she ran off with Les. Says a mutual friend of both: “They [Donald and Mitty] really did adore each other but the relationship became strained when he advised her in about 1967 never to marry Les. Donald told her, ‘You fucked up the three previous relationships by marrying them, Mitt. Don’t commit the same error by marrying Les.'”

Friend was characteristically snobbish about Les. His diary entry of June 9, 1968 observes that Les makes Mitty very happy but then describes him as “one of those competent, somewhat gnome-like ‘realistic’ Australians with feet so firmly planted on the hard ground that his acknowledgment of the existence of clouds is a matter of pure politeness.”

Les, Friend sneers, “speaks with an Australian accent so thick you could hardly cut it with an axe…. I don’t think he has any esteem for the trappings of wealth and culture in his own society, probably reading them as messages of hostility to what he stands for.”

As for Mitty’s romantic dramas, Friend is withering. In 1968, a fortnight after he had entertained the visiting Australian Prime

Minister John Gorton and wife, Betty, at Villa Batujimbar, and Mitty, too, Friend opines that “with glazing eyes and heaving breast, haughtily she cast her emerald tiara in the dust, smiling scornfully to see the sordidly grasping knave grovelling after it greedily in the gravel. Really, women are bloody absurd, especially when tired of an old mate and being sexually excited by a new one, they must put up a fine show for themselves and the world to admire. One feels a sort of shamed compassion.

“[Mitty] may go on to Hong Kong – in fact she has told me two dozen destinations, which probably signifies she has decided on a smokescreen and trails of red herrings to conceal her actions from herself. I expect her back here in a couple of weeks.”

Mitty says it was Friend who encouraged her to live in Sri Lanka with Les. “He had come back from here and he kept going on and on and on about it,” she remembers. Curmudgeonly, she says she didn’t want to be on Sri Lanka’s south coast, where many foreigners have sumptuous seaside villas with echoes of the Raj. “That’s precisely why I’m not there. I’ve done all that in my teens. I don’t want a whirling social life.”

MITTY has lived in the midst of a war most of the time she has been in Sri Lanka, just a few kilometres from the formal 2002 ceasefire line, demarcated because neither the Tigers or Colombo could reliably hold the ground around it. Government forces were based three kilometres away, holding a position known locally as the Three Mile Post. Some 500 metres away were the Tigers. For years, the territory beyond, including Mitty’s estate, was in Eelam, as the Tigers called their Tamil homeland.

Mortars would whizz overhead and sometimes miss their target. “Frequently,” notes Mitty. “We wouldn’t go out on the bad days.”

She remembers the ill-fated Indian intervention, which ended in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a Tiger suicide bomber. Sometimes the army made territorial gains, sometimes the Tigers did. And then the other side would fight back.

“The army had a big gun next door for a long time,” she says.

Getting food was often difficult. Electricity, capricious at the best of times, would go down for months on end, as each side did what it could to smoke the other out of foxholes and bunkers. The longest time without power was nine months, she says. Likewise the phone. Pillboxes punctuate the coast along here, scars on paradise. Sometimes Mitty and Les provided sanctuary for petrified villagers, who believed that neither side would shell foreigners.

Did you ever think to leave, I ask. “No,” Mitty says firmly.

Then came the tsunami. “It wasn’t a wave, it was a wall, a surge and a most peculiar noise, very, very loud,” she recalls. Mitty remembers yelling at everyone to drop everything and run with her. She tells the story with gusto. She gathered her pets and tried to link arms with panicking staff as the water inundated the house. In the end, they all went with the flow in the debris – exhausted, because they couldn’t run anymore. Mitty says her childhood years swimming at Sydney’s northern beaches probably saved her. She tried to save a cow, holy in these Hindu parts. Cars, dead bodies and a Hindu priest, alive, floated by, finishing up in a coconut tree.

“It washed the cemetery out, too,” she says. Up on the main road, they recognised the bloated body of a local Tamil friend who had recently died of cancer and whose funeral they’d attended just days earlier. Her body had been exhumed by the force of the tsunami. “They were horrific scenes,” Mitty recalls. She says she broke her back in three places. Mitty and Les had only the sopping clothes they were washed about in, now in shreds. They stayed as refugees for six weeks in a local community centre, returning to rebuild their devastated house.

“I was unbelievably lucky,” Mitty says. “We all survived but we lost a hell of a lot of the art.” A tranche of the severely damaged pieces was sent to Colombo and abroad for repair. “The good ones I left in Australia, the really good ones.”

As 2012, Mitty’s 90th year, arrived, well-meaning friends arrived too, as the reporting of this story alerted them to the situation in paradise. They are logging her deteriorated art for posterity, for the enjoyment of later generations. And the missing Olsen was located and is now secure. But the future is uncertain for Mitty Lee Brown.

“At the moment the only thing I want to do is go home,” she declares, unprompted.

To Australia? I ask. “Yep,” she offers firmly. “I should go back, to put my little flat feet on Double Bay or something like that. Eventually I’d want to stay there but at the moment I’m not well enough to pack the house.”

I gently press her. “Do you really want to go home?” I ask. “You’ve been here a long time, you’ll miss here, no?”

Mitty sighs. “I don’t want to go home forever. I don’t think I’d make it.”