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Of art and men

Written by eastern writer on Monday, June 30, 2008

LANDSCAPE and portrait artist Clifton Pugh died in October 1990. In the same week, Melbourne newspaper The Age ran a front page article that included a warm tribute from his former wife Judith. It's not often that ex-wives receive such prominent media attention when their prominent former spouse dies. But the relationship between Clifton Pugh and the Melbourne schoolteacher he met in 1970 and divorced 10 years later was no ordinary one.

With her husband Clifton, Judith Pugh was an outspoken agitator for political and social change.

During their years together, Judith and Clifton Pugh were outspoken agitators for political and social change. They were media celebrities in a city that craved accessible talking heads. As high-profile ALP supporters, they counted several ministers in Gough Whitlam's government (including Whitlam) as friends.

The Pughs championed the artist's cause, yet comfortably moved beyond the cliquey art circles of the time. After their break-up in 1980, Clifton Pugh had several relationships, including a highly publicised one with fashion designer Prue Acton. Yet his third wife, Judith, continues to be the one most connected to his work, his politics and his love of the Australian bush.

In her new book, Unstill Life: Art, Politics and Living with Clifton Pugh, Judith Pugh recalls her years as the artist's partner.

Was writing the book therapeutic? "In a sense it was a case of defining it (their relationship and the times) to myself," she says. "I wouldn't want to use the word therapy, but it's a coming to an understanding."

Their decade together was exciting and, at times, tumultuous. Both Pughs had lovers (including, in Judith's case, South Australian premier Don Dunstan).

Clifton was plagued by memories of executing Japanese prisoners in World War II, and sometimes he drank heavily. In her memoir, Judith Pugh writes that during these bouts he sometimes hit her.

Eighteen years after Clifton Pugh's death, and two marriages later, Judith Pugh is still linked to her former husband. While writing the book she has been anchored in the past, ploughing through her memory bank, researching details of Clifton's life and trying to recall events as he would have liked them to be told.

"Often I would be thinking, 'How should I put this?' and I would then think, 'Well how would he want me to put it?"' she says.

Pugh lives in a timber house in Melbourne's inner north with her third husband, Joe Kinsela, an opera singer. Their walls are covered with paintings by some of the artists Pugh has represented during her 20-year career as an art dealer. Among the group are a couple of Clifton Pugh's works.

Given the booming art market and increased interest in local artists and their work, the publication of Pugh's memoir is timely.

"In order to tell my story I have to tell (Clifton's) story, because we were so close and did so much together," she says. "I also wanted to tell the story of the times."

Judith Ley grew up in suburban Melbourne. The oldest of eight children, she attended a private Catholic girls school. From 1962 to 1964 she studied law at the University of Melbourne, but dropped out when she decided she didn't want to be a lawyer.

She switched to teaching and was sent to a secondary school in outer Melbourne where she taught English and history.

Working in resource-poor schools had a profound impact on the young woman and the experience galvanised Judith's political thinking. Until that point, she says, "I had noparticular ideological commitment except those values which came out of a small-l liberal, British ethical system that I suppose informed our parents".

She met Clifton Pugh in 1970 at an ALP branch barbecue after the Vietnam moratorium. Over the fire's low embers, the artist talked about pacifism to the gathering. It was then, Judith Pugh recalls, that "I took him on".

"I can't remember what I said, I just began to point out the logical flaws in his position," she writes. He responded: "You're intelligent. Do you want to have dinner on Monday night?"

Within days the 25-year-old teacher had moved in with the artist, who lived at Dunmoochin, his bush property in Melbourne's outer east. Not long after, she changed her surname from Ley to Pugh, and they got married in London in 1976, with Whitlam as their best man.

Dunmoochin, artist Rick Amor recalled recently, "was a magic place, a fun place that people always wanted to come back to". It was here that Judith Pugh settled into the role of artist's wife. She kept house, she entertained and cooked, and she helped her husband with the business side of creating and selling art.

She was also an assiduous networker, both within the commercial art world and among Melbourne's social, political and intellectual circles. It was a fascinating life, Pugh recalls. "One of the things that's terrific about artists is that they're home during the day, they're small business people, really," she says.

Pugh's social and political awakening coincided with the women's movement of the late 1960s and early '70s. Why, then, did she feel compelled to adopt the surname of a man who, initially, was not her husband? "I changed it at his suggestion," she says. Clifton was still married to his second wife, Marlene, "and because in those days to live with somebody was such an issue, Clif said it would be easier".

Putting her own career on hold was not unusual for women at that time, she argues. In the book she extrapolates: "Clif and I shared physical intimacy, political views, and the culture that formed us. We both wanted a comfortable and beautiful space in which to live, to nourish us, our friends and our ideas.

"Twenty years apart in age, we were at either end of that last generation in Western culture to take for granted that the man earned money and the woman kept house."

Clifton Pugh's drinking, and the verbal and physical attacks it would trigger, was a dark cloud over his relationship with Judith. More than 30 years later she can see several possible catalysts. An important retrospective in London in 1970 had stirred up old memories. The Vietnam War had caused him to reflect on his army service. And then there was Judith's passivity, as she describes it, which she believes encouraged Pugh to vent to a listening audience.

At the core of his anger, she says, were the World WarII experiences in New Guinea, in particular, his involvement in the killing of Japanese prisoners of war.

"I don't remember when I was certain that Clif had been the murderer," writes the forthright Pugh of her ex-husband's third-person account of the executions. "The story became personalised slowly, amid a chaos of anguish and fear ... Once I understood what he had done, I knew I should stay; to help him through it and to face it."

The one constant in their relationship was Clifton's work. In the early '70s the landscape artist started to focus on portraiture, a genre for which he became famous (several of his works hang in Canberra's National Portrait Gallery).

He won the Archibald Prize in 1965, 1971 and 1972 (for a portrait of Gough Whitlam), and he painted many famous Australians, including Melbourne society matron Mabel Brookes, Country Party leader John McEwan, Victorian premier Dick Hamer, philosopher David Armstrong, actor Barry Humphries and, during a visit to Britain, the Duke of Edinburgh.

A few months after the 1971 Archibald win, the Pughs went to Adelaide, where they met Dunstan. "The most capable and visionary state premier in the country, he distilled all the possibilities of progressive, decent and exciting government," writes the woman who was to become his lover.

"He was attractive, it is wonderful to be the object of such a man's attention," Pugh writes. "Of all the men in the country, he was the one as capable and intelligent as Clif."

During our interview, Pugh says her affair with Dunstan offered a way out of her stormy relationship with the artist. Besides, "the man was terribly interesting and intelligent. He wasthe most charismatic man in the country."

In late 1972 Pugh discovered she was pregnant. Dunstan's response was pragmatic: he arranged for her to have an abortion. On the morning of the procedure -- the same day as Clifton's divorce hearing with Marlene -- the artist confronted her.

According to the book, Clifton said: "You're having an affair with Dunstan, you're pregnant, and you don't know whose it is, so you're having an abortion. Judith, I know you've been unhappy but this isn't good. I don't like it."

He then called Dunstan and suggested an alternative: once his divorce from Marlene had come through, he and Judith would marry. The baby would be born and after a suitable period the Pughs would divorce, enabling Judith and Dunstan to marry. The pregnancy continued, and so did her affair with Dunstan. A few months later she went into early labour and the baby was stillborn. Soon after, "we all understood that neither Don nor I wanted to be more than friends", she writes.

By 1980 the Pughs' marriage had broken down. Although they had agreed to visit a marriage counsellor, Judith Pugh decided she would move to Melbourne and her husband would remain at Dunmoochin. There was some anguish over issues such as money and assets, but the two remained friends. On the day of their divorce in 1982, they had lunch together.

Five days before he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1990, Judith visited her former husband at Dunmoochin. She has happy memories of that day: "I'd gone up with Joe and we had a nice time together," she recalls. "He (Clifton) said, 'I want to tell you all the things you did for me."' She pauses, then smiles. "He had not acknowledged that before."

Unstill Life: Art, Politics and Living with Clifton Pugh by Judith Pugh (Allen & Unwin, $32.95).


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    "There is only one school of literature - that of talent."
~ Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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