The Proposition to be an Australian Artist in London

By Katrina Schwarz


‘Most of all, the thing I really value about London is the conversation ... Whether it’s on the bus, whether it’s with friends, there is a real depth to the conversation and a worldliness that I have found nowhere else.’ [1 ]

Fabienne Nichols, a self-defined ‘half-Sydney, half-Melbourne girl’, relocated to London and now works as Head of Consultancy for a century-old British institution, the Contemporary Art Society. Nichols was photographed and interviewed for ‘The World in London’, a Cultural Olympiad project documenting Londoners whose origins are traced to each of the 204 nations participating in the 2012 games.  In the frank interview accompanying the photographic portrait by Jan Stradtmann, Nichols speaks of her initial alienation in a city that she found too large, labyrinthine, filthy, busy.  This feeling of being both over- and underwhelmed gave way, in time, to a keen appreciation of the opportunities London provides.  It is the chance encounter, with surprising depth.

‘‘Worldliness” captures the experience of being in a city in which over 300 languages are spoken, on the doorstep of Europe (no aching inconvenience of a 24-hour flight), and which is both steeped in history and hurtling into the future, forging trends and forming attitudes.

The appeal of London, a city heaving with 8 million people, with more galleries and grand museums and rain than is truly navigable, has always been strong for Australians.   Even in a world of competing metropolises, 

and far-flung residency opportunities, London seems to exert a particular sway over the Australian imagination.  Its reputation is a necessary, well-proven, rite of passage for the artistic and the ambitious.  Angela Woollacott’s study of the tens-of-thousands of Australian women who travelled to London between 1870 and 1940 recounts a span of motivations that feel fresh and familiar:

 ‘to advance her education or skills, to absorb the latest styles, genres, research or techniques, to study under the most renowned practitioners, to gain access to the most respected publishing houses – or simply to get a job.’ [2]

The idea that an artist’s reputation might be made in London was bolstered in the decades between the end of the Second World War and the ‘swinging sixties’.  This period is expertly surveyed by Simon Pierse in his recent study Australian Art and Artists in London 1950–1965 (2012).  Pierse subtitled his study ‘An Antipodean summer’, and for a season the sun did shine on a now- infamous clutch of Australians who were feted in the capital, who moved in hallowed, aristocratic circles and received important, high-profile exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery (Recent Australian Painting, 1961) and at Tate (Australian Painting, 1963).

In the slipstream of Nolan, Tucker, Boyd, Whiteley, et al., Australians in London would make an even bigger splash. The larrikins of Oz, the public intellectuals as boundary riders: Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Cive James … have done much to cement the notion of London as the place to make one’s mark.

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