April 26, 2008

Patonga is a Sleepy village built on a sand bar, a couple of hours north of Sydney. (they’ll tell you less, but allowing for getting lost, two hours is realistic)

I don’t know that it is actually built on a sound bar, but it looked that way to me when cousin Johnty and I crossed the little river on Patonga’s southern side and, climbing up into the bush, looked back over the town.

Here’s Jonty rowing us across to creek as they call it.

Back in town, now, and and just off the main street…..


a sign to a gallery, past the petrol pump…

(That’s an antique, by the way. You wont get an petrol out of that thing, even if you offer $2 a litre. )

….is the Bakehouse Gallery .

It’s interesting the way people hesitate at the door of a gallery, not sure whether to go in.

Cousin Jonty’s already inside, intrigued, by the look.

and some other visiting peer-ers are in there too.



In part, I suspect, this hesitation to enter is because people think they might be asked to buy something.

In this case, there’s no danger of that because nothing’s for sale.

Well, nothing has a visible price on it. Selling is not the point at the Bakehouse Gallery.

There are other things out of the ordinary as well. No part of the Bakehouse is off limits to the visitor who does come in.

The studio upstairs? Just climb the stairs…

and find art on a chair just as viewable as art on a wall

There’s always time to talk too, or to ask a question…

Across the road is another part where smoothly sliding stacks, put many more works at your fingertips.

Bottom line, say the owners, you aim to get people in front of pictures no matter what, and then they decide if it was worth the visit or not.

Want to see something else? Sure, just a second….

But, I’m not doing this right.

Let me introduce the people behind this fresh new concept, Jocelyn Maughan and Robin Norling who own and run the Bakehouse gallery.

As you know this is a Rubbo family art blog. There is no direct connection with my family here, though both Jocelyn and Robin Knew of Antonio dattilo-Rubbo’s famous art school in Sydney.

The connection comes because I love their way of thinking, and share ideas what art’s about

Both Robin and Jocelyn have been classically trained, both have been teachers. Both are still teachers

Both believe in art based on good drawing, and that, says Robin, comes right out of the Rennaissance.

“Dio Segno.” says Robin, The sign of God. Though not religious, Robin contends that’s what must be there.

There, in the seemingly simplest thing you do.



They talk about helping to build a road map for young artists.

They see contemporary art as being in a bit of a mess, it’s values confused by political and fashion agendas, and by the pressure to create what critic, Robert Hughes called, The shock of the New.

Speaking of shocks, did you get an email petition to sign the other day?

It was part of a shocked global response to a Costa Rican “artist” who’s entry to his country’s Biennale was an installation piece, a stray dog actually starving to death in an “art” gallery.

We are far from such obscenity here, I hope.

Yet I wonder if the classical approach of Robyn and Jocelyn might, make them seem somewhat freakish to our Sydney art world.

Perhaps. …But then, they are so far off the beaten track that it doesn’t matter.

In fact, when people come into the Bakehouse gallery, a strange thing happens.

Generally, their eyes tell them the art is good, but their brains then ask, “What’s good work doing in Patonga, and without a price on it, moreover?

Something’s wrong, somehow.

Since there is no answer to this puzzle of price-less art, some choose not to believe their eyes.

Some, used to following the critics, conclude the Bakehouse works are probably not that special after all.

How could they be? Out of sight in Patonga, out of the swim in bucolic Patonga?

Jocelyn and Robin don’t care. There’s always more to do.

Here, Jocelyn is explaining to me that this black and white work, Aussie Lean-to, (a local fisherman) is done with what she calls the Grisaille technique.

White paper is specially treated to create a smooth surface, then covered in dark oil paint which can be rubbed away.


The design is done by rubbing alone.

Here’s a tree, an Angophera, she’s rendered in the same way


There’s a beautiful scratchy feel to these images, I find

Jocelyn paints people in Patonga, often the fishermen. Her themes, her visual obsessions, one might say, are men at work, often around boats.

As you look at these small works, you find yourself having more and more trouble saying,” These are nothing special.”

Yet, if they were really any good, they’d have a hefty price on them, surely?

I discover that her men have a signature way of slouching. I can’t imagine Jocelyn drawing a tensed up sportsman .

She likes her men to fall into their postures, gravity doing what it does

She loves the tired, after work, look.

Robin likes the figure too. But what he does with the human body is so different.


Also, he’s more apt to picture women, more apt to be sensuous



Here’s Jocelyn again. Her men lounge around, shooting the breeze of course

If Robin does men, they are a different race. Not tired, not slouched, anything but…


Both artists paint portraits. But Jocelyn’s the prolific one.

if someone walks into the studio with a head which catches her fancy, she’ll offer a likeness on the spot, to be knocked off in an hour or less, then and there!

This is Mick Chapman from across the creek. He used to be a top class photo engraver. Now, he’s a fisherman. Mick picked up his portrait yesterday.

Joceyln does these quick oil sketches “to keep her hand in” she explains, and charges nothing for them, if they’re Patongans, as the happy sitters take them home.

She did one of me on that basis, though I’m not a local.

It was mine to keep. All that was asked was that I give it back, temporarily, to be entered in a local art show. Once it’d won first prize, it was back with me.

Curious, I ask her, “how much would it have been if I’d commissioned it?”

“$3000. ” she says “How can that be?” I ask.

“It’s either $3000 or free,” replies Jocelyn, “Nothing in between.”

Actually, that’s not quite true. Once a year, they raise money for the Bushfire Brigade. On that day, the sign outside the Bakehouse gallery reads. Portraits, $5

“Why so cheap?” I ask. “Well, five bucks is something you’ll plunk down without thinking.” explains Jocelyn.

“A kid with a ferrett will spend five dollars. Put it up to ten, and there’d be that hesitation….. No, five’s better.

There’s a down side to cheap. Everyone’s your boss. One kid came back with his pencil portrait, indignant; “Mum says you should take the dirt off my face, ” he said. “Tell your Mum, that’s shading to make your face look round, not dirt.”

I wonder if Jocelyn has ever painted Robin? That’s a fine head, surely?

Yes she has. I’m directed to her book to see how he turned out. Robin’s in there. That, you can buy apparently, $50!

Money and art, what a funny business it is!

Jocelyn and Robin have their teacher pensions and so can afford to keep the high road by living modestly. A young artist could not, of course, and most wouldn’t want to anyway.

Moreover money plays its part in this charming set up. The main gallery, the second gallery across the road, for any one who’d like to emulate this charming set-up, are worth millions now.

Look at this view out their “back” door.

Commanding a high price.” How the very language reflects the power game into which art gets dragged.

“His picture fetched a record sum at auction.” “Fetch,” what a charming word that is, bringing such a playful tone to the matter, as if we were playing ball games with the dog.

Yet, hitting the higher price ranges, can become a ball game of another sort, a ball and chain, as many artists become slaves to what sells.

Their freedom to be spontaneous, to be whimsical, both in what images they choose to make, and how they part with them, is much reduced.

You could argue that so few artist are financially successful, that it’s not worth talking about any Faustian bargains they may one day strike with reality.

Bottom line, most successful artists could not do what Jocelyn and Robin do, giving away portraits, not without annoying their agent.

9 months ago, Jocelyn painted my friend, Olive Riley, again without charge.

Olive was a rare catch, a head one does not meet very often. Here, we deliver Olive for the session.

Olive is 108 (born 1899) and proves a tranquil sitter.

Robin doesn’t hesitate to give over the shoulder advice. They both do that for each other.


I did not see Robin doing portaits but found some heads of his, patterned and repeated, as he likes to do

Patterns, repetitions with subtle changes, are his forte.

I expected the Bakehouse Gallery would validate a pet theory of mine.

if you’ve read the first post of this blog, you’ll know that I believe that story is a big part of art, or can be.

By story, I mean any narrative to do with the art work.

How, when, and where was the work done?

Who was, or is, the artist?

Who carried the picture though fire and war.

Who stole it and why?

What does it tell us about Grandma, the artist?

How was the picture was brought into the family, or left it, if that is the case.

As a species, we crave stories.

It’s something to do with the cave life of our ancestors, to do with the thousands of years we spent huddled round the cave fire, living through those fearful neolithic nights, our eyes round as moons, as our brave hunters told their tales.

I think that it is through story that people, who otherwise don’t enjoy art, and certainly see the point of owning it, can be drawn to its power and charm.

I thus expected that both Robin and Jocelyn would be story tellers.

But no, their message is purer and less seductive than that. They speak to visitors about design, composition, about finding the patterns in nature and doing things with those patterns. Making one’s variations on the universals, as I understand it.

They talkabout technique and tradition, and never about stories per se. And yet….

Here, Robin is standing in front of the bread oven which give the Bakehouse it’s name.

He ‘s explaining to Jonty that his own art draws inspiration from the repetitive patterns in the Persian carpet at his feet


There’s such a carpet upstairs too, I notice. More reminders for Robin of classical patterning I guess.

Jocelyn’s work seems more amenable to story.

Indeed, she does tell me tales about her work, about sketching on trains in India, for example, the funny things that happened to them on that trip..

These are her local train sketches, but they’ll do to tell the tale.


The Indian story goes like this.

They were in a crowded third class carriage, bundled in by accident it seems, and began to sketch fellow passengers, even though they were a bit fearful it might offend.

Groundless fears, for there was general delight and indeed, as the train rattled across India, more and more passengers were dragged in from other carriages to be sketched.

Luckily, the pair knew from experience to have loose sheets of paper with them. People always want to keep a sketch and it was either have sheets on hand to give away, or tear pages out of their sketch books.

On this occasion, there were so many wanting to keep a souvenir, that they had to tear their loose sheets smaller and smaller, so as not to run out.

Strangely, no matter how small the sketch, each recipient would then fold it in four as if this was the done thing with the drawings of foreigners on trains.

Jocely laughs as she tells the tale , and wonders if there are people wandering round India even today with tiny portraits folded in their shirt pockets.

This is a perfect example of what I mean. If you had a train sketch of Jocelyn’s on your wall, would you not enjoy in telling that story to a visitor?

Telling such a story is empowering. It changes ownership from a checkbook event into something more creative.

True, the train sketch does not become a better image when the story is added , but it does become an enriched image.

Then Jocelyn told me another story, this one linking them to the new Hotel, seen here.

The two brothers, Robert and David who own the Patonga store, have now turned it into a charming and rather up-market hotel.

Back when it was still a humble general store cum fish and chip shop, Jocelyn had asked the brothers if they’d like one of the Bakehouse pictures for their walls.

They said, “No thanks, we have some prints of the South of France which will do just fine”

The South of France for Patonga?

Anyway , the new hotel/restaurant got built and the Osborne brothers remembered the offer and decided that indeed, a local painting would be just the ticket.

But when Jocelyn saw the space, she said a lone picture will be lost. “You need a strip of panels.” she told them. “I’ll do figures and Robin will do landscape panels in between.”

The brothers were still not sure, but Bakehouse did them some mock ups on a demountable panels, and they were happy.

Now, a long wall in the dining room glows with fishermen at work

It would be nice in my view, if those who sit below, knew this intriguing story of how these artists serve their community….

….just as a fisherman does, in his way.

Enough Art!…….

We were due for a walk, Jonty and I, and so we said goodbye to the Bakehouse gallery.


Wandering round the rocks on the point, I kept on thinking about this puzzle which is art.

I saw patterns in the rock, patterns as exciting as any painting.

Not art, though, no human had fashioned these designs, though design there was

But in photographing them, did I author them somehow as art, as my art?

Surely not! Too much of them and too little of me.

But what if I select parts of the image, suggest interpretations by my selection, what then?

This detail of the wall above, I’ve inverted it for example, the more to see it as a finger shape

Here, I turn the rock on it’s side to see a mouth and later, a nose, also turned

You don’t have to see the image below as a cello. But I’ve selected the shape to empower it.


Then, of course, when I find V’s, I’m thrilled, as all men are.

Again, I turn what I find to make the V I want.

Now, I see a dying lion, no longer the alpha male.

What’s karen doing here? Good question. She’s on the back of a dinghy under a white house you’ll soon see, and I like her.

At the far end of Patonga are some fishermen’s cottages, beautiful in their simplicity.

Wealth has now made them impossible, either to build or, in many cases, to keep

This is where karen lives

We walk up and out of Patonga on the famous trail to Pearl beach

When we came to Patonga with Olive, I offered a tribute to the pretty place on her blog http://www.allaboutolive.com.au

I finished with an image which everyone loved, and will do so again.



March 10, 2008


This blog explores the stories of the art on our walls, specifically my family’s connection with art. What about yours?

Please go back to the first post (archive; February 2008 ) to explore the theory behind this blog

It’s Saturday afternoon. We are standing outside the auction house, my sister and I. We’ve just bought two paintings under the hammer!

It was actually great fun, more so than I anticipated. I expected to be nerve wracked. Should I bid now? Should I go higher? Do I really want this picture? All that fell away in the crowded room. Even the phone bids, unseen competitors across the land, did not faze me.

I felt a perfect calm, perfect control, as if Grandfather wanted this to happen, wanted this picture back in the family

My sister Anna was bidding after me on another painting and was perfectly cool. In any case, she’s done this before


Inside, it’s still going on. It’ll take hours to work through the hundreds of paintings, the few sculptures, some books, on offer today.

The audience rests the catalogue on their knees. The serious ones note the price each object goes for on the page, as the hammer falls.

“On my left in the room, $5000 … on the phone, $5500.. …against you in the room, Sir…$5500.”

Each sale takes just a minute or two. Still, it seemed so slow as the auctioneer worked his way towards lots 104 and 105, the two pictures which especially interested us.

I’d set my limit beforehand and would stick to it no matter what. As 104 was projected on the large screen, I let other bidders do the climbing, and then came in at the last second. “Going…. going….. gone!”

I raised the pink slip with my bidder ID code on it, “Sold to RUBM.” and it was done.


Not only was it my first painting bought at auction, but the first painting by my grandfather I’ve ever bought.


If you’ve had a look a the first post, you’ll know quite a lot about the idea of Family Art Stories. You’ll know we are interested in images but above all in stories associated with art.

We think that it’s through the story that many more people may come to art. People who’d never buy a painting in their wildest dreams are suddenly intrigued when they hear the story.

Our family is not typical. We always had art around, starting with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, our grandfather, our Nonno as we called him. (Italian for Grandfather) He dragged us into art and story.

Professionally, Nonno was a great teacher (this was in the early in the 20th century) adored by all his students. Electric was his classroom according to surviving students. He was an important painter too, bringing impressionism to Australia, according to LLoyd Rees, one of his students.

But for me, as a kid, he was above all a story teller.


When I was about ten and he almost almost eighty, he told me stories of the duels he’d fought, always for art, he said.

He fought Royal Academy stuffed shirts, idiots who wouldn’t hang the paintings of his pupils.

Perhaps he embellished. Maybe he just threatened to use his foil and his opponents backed down, for he was an expert fencer. But I’ll never forget the day when he fished around in his pocket and brought out something which looked like a piece dried apple.

“No, not apple,” he assured me, “es ‘uman ear, boy.” Sliced off apparently, with one slash of his deadly rapier.

That he could be fiery, you can see from this newspaper cartoon which I’ve recent found (also very short, apparently)


A reader, Eric Shackle, has just identified the artist of this sketch as George Finey, a friend and cartoonist at the Daily Telegraph in the late 1930’s . We shall find out more, hopefully

That Rubbo had a twinkle in his eye, and didn’t take himself too seriously, you might guess from this portrait by fellow Italian, Girolamo Nerli, done in 1899.

I’ve just discovered that there’s a book on Nerlie written by Prof Michael Dunn, a New Zelander, for Nerli went to NZ and taught there after his time in Australia. I’m hoping to find out more about my Grandfather’s relationship with Girolamo Nerli.


Nonno told me many stories where he was the butt of the joke. Tales of snobs who cheated him, and about how he himself sometimes “came a Gutsa.”

He loved, for instance, painting old men worn down by life. He’d invite them up to his studio and they’d pose for a cup of tea or a glass of vino. But not being professional models, it was hard to stop them moving around, changing the pose.


One old derelict was superb, didn’t move a muscle during the whole sitting. Nonno was delighted till he went to rouse the man and and realized he was dead.

Never mind that! He had a good likeness and, since it was all downstairs to the street, it was not hard to drag the corpse below and leave him on the footpath, propped against a lamp post, which Grandfather assured me he did.

This might have given him the idea for the dummy PC. Driven mad by ruffians carousing in his street at night, he dressed an artist’s dummy in a Policeman’s uniform, and lounged him in the shadowy doorway to the studio. It worked.

Such is reported in a book long out of print called, Tales of Rowe Street, itself a inner city Sydney street now gone too.

I’ve many time wondered what happened to that painting of the dead Wino, whether one could tell that life had fled. Perhaps some Sydney collector has just found the answer to a nagging question.


How I wish I could have an hour, just an hour with Nonno to ask him all the questions that swirl around him.

This unusual grandfather, Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, arrived in Australia in 1897, fresh from the Art Academy in Naples. His ship was the Roma.


(Photo, State Library of NSW)

The weather was exceptionally hot that day I’ve discovered from newspapers. Horses were keeling over in the streets, their flanks crusted with dried white foam. New laid bitumen glued itself to shoes. The heat probably did not faze Rubbo, being used to the cauldron of Naples.

As you’ll recall from the first post, there’s some mystery as to how he got to Australia. Rubbo told everyone that he’d planned the trip himself, either because he was attracted by the beautiful Australian women he’d seen in Naples port, or because, and this was the alternative story, he’d actually been on his way to South Africa, but his send off was so boozy, he’d boarded the wrong ship

Others hinted that he was running away from a promise to marry some girl in his village of Pontelandolfo .


He’s a dapper looking man, our Nonno. Yet the ship’s manifest lists him as an agricultural laborer. Why?

None of these stories explain how, on the very night of his arrival, we find him staying with the influential Mort family. Indeed he’s immediately installed as tutor to their daughter, Eirene Mort even though it seems that he spoke no English. How as this possible?

In any case, Canon Mort’s mansion in the Eastern Suburbs, was a good place to be on your first night in a new land.

If Rubbo had looked up from the ship’s deck as he berthed, he would have seen Mort and Co. etched on one of the tallest buildings on the Quay, such was this family’s wealth and power. Were they expecting him, or was chance playing a part?


Perhaps the truth is that the Mort family was on the dock to meet an art teacher they’d recruited by letter. They’d done so before, brought in teachers from Europe for their children.

Recruiting a graduate from the prestigious Naples Academy of Art, and paying his way, would make sense, as would the cheap fare and the agricultural laborer designation.

I’ve looked hard for other explanations for Nonno’s soft landing . Had our dashing Grandfather met Eirene Mort on the boat, I wondered? They’d had a shipboard romance perhaps, and now he was being taken to to meet the folks.

But then, I found out that Eirene Mort was still a school girl in 1897, at St Catherine’s. Here she is with her friends, certainly not at sea or romantically involved.


That’s she, turning demurely away from the camera, second row, fourth from the left.


George A. Taylor in his book, Those were the Days, published in 1918, described Rubbo, “as a jovial Italian who had popped into Sydney unheralded. But his… merry personality quickly pulled him into Bohemian affections. ”

Very soon he’s a member of the Supper Club and of Brother Brushes of Bondi, a Bohemian club which included the famous Lindsay brothers, Norman and Lionel.

By the 1910’s, Rubbo’s so well settled that he can play both rebel and establishment figure at the same time.

On the establishment side, he goes back to Italy in 1906 (his only return) to study art teaching from an Australian perspective.

Returning with great fanfare, he delivers his much awaited report, stressing the need to teach drawing, and also establish the Applied Arts. “What we need in Australia , he said, is a good school of applied arts.”

He proposes a a sort of Tech. which ” would produce bread-winning artisans, the most useful artists, the art which is needed for Australian progress. We shall no longer have the over crowded ranks of artists producing thousands of unsaleable canvasses annually.”

As well as this he’s teaching in half a dozen of Sydney’s best schools. He’s the new the art master, known to all as Signor.

He may have taught at Eirene’s school. I know for sure he was teaching at St Joseph’s and Scots.


As a teacher, both in his schools classes and those for adults that he runs at Rowe st, he’s jovial but strict.

Drawing is everything for Signor. Students must learn to draw impeccably, first from plaster casts and then from live models.

They draw in charcoal. He paces the classroom a feather duster over his shoulder. Bad drawings are erased with a flick of the duster and the rueful student is forced to start again. “Better ta feed da chooks, darn da socks,” he says.

When drawing is mastered, then and only then, a student can go on to oils . In 1913, Nora Simpson, one of Signor’s students brought back color reproductions of the Impressionists, probably the first to be seen in Australia .

Both Rubbo and his students were excited and immediately began experimenting with the high keyed color and the broken touches of the brush.

The later famous Lloyd Rees, also a student, claimed that Rubbo and Roland Wakelin painted the first Impressionist landscapes in Australia .

A favorite student of Signor’s was Evelyn Chapman. Did he play favorites? The saving grace was that Rubbo had many favorites, each with a nickname.

One was Gunner, Margaret Coen, thus called because one day she would go, “boom, boom!” he predicts, exploding with artistic talent. Another, Grace Cossington Smith was Mrs. van Gogh on account of her bold brush and high color.

For some reason Evelyn Chapman was dubbed, Trio. Here’s Evelyn, a risque nude behind her. Parents were assured that the classes were segregated.


You may recall from the first post that I visited Pamela Thalben Ball, looking for information on my Grandfather.

She’s Evelyn’s daughter, also a painter.

I’ve told how how a post card fell on the floor in front of us as Pamela pulled out a box from a dusty cupboard, a card she professed never to have seen before. It was from Rubbo to her mother. There on the floor was an image I’d never seen, Nonno as a young father with Wife, Mildred and the newborn, my dad, Sydney

They were very up to date in the 1900s. One was able to take a family photo and turn it into a postcard, apparently, as he’s done here.


While Pamela had no memory of the card, with it came a small painting, also a gift to Evelyn. It was a bush scene painted pleine aire, just like Impressionists, the Australian bush that Rubbo had already come to love.


On the back of the picture, he’d penned a note to Evelyn.


I can just make it out. “To my dearest TRIO Chapman. With my heart beating and my brushes blending, sending this to you. Antony”

It sounds way too intimate, doesn’t it?

Nonno was very popular with his female students. Before his marriage many set their caps on him, as the saying went. Mildred, a nurse turned artist, is said to have pursued him relentlessly and energetically.

I don’t think my grandfather was unfaithful to Mildred, He adored her and the boys too much to endanger them.


He painted those boys many times. There’ s such love in his touch.



Yet stories did circulate about other lives he may have led, affairs he might have had with admiring female students.

I wonder if anyone alive today knows?

On this painting excursion one wonders what Rubbo’s hand is doing on Janna Bruce’s bottom, if that indeed is where it is


Rubbo’s expression tells us little.


Janna either doesn’t mind, or hasn’t noticed


Betty Morgan looks to be au fait with whatever’s happening


Nonno may be just the victim of the camera’s angle.

I’ve got another photo of another outing. In this case too it’s a trio out together, again my grandfather and two women.

Does this give some clue as to the meaning of Evelyn Chapman’s nickname which, as you’ll recall, was Trio?


Undoubtedly there was something irresistable about Rubbo. He had a charisma worked on all who met him.

Men felt it too and were intensely loyal rather than jealous. Indeed, two men today, perhaps the sole survivors of his student body, speak of him still glowingly , their memories and admiration not dimmed by years.

They are Tom Bass and Tony la Spina. I plan to interview them.

When it came to art, Signor was serious and a fighter. In 1919, two of his students put on a controversial exhibtion of paintings at the Gayfield Show galleries , exploring sound and color, and were attacked in the press. Rubbo jumped to their defense


Here are the paintings that were on display. The leaders of the rebellion were Roland Wakelyn and Roy De Maistre, two of Signor’s top students.


The opening was packed with everyone who cared about art in Sydney, ready to watch the fireworks they knew the swirling abstract works would inspire.


Lloyd Rees reports that Julian Ashton, the head of the rival Art school, was fuming from his wheelchair. Rees heard him say that he’d come from his sickbed “to deal with these fellows.” (The Ashton school continues to this day.)

This is LLoyd as he was at the time, I think.


The artists made a speech, trying to explain their approach . There were jeers and interjections.

Sydney Ure Smith who’d opened the show, called on Rubbo to say something in their defense. According to Rees who dubbed it one of the most exciting nights of his life, Rubbo went down on one knee to passionately declare that the two painters were as brave as Anzacs, that they were the storm troopers of art.

It was an electric moment. It was also as far as Signor was prepared to go in rebellion

When, a few days later, the rebels asked Rubbo to lead them further, he famously said; “My little boy, ‘e has to eat.”

By the 1920’s, the Dattilo-Rubbo family had two boys, a nice house in Mosman.

Here’s the house, 45 Prince Albert st. looking from the studio which was on the back fence.


I managed to to photograph the studio before it was pulled down. That was sometime in the 1980’s. Here’s the path up to the place which was a fibro structure, hard against the back fence.


The left door led to the garage where the Vauxhall lived, and the right to where Nonno painted.


I’d come that day with Arthur Murch, another of Rubbo’s students. He’d brought with him a bust of Rubbo that he’d done years before. Our idea was to give the Signor a last look at his studio before it was pulled down.


How Nonno felt about place where he’d done so many of his portraits, there was no word.


I’d been feeling guilty about my grandfather. People like Arthur were saying, “you’re a film maker, you should do something on your Nonno. He was a great man, you know.”

Arthur could have added that he’d done his part to tell the story of Rubbo, he’d done the bust, but he was too tactful.


“There’s something of him in you, ” he added, and made me stand beside the bust to make his point.


But still I was deaf to this and did nothing about my Grandfather, nothing till now.

Does one have some obligation, do you think, to tell the world what one’s ancestors have done, how they made the world better or worse?

In that Mosman studio Nonno would have painted his passion, portraits. These, on the whole, I did not much like, though some were fresh and appealing, it’s true.


Many were thematically sentimental, not my taste at all.


But what right did I have to pass sentence on the inhabitant of that now so sad studio?


And so I did nothing, waiting for something to change. And change it did when two painting came up for auction

While, from what I could see on line, they were not masterpieces, I realized it was Grandfather’s work outside, his oil sketches which I loved.

Maybe he valued them less, I suspect as much, but they are what I really like.

If was able to buy them, or one at least with Anna’s help, this might unlock something, and so it did.

As well as the fine house and studio out the back, the family had, by the 20’s a sturdy car which allowed Rubbo to roam NSW on painting trips, practicing his muted impressionism in sun and rain.

Son, Mark is going along too, it seems.


Does Mark, unlike my Dad, who had cut all ties with art and bohemianism, take an interest in his father’s art?

Indeed, Syd, the elder son, has gone so far as to drop Dattilo from his surname. His father is terribly hurt by this.

The painting I bought on Saturday is titled, Near Picton.

I’d like to imagine that my Grandfather has stopped on the side of the road to Picton, and that he’s dashing off the very same oil that I’ve just bought .


No proof of that but I may find out. Someone who reads this may know.


I myself am going to explore the main road to Picton and see if, after, 70 years…


….any curve in the road looks remotely like this. After all, what’s a painting without a story?

Or is there something else here? Is this the look of a man who’s sad?


In the late thirties, his beloved younger son, Mark , the one beside the car and ,just 15, died suddenly of Menengitis.


It was over so quickly. Many years later a woman who’d been a neighbour told me of hearing horrible screams from the house on Prince Albert st., screams which then suddenly stopped.

Mark was the apple of everyone’s eye. He went from rude good health to death in just a day or so. Was he the one to carry on the art in Nonno’s eyes?

My Dad, by then enrolled in chemistry, playing tennis, body surfing, wanted nothing to do with anything remotely artistic or Italian.

Mildred followed Mark not so many years later.

Rubbo came home find the kitchen full of gas, an open oven turned on and his wife on the floor. The death certificate does not mention suicide.

If this was not enough to break an old man, then it might have been his internment. Signor Rubbo was interned briefly during the Second World War, interned by the country which he loved and to which he’d given so much.

During the thirties, Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini had made Rubbo a Count, a Caviliere, and this became a key reason for putting the old artist in a concentration camp for enemy aliens.

Luckily for Nonno his surviving son, Sydney D. Rubbo the rebel, had become a rising medical star, doing vital work on drugs to treat the war wounded.


I found a letter in my Grandfather’s war file when I searched the relevant Ministry. It said curtly, “Let the old man go. The son is is useful to us.”

And was life all so bad, really? On first arriving, Nonno played the Guitar and sang opera. When I knew him, all the bad things had happened and yet there was still that twinkle in his eye and that bit of dried apple in his pocket

A Sydney street photographer has popped up in their path as they did in those days . It’s 1943, Nonno and Mildred both look fine to me.


Eirene Mort , whose family took in Rubbo on his first night in Australia, who gave him his great start , she paid him back by doing lovely work.


Clearly, she’d learned to draw.


Eirene Mort lived to be almost 100.

Sadly, my interest in my grandfather kicked off the year after she died. She too would have been able to solve many mysteries. Perhaps surviving Morts, have some answers.

How did we hear about the auction? David Hulme and partner, Brigitte Banziga who are doing research on Norman LLoyd, spotted the Dattilo-Rubbos in the catalogue and phoned me.

Thanks to them, we were there.



We’d not been able to see the paintings clearly before the auction. They were very much tucked away.

Having seen mine projected, bid for and won, I wrote a check.

I then picked the painting up and began to walk out, not seeing the worried looks.

“Hey, you can’t walk out like that,” the door man boomed, thinking I was stealing a Dattilo-Rubbo.

I showed my receipt and, after some delay since all available staff were working the phones, we were allowed to leave with our prizes.

Anna got her small bush study out more easily. But, in the confusion, we did not notice that her painting has no signature, or ID of any sort.


It’s nice a enough work, but she’s going back to Davidson’s the auctioneers, on Monday to ask them to prove it’s a Dattilo-Rubbo or….


….Well, we don’t know quite what we’ll do yet.

As I mentioned, Anna had bought before at auction. Years ago, she’d picked up this head done by Rubbo, another old man, his favorite theme.


The painting’s disappeared, she says. If anyone has seen it, please let us know.

Don’t worry, Nonno, we’ll get it back




February 27, 2008

This masthead is a picture my mother painted in the early 1950’s. It was done at Boat Barbour (Now called Bateau Bay) just north of Sydney, where we went for those fantastic holiday holidays just after the war.

Mum has painted her sister, Joan, leading little Anna by the hand (she’s my sister) as they approach the gate to the beach.

Here’s Mum’s picture full size.



Ellen Rubbo. Bateau bay.

Here’s My Uncle, Francis Sutton, also at Boat Harbour round about the same time. Francis has the painting now. He was married to Joan. She left it to him when she died. I’m glad he has it.


1. Art in our lives.

2. A theory about how and why.

3. Stories from van Gogh.

5. Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, the teacher and bohemian.

6. Kiffie Rubbo, the curator

7. Francis Ellis, devoted protege

8 James Wigley

9. John Percival

10 Danila Vassilief.

11. Ellen Rubbo.

12. Francis Sutton.

13. Norman Lloyd.

14. Katerina Korolkevich Rubbo

15. Mike Rubbo

4.This is an experiment. I’ve teamed up with the Manly Art Gallery to encourage people, you perhaps, to create an art blog or an art scrapbook, a record of the art in your life.

We call it, Family Art Stories, FAS for short. There’s a reason why I feel this is a very good thing to do. But more of that later.

First, to see how a FAS blog actually feels, I’m trying it myself, here.

Mum’s painting and Boat Harbour itself are good places to start.

Our best family holidays were there. If we were lucky, we youngsters were allowed to ride the flying fox down the cliff to the camp, a cozy cluster of huts, huddled against the sea like a kid crouching behind a dune.

The camp was right on the beach with just a sheltering fence and a great shade tree in between it and the bay.

June Gordon was at least ten years older than me when this photo was taken.


Still, I think I had romantic thoughts about her. Some distant bell of memory, rings.


And why not, so sweet she is. Ah, old fashioned girls in old fashioned cozzies!

I do remember clearly going through that gate, dashing down the burning sand, and plunging into the warm turquoise water.


I remember the small fat man always sitting just outside the gate.

That was Percy Usher, round and brown as a berry, happy under the shade tree, dreaming the days away beside a tub shaped dingy, ready to rescue us if necessary.

Percy had come around Cape Horn on the Windjammers. He’d fallen from the mast one trip, they said, and got a great cut on his head. Sometimes he’d show us the scar.

Beyond the shade, in the sun’s glare, another Uncle, Pink, stands forever youthful.


His real name was Frank Gray, Pink being a nickname from childhood. He was was a great surgeon, Frank.

He died recently in his nineties. Ah, how fast life passes. How quickly things and people become ever so long ago.

Evelyn, his widow, is very kind. She’ll contribute greatly to the blog because she’s giving me three paintings by my mother that she has. That’ll be a thrill.

Pink was Mum’s brother.


We all know the power of photos to work like this, to tug at the heart through memory. But what about paintings?

Sadly, many Australians don’t go for paintings, not enthusiastically. They spend lot’s of money on cars , clothes, houses, and yet rarely anything on pictures. “What’s the point?” they’ve said to me.

When I was working for ABC TV as an executive producer, we made a documentary series on dysfunctional families. As I watched the rushes on these people, the screaming out-of-control kids, the desperate parents, I noticed that there was no art on the walls of those houses. Bare walls!

There was nothing to rest the eye, like here. Nothing to let you out of the tension.


Mike Rubbo. Sprinklers and rape seed in Finland.

I asked social workers if this was typical of such families. It was, they said. Did they think art on the walls of such families would make any difference, have a calming effect? They had no idea. No one had ever done a study of that, they said.

Recently, I began asking my older friends if they remembered what was on their walls as children.

I was astonished to find that many friends had the most vivid memories of some picture or other. A calming landscape, or something religious and scary, a portrait with a strange look perhaps, all were remembered. The paintings were not necessarily talked about, thought about, they said. They were just there always there, and being there, were somehow comforting.

Of course objects too can work the same way. Francis Sutton, that dear uncle of mine, had a little figure perched on his mantlepiece. Made of suede, it had come from London long ago, Baker st. he says. The little flute player is lost now but not forgotten.



My theory is that art in a home does make a difference besides being decorative and showing you have taste. It provides a quiet continuity and something else very often, lingering mystery. That’s why it’s remembered .

Paintings may be the same size as a TV screen, But they never change. A painting has no plot, no commercial breaks, and yet there is a story, clearly a story or one you make up.


Mike Rubbo. My Grandfather’s village, southern Italy., Pontelandolfo

I go further and suggest that, as today’s kids get bombarded with more and more audio visual material , ever quicker images, it’s possible that paintings which never move, never change, might be even more important than they once were.

Film makers in the cutting room hold shots for far less time on the screen than they did before. I know I’m one of them.A second or two tells the story these days.

Maybe it’s good, by contrast, to have an image which won’t change in 50 or 100 years, as a sort of balance.

I left this picture in Morin Heights, Quebec, where we used to cross country ski. It first hung in the general store, Beauty’s, and is now in the library, I’m told. It can be there forever, recalling we who once lived there.

Mike Rubbo. Beauty’s general store. Morin heights, Quebec.

But how to persuade people to test the power of slow images when they’re in the fast lane, and hanging paintings is just not something they do?

The story aspect helps. We are all addicted to stories, are we not? If I stress the fact that story is a large part of art, this may be a way into art for some people who other wise don’t get it..

The painter’s story. The picture’s story. Where’s that village? Where does the road go? I know. I painted this scene. I could tell you


Mike Rubbo. Spring, Laurentians.

I’ve always been drawn to the story aspect of art. Maybe that’s because I’m part painter, part film maker.

I once made a film for kids about van Gogh called, Vincent and Me. It was created with the help of my Producer and Friend, Rock Demers, head of La Fete in Montreal.

Rock had the vision to see that you could make films for young people which did not stick to the usual plots. His series was called Tales for All.

While I put many of Vincent’s most wonderful paintings up on the screen in that movie, I went to some trouble to tell his story too. I knew his touching story added to his art and the fascination he arouses.

Here’s the actor playing Vincent with one of the most famous van Gogh paintings, the blue cart .


Copies like this blue cart which I needed for the film, ( the was no chance to use the originals of course) were painted in a dingy Montreal basement over many months, long before production began.

Here I am in Dorothy’s basement, working on Vincent’s fishing boats. It’s 3 am.


I was in a rush. I had to fill the room in the Yellow House where van Gogh lived his summer in Arles.


My copying, a perfectly legal thing to do, (Vincent himself copied copiously) became a story in itself when the film was released


I found it was also a good story to tell the kids, those who auditioned for the main parts. I told how them how I’d copied the paintings all alone, late at night, and how spooky that was.

I told them I’d had the feeling that Vincent was at my shoulder and that if he didn’t want me to make the film, he’d make sure the copies were bad.

I wonder if I ever told this to Rock? He may not have been amused by my superstition , especially since he had several million dollars riding on Vincent and Me.

You know what? I believed this myself, at least partly. Here’s one of the copies.


Green Corn, after Vincent van Gogh. Mike Rubbo

If you click here, you can see a clip from this film

In a way, I don’t help my case by telling this story because it gives the impression that what we propose, This Family Art Stories idea, is mostly for people who make art, as I do.

Not true at all. We are hoping, the Manly Art gallery and I, that this will appeal to people who may have little art in their lives right now, and for whom collecting pictures or sculptures would represent a very new path.

Tell people the story and often you show them the way to the painting or the articfact, reinforcing their reaction to the image. Get them digging out stories and you give them art which has a special meaning for them

When I do a picture, usually painted pleine aire, I write all the details about the day and place on the back.

If I’m painting it for somebody, I photograph the new owners with their picture, like this couple.

I just liked their classic fibro beach cottage which is near where I live. I painted it and gave them the painting. You can see they were quite surprised. I’m sure the story’s still told.


The fibro on Avoca drive. Mike rubbo

We originally conceived Family Art Stories, FAS for short, as based on a coffee table scrap book which everyone in the family would help create.


Inside this handsome book blank paged book would go photos of paintings now owned, notes on the artists one has been able to find, stories of how and where the pictures was given or bought.

The couple, above, if they had such a book would have included my photo of course and maybe some notes about why I like fibro beach houses, and how sad I am that they’re all being pulled down.

This scrap book would be very much about provenance, a very important concept in the art world, meaning where something comes from in every sense of the word.

Now, I’m thinking that, since it’s so easy to start a blog such as this, (they say you can do it in five minutes, and it’s free) that maybe FAS blogs are probably an exciting alternative to the coffee table book.

If that’s so and the idea takes off , each art blog could be called:www. family art stories/ name of family.com

This would mean that this blog collection could become a searchable archive of art and family life, one which might grow to be a true testing of the theory that art adds a lot to families.

If you like challenges, take some photos, grab some memorabilia, and put it all together on a wordpress blog like this one.

WordPress boasts blogging is easy peazy, and you should be blogging half an hour after you’ve googled the name, wordpress. If you do take the challenge, let me know how it goes.

Back to my experiment with this FAS blog.

There is so much to tell about what was on our own walls in Melbourne when growing up.

My Mum was shy about her work and never paintings her works on our walls that I remember, though there may have been these framed photos of her as doing modern experimental dance.

Is that really my Mum on her knees?


This one I didn’t doubt.

Ellen Rubbo in the middle.


There was another artist in the family as well as Mum and he got hung. This was my Grandfather, Antonio Dattilo Rubbo .

Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo was a colorful Italian, later made a Caviliere, which is a sort of Count. Rubbo emigrated from Southern Italy, the Naples region, in the 1890’s to set himself up as a teacher and painter in Sydney.

He became quite famous not so much as a painter, though he painted a great deal, especially portraits, but as a teacher. Many of our Australian greats, painters like Grace Cossington Smith, Roland Wakelyn, Roy DeMaistre , Donald Friend, and Lloyd Rees, all were his pupils.

Here’s Grandfather’s self portrait. It does double duty for this page because it’s also a painting which hung on our walls when I was young, and is one of my earliest memories of art that meant something to me.


Self portrait. Antonio Dattlilo Rubbo.

Even as a kid I picked up on the free, sketchy, quality of this portrait, thinking that was bold of him.

Unlike my brother, Mark, I liked it better than another portrait of Nonno’s (That’s Italian for Grandfather) we owned, an accomplished head of a pensive woman which was a somehow a bit stiff for me.

Here’s the young woman my eyes passed over in favor of Nonno’s self portrait. Yet when I see her now, I realize that some of my deep down ideas about people keeping their own counsel, about being private, may come from this painting. It had more impact than I imagined!


Unknown woman. Antonio Dattilo Rubbo


Mark Rubbo, the bookseller. He thinks my memory is faulty.

He’s sure that our Sister, Kiffie Rubbo, found this painting of the pensive woman long after I’d left home.

Kiffie died tragically young but not before she’d become a major force in the Australian art world. Daring, playful, and profound, she excited everyone.


Her story will be told in another post.


I used to look at Nonno’s self portrait often, thinking about him emigrating out here when there were no foreigners in Australia to speak of. It seemed very brave of him. He sang opera and fought duels too.

I liked also the explanation he gave me of how he chose Australia. He told me that a ship load of beautiful women, strapping Amazons, had stopped in Naples on it’s way from Australia to Europe. He and his friends had never seen such creatures before, such assurance, such glowing good health, and they decided then and there that Australia was calling them.

Another version has him running from a marriage promise. I think maybe he was actually imported by a rich family as a tutor. He did end up with the Mort family (very wealthy folks) as tutor to their daughter, Eirene Mort, on his very first night ashore. How was that possible if not arranged ahead of time, especially since he spoke no English?

Soon, Rubbo seems to have captured Sydney. He has an apartment downtown at a time no one actually lived in the city. He’s on all the important committees. He’s advising the Government on art education, and is even writing letters to the paper on city trams, newfangled transportation which he finds too drab, and which he advises be daubed in the colors of the Mediterranean.

He ‘s constantly in the press too, photos as well as comment. This is a treasure, a scrap of newspaper, falling apart , which came to me some how.

It shows Nonno in his studio.

He loved painting his two boys. My Father, Syd who became a famous scientist and the younger, Mark, who died of Menengitis at 15. This tragedy devastated Nonno and came to kill his wife, Mildred.

I think Syd is probably the robust scout and Mark the wistful figure in the foreground of the second painting.


The Scout, Antonio Dattilo Rubbo


Antonio Dattilo Rubbo. Title unknown.

Three years ago, I was visiting the Northern Beaches artist, Pamela Thalben Ball. I knew her mother had been a student of my Grandfather’s. I hoped for some stories.

Pamela feared she had nothing much to give me, and was worried I’d come so far on a wild goose chase. For, apart from a small dark Rubbo canvas, she had nothing to show or tell.

But then, as she opened a cupboard, out fell a postcard dated, 1911. She claimed she’d never seen it before, and had no idea why it was in the drawer.

It was addressed to her mother, the prize student and was from her teacher, Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, showing off his wife, Mildred, and new son, my father.


In 2007, Pamela had a show at the Manly Art gallery. I was asked to open it. I told this story of the postcard and, without having thought it through before , launched into some remarks about the power of the stories in art , stories like this postcard apparition.

My audience was intrigued. That night the Family Art Stories idea was born.

Nonno died when I was twelve. I never saw him paint that I can remember

These two landscapes of his are another mystery. I don’t remember them from childhood. Indeed, I don’t know where they are, or even where I photographed them . A mystery to be solved by the blog.

If they had been on our walls, I would have wondered where they were painted. What’s that pile in the foreground of the first picture ? Wood chips? And yet there are no trees in sight. And the second, is that Sydney harbor behind the shack?

As a kid, I would not have known what I now know, that Dattilo Rubbo was probably the first to bring color prints of van Gogh to Australia, that he praised Vincent to his students and called Grace Cossington Smith, Mrs. van Gogh.

I see now a connection between this painting and some of van Gogh’s works from Arles, those painted late in that memorable summer spent with Gaugin


Antonio Dattilo Rubbo. Title unknown

The touch is different to be sure, But one can see how van Gogh (below) was freeing up my Nonno’s hand


Detail of painting by Vincent van Gogh

This picture (below) too, I know nothing about, and have no idea where this painting of his might be now.

Antonio Dattilo Rubbo. Title unknown.

Nonno painted his devoted protege, Frances Ellis. He’s painted her to look curious, a bit wary.

Will she take eventually over of his famous art school on Pitt st. or not? Was that the question?
Francis Ellis by Antonio Dattilo Rubbo

She painted him at peace, free to dream. Her portrait was exhibited at the Mostre D’Outtremare, Naples 1942.

This must have pleased them both, especially Nonno since it was in Naples that he’d studied art, 60 years before.

Francis Ellis. portrait of Antonio Dattilo Rubbo


Francis Ellis and Antonio Dattilo Rubbo

What happened to Francis Ellis, his loyal companion of late years and the keeper of the School? We know she went back to her native New Zealand when Nonno died in 1955.

She herself was gone in 1971, In the years between did she paint?

In the early nineties, a Sydney gallery held a show of recently discovered Dattilo Rubbo paintings. Nice as they were, they were not his according my sister Dr. Anna Rubbo, much to the fury of the gallery owner. Those who knew his work tended to agree.




My Sister the Architect, Anna Rubbo

Nonno loved to paint outside, pleine aire, as did van Gogh. He did so till quite old.

There is a figure of a man in the foreground of Roland Wakelyn’s famous painting, Down to Berry’s Bay. The man sits on the slope, painting, a folding easel in front of him. I’m convinced it’s our Nonno.


My grandfather helped found the Manly Art gallery which, as I mentioned, is behind this Family Art Stories initiative.

He lived in Manly in the early part of the 20th century and here painted the Corso, as it’s called, the curving parth which leads round to where the Gallery now stands.


The Corso, Manly. Antonio Dattilo Rubbo

There’s something I need to do for Nonno.

In Pontelandolfo, the small town he came from inland from Naples, lived Elda Rubbo, a distant relative. Nonno was in touch with her in the 40’s and sent her some paintings as well as many letters..

Elda died last year, 2007, and now I need to bring his pictures home. One is Sydney harbour, it might be a picnic. It’s been on Elda’s a wall in Italy for 60 years.


Antonio Dattilo Rubbo. Sydney scene.

The other is the portrait of an unknown man. Maybe we’ll find out who he is if we get him home.


Antonio Dattilo Rubbo. Title unknown

This retrieval may help me with some guilt I fell about Nonno. I’ve been a documentary film maker for 40 years. I could have made a film about him while his illustrious students were still alive and and were ready to speak so fondly of him.

I thought of it . I came close but put it off. Now, I think it’s too late. They’ve almost all gone, all except two I know of, Tony La Spina and the Sculptor, Tom Bass.

My second twinge comes from the fact it was not Nonno’s paintings which most fascinated me as a child. It was the two pictures which follow.

The first I know little about except that it was painted by James Wigley. The family art story blog will try to find out more. My brother, Mark, has sent me the website of James son, Julian. I’m going to find out more.


James Wigley. Title unknown

I loved the strangeness of this image. When very young, I was fascinated by the distortion of the massive legs on this seated man. Were they swollen? Had something bitten him? Later, I took on the idea that if I was to paint myself, strict realism was not everything, that these curved banana-like legs were superb.

This picture still haunts me and has always done so. Who was was he? What was his relationship with the Aborigines who drape themselves around the truck?

As I got older, I discovered a certain white arrogance in the image, the way the black people look to the painter questioningly, while the man on the truck feels no need to do so.

This 1948 Percival we had was my favorite image. For a time, John Percival, living not far from us at Eltham, liked to do Breughal -like paintings. Here he puts exotic Nuns with white head dresses in a Fitzroy street. I was fascinated.


John Percival. Nuns in Fitzroy ?

Our suburban lives seemed so tame. How often I thought of of going down into that street and dancing wildy too. More often I rode that suburban train out of the scene, catching just a glimpse of something weird going on below that I’d always miss. .

Why had the truck overturned, I also wondered? Was it because of the loose cow?


John Percival. Nuns in Fitzroy (detail)

As a family, we decided, sadly, to sell this picture. Agreeing, I none the less felt we could not bear to live without some record of this, our most special image. Do my brother and sister, Anna and Mark feel the same way? I don’t know.

I decided to make a copy as I’d done with van Gogh, being careful leave out Percival’s signature and to build in small differences as well.

Here I am hard at work at my brother Mark’s former house, keeping some Percival in the family. Mark does not paint. He’s Readings, the famous Melbourne bookseller.


And here’s my copy. No great, but not bad either.


Mike Rubbo. After John Percival’s Nuns in Fitzroy.

As I said, the original street with Nuns was painted in 1948. I was ten at the time and so this picture can’t be a memory from early childhood, but the Percival is the painting I remember best, and on which I dreamed the most.

I met John Percival, years before I did the copy . He was about 15 years older than me. He still looked like a naughty boy


John Percival self portrait 1947

Above all, I loved his boats at Wiliamstown.


John Percival. Yellow painted ship 1967.

There were painting everywhere in my childhood and there were encounters with artists who were friends of my parents. The most fascinating of these for a small boy was Danila Vassilief.

He was a white Russian who had fled the Bolshevik takeover of his country, come to Australia via the Carribean and, at the time we knew him, was building himself a stone house at Warrandyte, 30 miles from Melbourne.


It was rough hewn place built with rock blasted from the hillside, blending in like an animal lair.


It went up and up, level on level as Danila felt the urge.


He was iresistable to women with his strong face and his gentle voice.


When not painting sculpting or blasting, I think he was making love, though as a small boy I did not know what that was.

I listened to Saturday night radio dramas while they played noisily


I was there for the weekend sometimes, me Danila and his girl friends.. He was teaching me, that was the idea.

I remember he’d pick me up Friday nights from a bus at the Warrandyte shops and drive at breakneck speed through the night on the bush tracks to the house , headlights slicing the dark, dazzled rabbits hopping aside.

The car was a Citroen, a French police model. Like everything else with Danila it was strange , exciting…


But too posh for the house. It had a gearshift which Danila furiously pushed and pulled out of the dashboard, like he was punching the car. Sometimes I was allowed to work it. The house was pitch dark as we came up to it.


As we swung into Stonygrad’s home track, it later came to be called that when he married the communist, Betty, I’d glimpse something else any boy would find irresistable.


He had an old tram which sat on the land as a place to camp while he built his house of stone. It was not like this exactly, much more dilapidated, cupped in growth, but this gives the idea.

Stonygrad went up and up, floor by floor. I got the idea that he’d fill a floor with paintings, then, out of space, he would go up one more to get them out of sight, since none sold.The

The second floor then would fill and up he’ d go again. By the time I knew him, he was mostly into sculpture and was working on the roof, an undulating cement slab, stacked with stone and grinders.

Here, he sculpted his favorite stone, Lilydale marble, carving its curves with those screaming grinders. He made strange shapes like beautiful deformities, so soft to stroke, you’d never guess how hard they’d been worked


Danila Vassilief Yankee Caesar 1951

Meanwhile I, a timid kid, made a dog’s head as realistically and undeformed as I could.


Mike Rubbo Dog’s head. 1948

I’m not surprised to find myself in a small group class, looking very neat and proper.


And alone. Me at the back.


Truth be told, I was a bit worried about Danila. I might have come to him because my parents put me in an experimental school on the opposite hill, Koonong. Classes were held outside on logs and I had to bathe naked with girls, which I hated.

I was both repelled and fascinated by his art. If it did hang on our walls at home, I’ve shut it out of my mind.


Danila Vassilief. Woman driving posh car. 1955,

They were as strong and wild as he was,


Danila Vassilief. Alec and Joan 1944

I guess this is the fatal flaw in my thesis about calming art. And yet, I would say that I came to like Danila’s work through his story in the sense that the man was so genuine, so sincere, so kind to a conformist child like me, that his story led me.

And I do remember the painting of his we had on our walls and when we sold it, a bit strapped for cash, I copied that one too. I hope you don’t mind, Danila.


Most of the above photos come from Felicity St. John Moore’s great book, Vassilief and his art.

30 year later when both Danila and Betty who inherited the house were dead, I went back to Stonygrad.

From the outside, the tin roof covering the whole pile was remarkable.


The big windows seemed new. The sunflowers were gone, the lowest floor had light.


I can be sure of the date because my son, Nicolas, was there and looks to be about 3. He’s now 33.


I talked my way inside and took photos that showed that the amazing building skill of this man, he did it alone, lived on.


The furniture was much more up market .




Down that grotto stair had been the under regions, full of dusty paintings and sculptures. Only the palest of light penetrated there, for the lower windows, all odd shaped glass , were completely covered with rampant sunflowers which around crowded outside.


Below this bookcase was my corner where I listened to the radio plays.


It’s changed hardly at all I see from this old photo.

I did some painting as a teenager, but without much conviction.


Mike Rubbo. Student leader 1957

I wanted to be wild and free but it did not feel right.


Mike Rubbo. Opolet. 1958

Like this Indonesian Opolet driver, I was looking over my shoulder.

When I did come to do some solid painting much later in life, it was towards Percival that I turned, and also back towards van Gogh.

I love the energy in Vincent’s paintings, swirling energy , almost as if he was able to see force fields around things and turn them into paint. He’s far less wild than Danila. it’s a controlled wildness with Vincent.

This is the path to the beach at Avoca where we live. Paths, with their promise of going somewhere, always fascinate me in paintings


Mike Rubbo. The path to the Beach. Avoca.

The bench, here, was erected in memory of someone who loved to sit on that spot. I have the name written down


Mike Rubbo. The path To the Beach, Avoca, (detail)

This boat, painted in a boat graveyard in Finland, came at the end of a very creative Finnish love affair.


Mike Rubbo. Old Boat Helsinki

There was an air of decay about the place, also mystery, and a certain sadness for most of these boats would not sail again

I stayed in the boat graveyard a week, my boats looking sadder and sadder.


Mike Rubbo. sad Boat, Helsinki (detail)

The painting below shows a garage sale on an Avoca street. There’s a story to tell about this image too. I’d heard the owners were going to cut down a lot of the wild garden in front of their cottage. I rushed this painting through and then left a luscious color copy at their doorstep with a note.

“Congratulations, your beautiful garden has won first prize in our regional garden prize giving.” said the note. There was no such competition or prize . But the garden is still there, 4 years later.

Did you know that Monet reputedly saved a line of poplar trees by painting them. I was thinking of that at the time


Mike Rubbo. Garage sale. Avoca. It was a hot day for a garage sale.


Mike Rubbo. Garage Sale Avoca (detail)

I used to hang portraits of the locals in the Butcher’s shop.


Mike Rubbo Avoca Butchers. 2000

They were not for sale. Just to get people talking to each other. I expected there’d be a clamor to be painted and hung. There wasn’t.


Mike Rubbo Aoca Butchers 2000

Maybe they weren’t flattering enough

In the thirties, my Mum went to London as a commercial artist and stayed in a rather bohemian rooming house in Swiss Cottage. 16 Avenue rd. was run by Norman and Edith LLoyd, both expat. Australians.

Norman Lloyd was/is an Australian artist who’s now arousing interest. Little is known about him and yet he left many excellent paintings when he died in London in 1985. Those who search have yet to even find a photograph of Norman Lloyd, prolific painter.

My Uncle Francis stayed in Lloyd house too, reporting that the boarders all ate round a huge table, that there was a butler in uniform and that the conversation, with war looming, was hot.

My blog is developing detective powers of it’s own. Unbidden, Francis finds a small water color he’d done from his window of the Lloyd house , looking out onto the winter garden. The paper’s falling apart. There are tears and holes, but it’s superb!


Mum had a room in the front of the house. She’d painted it yellow after van Gogh and had a wind up gramaphone for parties. My father moved in and they fell in love.

Charming Syd was a Rubbo but not a Dattilo Rubbo. He’d dropped the Dattilo prefix perhaps to show he was not a man of art like Nonno, but of science.


Norman’ s paintings hung all over the house, even up and down the stairs. He sold them off the walls, according to Francis. Will we ever find a photo of the man?


Norman Lloyd Title unknown.

Many of Mum’s works are lost or dispersed. This market scene is typical of her quick, sketchy work. I’ve no idea where it is.

Ellen has not had her due. You can see a certain swing to her figures which came from her fashion work and never left her art.


Ellen Rubbo. Fijian market

Mum died in 1976. Here, she’s in happy times before the 2nd WW war, throwing snowballs at my Dad, Syd. I think they’re on Hampstead Heath. I may be in her belly.


No there is another artist in the family, the Russian interpreter/teacher who, taking every sort of risk, chose me for a husband and created another Ellen for a daughter.


She is Katerina Korolkevich Rubbo and she joins us in painting too, on silk, clay and paper


Katerina Korokevich Rubbo. The beach, silk


Katerina Korolkevich Rubbo. Gevillia, silk


Katerina Korolkevich Rubbo. Luboc designs, for a childrens book of ryhmes, paper


Katerina Korolkencich Rubbo, another for the book of Rhymes in Russian and English


Us together, Ellen doing her own thing elsewhere as usual.


Katerina Kolokevich Rubbo Serving plate.

The more usual me. Life through a camera.