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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