Donald Friend – a true Renaissance Man?


The acclaimed Australian artist Donald Friend was also an avid diarist whose intimate recording of his life has led inextricably to a loss of respect for his art since his death. The National Library of Australia commenced publishing the diaries in 2001 and, the unvarnished accounts of his pederastic lifestyle which although evident during his lifetime, has now tainted his oeuvre and particularly his nudes of young Balinese boys which although they certainly could not be considered pornographic are no longer viewed simply as ‘innocent homoeroticism.’

During the 1940s and 50s, Friend’s work was critically acclaimed and was compared favourably to that of his contemporaries William Dobell and Russell Drysdale. In his formative years Friend had embarked on an artistic journey not too dissimilar to his friend Drysdale. Both the products of the private school system, they met up in Albury New South Wales where Friend had been posted in the Australian Defence forces during WWII and where Drysdale had taken employment having been rejected for service due to a detached retina. While there, they independently recorded sketches of Army life and “in March 1945 he (Friend) was commissioned as a lieutenant and appointed a war artist. From May to September he served on Morotai and in Borneo” (ADB) where the watercolour ‘the Play’ featured in our sale was painted. His indistinct signature and the remnants of a “4” & “5” appears in the bottom right-hand corner.

In 1947 Friend and Drysdale had travelled together to the long-forgotten gold-rush town of Sofala and painted similar perspectives of the main street. Drysdale laboured over his painting and was rewarded with the coveted ‘Wynne Prize’ in 1947. It is now one of his most recognised works and is prominently displayed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Friend’s slightly earthier take was gifted to the Gallery’s collection in 1995 by the artist and collector Margaret Olley but is now not considered ‘worthy’ of display even as a comparison piece alongside the lauded Drysdale work.

Friend could have destroyed his self-damming diaries but his wish that they be published after his death was either a case of naivety or a willing self-destruction of his reputation as an artist. It certainly proved a booby-trap for patrons who had invested in his work, as although his art once featured prominently in the collections of all the major Australian Art institutions, his paintings and drawings are now mostly ‘off-display’ in backrooms and warehouses.

The Australian War Memorial holds commissioned works by Friend from his period as a War Artist, and on its website, it diplomatically notes that “in recent years, his relationships with underage children have been questioned, and it is now generally accepted that these relationships were inappropriate, and the actions of a paedophile. The Memorial deplores Friend’s now known paedophile behaviour but acknowledges the value of his works in conveying a unique insight into the Australian experience of war.”

Fame and infamy are a double-edged sword and the merit of an artist’s work should not necessarily be impacted by the side on which he falls. If that were the case, then the more urbane Italians might have to consider throwing a tarpaulin over Michelangelo’s ‘Statue of David’ in light of his well-documented proclivities.

Apparently, the distance of time cures all so perhaps Friend too will experience a Renaissance.

In our January Sale we have on offer a well-executed watercolour by Donald Friend relating to his well-regarded period as a War Artist.


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