“Living in the country encapsulates everything I am, if I am honest.”
ARTIST Jane Canfield has picked up a swag of awards and citations for her work capturing the light, colour and industry of Australian rural heartlands. Now, her inspiring paintings are on exhibition at two galleries in the New England region, and she’s planning to turn her gaze to this unique part of the country.
As Canfield explains, the journey only begins once she experiences a place by visiting.
“I always have to be influenced by something I’ve seen,” she says.
“Although more and more I find I catch a ‘snippet’ of something and it appears like a photo in my head.
“I am finding that I like to semi-abstract what I have seen, painted or drawn, but I hope that you can still see the landscape or the inspiration that influenced the painting.”
Widely recognised as a skillful practitioner of painting enplein air (literally, “outdoors”), NSW Central West-based Canfield is often asked to describe the process.
“Many years ago I remember reading that if you find a comfy spot, you will always find something to paint, and I have found that to be true,” she says.
“Sometimes it takes time, like walking through the landscape for a while with my backpack full of art materials, dogs running around before I start to get the feel for it.
“I often spend time in a an area, not just working but talking to people. I love meeting new people and listening to stories. I think it all informs my work.”
A creative career was inevitable for Canfield, whose father and uncles were also artists.
“Dad always wanted me to be an oil painter,” she says.
“But he was the artist in the family, so I remember at 14 confidently stating I would go into graphic design, much to Dad’s, should I say, ‘disdain’? Although he and Mum supported my choice.
“I always drew and painted, but just never thought it would be a career for me.
“It wasn’t until Dad passed away, far too young, that literally two weeks later I picked up the oils and off I went.
“There was a very strange moment as I sat in my graphic design studio, and had a canvas in front of me propped on a chair, and I thought: ‘Do I dip the brush in the linseed or the turps first?’.
“I heard my Dad’s voice tell me to ‘dip it in the turps Doobs’, which was his pet name for me. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion? Who knows?”
Grabbed by the mundane
“I like urban areas that are not just pretty scenes, nothing slick. I think I turn them into my own.“
Jane Canfield has painted extensively throughout the country, but her new home, an historic inn in the Central West town of Lidsdale, affords her plenty of inspiration.
“It is a coal mining area, so traditionally a little bit industrial; a little bit ratty in parts, but I like that,” she says.
“I like urban areas that are not just pretty scenes, nothing slick. I think I turn them into my own.
“I recently returned from a painting trip to Tasmania and although there are no Tasmanian works here, the work ‘Bright Day’ was definitely influenced from that trip.
“The mundane is what grabs me. Places where we live.”
Canfield recalled receiving a highly commended award at Cowra Regional Gallery for an early work she saw as “just an urban painting”.
“But the judge picked up on what really does concern me: the urban ‘creep’, the lack of planning and how we have stepped backwards as far as architecture is concerned, allowing developers to just push up these horrible ‘cheek-by-jowl’ monstrosities with no concern for airflow, light, gardens, and space!
“But it’s all about the mighty dollar. We used to have innovative architecture. Now to use designers or architects seems to be an elitist thing. We are turning into a ‘cookie cutter’ mentality. It saddens me.”
Canfield’s energetic brushstrokes speak of her battle to preserve this urban/rural divide.
“Living in the country encapsulates everything I am, if I am honest,” she says.
“As a kid, being the only child of an artist, we lived in mainly rural areas. I could entertain myself, go off to the creek, walking, riding my bike or spending time with friends.”
Canfield admits that part of what draws her to the country is affordability, but it’s also about “the little things, that is what I love”.
“I often just go and stare into space. If you saw me you may think I’m just goofing off. But it’s thinking time, listening to the birds, the wind in the trees.
“As I write, sitting in my 1850s sandstone Cobb & Co inn, the sun is setting, the temperature is dropping just a tad. I can hear the ravens and the blowflies. The light is amazing. I feel the history,” she says.
“Really, I don’t know how or why people want to live in the cities.”
“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians.”
LONDON-BASED author Patsy Trench is the first to admit the workings of Australia’s farming history were not a natural subject for her to spend years researching. But her latest book A Country To Be Reckoned Withtells the story of how a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ got to grips with our rural past through the experience of her influential ancestor, George Matcham Pitt.
“As a ‘townie’ living in London, the world of Australian 19th century agriculture was about as far outside my familiar sphere as it’s possible to get,” Trench said.
“I got to know my great-great-grandfather G.M. Pitt while I was writing my first book (The Worst Country in the World) about his grandmother, our pioneer migrant Mary Pitt.
“He was obviously a great character – larger than life, with a passion for rhetoric and a fondness for quoting from Shakespeare and Burns, which I understood was rare among farmers.”
Despite much hesitation, Trench said she started from the knowledge that the stock and station agency her ancestor founded — Pitt, Son & Badgery — was well-known in country circles, even though the company was taken over decades ago.
“In the end I decided to turn my ignorance to advantage: like the ‘New Chums’ who arrived in New South Wales in the 19th century expecting to make their fortune on the land knowing not the first thing about farming.
“I came at the topic as an outsider and I make no bones about it.”
Trench made several trips to rural New South Wales with Australian family members during her research, which she describes as “mystery tours” that led to several revelations about her subject and family.
“I knew ‘GM’ had taken up land in the Gwydir district in the 1840s, but there was also evidence he visited the district ten years earlier, along with his de-facto stepfather William Scott,” she said.
“On our first visit to Moree we could find no trace of him in the 1830s, but further research revealed that Scott and he had acquired a licence for a property on the Gwydir River, which was taken from them after several years in complex circumstances.”
Patsy also discovered a possible connection with an Aboriginal Pitt family.
“There was a Tom Pitt born in 1838, the year my great-great-grandfather arrived at the Gwydir in search of land,” she said.
“There are no signs of Aboriginal Pitts before that time, but there are now hundreds living in the area and I’ve been in touch with them and hope to meet up with them one day. It’s believed they got their name from GM, one way or another.”
Bush character re-examined
A Country To Be Reckoned With is Trench’s second major work on her family’s Australian origins, and brings to life a relatively unknown ‘Bush’ archetype: the auctioneer.
“I could quote a poem I reproduce in the book, which appeared in a Pitt, Son & Badgery anniversary leaflet,” she said.
“They describe the auctioneer as ‘the fellow with his coat off in the pen’: a man of charisma and personality with a remarkable gift of the gab. A master at handling men and getting things going, often asked to MC events such as weddings; with a retentive memory, sharp wit and ‘captivating smile’, manipulative, optimistic and perennially cheerful.
“All that said, having witnessed an actual cattle auction last year in Wagga Wagga, the auctioneer’s job is to get the thing done as quickly and efficiently as possible, so not a lot of time for captivating smiles or clever jokes.”
“When I lived here in my hedonistic youth I thought Australia was paradise and the people the most friendly and welcoming people in the world,” she said.
“Now I know a bit about Australia’s colonial past I see things, and the people, a bit differently. It’s still a stunningly beautiful country with great people in it, but there’s this undercurrent of a dark past that has only really emerged in the past thirty years or so.”
Since her family was responsible for taking land that belonged to Indigenous people, Trench ruminates on whether she is complicit in this confronting history.
“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians and the attitude to their colonial history seems to change every time I come here.”
In the same way that Trench’s first book The Worst Country in the World led to the journey that became A Country To Be Reckoned With, her new book seems to be demanding more storytelling of this writer.
“It’s the Aboriginal connection I would like to get to the bottom of,” she said. “Who was Tom Pitt, born in what was to become the Moree district in 1838? He seems to have hundreds of descendants but nobody seems to know who his parents were, or how he acquired his name. I am hoping to hook up with some Aboriginal Pitts who I’ve been in contact with online. There are some great stories to be told.”
WHEN he returned to Australia in 1971, Peter Allen would have been forgiven for wondering if his career in show business was over. But an unexpected piece of family history became the inspiration this boy from the bush needed to succeed on the world stage.
It had been a very long journey home for the ‘Boy From Oz’. Work offers were getting scarce for Peter Allen by the early 1970s. His mentor Judy Garland, who’d opened doors on both sides of the Atlantic for the young performer, was dead. His wife, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, had asked for a divorce.
Allen had been performing for two decades and was at the age when many former child stars find themselves washed up.
His first self-titled album had bombed and gigs to promote it had been hosted by a Manhattan venue known as The Bitter End, which would have seemed terribly ironic to the man who’d been introduced to enormous audiences in the company of iconic musicians throughout the late 1960s.
According to Allen’s biographer, journalist Stephen Maclean (author of The Boy From Oz) it was an offer to perform in Australia that led Peter to “look his past in the eye”.
Ensconced at his mother Marion’s Bondi unit in that 1971 winter, Allen spent hours writing on the rooftop overlooking the ocean.
“One day, while Marion was out at work,” Maclean wrote, “Peter found himself fossicking about the flat. In the course of this he came upon an aged newspaper clipping from his near-forgotten birthplace of Tenterfield.”
The snippet recorded that Peter’s grandfather George Woolnough, whose High Street saddlery was already renowned, had a library at the University of New England named after him.
Memories came rushing at the 27-year-old performer. Key to his life experience to that point was the shooting suicide of his father and the grief that led to his immediate family’s gradual departure from the Australian bush. The fast-paced city had been Peter’s home since the mid 1960s, but his country roots held the seeds of an idea for this budding songwriter.
Emboldened by his modest start in New York, Peter Allen took this family history up to that Bondi rooftop and penned a new song.
‘Tenterfield Saddler’ was the result, a ballad that has bridged Australian bush poetry and international show-business ever since he recorded it in 1972.
‘Applause rolled on and on’
Mixing lyrical rhymes in a tale about long journeys down a country track replete with kangaroos and cockatoos, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is every inch a bush ballad in the tradition of Banjo Paterson.
It brings to the fore a lesser-known character in the cast of bush legends: the saddler, responsible for the safety and comfort of your ride, but also a storyteller.
Like all the best bush yarns, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ has a dark side. In his grandson’s lyrics, the saddler holds the key to everyday life in a country town, but what the George Woolnough couldn’t give were the reasons his son had died at his own hand.
It is the suicide at the heart of ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ that gives it a place alongside one of Australia’s most enduring ballads ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In that song’s climax, the hero of the story, a swagman, drowns himself to avoid capture for sheep rustling.
When Allen recorded his song for the 1972 album of the same name, it made a small splash in the American music industry. But what this quirky ballad did, according to Stephen Maclean, was get Peter Allen noticed as a songwriter.
After a move to California in the early 1970s, despite having the barest of credentials, Peter Allen kept penning songs. He worked hard at his craft with other emerging writers and allowed his work to be recorded by artists on the brink of bigger singing careers.
In 1974, he eventually landed a hit when Olivia Newton-John released ‘I Honestly Love You’, co-written with Jeff Barry.
When he first performed the song live, long before Newton-John’s international number one single, Peter Allen recalled: “Everything stopped. Even the waiters didn’t move. The air was still and when I finished you could have heard a pin drop. Then they all began to applaud and the applause rolled on and on.”
Peter Allen went on to write with a range of collaborators, including Carol Bayer Sager. The two were part of the team that won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Original Song with ‘Arthur’s Theme’ from the soundtrack of the Dudley Moore film Arthur.
But Allen’s bush ballad ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ eventually took its place in the annals of songwriting. As Peter Allen’s fame saw him tour internationally, it became an audience favourite and graced the Australian charts multiple times. Bette Midler famously requested it every time she saw him perform.
And songs about travelling became a Peter Allen hallmark. By the time of his enduring 1980 ballad ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ the boy from the bush was embraced by a nation.
A quiet country town took its place in popular culture when the song ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ hit the world stage. Now, this northern NSW destination is set to celebrate its Oscar-winning son at an annual festival, starting this September.
According to festival co-directors Josh Moylan and Matt Sing, the idea of celebrating the life and music of Peter Allen and the town of his birth has always been of interest to Tenterfield locals.
“There have previously been a couple of concerts and tributes to the great man, but never a festival dedicated to him,” Mr Moylan said.
“A couple of years ago during a community discussion, there was a push for a regional arts festival in Peter’s name as a gift to the iconic entertainer.”
The new event has taken approximately 18 months of collaboration between the Tenterfield Chamber of Tourism, Industry and Business, the Tenterfield Shire Council and the Tenterfield community, Moylan and Sing said.
The pair also report that support for the event is widespread. “The response and feedback from the locals has been fantastic!” Mr Moylan said.
“We already have a few motels booked out for the weekend, with many other rooms disappearing quickly! There are also many businesses and groups hard at work preparing for how they can add to the celebration.
“This is our inaugural festival, so we want visitors to be blown away by the events, activities and our unique town.”
A Peter Allen tribute concert will headline the event. ‘Tenterfield to Rio’ is written and performed by award-winning entertainer Danny Elliott.
“We are also hosting the ‘Tenterfield Jam Session’, a concert showcasing the amazing talent of Tenterfield musicians, celebrating all-Australian music,” Mr Moylan said.
On Saturday, September 8, the main strip of Tenterfield will be closed and re-named Peter Allen Boulevard for a street party with markets, food stalls, family activities and entertainment. There will also be many satellite events including breakfasts, dinners and tours.
“Visitors in 2018 will be able to join us for what will be the first year of a spectacular regional arts festival.
“They will get a taste of Tenterfield, our arts and music scene,” Mr Moylan said.
Incredible life story
According to the festival co-directors, visitors will also gain insight into the town that impacted the life and music of one of Australia’s greatest performers, and sense what it was like for a young boy with grand ambitions in entertainment to walk the streets of a small country town.
In addition, one of the major aims of the Peter Allen Festival is to platform the work of new talent.
“A young local performer might realise that they too can have ambition to take on the whole world,” Mr Sing said.
Moylan and Sing are keen to underline that Peter Allen’s story encompassed both his major life achievements and his ability to overcome trying circumstances, something that was reflected in his songs.
“What persists throughout Peter’s struggles and successes is that happy, bubbly, energetic and kind demeanour,” Mr Sing said.
“His closest friends and people who knew him or worked with him describe his two traits that never changed: his incredible energy and enthusiasm; and his genuine, kind and loving personality.
“The greatest reason that Peter is known to us, both then and now, is his incredible ability to write great, meaningful and well-loved songs.
“Peter had great skills in encapsulating a story. Each line in his songs had meaning. He would write wonderfully complex and catchy melodies, and would weave the lyrics and melody together to create art.
“He would then deliver it onstage with all his energy and enthusiasm, which would move audiences all over the world,” Mr Sing said.
“To this day his songs remain icons. One of the great examples of this is ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, a song full of meaning that was a gift from Peter to the town where he shared so many childhood memories.”
The Peter Allen Festival is already planning events beyond 2018, with the aim of fostering existing local groups and industries.
“The 2019 festival will build on this year’s event, introducing workshops held all year in craft, music and entertainment, event organising, sound and lighting,” Mr Moylan said.
“A flagship festival is planned for 2020. We aim to bring a major headline act with a connection to Peter Allen to Tenterfield.”