March 7, 2024
Arts & Culture

A lifetime’s friendship, memorised in paint

A new exhibition of previously unseen works details a decades-long friendship between South Australian landscape artist David Dridan and internationally acclaimed performer Barry Humphries.

David Dridan in front of artworks from his private collection, painted by the late Barry Humphries. They are now on display for the first time in the exhibition, By Barry Humphries: From the David Dridan Family Collection, in the foyer of the Festival Theatre.

South Australian artist David Dridan OAM laughs raucously as he tells the story of his dear friend, the late Barry Humphries, painting in the Flinders Ranges dressed only in skimpy orange bathers.

The famed satirist, Barry, was a great lover of painting, and would regularly travel to SA to paint alongside his good friend, David; often in remote parts of the South Australian bush, often scantily clad.

But on this one occasion – decades ago – the friends were in the Flinders Ranges on one of their painting trips, when Barry managed to persuade his fellow artistic travellers to drive their car through rocky scrubland to the bottom of a Flinders Ranges hill to paint the landscape; Barry, dressed in those skimpy bottoms.

As the sun fell lower in the sky, the creative group began packing up their paints only to discover the car’s battery was flat from using the vehicle’s cigarette lighter to make hot water for cups of tea.

Barry, who was already internationally famous for his alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, sent the obliging David back up the hill on foot to summon help.

David, now aged 91, recalls with a grin: “It was getting dark, and this car came up, a four-wheel drive pulled up with a couple inside and I said: ‘I’ve got Barry Humphries stuck down the bottom of the hill’.

“By the time we got their car (with jumper leads) down to the bottom, (Barry) hadn’t done a thing to clean the palettes and he was still in his little orange jockstrap and the woman in the car nearly had a fit.”

There is great affection in his voice as David, a famous landscape artist in his own right, recalls the stories of his 67-year-long friendship with the renowned international performer. That decades-long friendship has also yielded a private – and priceless – collection of 20 paintings that Barry gifted to David, including self-portraits and landscapes.

Barry Humphries’ 1973 painting On the river – near Nildottie, which he painted in oil.

For the first time, these paintings are being shown publicly, in an exhibition at the Adelaide Festival Centre, By Barry Humphries: From the David Dridan Family Collection.

It is David’s tribute to his dear friend, Barry, who died in April last year aged 89.

David has travelled to the foyer of the Adelaide Festival Theatre from his Strathalbyn nursing home to see the exhibition for himself, and despite using a wheelchair for the visit with his family members, David continues to be an energetic raconteur.

The quick-witted artist with his sparkling eyes and distinctive eyebrows, sports a jauntily-placed beret on his head bearing a frog brooch made by another friend, South Australian sculptor Silvio Apponyi.

He enthusiastically tells stories about country trips spent with Silvio, along with Barry and other dear friends, including acclaimed artist John Olsen (who also died in 2023 aged 95 and had spoken openly about his love of these outback trips), Tim Storrier,
Sir Russell Drysdale, Sir Robert Hannaford and Geoff Wilson.

There were painting excursions to Wilpena Pound, the Coorong and River Murray and other breathtaking Australian sites where the artists would stay mainly in shearers’ quarters and would spend their days inspired by their surroundings, painting what they saw.

“About 45 years ago it started, and we went out once a year somewhere in the bush, Barry only came when he wasn’t working,” David says.

They are fond memories for David, who tells of lives lived to their fullest.

South Australian painter David Dridan (third from left) with fellow landscape painter John Olsen, acclaimed performer Barry Humphries and Sarah Dridan on one of their painting trips in the South Australian outback.

His own life features working as a well-recognised artist from the 1960s, as a winemaker and a successful owner of art galleries, including one that operated at the top of Haigh’s chocolates on Beehive Corner in Rundle Mall.

One of David’s earliest works was an abstract piece created by laying sheets of Masonite board on the ground, paint was then applied to the tyres of a friend’s MG car and David skidded the vehicle over the canvas.

“It was a hell of a mess, and I called it Semi-circle and the critics went mad saying it was the best thing South Australia has ever seen and it was a load of bullshit, because it was tongue-in-cheek,” he says with another laugh.

Despite the early artistic charade, David went on to be an inspiration in the art world and to display a celebrated talent for landscape painting.

His work is held in collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia. A portrait of David by artist Brian Dunlop hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, and David says: “King Charles has three of my paintings in Buckingham Palace”.

David was curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia in the 1960s, is a co-founder of the Fleurieu Art Prize, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2007 for his services to the arts, tourism, and the wine industry.

He met Barry in London during the early 1960s when David won a British Council grant to study painting restoration at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He arrived in the city with a letter of introduction from one of Barry’s best mates in Melbourne and the two instantly hit it off.

They would meet at Hyde Park to look at art on Sundays and hold regular drinking sessions at The Bunch of Grapes in Knightsbridge where Barry’s high jinks often led to other punters paying for their drinks.

Barry Humphries’ Self-portrait (2004) in oil.

David tells stories of regular visits from Barry to SA, where the “Humphries room” in the home David shared with wife Sarah, was always ready to host their London-based friend.

Today, as David looks over Barry’s artworks, he shares reflections of the times when they were created. He speaks of Barry as a heavier drinker and smoker in his earlier years; a man who was deeply generous.

David jests about wondering before their regular catch-ups whether “he is going to get me into trouble” thanks to his exuberant sense of humour. But despite the high jinks, Barry always remained a gentleman.

“One thing about him I loved is that he never swore once in his life in more than the 60 years I was associated with him,” David says. “I caught him out once, I went to one of his shows and Les Patterson was there and Les Patterson could be pretty rough with his language.

“He came over and I said: ‘you tell lies Barry, you swore about half-way-through’ and he said: ‘that wasn’t me swearing, that was Les Patterson’.”

David himself declares a preference for Dame Edna over Sir Les, telling of having front row seats reserved at all of Barry’s Adelaide shows – smiling as he quickly updates his statement to “no I didn’t, I got a seat four rows back, because Sir Les could spit”.

The Adelaide Festival Centre’s Festival Theatre Galleries is a fine venue choice for By Barry Humphries given Barry’s historical connection with the institution, including being a former Adelaide Cabaret Festival artistic director.

Barry often described Her Majesty’s Theatre (a part of the Adelaide Festival Centre) as his favourite venue – having first performed in the space as a 19-year-old in The Wind of Heaven during the Australian Universities Drama Festival.

Barry Humphries served as creative director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2015. Photograph Claudio Raschella.

The Festival Centre’s Performing Arts Collection coordinator Helen Trepa says the exhibition details how Barry not only painted himself, but David Dridan, as well as the Adelaide countryside “in his distinct signature style and sense of humour”.

Helen explains: “Not only did Barry Humphries love performing in Adelaide, but he also loved painting here with his friend, fellow artist, mentor, and sitter, South Australian landscape painter David Dridan”.

“It’s like peeking behind the Hollywood curtain of his mind to see the personal side of Barry Humphries, the artist.”

For David, the hubbub around the exhibition is also sparking memories of the distinctive painting style of his friend, whom he last saw during a visit to Adelaide in 2021. He tells of Barry being a capable artist who studied at the Melbourne Art School before moving to London, and of how he painted “quickly, very quickly”. David jokes that painting “would take me a month and it would take him a quarter of an hour”.

David says Barry loved to exaggerate features, rarely cleaned his paint brushes and accidently left a painting sun hat in Adelaide the last time he visited; it is now included in the exhibition.

David gestures towards an artwork of the Coorong Samphire Flats, painted in 2000, and signed by both himself and Barry. He explains this unexpected collaboration came about when David was making breakfast for the group of artists visiting the Coorong, when Barry slipped outside to repaint the sky, despite David having carefully created it the day before.

Acclaimed landscape painter David Dridan photographed with one of the paintings in the By Barry Humphries exhibition at the Adelaide Festival Centre. This painting of the Coorong is of particular interest because it is signed by both David and Barry, as Barry famously changed elements of the artwork’s sky.

“Barry made it better,” David says, in a comment that could just as easily refer to this particular artwork … or life in general. “He always referred to me as his dearest and oldest friend.”

By Barry Humphries is showing in the Festival Theatre Galleries until April 13.

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