Skip to content
  • 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission
  • Shop

Janet Holmes à Court and Dr Margo Neale, National Museum of Australia, 23 August 2008

MARGO NEALE: It is my great pleasure to be here today in conversation with Janet Holmes à Court and to have all of you people sitting there in the dark, because we are going to try to have a conversation and ignore you. But we do know you are there so we won’t go into any really rude stories. It will be a fairly free-flow style interaction today. We will have an opportunity at the end for you also to participate if you have a few things to comment on or ask questions. So there is a role for you other than me pretending you are not there.

Janet was born in Perth around about the same time as me actually. I know many of you will know all of this but so we are on the same page for one part at least. She is an Australian businesswoman and is the owner of one of Australia’s largest private companies, Heytesbury. She turned around the fortunes of the struggling group that she began to manage after the death of her husband Robert Holmes à Court. She attended the University of Western Australia majoring in organic chemistry.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Something completely different.

MARGO NEALE: She was the only woman in the course - that is the first of many firsts, I suspect. After graduation she worked for a time as a science teacher before marrying Robert Holmes à Court in 1966 and she had four children. So you can do it all. As her children matured and gradually left home, she developed interests in a whole range of things on a whole lot of boards, including medical, research, the arts and a number of other charitable organisations which she has done with great energy and alacrity since.

After her husband died she had probably one of the most enormous challenges of her life, taking over such an active, proactive company after Robert Holmes à Court, who was a different individual with a different style of doing business. Janet obviously had a very large decision to make. She made the decision to keep it alive and make it work. She put her own particular skills and personality into that and changed the direction of the company, which then survived on a very different course. As we all know the company is very active in a whole range of areas, which I am sure will come out during the course of the conversation. Emily [Kame Kngwarreye] is very grateful that Janet is so active in a whole range of areas, and so are we. I clearly don’t know half of those other areas but the parts that interact with me that I hear about, I am extremely impressed.

Janet has also been an active participant in various social issues as an advocate of the Australian Republican Movement at the 1998 Constitutional Convention and as the chairperson of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, which I know she is very passionate about. I had the good fortune of being one of the participants at the 2020 Summit, along with a couple of other mates. I know that Janet was concerned enough to ring and ask if there was an appropriate opportunity to bring up this important and valuable thing that was happening so that children’s television actually gets the support it needs, which was a very pragmatic suggestion on how to do so. Fortunately, we did have an opportunity to say that - where it goes? Who knows. She is the chairperson of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and also served on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia. So you can see the pretty widespread range of activities. At the end of the day if you are just being who you are and believing what you believe in, it is in some ways irrelevant what the actual content of the board is. It is bringing new visions, integrity and skills to it.

Janet told me not to read too much of this, but I never listen. Appropriately so, Janet has had a few gongs on the way. The Order of Australia in 1995 and promoted to the Companion of the Order in 2007. She is also an honorary fellow of the Australian Institute of Building, a professional institute that is incorporated by Royal Charter. I couldn’t even begin to tell you about her interests in the building and construction side of things - you too can go to Wikipedia.

Amongst these business interests are Heytesbury Beef, a large cattle breeding and export company; Vasse Felix, which I know about because Janet was in Japan with Vasse Felix, a major winery in Western Australia’s Margaret River area - these things I do relate to; and the Heytesbury thoroughbreds. I relate to that because that is where the collection is stored out on that particular property called Heytesbury - and what a collection! So welcome Janet.

I have my own little stories about when, where and how I met Janet, but you have probably had enough of my voice for a few minutes. Given we are talking about Emily here, did you meet Emily, how and in what circumstances?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I did meet Emily only once or twice. And unlike a lot of people who met Emily once or twice, I am not going to say that I knew Emily. You don’t get to know someone when you meet them once. But you shake hands and have a cuddle and shed a few tears, because you are pretty emotional when you meet someone like that who in a way has been a part of my life for several years. I met her when she came to Perth at the time of the unveiling, if you like, of the works which I call the scholarship works. I don’t know whether you want me to talk about the scholarship now?

MARGO NEALE: Let’s put this into context. That’s a really good point: let’s go back to how the Holmes à Courts got involved with the art from Utopia, which of course then included Emily. What was the first involvement?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: The first involvement was via Anne Brody with Rodney Gooch and Christopher Hodges. I guess amongst the first purchases were the collection of Utopia silks, the 88 silks that were produced at the time of the Bicentenary [celebrations]. They were such a wonderful body of works that I felt they needed to be kept together, so we purchased those. Since that time they have had an amazing life: they have been a couple of times to America; they have been to Paris to the Australian Embassy; and last year in November I took them to Shanghai, China, for a few weeks in a wonderful gallery in Shanghai that was in a deconsecrated Daoist temple.

MARGO NEALE: Floating silks.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: You can imagine these floating and for me very religious works in a Chinese temple, they looked quite spectacular and they were very well received there. It was through buying those silks that we started a connection with the Utopia people who I believe were so lucky to have Rodney [Gooch] looking after them, nurturing them.

Then later after we had bought those, Rodney gave the women canvas and paint and taught them how to apply the paint to the canvas. They did their first series of paintings. I also felt it was important to keep them together. In amongst the batiks there were the batiks by Emily, one of which is here, and in the first paintings which they did was Emily’s picture. I thought of that yesterday when Christopher [Hodges] was talking about how Rodney was sifting through a whole lot of batiks that came in and suddenly one just stood out, and of course that was Emily’s. That is the first painting that people find in this exhibition, which is the first painting Emily did. It is totally different from any other painting that has ever been done on the planet.

MARGO NEALE: Including her own later.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: That’s right. So they were kept together. I guess what I am leading up to is when I first met Emily. I became very aware of the fact that, unlike my non-Indigenous artist friends who would often say, as they still do now, ‘I am working for an exhibition next November’ or ‘I’ve got to have ten paintings ready for March 2011’, so they have the luxury of putting together a body of work, checking it, discarding it, working on it, modifying it, tossing it in the bin if they don’t like it. At that time, and I think it’s probably still the same, people like Emily were not able to have that luxury. They were painting a picture, it’s gone, painting another one, it’s gone. I felt it was really important that Emily should have the opportunity of painting for maybe a year not having to sell everything, and then at the end of a year having the luxury that a non-Indigenous artist has of looking at ‘where have I been and what have I done in that time?’

We weren’t specifically thinking of Emily at that time when we decided that we would give two scholarships to the people of Utopia to paint for a year. Rodney was going to collect their works, then we would exhibit them and we could see what had happened to them in that time. We chose two young men. However, one of them decided that he liked football better than painting so he went off to be an Australian Rules football player and the other one decided he didn’t want to do it anyway. So the logical thing to do was to say to Emily, ‘We’ll give you some money. We don’t want anything in return for it. We’ll give you the money so you don’t have to sell everything you produce. Work for a year. Rodney will look after them, and then we’ll have a look at them’. The other artist we chose was Louie Pwerle. It’s a very interesting story because everyone knows how many paintings Emily must have done in a year, and somehow Rodney managed to rescue about 25. There were 25 works of Emily’s and about 15 of Louie Pwerle’s - all the others had gone the way of the previous paintings. The scholarship paintings were packed up in CAAMA and brought to Perth, and Emily came to Perth to see those works.

MARGO NEALE: This is 1989.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Yes. My life revolves around not ‘BC’ and ‘AC’ but ‘BR’ - before Robert and after Robert. So I know this must have been 1989 because he was still alive. Emily came to Perth for the unveiling of these pictures. When she arrived we hadn’t unpacked them yet but we had started getting phone calls from people saying, ‘We want to buy those works. I want one of those works’. Emily was totally puzzled, ‘How can people say they want to buy my works, they haven’t seen them’. There was a crisis, which you probably remember, because Emily said, ‘I’m not going to paint any more’. There were not the words she used but these were the meanings of the words she was saying - I am not going to paint any more. This is lunacy. People have not seen these works but they want to buy them. It took a while for her to be convinced, but that was when I met her.

The exhibition was at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art [PICA], and somewhere in their archives is a most marvellous photograph of Robert Holmes à Court and Emily meeting on the steps - this patrician, elegant man in his grey pinstripe suit or whatever and this wonderful woman whose face we see there so much meeting – and you can see the eye contact and the respect. Emily was aware that we had been collecting her paintings and we were like Christopher – that is, we bought them because we loved them, we related to them. We weren’t going to buy them and flog them off to someone else for a huge profit. She understood that. So the eye contact between these two was really beautiful.

MARGO NEALE: Was she dressed in that colourful stuff?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Yes, she was. I mainly remember the shoes.

MARGO NEALE: There is always something she is wearing that you remember, which is why I asked the question.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: She was wearing sneakers.

MARGO NEALE: Hot pink or sequins perhaps?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Something like that, yes.

MARGO NEALE: For those who have not seen images of Emily, she just loved colours. When she did get any money after what was left when she passed it around, she would always buy brightly-coloured hats or T-shirts. And skirts were to be worn not just around the waist but around the head or anywhere. There is a photo - I am trying to remember whether it is published in those books or not - when she is signing to receive the Keating fellowship. It is in the new catalogue with the black painting on the cover that is very new, only a day old.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: You told us it was sold out the day before, Margo.

MARGO NEALE: We are getting some more copies. In that photo she had the skirt around her head. It is like what you are saying, this disjuncture between how you should be and how you shouldn’t be and how you are. At other times she wears a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt, a big celebrity star. To collect the Keating fellowship, not when she was signing it in the camp, she wore a cyan blue hat with pink sequins and a range of other colours everywhere else. Her personality is very much her personality. She started painting at Christmas over 1988 and 1989, so you guys were fairly early on with meeting her as a painter on canvas?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Yes, that’s right.

MARGO NEALE: After that workshop of 25 works, you just intimated there about how people were wanting to buy her work within a year of her painting. This interest in her work straight away obviously was the beginning of the money industry, if you like, that unfortunately grew up around it.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I think that whole commodification of Aboriginal art is something that I’m deeply offended about. I know we live in a materialistic society where everyone is thinking about money all the time. I have to tell you two stories because I find them so amazing. I arrived in Canberra on Thursday and when I was checking in at the hotel, I noticed a man standing beside me. Before I had even had time to leave the check-in counter and go to my room and put my bags down, this fellow had shown me his card and said – it was almost like we are in Paris; here is the dirty postcard - ‘I’ve got a 30-foot Emily on the wall in my gallery you might like to buy’. Then I believe that last night there was a huge sale of Emily paintings in Canberra. I just find that appalling, frankly.

I’ve come to Canberra and I think probably everyone in this room has come to this gallery [at the National Museum] in Canberra to pay homage to this amazing woman - this twentieth-century phenomenon, if you like - sitting out there in the dirt out in the centre of Australia under the sun and the sky and a piece of corrugated iron producing work that takes us beyond anything any of us have ever seen before quite frankly - or for me it does. And at the same time people are around the corner flogging her art - it’s very sad. I have to say that I think Emily would be sad about that.

This story about Emily saying, ‘I’m not going to paint if these people want to buy my paintings because they are my paintings without seeing them’, is something that I find extremely sad. And also when I was walking around this gallery the first night, I heard people talking about the prices, ‘So and so paid a million dollars for this. So and so paid that’. ‘He paid $5000 and he just got a million for it’. You think okay, $995,000 is the difference there. Has any Indigenous person benefited from this? Is any Indigenous child going to be educated because of that? It is not good.

MARGO NEALE: Yes, it would be very interesting to know what she thought. Obviously she had thoughts about that from the beginning when she said what she said to you about people wanting to buy her work without even seeing them. That in itself is quite offensive, isn’t it? ‘The only value I see in your work is what commercial value it will have for me’, and that has proliferated and continued. At the same time that must not take away from the celebration of her work, and it doesn’t. In fact, it just makes it more offensive. So it is one of those great ironies.

In my line of business where I have been involved for a very long time there are not too many things I haven’t seen or heard related to all of this. One has to keep above it and keep one’s eyes on what I am here to do, which is to collect and show the best of Emily. Clearly I have to deal in some of those worlds but I have to keep sight on what it is I am doing and why I am doing it, and that is it is about Emily, it’s about Emily, it’s about Emily.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: To me it’s a bit like going to the Sistine Chapel and setting up a hamburger stall because you know there are going to be lots of people going there so you think ‘we’ll flog something off here’. I have to rise above that too, Margo, but it hurts me from Emily’s point of view.

MARGO NEALE: I deal with it all the time. You have to find a way of getting out of it otherwise it sort of dirties you if you stay in there.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: This is not about Emily or Utopia but about an Aboriginal woman artist from also Warburton died last week - can I say her name or is that a problem?

MARGO NEALE: In here it seems to be okay.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Her name was Myra Lawson. Warburton is 600 kilometres west of Uluru back into Western Australia, and Myra Lawson was one of the well-known artists amongst the Warburton women. She worked out that if a painting had her signature on the bottom she could get a little bit more money than the other people, so she started doing something amazing. She started painting canvases about two metres by one metre where she wrote ‘Myra Lawson’ [in big letters] and then she filled in around the edges – it was absolutely fantastic - and people bought them. I bought one because I thought: this is an Aboriginal woman who is taking the mickey out of us completely.

MARGO NEALE: That is a very interesting point, because Emily is known for not being backward in exploiting the exploiters too. What actually happened is that she gave people, as Christopher said, what they deserved. So rubbish people got rubbish art; good people got good art; and she charged the rubbish people even more for the rubbish art. She had this whole other way of dealing with it very early in the piece so that she wasn’t going to be rolled. Clearly she must have weakened at times and it must be totally crippling, but then she would just go bush and disappear. Or sometimes she was given bolts of canvas and she’d just give it to the dogs or the kids or sink it in the river or something. But at the end she was dealing the cards. That is not to say she wasn’t overworked and there were so many demands on her from her community and from the market - there was a lot of stuff going on - but she saw to that very quickly, exactly as Myra did. You’ll get what you want and you’ll pay for it.

We might move on to the Warburton project. Janet has worked with lots of Indigenous communities and art in various ways, and Warburton is the latest project that she is really excited about. You might like to tell us about that.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I was in Perth in 1993 when we had the most amazing director, the first director of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art [PICA] who was an Irishman called Noel Sheridan. I mentioned Noel yesterday without giving his name, I think. I took him to the shed where a lot of the art is kept. It’s an air-conditioned shed, by the way. I was saying yesterday how Noel, without any baggage about Aboriginal people or Australia’s history of our relationships with Indigenous people, just completely plugged into Indigenous art. In fact, he talked about the Book of Kells which, when you think about it, is really interesting. In 1993 Noel brought almost the entire Warburton community down to Perth, had ten tonnes of red earth spread over the main gallery of PICA and had them camped out the back. He only allowed them to bring four dogs and even that was a bit excessive.

MARGO NEALE: Not four each?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: No, just four. We had men, women and children. He organised, because it was cold at that time of year, for them to go to op shops and get lots of warm clothing. They camped at the back and somehow Noel managed to find kangaroo tails to cook on the fires. I said to him one night, ‘Noel, have you got permission from the city of Perth to do this?’ ‘Oh, Christ no, Janet’, he said, ‘you could never get permission to do this’. It was the most marvellous time.

The Warburton community were there for about two weeks, living, camping in the centre of Perth. I remember images of white non-Indigenous children having their first experience of playing in the dirt with Indigenous people. It was fantastic. Anyway, the people from Warburton were extremely fortunate in that they had not only an art adviser but they had some money. They made a decision that instead of painting, selling, painting, selling they would themselves make up a collection of Warburton work and they kept the bulk of their work. Margo, their room where they keep these works is twice as big as this area and is an Aladdin’s cave. I once went in England to a place where they sell Persian carpets - always on sale at 20 per cent off.

MARGO NEALE: Liquidation sale, closing down.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: They had mountains of Persian carpets and that’s what it is like at Warburton. They have piles of paintings. You just peel them back. Paintings like you have never seen before. This one has the blue in it [shows image]. Warburton women were using blue in a way you had never seen anyone else except Emily using – it is amazing stuff.

MARGO NEALE: What were they going to do with it?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: It’s fascinating. The only thing you can be in Warburton is an artist - I kid you not. They do slump glass work for architects all around the world. They pot. They sculpt. They paint. The young people in their art centre design fabrics and make clothes. The young kids are doing some astonishing photography. They write music. They record it. They sing. They dance. There is nothing else to do except be an artist, as far as I can see – amazing – or you can run the shop.

MARGO: Sell food to the artists.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: That’s right. For a long time they said ‘We won’t sell anything’ but of course financial situations catch up with everybody and now they have had to start selling works and thinking of what they can do to make their art centre more sustainable. A couple of years ago a woman from Perth went up and started teaching them the art of felting - I don’t know how many people here know about felting - and they are doing remarkable work. The work I have in the Holmes à Court gallery in Perth at the moment is the first 11 major works which they have done, plus several other smaller works. They are absolutely amazing. To my great joy when I went to see them earlier this year in Warburton, the painting which I can remember - from seeing it in 1993 when they were in Perth - I can remember these paintings because they are indelibly printed in my head - and I saw this particular painting [which has] been made in felt. Once again I felt that these are the first works these women have done on felt. It is really important that they are kept together. They can no longer afford to keep their works. They have to sell them. So I have bought those 11 works and put them in the Holmes à Court collection and promised the Warburton community that they won’t be separated. They will be together. Then forever they can come back and say, ‘Show us the first works we did because we want to see how we have developed’. I am talking too much. You are supposed to be talking too.

MARGO NEALE: No, I am only here to prompt you. This is an achievement, Janet, keeping me quiet.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: A great thing happened, because like Margo whenever we have exhibitions of Indigenous works in the Holmes à Court gallery we bring the people from the communities down. We had seven women from Warburton come down for a week for the opening and to talk. On Sunday last week the seven of them came into the gallery, and I must say they sat on some of the paintings and I’m thinking ‘Oh!’ but they are their paintings. These are some of the paintings that inspired the felt works, and they are on platforms. They are sitting there on the paintings but they are their paintings so that is okay.

MARGO NEALE: Is Eric [Archer, conservator at the National Museum] here?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: No conservators there. Each woman told the story of her particular picture, except one woman who was very worried because when she had finished she realised she had actually done a man’s story so we weren’t allowed to talk about that. One of the ladies was telling the story of her felt. She got half way through and then she lost track. I was so reminded of myself and my old school mates who, when we start singing a song we then think ‘what’s the next line of that’ and have to go back to the beginning and start again and come right through. I am sure everyone knows what I am talking about. Anyway she got halfway through telling the story and lost track. So she started right at the beginning singing that story and then she was able to tell us. It’s tear-jerking stuff. At that time I had a few people in the gallery who were starting a baroque music festival in Perth and I had said to them ‘There is nothing baroque about these works. They are absolutely real and undecorated’, because as you know baroque music is decorated music. There is nothing decorated about this. When this Warburton lady did that it was so fantastic because you could see this is absolutely real. She had to go back to the beginning to get the gist of it - fantastic.

MARGO NEALE: This is a really important insight. We touched on this at lunchtime in relation to Emily and in relation to this universal thing. When we talk about Emily’s work, this artist’s work and many other artists, especially in Indigenous societies where that kind of connection with the earth is still abundant, there is this idea of always being in touch with the source, always being in touch with the ancestral source of who you are. When we talk about Emily, just to take it into Emily for a minute, all her works are about her ancestral home of Alhalkere. Every single work is the same subject. In fact, that whole exhibition is really just one painting. Then you can break it down to chapters if you like in one book, but it’s one book. So she is doing exactly what Janet was saying. In every work she goes back and connects with Alhalkere. Along that journey she might do the body stripes because that’s what you do on your body to connect your body to Alhalkere. She might do the seeds because Kame, the yam and her middle name, is her major Dreaming story on Alhalkere. So doing the seeds is just about Alhalkere. No matter how different all these paintings are, every time she did exactly what Janet would say, she is going back to the source. Even though we individually do the same in a whole range of different ways - I know I am not supposed to be talking …

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Keep going. You are keeping me quiet, and that is a great achievement.

MARGO NEALE: We are good for each other. One thing it reminds me of is an old Inuit man at a native title hearing. He was going on and on about the story connecting to country, why it’s ours and so on. The young lawyer was saying, ‘Come on, get on with it’. He is going on ‘this stage, this stage. It’s still going on’. This lawyer fellow is getting quite impatient. Everyone is shuffling and getting ready to go home. Nowhere near what they are supposed to be talking about. This fellow is pressing him. Eventually the old Inuit man said, ‘But I am not even born yet’. He hadn’t even got to his part of the story. I keep that little story in my head when I am looking at paintings like this and other Indigenous paintings. If you keep a little story like that in your head, you get it. I will stop talking now.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Just because this painting has popped up now on the screen [shows image] I would like to talk about it - I am conscious I have all sorts of experts around me, so if I am talking rubbish save it up for questions afterwards. It seems to me that there is not the hierarchical structure amongst Indigenous artists that there is in amongst our artists. People think ‘Okay Jackson Pollock comes first there with [Mark] Rothco and then someone else is down there’. There is a hierarchy and people accept that.

The women in Utopia were quite puzzled early on, and it must have been in 1990 or something like that.

MARGO NEALE: About 1992.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: They were quite puzzled about why, when someone popped through the fence to get Emily to paint, they may hand over $20 whereas they would get only received $2 or they might give her $200 and they got $20 or whatever the figures were. I don’t know what the figures were. But they couldn’t understand why Emily got more. At one stage the women were going off to do some sorry business in the river bed or the creek bed or somewhere, and Rodney Gooch said, ‘Okay, here’s a canvas and here’s some paint. All of you go away and paint an Emily.’ So Emily and 24 of her women friends went off, and this was a painting that they had seen Emily do. Rodney said, ‘That’s Emily’s Yam Dreaming. All go away and paint Emily’s Yam Dreaming’. Well they painted 25 pictures, 24 by Emily’s sisters and relations and one by Emily. We brought them to Perth and they were unpacked and hung in a gallery in PICA again. I went in to see them and there were 24 pictures that looked a bit like that, but there was one that’s the closest thing Emily ever did to a [Willem] de Kooning, I think - amazing. Christopher was talking yesterday about how Emily was always off and somewhere else. This is an astonishing thing. I have all of those paintings and they are all over the place. People like them. They are basically that sort of thing in one form or another, the basic structure is there. But Emily’s one, she had already moved on.

MARGO NEALE: Departed.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: That is such a wonderful thing. It is also wonderful when non-Indigenous artists do that. I met Lloyd Reece and we became quite close when he was 90. Lloyd Reece could have stopped developing when people started buying those beautiful pencil sketches and he would have had enough money to live on for the rest of his life. But unlike a lot of artists who find a formula that works, okay let’s churn these out because we will make lots of money. Lloyd Reece, 90, he could hardly see but he was still trying to work out how best he could paint lights and Emily the same. They can’t help themselves, they are so imbued with this spirit of advancement and development and improvement.

MARGO NEALE: That’s really interesting, the school of Emily. Imagine if that happened now, now the industry is so fraught with fakes, copies and look-alikes - did Emily really do it or did she have help? That is so right upfront dealing with the issue of the day as you should. Everyone was involved in doing this and painting like Emily. Emily wasn’t perturbed, was she?


MARGO NEALE: She didn’t give a stuff. It was almost like a legacy: ‘This is what I have done. It is for you mob now. I’m going elsewhere’. I said this morning how her paintings are like ceremonies. Her canvas is actually a ceremonial ground. Once she has finished on that surface it actually has no further value to her. It only becomes of value when it crosses a zone into this other world, which is not her world - the art market or the non-Indigenous world - and then it becomes a possession for a different kind of set of values. But in all general ceremonies, you do it on the sand or wherever and then erase the design and turn your back on it, and the power that was generated during that ceremony is now infused and gone into the source for which it was intended. The same if you see her painting. You might remember the Big Yam one. There is a film in there - I don’t know if you see the end of it - showing how after two days of doing Big Yam she gets up and you can see it in her body language. You don’t have to know anything. She just gets up, turns her back on it and all she wants is her tucker. She couldn’t give a flying whatever about what happens to that painting after that. Curators and all sorts of people trying to do the right thing come and ask, ‘Which way should I hang it? Should I do it here? Is it all right this?’ She just flicks them off. It is almost like ‘I’ve done my job. I’ve done my bit. It’s your responsibility. What are you bugging me for?’ It is so different from the non-Indigenous world. It is very much characterised by that story about all the Emilys. It wouldn’t bother her.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: That is interesting. I can’t remember who has said what over the last two days because I have heard so many people talking about so many intellectual things that I have been fascinated by, but we do bring our Western brains to it. That is very interesting in the light of my thing that we have to let Emily look at where she’s been for a year, and you have just told me she couldn’t give a damn. So the scholarship didn’t matter really -

MARGO NEALE: No but it makes good history.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I did it with the best of intentions.

MARGO NEALE: It did matter but differently. The old Aboriginal saying ‘the same but different’. I can’t tell you how important the combination of Rodney Gooch who you have heard Janet speak of and who was working for CAAMA at the time - which for those who don’t know is an Aboriginal organisation in Alice Springs called the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. It still exists. They have been looking after media and radio and other things for Indigenous people. Rodney Gooch was the right man in the right place in that organisation at the time, and he had a mate called Christopher Hodges. And Christopher Hodges is currently director of Utopia Art Sydney, which was a marketing arm for the Utopia artists when they started. But they may never have started or continued without the support of the Holmes à Court collection or the then Robert Holmes à Court Foundation, is that correct?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: No, I think it was just us buying it.

MARGO NEALE: Fortunately there is another woman called Anne Brody who happened to be the curator of the Holmes à Court collection. She recommended and correct me if I am wrong, that these first canvases – sorry, before that the batik projects - were actually supported by the Holmes à Court collection. So those batiks had somewhere to go. If they have somewhere to go, then there is another lot fills the vacuum and then they had somewhere to go as part of really well-conceived projects. The first 100 canvases that were delivered to Utopia and left for three weeks and then Rodney Gooch came back and picked up 81 of them which were painted on, and one of which was Emily’s, which all went into this collection. Talking to Christopher Hodges, having the Holmes à Court mob take that into their collection, it was a targeted, not targeted for commercial investment purposes, purely support and encouragement. Without that who knows - the hawkers would have come in and changed the course of history or it would never have gone anywhere or everyone was so disillusioned, the batik was not making any kind of economic return - who knows. I don’t think anyone can say if it weren’t for that kind of support at that time with those people in that way, the people like Emily may never have emerged to the point we see today. OK Janet are you still there? There are some lovely blue panels that come up here [shows image]. I would like to ask Janet about those because she had a very special way of hanging these five blue panels. You have seen them pass a few times, haven’t you?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Yes. These panels we bought very early on. They are very early works of Emily’s. They must have been bought before 1990 because of Robert. Originally we had them for a few months in an apartment in Melbourne in Robert’s study. Then we decided that we wanted to live with them. [Shows image] That is my 50th birthday present by the way - my Emily watering can. I know you are amazed that I am 50. But the blue panels, I took them home and we hung them on the ceiling in our house. We had a slightly vaulted ceiling and we hung them in there. They fitted perfectly. You can lie on the couch underneath them and just imagine you were looking into deep space but behind the deep space and so on you can see the Emily’s story.

I believe that painting is an introduction to Indigenous art for a lot of my - my daughter was the only one of my children living at home. She was a student at UWA and her friends fell in love with that painting and I think got to know a bit about Indigenous art through that. When somebody, maybe it was you Margo, borrowed them after a while and they disappeared. I can remember this young university student, probably studying law or economics or something boring, coming in and walking in to the room and saying, ‘Oh my God, the Emilys have gone’. I actually live with those [shows image]. Margo has seen them at home in my sitting room. It takes 10 screws to put them on the wall, two for each panel. When Margo borrowed them we took them down and left the screws there because they are going back.

MARGO NEALE: Oh we can’t go to New York you mean.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Yes if you want them for New York definitely. You can borrow them any time.

MARGO NEALE: That is just a fantasy it’s not a reality. Don’t go reporting it in the papers or anything.


MARGO NEALE: Because I get into trouble. Unless you can influence - talk to us later.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I did say yesterday and I don’t know how many people were here, I have just been to New York with a friend of mine who is an artist. We spent seven days looking at art. We honestly did keep saying to each other there is something missing here and that is Australian Indigenous art. We saw 45 commercial galleries and then all the major ones. One gallery had some Indigenous art in it which I frankly didn’t think was all that brilliant. You do feel there is something missing in a city that has so much - you do think Americans obviously had all the money in the world they bought all the best Impressionists and Post Impressionists’ work and they put them in New York but they haven’t got an Emily.

MARGO NEALE: That is extraordinary. Yet Japan has.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: It’s a real gap in their understanding of art.

MARGO NEALE: It is quite a long conversation, why that might be and why it is in Japan. But Japan is because of one passionate man really in terms of initiating the idea and seeing it through and I heard someone say this morning that the perception is that the Japanese, like a whole lot of people, wanted Emily in Japan. They had never heard of her or Australia or any of that.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: That’s right.

MARGO NEALE: It was really the passion of one man that has driven it and then all of us have helped along the way.

That blue paint story is a good one because I often use that one to people who when they say to me, I can’t possibly buy any art. I really love it. I can afford it but I can’t buy. I have no more walls. Well the obvious answer is if it’s good enough for Janet, it’s good enough for you. Hang it on your ceiling. People put mirrors above their bed, don’t they?

Perhaps we could tell one thing about the collection that would be interesting for people here to know. I went out south to the Heytesbury stud farm, which is 40 minutes or so - 40 minutes if you are driving with Janet - but it’s about an hour when you go with the Ronin film crew. Somebody rang me once and said, ‘Where’s that film crew?’ and I said they are probably driving safely. They are probably just leaving Perth, and Janet had already got there. Anyway, I went out there the last time I did the retrospective. The minute an Emily project comes up, and this is really only the second time, the first place I go, the first contact I make is with the Holmes à Court collection because they are the only ones who have that early period - thank God. They are the only ones who have those early works. Who knows what happened to the others? There may not have been any more actually because she [Emily] developed so fast that the early period occupied about one year. I go out there. .It is the best-run, organised storeroom of art I have ever seen. All these institutions - always overcrowded, too much, too many, can’t be found, almost found - despite everything else there is a whole lot of good reasons for it both ways, I was so amazed. Janet took me last time and the works we needed to see - the card was there, the work was where it should be - it was extraordinary. Well done you and your curator. Could you perhaps tell the people a little bit about what you have in the Indigenous area - in general [as well] but the Indigenous area and Emily.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Right. We started collecting art in 1966 when we were married. We lived in the hills outside Perth in a place called Darlington, which was a bit of an art colony. Robert used to say he was the only person who didn’t wear a smock. There used to be a Darlington show every year. The sort of people who lived there were Bob Juniper, Guy Grey-Smith, Boyce Vain, Brian McKay and so on, so we started off collecting their paintings. Then after a while we started going to auctions and buying Nolans, Fred Williams, Drysdales, Dobells and things like that. Then we employed a curator, Roderick Anderson, whose specialty was early Western Australian art. We collected that as well. There is a very big number - there are about 5000 works in the collection but say around 700 of them are early West Australian works. A lot of which are not great art. I am first to admit that but they are great history. The first painting of Perth water painted two years before West Australia was settled. There is even a Rover Thomas of Perth, he painted a picture of Perth. Rover Thomas himself when he came to Perth once, Mary got him to paint a picture of Perth, the Swan River - amazing. There are maybe 25 views of Perth from Kings Park painted between 1826 and 1945 and by then Perth had been destroyed by the developers so there was no point in painting it any more. So there is a lot of early West Australian work. There are a lot of Australian works, a massive number of works on paper, which are the bane of your existence because they are so hard to look after. But I think the first Indigenous works we bought were the Sandman paintings, the collection. I went to see it in London. This was an exhibition of works from Papunya - amazing things. It must have been 1982 or 1981 that they were shown in London at the Museum of Man. We were in London and I went down and saw these and went back to Robert and said …

MARGO NEALE: … ‘can you increase my pocket money please?’

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Yes, ‘we’ve got to have them’. Again that is a collection of work that must never be broken up. In fact, a few years ago we had a curator, who shall remain nameless, who gave one away as a present to someone who was leaving Heytesbury. She must have asked my permission but didn’t actually say ‘Janet, don’t you remember, this is part of that Sandman group’. We have had to buy him another present. Another one was actually sold by her at auction, and again I am culpable. I must have said ‘yes it’s okay to sell it’. In fact the person who bought that, when I rang him and said ‘look that was a terrible mistake, it’s part of this collection’, he said, ‘Come pick it up. Just give me the money back and keep the frame. There are very nice people out there.

MARGO NEALE: That’s two.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I am sure everybody in this room knows, once you start collecting things, first, you become a compulsive and it’s a sort of a disease. But also other people start approaching you. At one time I suddenly said to Robert, ‘Do you realise we have about 25 paintings in the collection of women?’ Somewhere out in the ether someone heard me say that so every art dealer in the world started sending us paintings of women. In fact we had an exhibition of those paintings of women at SH Irwin gallery. Once people know you are collecting early West Australian art, it all comes out of the woodwork. The West Australian collection of course was much easier to put together because we were there. The ‘80s when everyone did paintings that were about seven metres long and four metres high, we have lots of those. They are quite hard to hang. They are great to lend to people.

But the Indigenous part was the part that really captured us so much. I always, from about 1967 I think, always had it in my head that one day I will have an art gallery. It’s a totally different thing to collect art because you love it in your sitting room, or to collect art because you think one day you are going to have a gallery. I have to say I never have bought anything that I didn’t like. I sometimes am amazed when I see things and I can remember exactly where I bought it and why I bought it. So many of the things in the collection have been bought so that, when I get the gallery I will have enough of them.

I bought a work a while ago by a girl called Joy Lovegrove – an exquisite painting of ice breaking up, the polar ice cap breaking up. She was an artist-in-residence on a ship down there. It is not Indigenous. But the wonderful lines on that work are so related to the lines on some of the Indigenous bark paintings. I think one day I am going to have an exhibition of those works.

Last year we had an exhibition in the gallery of works from women in New Guinea who live below Mount Lamington, which is at the end of the Kokoda Track. They were not on bark like Indigenous bark but bark that’s been made - beaten. The patterns on these, Margo, are exactly the same as patterns on Indigenous paintings. So you have to have a few of those. You have to buy a few of those.

MARGO NEALE: She has a gallery now.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I’ve got the gallery.

MARGO NEALE: That is really cross cultural. That is like the Emily thing, the universal that connects - a visual language that is beyond the text or spoken language - there is a universal visual language: dots, lines, circles, space, colour.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Can I tell them one more story? This is a quick story because it relates to something someone said yesterday. I am spoilt because I have actually got two galleries, one is in east Perth where you have been but the other one is the huge space at the winery, which used to be the old winery. When we built a new winery we converted this into a gallery and performance space. We have the ACO [Australian Chamber Orchestra] down there for three days in December and so on. But the exhibitions we have there are all from the collection. We have just closed an exhibition which I just called The Great Big Picture Show because they were all great big pictures.

MARGO NEALE: And Emily’s wasn’t in it.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: No, because you had it. We did have some Indigenous work mixed in. I am going to have a show that is just called ‘The black and white show’ because I have a lot of art that is just black or white. But at the moment we have in there about 60 pictures from Hermannsburg, one Albert Namatjira and all the others are by his group. When we bought this collection, I looked at it and you think ‘Oh yes, that’s the Namatjira and these are all quite nice’. But revisiting it about ten years later and putting them up, Margo, it’s a story someone has to tell. It is fantastic. Someone yesterday was talking about the influence of Namatjira – well, we all know Namatjira and that’s what we aspire to have. But in there are some wonderful painters from Hermannsburg. We have hung those on three walls of this big space, and on the other wall we have put some of the Hermannsburg paintings that are coming out now, the more traditional ones. It’s very interesting.

MARGO NEALE: Is that exhibition still up? You could invite a couple of people like those who spoke about Namatjira and his interface to do a workshop there in terms of assessing it and picking out all those other threads that haven’t been looked at before. Out of come up with some ways of looking at it. Anyway, that is another thing for another time.

You can see we would have no problem going on all night. That is even without a glass of wine. That is with a lousy glass of water. Imagine if it was wine. You see the word ‘Emily’ is the trigger point.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I have tried to control that and I tried very hard on Thursday night because I thought, this is major. I am so privileged to have been asked to speak here between the hours of 6.57 and 7.01, which was on my itinerary. So I have to do it. I can’t crack up.

MARGO NEALE: Didn’t have time to crack up.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I think for me there is huge stuff going on in my head when I think about Emily. I think about that photograph with the nose hole and the rock. I think about this amazing woman that I had a hug from. I think about my Mum who taught at an Aboriginal kindergarten on the outskirts of Perth in the flight path into the airport called Olive Grove. I think about a couple of hundred years of what amounts in my mind to abuse. I think about the introduction of alcohol and petrol sniffing and the semi-destruction of a culture - it all pours out of me when I see this amazing work.

I can’t participate, although I did in Japan, in the discussions about Modernism and Post-modernism and this, that and the other. I just want people to think, this woman is one of the most amazing artists of the twentieth century. I believe that we should be thinking about her as the ‘School of Emily’ or ‘Australian Indigenous school’. I feel it’s a shame and Margo, because she is an academic and I’m not, has explained that people will always want to write about her. They will always want to put her in boxes. They will always want to classify her. But I want everyone to just think this is a phenomenal person who we happen to have lived in the same time as. How amazing would it be - I am mad about music and I can get the same feeling when I listen to Beethoven, and I think here’s this guy, he’s deaf, he can’t hear and he is writing this stuff. Here’s Emily sitting in the dirt …

MARGO NEALE: Elderly, dogs, kids, flies.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: Dirt, corrugated iron and she’s churning out this stuff. I am sorry, it’s a long story, but there is so much that happens in my head when I look at her work.

MARGO NEALE: I think that’s probably the right note to finish on, otherwise I might talk about that word ‘Modernism’. Thank you, Janet.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: You give me a clap. I’m going to give you a clap, Margo. This has been an astonishing journey for me. I had never been to Japan before as you know. I went to Osaka.

MARGO NEALE: She’s an Emily groupie.

JANET HOLMES à COURT: I then thought I’m going back to Tokyo. You and your team of people from the National Museum - Anita, Eric, Sonja and Carol - have given me a year when we were supposed to not get in aeroplanes, this has been my year of the plane. I have used up lots carbon credits.

MARGO NEALE: And frequent flyer points?

JANET HOLMES à COURT: No, carbon credits. You have given not just me but everybody here and 130,000 people in Japan - and hopefully many more than that in the future - the most astonishing privilege of being part of this and being introduced to this great woman. I give you a clap.

MARGO NEALE: Coming from Janet that’s a high compliment. Emily and I have made a deadly team along the way. Thank you very much everyone for coming.

Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

Return to Top