Gaynor on de Maistre

In this delightful reflection, art historian Andrew Gaynor writes on a work by Roy de Maistre (1894 – 1968). Gaynor speaks from a position of respect and knowledge as de Maistre is the subject of his forthcoming PhD dissertation.

Roy de Maistre, Lord and Lady Ashbourne at Compiègne, c.1924. Oil on board, Castlemaine Art Museum. Purchased 1971. Copyright Estate of Roy de Maistre. Image: Ian HIll 

Gaynor on de Maistre

In a scene of pure relaxation, William Gibson, the Irish-born 2nd Baron Ashbourne, and his French wife Marianne, sit in their lush garden, reading companionably. Their home was in Compiègne, a river-side town with a rich medieval heritage, eighty-five kilometres north of Paris; Lord Ashbourne had already gained a colourful reputation through his persistent kilt-wearing and for delivering his maiden speech in the House of Commons in Gaelic. The Sydney artist Roy de Maistre met them when he journeyed to Europe in 1923 and, as an indication of the strength of their new friendship, the Gibsons gave him a room to use as a studio, the doors of which opened onto a balcony overlooking the house’s ornate entrance gate.

De Maistre (christened Roi de Mestre) was one of the pioneers of modernist art in Australia. With his colleague Roland Wakelin, he showed this country’s first ever non-objective abstractions in 1919, at their exhibition titled Colour in Art. Also included in that exhibition were high-coloured, flat-planed images of Sydney’s harbour and environs, painted according to de Maistre’s theories on the close relationship between music and colour. Unfortunately, the critical response was, like Australian society at the time, predominantly conservative and disparaging of such “foreign” impulses as modernism. As a form of escape, de Maistre worked towards gaining the Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship, which he was duly awarded in early 1923.

He travelled first to London but, unimpressed with the local art scene, promptly crossed the Channel to France. During the course of the next year, he made several trips between Paris, the beach resort St Jean de Luz, and Compiègne. In spite of the town’s medieval charm, de Maistre ignored the local scenery in Compiègne and spent most of his time painting the Gibson family at leisure, either boating on the river or idling in their garden. In technique, Lord and Lady Ashbourne at Compiègne, c.1924, is not as radical as de Maistre’s earlier work but it still displays his skilled grasp of colour and form. For example, the intense citron-green of the middle section draws the eye away from the otherwise anchoring horizontal of Marianne’s reclining form; and to the left, the slightest flash of red for her pillow provides an emphatic visual counterpoint. William’s naked knees peep out from under his kilt, an aspect that only emphasises the intimacy of the scene and the familiar place within it for the artist.

Sadly for the Gibsons, trouble was just over the horizon. In 1926, William’s younger sister Violet attempted to assassinate the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini with a revolver, the bullet grazing his nose in the process. Declared insane, she was incarcerated in an asylum for the rest of her life.

By this time, however, de Maistre was back in Australia, endeavouring to further the progress of modernist art and design in this country. Ultimately frustrated with the lack of support for his efforts, he left Australia for good in 1930 and settled in London. Within months, he met the twenty-year-old Francis Bacon, becoming his close friend and first artist-mentor.

Andrew Gaynor
May 2020

Exhibited: Roy de Maistre Lord and Lady Ashbourne at Compiègne
Roy de Maistre. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska
, Temple Newsam, Leeds, 26 June – 29 August 1943, cat.2 as ‘The Ashbournes at Compiegne, 1925’
Roy de Maistre: A retrospective exhibition of paintings and drawings, 1917 – 1960, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1960, cat.8 (pl.IX, illus.) as ‘The Ashbournes at Compiegne, 1924’
Homage to Roy de Maistre: a memorial Retrospective exhibition, Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 21 April – 7 May 1971, cat.5

Andrew Gaynor

Art historian, writer and researcher Andrew Gaynor’s expertise is Australian modernism 1915–1970. He has held curatorial positions at key institutions including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, the City of Boroondara, and the McClelland Gallery+Sculpture Park. Gaynor has created exhibitions for artists Helen Maudsley, Louise Hearman, Guy Grey-Smith, James Parrett, Robert Jacks and many others. Currently a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University, Canberra, Andrew is researching the relationship between Roy de Maistre and Francis Bacon in London, 1930–1939.

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