Angus Nivison

Walcha artist Angus Nivison knew gallerist, collector and benefactor Chandler ‘Channy’ Coventry AM (1924–99) for most of his life. Angus’s parents socialised with Channy, who had a property, Rockvale Station, just outside of Armidale in northern New South Wales. When Angus decided he wanted to be an artist, they cautiously sought Channy’s advice, requesting he come down to Walcha to see their son’s work and hoping he would say Angus was wasting his time. Channy confounded their expectations and stated he could see a lot of talent. Angus became a highly successful artist, showing with Gallery A and Bloomfield Galleries, before coming full circle and joining Channy at Coventry Gallery, where he stayed until it closed not long after Channy’s death in 1999.

Angus painted Channy’s portrait three times. The second portrait was a finalist in the 1998 Archibald Prize. In February 2020, NERAM Director Rachael Parsons and curator Belinda Hungerford visited the Nivisons’ property, Yalgoolygum, in Walcha to discuss the painting of these portraits over tea and biscotti.

BH: You are best known for your abstract work that responds to the landscape and not for doing portraiture, so how did the first portrait of Channy come about and what was the experience like?
When I started to show with Channy, we were very good friends. He would often come up to Walcha with Bryan. He had a love/hate relationship with NERAM, but he loved to pop in and see it. So when he came back up to New England he would stay at our place. On one of those visits he saw a portrait I did of my Dad and said, ‘you should do one of me.’ I said no, because I just did that one portrait for fun and it’s not what I do. At the time I was non-representational. But he insisted and, very reluctantly, I said okay. Then he got quite excited and it was at the time when Bill Robinson had won the Archibald with him sitting on his horse, and he said, ‘I want you to do me naked on a horse.’ I think he was joking but I was horrified and said no, no, no. It wasn’t the thought of him being naked, it was the thought of him on a horse. Then he agreed that I could paint him in bed. So, I painted him in his own bed, in his own bedroom, and that’s where I did most of the work.

BH: How did he handle that?
He handled it pretty well. The good thing was, there wasn’t any vanity there, he was quite happy for me to tell it how it was. A lot of people want to be flattered and he didn’t particularly. I think the flattering thing for him was if it got in a major show; he would have been excited.

BH: And that portrait, is the background meaningful?
Well, every Friday night Channy would ring me. Caroline would give me a big whiskey and we [Channy and Angus] would talk for hours. We’d talk about the old days. We’d do a bit of time-travelling. We’d just sit and yarn. That’s what the background is all about, it’s at night and full of fond reminiscences and stories. I’m fond of that portrait because the kids used to make little cushions for Channy, and if you look closely at that painting, behind his neck on the bed are Alice and Charlie’s little pillows with drawings on them, just tucked in. There are a lot of private references there and he was buried with those [pillows]; they went to the grave with him.

RP: You knew Channy very well, you were friends. Is that important to you when painting a portrait? That you know the person?
Yeah. That’s why I don’t work from photos. Because honestly, the most important thing about a portrait for me is the conversation. The yarning you do well before you even sit. There are cups of tea, just like this, nice biscotti and tea and conversation. You learn a lot about the values of that person a bit, before you even start, you know a lot already. And then when people sit, it’s a really boring exercise, let’s face it, someone’s invading your space, or I am, that’s the way I work to get the detail of an eye or whatever. In the moment of boredom, you suddenly see the person. They drop their guard, they can’t hold it. That’s the difference between a good portrait and a photograph; it’s all about what you don’t see. That’s what I’m after: the humanity and emotion rather than a likeness.

BH: What about the other portraits?
Well after the first one got in the [Salon de] Refuses and Bill Robinson won the Archibald with his stunned mullet portrait, he said, I want you to do another one and I did. It was a very different painting from the first. It was small and really humble and it was probably slightly less than life-size so it was quite a small painting and that was totally against what was going in the Archibald then. John McDonald reviewed it twice, the first time not too favourably, and then about two weeks later he wrote he made a mistake and that he really liked the painting. The next one I did was quite a long time later, it was when Channy was really ill and he asked me again and I said sure. He died before it was finished. But I think it’s my favourite and it’s never been shown. If you look at that painting you see the strain of Channy sitting up in a chair, it’s that time when you really are getting ready to go. You just see his determination. That’s what made Channy, Channy. He split views because he always said what he thought, especially after the stroke. You lose that filter. He could clear a room if he was in a bad mood.

BH: Why do you think Channy wanted his portrait painted?
He did a little bit of art as a young man, I think. but knew he wouldn’t be good enough, so he drifted towards buying art and showing art. That was an evolution, it didn’t just happen. He got less involved with his property and more involved in the art scene. And I think it was partly a way for him to be an artist, being in the Archibald. So it was definitely filling a need there. A little bit of vanity, maybe the closest he could get to being an artist and being in those big shows. In those days the Archibald was a big occasion, everyone hung around and grumpy artists saying ‘why didn’t I get in?’

RP: [laughing] I think that still happens!
It probably does. I don’t take as much notice these days [laughing].

BH: What aspects or characteristics of Channy have you captured or expressed, do you think?
The first one, he had a turn of phrase which was withering, plus a gaze which was withering. So especially in the very first one, he’s got that look like, ‘don’t mess with me’. He certainly doesn’t look vulnerable, even though he is, because he’s naked in bed. The second one is very vulnerable. I think it shows the future in a way. He knows the future and you can see it in his face and that’s what I wanted to capture. Plus at that stage he had quite long hair and he was vain about his long hair. He just loved it and I did enjoy painting it. So that was what I was after. And the third one, I think it’s just about the end. It’s that simple. And the strength of character. The sheer determination of the man. For him, to come from the conservative family he came from, to go down to Sydney and open a gallery, that’s almost like walking on the moon. It’s incredibly rare. And he did it well.

BH: So, what did Channy think of them and what reactions did other people have?
Well, I think he quite liked the first two. He liked the first one because he was in bed and you could see his nipple. He liked the second one because you could see his hair. But I think he thought they were good paintings.

BH: And the third one, he saw it in progress?
He did see it in progress but he was losing his sight towards the end.

RP: That last portrait’s background is quite significant, the actual portrait part is quite small on the canvas. Do you want to talk a little about how those two elements work together? It’s almost like you have to find the portrait when you first look at it.
It might have been when I did the sketch for it. We were sitting up at the table for dinner and Channy got out of bed for the meal, which was duck, and I think it was the strain of all that, and it was very dark because he didn’t like strong light. There’s definitely a reference to end there, I think, and it’s a very dark painting. Underneath was another landscape, which was also very moody and dark. He was always involved with the land as well as the arts, and I wanted that. It was the combination of the two and everything’s closing in. He was basically, I think at that time, ready to go. The portrait’s trying to give all that. It’s a very sad painting. Well, I don’t know if it’s sad… but I think it’s quite powerful.

BH: All three portraits are very layered.
That’s true, that’s a favourite thing of mine. The background is important. Each of those three portraits are very different. The first one is a bit like a love letter. There’s that reference to Friday night chats and the skin is very tenderly painted, the brushstrokes are very tender on that one. The next one is a little bit more about that vulnerability and about what’s in the person, that spark within, I suppose. And the last one’s probably a goodbye in a way. Well no, it is, it was. So that’s an interesting thing to have those three portraits and you see the difference in the years, the first to the last.

This interview features in the exhibition catalogue for COVENTRY.

31 July – 18 October 2020
New England Regional Art Museum, Armidale NSW



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