Modern Love: the Lives of John & Sunday Reed

Family money insulated Sunday Baillieu and John Reed from the Great Depression, and allowed them to be patrons of artists and writers in the mid-20th century. Establishing the Heide Museum of Modern Art, and their donations to other public collections, made the couple nationally famous. Their engagement with creative people was intensely personal, and their story has glamour, romance, sex, betrayal, power, money, and food. Heide curators Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan have previously co-written books about the garden planted, and the food served, when the Reeds lived on the rural holding that became the museum, but Modern Love has nothing of the “lifestyle” genre about it.

Hazel Rowley’s double biographies, of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, discreetly confronted the issues of sexual predilection and mores, of personal anguish and constancy in the face of extra-marital liaisons, but Rowley’s admirable accounts do not achieve the closeness of Harding and Morgan to their subjects. Using notes and material recorded by earlier Heide scholars, in particular Richard Haese, the cooperation of others who knew the Reeds, and their own extensive research, especially in unpublished manuscripts, Harding and Morgan have produced a remarkable book. Modern Love admirably balances the Reeds’ dramatic personal stories with an account of change in Australian art and literature. It elegantly interweaves the Reeds’ private history with their public activities, such as with The Museum of Modern Art and the Angry Penguins magazine. Everyone interested in Australian culture should buy this book.

With admirable consistency of tone, without sentimentality or judgement, Harding and Morgan tactfully unravel John Reed’s propensity for power in relationships and arts politics, and Sunday’s demands for love and its sexual expression. Extensive painstaking scholarly research lets the reader see the Reeds, their lovers and their literary partners from the point of view of the actors. At times authorial speculation takes the place of scholarship, and this is unnecessary when their approach is so factual. For instance, the authors document John Reed’s proclivity for watching Sunday have sex with her various lovers, and explain it in the context of his enjoyment of birdwatching. The double entendre seems not to have been noticed, yet both it and the theory are distracting. Establishing his voyeurism is enough.

The authors establish their protagonists in the very small bohemia of 1940s Melbourne. They describe a mixture of sophistication, amateurism and enthusiasm that provided a space for intense creative exploration for those the Reeds favoured. The liaison between Sunday and Sidney Nolan, and the Reeds’ adoption of Sweeney, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester’s child, have been publicly examined in other publications: this account sorts fact about these relationships from gossip.
The book describes Sunday’s series of intense sexual encounters with several artists and writers, while distinguishing the romance and disruption of the Nolan affair. Despite the intricate descriptions revealing her need for control, commitment to her class, and her tantrums, the reader understands the tragedy of Sunday’s situation and we admire the seductive atmosphere where creative experimentation was supported. John’s affairs, his management of the turbulent domestic atmosphere, and of artistic and literary enterprises, are also well understood.

The authors’ research provides information and insight about many other figures in Australian art and literature: Tucker, Hester, Sam Atyeo, Michael Keon, Moya Dyring, Cynthia Reed, Jack Bellew, Max Harris, Georges and Mirka Mora, John Perceval, Barrett Reid, Danila Vassilieff, and of course Sweeny Reed. The book conveys the excitement and intellectual vigour of the period and the extensive network of educated people supporting the arts. Even the conservative JS MacDonald and Harold Herbert briefly appear, utterly themselves through John’s eyes.

We are reminded that during the 1940s in Melbourne the almost evangelical quest to infuse Australian art with modern ideas was felt intensely, especially by Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, both the objects of the Reeds’ patronage. There has not been a better account of Nolan’s development of the images of Australian light and space that are his early pictures. The drama of the Ern Malley hoax and its effect on John and Max Harris’s publishing venture, Angry Penguins, is untangled, and the book encompasses the history of the Reeds’ involvement in the Museum of Modern Art of Australia.

Sweeney’s heartrending story: abandonment by his mother, Tucker’s agreement to his adoption by the Reeds in exchange for continuing financial support, his difficult adolescence, adulthood, and his suicide continue the Reeds’ sad tale. The story very satisfyingly follows Nolan’s post-Heide life with John’s sister, Cynthia, and the post-war lives of early Heide habitués, including Tucker and John Perceval. It touches on other relationships formed during the 1960s and 70s, and through them the reader can see Australia’s art world mature. The period to the Reeds’ deaths by suicide is made as interesting as their early romantic youth.

Other particulars about the society at the time are not as accurately understood as those centred on the Reeds; for instance “at this time it was well known among the Heide insiders that Atyeo was working as a diplomatic aide for Evatt”: Atyeo had an official position. Collins House, Sunday’s uncle’s building at 360 Collins Street, was then tenanted by the major Melbourne legal firms. It was the registered address of most major Australian companies. It is described “to its socialist critics an epicentre of Australian capitalism”. There can be only one epicentre: Collins House was the epicentre of Australian capitalism. These, and infelicitous expressions and misuses of common figures of speech should have been corrected. They detract from the authors’ composed, scholarly approach. Harding and Morgan have been let down by their editor.

But fundamentally, it’s about art. The work is replete with fascinating images and beautiful photographs – even Heide snapshots were through discerning eyes – and the design elegantly underpins their style. Surprising, then, that this Miegunyah-subsidised publication should have begun falling apart the week after I opened my review copy. The publisher replaced it promptly, and says it will investigate …

Modern Love: the Lives of Sunday & John Reed
By Lesley Harding & Kendrah Morgan
Miegunyah Press, $45

www.mup.com.au

Courtesy Albert Tucker Photographic Collection and Heide Museum of Modern Art.