Clive and Winifred on their wedding day.
The artist in my family was my grandfather (my mother’s father), or “Pop” to my younger brother and I.
A coach painter, a sign writer, and a landscape artist. Clive Cawthorne, was my first, and consistent exposure to a real working artist growing up. He had built a small studio in the backyard of their home (not too far removed from the current, self-built studio I’m sitting in right now) in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Reservoir. Where he worked on his Australian landscape and rural scene paintings. This seemed completely normal to me, thirty plus years ago, to have a painting studio in your backyard. It was more likely the exception than the rule at the time.
Above, is my very first oil painting, a collaboration with Clive. He stepped me through the entire process, from mixing colours, loading the brush and applying paint to the surface. Importantly, how little information you need to include to create a convincing landscape painting.
I have clear memories of being in that space, that small studio and seeing his paintings in progress. One of the strongest triggers for bringing back these memories is the smell of linseed oil and oil paints. Whenever I encounter these elements it takes me straight back to fond memories of my pop.
When it came to his grandchildren, you’ve never met a more selfless man, the quintessential grandfather really. There was nothing the grandchildren could do wrong, nor anything we could ask for that was too much. “Can I change gears in the ute while you drive Pop?” we’d ask. “Sure!” would come the answer “Just wait until I say when”. He was always taking us on adventures and showing us the things he thought were great about the world. Whether it was an enormous old tree hollow near the Grampians, large enough to park a tractor in, or offering to cut up our peas when we were struggling to finish our dinner. His sense of humor, although a little twisted like mine, always shone through.
There was always a cold beer at the end of the day, out of a bottle, served in a glass, cold from the fridge. His immaculately kept (although modest) cars, and depression era style handyman, fix anything, make do touches throughout the house, shed and studio.
A love of two wheels
Clive’s painting practice was complemented by his love of cycling, that was a lifelong pursuit. Beginning at an early age with his brother Ralph, it included amateur racing and many travel adventures that became the source of endless tales of daring antics he loved sharing with us.
His downplayed, laid back, and modest attitude translated into how he responded to praise for, and his modest confidence in relation to his paintings. This no doubt gave me, as an influenceable young boy, the impression that his paintings were less important and impressive than they really were. A reflection of old fashioned, working class values, than any true indication of his confidence in his own paintings.
Clive exhibited and sold work continually throughout his life. At one point creating a series of paintings on commission, to decorate an entire hotel in Tasmania.
Many of his pieces were derived from smaller plein-air paintings created on locations throughout Victoria and Tasmania. Supported by reference photos from crappy Instamatic cameras to recall important features or details once back in the studio and working on larger paintings. I’d sometimes ask about paintings in the studio and he’d tell me if he wasn’t happy with something he’d just paint over it and have another go, or use the canvas for a different painting altogether. Failure was part of the process and not something to dwell on or get hung up about.
- Port of Echuca, by Clive Cawthorn One of my prized possessions, is this painting that hangs in our house, painted by my grandfather.
Clive was prolific in his painting throughout his life, I guess that’s what happens when you pursue something over a lifetime, you get a fair bit done. It was interesting to watch his style change in his later years, with more vibrant colours finding their way into his paintings. I never asked him if this was intentional or possibly a change in his elderly eyesight that he didn’t realise he was adjusting for.
One of my treasured possessions is Pop’s painting box, with a lid that has been used for many years as a makeshift pallet, remnants of oil painting and sign writing brushes, and of course that smell of linseed oil, and time taken to pursue a passion that takes me back to my childhood in an instant.
Clive passed away several years ago, on my birthday of all days, like I was ever going to forget him anyway! He would have hated that happened. He is someone that the act of painting reminds me of, and I often consider “what would Clive think of this?” while I’m working away.