ARTISTS rarely expect their creations to lead to fame and fortune.
But when his first attempt at oil painting won first prize in a Newcastle art competition, Tom Gleghorn was hoping for at least a bit of money.
However, the prize was a pile of art materials, which Tom considered "a whole load of rubbish".
Still, the paints were better than those he had used to create his first work, a landscape he titled The Open Road. The young man had found a few dried-up paints at his parents' home. His father told Tom he needed to mix the paint with oil.
"The only oil I had was Californian Poppy hair oil," Tom recalls.
It did the trick, and it took the prize. Now, as a result of creating The Open Road, he had more paints than he knew what to do with.
To give her husband a few ideas, Elsie Gleghorn took Tom to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. It was 1949, and the winning paintings of the Archibald and Wynne prizes were on show. As it happened, both prizes had been won by William Dobell, who was arguably the most famous artist in the land.
Tom was impressed by Dobell's Archibald Prize-winning portrait of fellow artist Margaret Olley. But it was Dobell's Wynne Prize painting that bowled him over. For it was a landscape of a place he knew so well. The place that he had lived by since he was a small child. A place that inspired him. It depicted Lake Macquarie! The painting was Storm Approaching Wangi.
"I was enthralled with that," he says. "The experience of standing and looking at a painting of the lake, and capturing those southerlies that I used to experience in a tin canoe that we made from sheets of iron pulled from the back of a fowl house.
"I was enthralled, again, that people could handle a substance and finish up with an image. Then the image this particular artist had come up with was an area that I was so familiar with. It was my backyard, wholly and solely."
When he discovered Dobell lived at Wangi Wangi, Tom hopped on his bicycle and rode from his home at Warners Bay to the western lakeside village and knocked on the artist's door, telling him he really wanted to paint.
"And rather than turn me away, he took me in," says Tom.
Over the next few years, Dobell became an unofficial tutor to Tom, showing him painting techniques and explaining materials to him, as well as introducing Tom to gallery owners in Sydney.
"Without him, I wouldn't have painted," reflects Tom.
So began Tom Gleghorn's journey from Warners Bay boy to being one of the best-known abstract expressionist artists in post-war Australia.
Art has taken Tom a long way in his 94 years, into galleries and collections around the world. But through it all flow his earliest years by the lake and in Newcastle.
Tom may have left the lake more than 60 years ago to pursue a career in art, but the lake and Newcastle have never left him.
Now his art is heading back to the Hunter for a survey exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery. The show is called Homeward Bound: the art and life of Tom Gleghorn.
JUST as William Dobell played a pivotal role in the development of Tom Gleghorn as a painter, Dobell led me to Tom.
Well, not literally. When I was doing research for my book, Bill: The Life of William Dobell, I interviewed Tom and wife Elsie at their home in Adelaide.
As it should be with an artist, I had come to know Tom's work before I met the man.
I remember the first time I saw a Tom Gleghorn painting. Which isn't surprising. With the art of Tom Gleghorn, it's a case of once seen, never forgotten.
It was at a lunch at the Lake Macquarie home of my friend and mentor, Caleb Firkin, almost 20 years ago. Caleb had some fantastic Australian art on his walls. But there was one painting in particular that demanded to be noticed.
No matter the superb wines on the table and the wonderful conversation rippling around the room, my attention kept drifting over to the large work hanging above the grand piano. The painting, an abstract work, was bursting with colour and life.
I asked Caleb about the painting.
He replied it was titled Pompeii and was painted by a mate of his after visiting the ruins of the Roman city in the early 1960s. That mate was Tom Gleghorn.
"Tom's one of the most skilful users of paint in Australia," Caleb said.
More than being a great painter, he said, Tom was a terrific bloke.
Caleb and Tom had met at an exhibition at the renowned von Bertouch Galleries in Cooks Hill in the mid 1960s.
"We hit it off straight away," Caleb says. "We're both silly buggers."
When I was working on the Dobell book, Caleb introduced me to his mate. To borrow Caleb's words, we hit it off straight away. Tom and I have been friends ever since.
Like his paintings, Tom creates a striking first impression. And he leaves a lasting impression.
With his great mane of grey hair, earrings and glasses he designed himself, Tom looks like an elegant pirate, or a rock star. On his left arm is a tattoo, which he carved into his skin when he was about 11. That tattoo is perhaps the earliest Gleghorn work of art still in existence.
Tom's beginnings are etched below the skin, into his heart and soul.
Born in 1925, Tom was just two when his family emigrated from northern England to Warners Bay.
He grew up in threadbare times, during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Tom speaks evocatively of his home having a dirt floor and walls constructed from whitewashed bags.
But at a time of so little, the lake offered so much to a boy. It was an adventure playground and a blank canvas for a future artist. He considered life by the lake "just sheer and utter magic". Tom fished and swam, explored and paddled on its waters, and he stood on its shores and simply looked. The lake seeped into his life, his memories, and, in the years ahead, his art.
His paintings dived into the waters of his youth, with works such as Nocturne, Lake Macquarie.
However, as a teenager, Tom seemed destined to be an engineer, not an artist. He did an apprenticeship at BHP's Newcastle steelworks during the Second World War. He didn't particularly enjoy the work, but he developed technical drawing skills that would help shape his future career.
"If you look at any of my work, it's all got this mechanical structure to it," he says. "It has to be in some sort of order. And then I muck it up!"
Then, when he was in his early 20s, came The Open Road, the art prize, and the meeting with Dobell, setting him off on a new journey through life.
Tom, Elsie and their children moved to Sydney in the mid 1950s, and Tom's art moved further into abstraction. Not that the painter himself saw his work that way.
"I don't think it's abstraction. It's my type of reality," Tom explains. "They said in art crits [critiques] I became a well-known abstract expressionist. And I just shrugged my shoulders. It had nothing to do with me at all. I was just trying to get something a little different in my painting."
His painting was seen as different, and exciting. He won a stack of awards, exhibited with friends and fellow bright young things in post-war Australian art, such as Robert Dickerson and John Coburn, and he opened eyes, including those of the writer Patrick White, who became an ardent collector of Gleghorn paintings.
Above the novelist's desk hung a storm of paint, with Tom's work, Coast Wind, which was the artist's depiction of a southerly ripping into Newcastle.
In 1959, when Tom's first solo exhibition in a public gallery was held in Newcastle, Patrick White opened the show. In turn, White's writing inspired the artist, and Tom painted his author friend for the Archibald Prize, depicting him as one of the novelist's most famous creations, the explorer Voss. But White didn't like the portrait.
"That upset me a bit, so as soon as it arrived home, I chopped it up and Elsie put it under the copper," Tom says.
The novelist changed his mind and wanted to buy the painting. Too late, for both White and Australian art.
From the early 1960s, Tom painted around the globe and deep within the heart of Australia.
As well as being a visual interpreter of the country, he has been a teacher of artists, including in Adelaide, where he and his family have lived for more than half a century.
But he has continued to return to the lake, sketching and painting around its shores in recent years, and drawing on his memories of living in Warners Bay and working in Newcastle to create new works.
That insistent creative energy, and that extraordinary career of Tom's, deserved to be recognised, I figured. So in 2018, I pitched the idea of an exhibition to Lauretta Morton, the director of Newcastle Art Gallery.
Morton believed it was high time for a survey of Tom's work. The director invited me to work with curator Sarah Johnson in developing the show.
Tom is happy and honoured that more than 40 of his works spanning eight decades of creating are homeward bound for the NAG exhibition, 61 years after that first show in Newcastle.
But the times have changed this show. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, and the gallery being temporarily closed, the exhibition will be virtual, displayed on NAG's website from Saturday.
"That's a first, and it seems very different," Tom says of the virtual exhibition. "Getting close to 95, it's all new to me!"
Tom has been coping with coronavirus by "reaching for my charcoals", sketching a series of works that he has titled Isolation.
Yet while ever he has Elsie and his art, Tom doesn't feel isolated. Art is his home. Only don't call him an artist.
"No, I just paint," he says. "It's what I do.
"It's given me a chance to expose visually what I feel about life, living, and love of other people, and the kindness and devotion of other people's emotion that I've been showered with during my lifetime."
To view the virtual exhibition, go to: https://www.nag.org.au/Exhibitions/Future/HOMEWARD-BOUND-the-art-and-life-of-Tom-Gleghorn
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