Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay

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Illustration: Henry Lawson reproves Bert Stevens [clerk]
The founding of the Sydney Bulletin in 1880 by JF Archibald (and John Haynes, who does not appear to have played a part in its day to day operations), as a magazine of news, comment, short stories and poetry, marked a turning point in Australian nationalism, expressed in its banner “Australia for Australians” – famously changed in 1886 to “Australia for the White Man”. In 1894 Archibald employed AG Stephens, already a well-known literary critic, who began soliciting and commissioning literary works for his famous ‘Red Page’:

What readers could expect in the ‘Red Page’ was a potpourri of articles, reviews, extracts, letters, paragraphs, anecdotes and notes, occasionally with photographs or cartoons. The poem of the week, starred to indicate its quality, appeared in a top corner and in the bottom corner might be blunt, cruelly witty advice to rejected contributors. Stephens’ common practice was to spark controversy by attacking an established writer, such as Burns, Thackeray, Kipling, or Tennyson, thereby enticing correspondents as varied as Christopher Brennan or George Burns to attack and counter-attack, sometimes over weeks. It was heady stuff. (ADB)

In 1901 Norman Lindsay, then aged 21, came to the Bulletin as an illustrator, from Melbourne where he had been at art school. Although already married, he fancied himself as a carouser, a Cassanova, and produced endless drawings of naked women. Later in life he wrote some interesting fiction, mostly semi-autobiographical and boastful of his conquests, and of course the wonderful children’s book, The Magic Pudding (1918) prized by generations of young Legends.

In 1911 Lindsay went to England for a while and returned suffering a nervous breakdown -which he is happy to talk about in this book – which led him to buy Springwood in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney where he was to spend the rest of his life, and which was the setting for the movie Sirens (1994) starring Sam Neill (as Lindsay), Elle Macpherson and a young Hugh Grant.

In Bohemians at [orginally ‘of’] the Bulletin (1965) Lindsay writes short sketches of his interactions with Archibald, Stephens and some of his fellow contributors. Lindsay admires Archibald with whom he is largely in accord – including on the related subjects of buxom 14 year old girls and the entrapment of men by Rape Laws – and ends his piece on Archibald with:

We know that Archie endowed Australian art with the Archibald Bequest and bestowed on Sydney the splendid Archibald Memorial fountain, the only truly fine monument the city possesses… But he wrote his personality deeper on this country’s culture when he sought for and published the best poetry and prose and draughtsmanship it could produce, and fostered in it the spirit to envision life in its own terms and not on any culture borrowed from other countries.

On the other hand, Lindsay didn’t get on with AG Stephens and the things he writes about him are mostly spiteful – Stephens scuttling back to his office in the face of danger, and so on. Henry Lawson, Lindsay did not know very well, mostly seeing him as angry presence dashing in and out of the Bulletin offices, or cadging money for grog, and in fact he knew Bertha (Henry’s estranged wife) better, as she managed a picture gallery for George Robertson next door to Angus & Robertson’s bookshop:

I was holding a one-man show at the gallery, and happened to be in Mrs Lawson’s small office, finishing a pen sketch which had been commissioned, when she dashed in exclaiming breathlessly, “I can’t go out there. He’s only come in here to annoy me.” I glanced out to discover that “he” was Henry Lawson, who was going around making a pretence of looking at the pictures …

Steele Rudd, Lindsay met just the once (oddly, as Rudd lived in Sydney from 1903-08) seeing him as a yokel, though he was in fact a senior clerk in the Qld Public Service, but at least has this to say of him:

In his Dad and Mum and Dave and Joe he created idiosyncratic characters … and not just types as Lawson did with his Bills and Jims and Andys, who are all out of one mould, indistinguishable as personalities from each other.

With Banjo Paterson, an ‘aristocrat’ according to Lindsay, he was much more in sympathy and they would go horse riding together, having stables, paddocks (and grooms!) at their north shore properties.

I can’t ever recall discussing literature with him, nor did he place any accent on his contribution to it, which was a considerable one, and now seen in its significant relation to a national culture. By the fine quality of his ballads, he compressed into a few years the bridge between the folk-lore ballad and major poetry which the early Scotch and English balladists made for the great Elizabethan poets.

There are other once notable and now largely forgotten writers – Victor Daley, Rod Quinn, Jack Abbott, Bernard O’Dowd, Randolph Bedford, Hugh McCrae, Louis Stone (whose novel Jonah I must read) – many of whom Lindsay knew well. Lindsay is knowledgeable about poetry, as I am not, and gives a lively account of a period – more than a century ago now – which was still central to the study of Australian literature when this little book came out in the sixties.

He ends with thumbnail sketches of ‘Tom Collins’ (Joseph Furphy) and Miles Franklin, whom he met only briefly. Of Furphy, to whom Lindsay must have been introduced soon after he arrived at the Bulletin, he writes “I don’t remember a single thing he said”, though he does remember the fuss AG Stephens made publishing Such is Life and the great expectations he had for it.

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Miles Franklin in 1902 by Norman Lindsay

But Miles definitely made an impression!:

I came across gaping at this bright vision of girl in such a drab and dusty setting, and was introduced to her by A.G. [Stephens] – Miles Franklin! reality far outshone fancy’s portrait of her inspired by her novel [My Brilliant Career], and I went straight up in the air, bubbling an extravagant tribute to that work.

I have written before that Stephens, fearing Lindsay’s predatory disposition, would not let Lindsay see her downstairs, so he “never saw Miles again till she returned to Australia, and we were both middle-aged”, when she tells him he was the one member of the Bulletin staff whom she wished to meet, which he says he does not believe. However, in her own work, My Career Goes Bung or Cockatoos, I forget which, she has him present her with a book of his sketches (Jill Roe says the book was by Stephens but signed by Lindsay who had illustrated it). Strangely, this brief meeting, or at least its sequel, is described/imagined also by Kylie Tennant who has Franklin running into Barbara Baynton at a tram stop outside the Bulletin offices, by which time Franklin is carrying a box of chocolates.

 

Norman Lindsay, Bohemians at the Bulletin, first pub. 1965. This edition Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1980.

see also:

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (review)

Richard Fotheringham, In Search of Steele Rudd, UQP, Brisbane, 1995 (review)

Penne Hackforth-Jones, Barbara Baynton: Between Two Worlds, Penguin, Melbourne, 1989 (review)

Kylie Tennant, “Miles Franklin: Feminist whose men were men”, SMH, 23 Jul 1974.

Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)

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8 thoughts on “Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay

    • Partly, although there are quite a few photographs of her as a young woman. I think she described herself (or at least, Sybylla, her protagonist) as ugly in My Brilliant Career out of a sense of fun, and also, as a ‘mock’ autobiographer, not expecting to be believed.

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    • The Bulletin was the definitely the catalyst (or at least the vehicle) for a revolution in Aust.Lit. and Lindsay, although he arrived a decade after it had started, was in it up to his eyeballs. A lot of what went on was racist and/or misogynist, and Lindsay’s drawings are a part of that. Marilyn Lake (historian and feminist) wrote: To the militants of the emergent men’s press, ‘home influence’ was emasculating. The Sydney Bulletin liked to believe that in ‘virile cultures’ where ‘home-life [had] not become so all absorbing: ‘men live and struggle and fight out in the open most of the time. When they go to their homes they go to beat their wives…’{3 Nov. 1888}

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  1. I read this decades ago, but I can’t remember a thing about it! But I must have liked something about it because I also read Redheap and A Curate in Bohemia… or maybe I read them first…
    I don’t think I read it in any critical way, so I’ve enjoyed your take on it.

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    • Maybe you were inspired by the tv version of Redheap (which I haven’t seen). Norman Lindsay isn’t rated as a novelist these days, but his semi-autobiographical fiction of life in C19th Clunes and Ballarat is good light reading, though more than bit sexist in parts. I’ve recently picked up his son, Jack’s account of bohemian 1920s Sydney, which I’m looking forward to.

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