The Story of a Masterpiece … and Its Painter Donald Friend

Dr Srilal Fernando, in The CEYLANKAN. Journal No, 100, November 2022, pp. 41-43

In 1969 James Gleeson, a well-respected authority on Australian painting, wrote a book called the Masterpieces of Australian Painting. It covered a full range of Australian painting from the colonial period up to the 1960’s. Of the nearly 75 artists selected, one was Donald Friend, who as most of the readers know spent 5 years in Ceylon, as a guest of Bevis Bawa. Of all the paintings by Friend he selected one which was titled The Puppets.


The painting done in 1965 in Australia after returning from Ceylon by Donald Friend, but before he settled down in Bali.

In his introduction Gleeson writes that Donald Friend was considered the one of the great, if not the greatest figurative artist in Australian Art.

The painting itself was a large one in gouache and ink with highlights in Chinese white, with the central figure of the puppeteer with his arms outstretched in a semi crucifixion pose. The left hand is holding a puppet of a miniature skeleton and in his right hand a bat. The symbolism of the painting needs more work. The skeleton is a reminder that death is always not too far off, and frequently used in puppetry. The bat signifies many things according to the culture but in the east is a symbol of longevity and persistence. The puppeteer is balancing these two.

There are smaller figures huddled in the foreground but are indistinct so that the eye is immediately drawn to the central figure. With all his imperfections as a person Friend was the recipient of the Blake prize in religious art. It is possible that he identified with the puppeteer. While living in Ceylon at the Bawa estate “the Brief” he was not far from the puppet theatre and mask industry in Ambalangoda and Balapitiya. He also did a painting of the Marionette Theatre in Ceylon. As such the inspiration for the painting was from his time in Ceylon and so was the model for the central figure.

This narrative however is about the life history of the painting, and the colorful characters associated with it. It always makes sense to look at the back of the frame and the labels there can give a useful history as they did in this case.

The Artist

The story starts with Donald Friend, a remarkable character in every sense. Much has been written about him including several books, the most substantial of which is by Robert Hughes, the main art critic at the time in Australian Art. A book sponsored by the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka documents some of his work such as the City of Galle in the boardroom at John Keels Ltd, and the City of Colombo.

Bevis Bawa, Dooland de Silva & Donald Friend

His most famous work during the Ceylon period are the doors he painted, which were at the residence of Geoffrey Bawa. They are now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. A copy is at the Geoffrey Bawa residence and a much gaudier version is at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. His works can be seen at Bevis Bawa estate, “Brief” and at Lunuganga the country residence of Geoffrey Bawa.  In Ceylon, Friend was associated with others who have become household names in Art such as Laki Senanayake, Ena de Silva, Barbara Sansoni and Architect Ismeth Raheem. In addition to painting, he experimented with clay tiles along with Barbara Sansoni. With the backing of architect Ulrik Plesner he exhibited aluminium sculptures which are now collector’s items.

Friend kept a diary from the age of 13 till the day before he died. After his death these were published in four volumes by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This detailed diary led to accusations of pedophilia and led to the decline in popularity of his work.

The Gallery Owner

The next character in the story is Gallery owner HUGH RESKYMER (KYM) Bonython. The painting drew the attention of Kym who had a gallery in Sydney at the time. He was a multi-faceted personality at whose death in 2011 was accorded a state funeral in South Australia. He was a pilot in the RAAF and was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), with a number of near misses on his life while in service. He was the youngest child of Sir John Bonython and Lady Jean a former Miss South Australia.

At the end of the Second World War, he was a drummer in a jazz band. He opened a record store and started his own concert promotion company. He brought to Adelaide the greats of jazz including Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He was on first name terms with some of them. Later he expanded his range to Rock and Roll bringing Chuck Berry to Adelaide. The Beatles toured Australia in 1964 Kym had a hand in getting them to perform in Adelaide.

He was also a Motor Sport enthusiast. He worked on getting Formula1 racing to Adelaide in 1985. He himself was the National Hydroplane Champion and survived many crashes. He raced speed cars winning the South Australian Championship in 1959.

His passion for Art led to his own collection, starting the Hungry Horse Gallery in Sydney and later the Bonython Art Gallery in Adelaide. He promoted contemporary art and attracted famous names such as Sir Sydney Nolan and William Dobell. He fostered one of Australia’s greatest artists Brett Whiteley.

He wrote books on Art and an autobiography called Ladies Legs and Lemonade.

The painting The Puppets was shown at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts in 1966 and it was he who introduced this painting to the next character in the story.

The Texan Millionaire

Donald Friend noted in his diary: “Harold E Mertz came into my life in 1965. This slight Chaplinesque figure, wearing a red checked sports jacket and green pork pie hat, atop an unruly mop of curly white hair, and brandishing a silver cane, accompanied by his elegant wife, Lu Esther.”

Mertz was a Texan who inherited a publishing business and a millionaire who became enthused with Australian Art. Over the next few years, he visited Australia many times to purchase paintings. He untrusted Kym Bonython to gather the best works of art from the greatest artists in Australia. He had a flexible budget “which kept growing as more opportunity presented” Mertz and Bonython visited Australian artists living in England. Eventually 153 paintings became the Harold E Mertz collection of Australian Art. The collection was exhibited at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1966 before it commenced its international journey. In March 1967 the collection was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. The Puppets was the again the only painting by Donald Friend in this collection.

The cost of buying so many paintings, their freight, packing and insurance costs, printing of catalogues attracted a US Tax concession if the collection was accessible to the general public or located in an institution that would offer this. Thus, the collection was handed over to the University of Texas at Austin in 1971.

Patricia MacDonald writes “Mertz felt that the art was a direct reflection of the strength and vigor of the land itself and wanted to acquire the best available at the time. The resulting collection is therefore a slice of Australian Art History”.

Some of the paintings were on loan at different times but the American public had little appreciation of Art from Australia. Harold Mertz passed away in the 1980’s and his wife Lu Esther always felt the collection should be in Australia. The celebrated author James A Mitchener made a huge bequest to the University of Texas which took up most of its space and the Mertz collection went into storage. After some years the University decided to sell off the collection.

The Auction

The collection was auctioned by Christie’s in Melbourne on the 28th of June 2000. Roger McIlroy was the Managing Director and the chief auctioneer at Christie’s Australia. He is now an Art Consultant in Melbourne. He recounted making several trips to Texas to win the contract for the auction. There was competition from Sotheby’s Australia whose pitch was that if they won the contract the sale would happen at the Sydney Opera House.

The auction itself attracted plenty of attention. The well-researched and lavishly produced hard cover catalogue of the auction is itself a collector’s item. Further the GST was introduced on the 1st of July 2000, so the rush was to have the auction before this date.

The auction was held at the Darling Street Function Centre in South Yarra next to the Christie’s head office. Prior to the auction the paintings were shown in Sydney and Brisbane.

Some of the famous paintings sold at the auction were Sir Sydney Nolan’s Death of Constable Scanlon, and Arthur Boyd’s Mourning Bride 1. John Brack’s only self-portrait was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. The auction fetched a staggering $ 18 million which was a record at the time for a single owner collection.


The story does not end there.  The Puppets was bought by Edward John Congdon a collector. He reported that “someone I knew called Guy Morel saw it in my home and suggested that if ever I wanted to sell it he could help as he shared a studio with an art restorer called Mohammed Aman Siddique”. A few years late Congdon wanted to downsize into an apartment and decided to sell the painting. He contacted Morel who handed the painting to an art dealer contact of Siddique called Peter Gant.

When Congdon found it difficult to contact Peter Gant, he wanted the painting back. He found that The Puppets was to be auctioned and the highlight of the auction was to be this painting.

He contacted the auction house and informed them that he was the rightful owner of the painting. They withdrew the painting from the auction.

Congdon asked Morel to return the painting and as there was a poor response, he filed action At the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). An order was made on the 5th of May 2014 in favour of Congdon for Morel to pay the value of the painting. Morel then returned the painting back to Congdon.  What is interesting is that Siddique and Gant, starred in the biggest case regarding an alleged Art fraud in Australia. This came to court in 2016, Peter Gant was accused of creating three paintings by Brett Whiteley. They were sold to well-known personalities such as the chairman of the Sydney Swans and investment banker and another to a luxury car dealer at million-dollar prices. Guy Morel had secretly photographed the paintings allegedly being made in Siddique’s studio which he shared. He was the whistle blower in this case. The court room drama unfolded with high profile figures being cross examined by eminent legal counsel, Barrister Robert Richter appearing for Siddique. There were fiery exchanges especially with Wendy Whiteley the widow of Brett.  When asked by Robert Richter whether she knew every painting that Brett painted, her terse reply was “No, but I know very well what he did not paint”.  Siddique and Gant were found guilty of Art Fraud in 2016 but acquitted on appeal in 2017.  A book called “WHITELEY: ON TRIAL” by Gabriella Coslovich, a Melbourne Senior journalist, specializing in Arts writing for the AGE Newspaper documents the case and the characters around it.

Once again, the painting came up for auction in April 2022. What more adventures will it have in the future? Only time will tell.














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