A friend indeed, Australian artist Donald Stuart Leslie Friend was celebrated for his unstinting generosity. This contrasts acutely with his self-proclaimed paedophilia and hedonistic lifestyle.
Donald was born in Cremorne, Sydney on 6th February 1915. His father Leslie and mother Gwendolyn, née Lawson, also from Sydney, bore four children, of whom Donald was the second. Donald’s family name was originally Moses, but a family falling out in about 1920 saw Leslie and his brother Henry revert to their mother’s maiden name, Friend, which both families adopted.
Donald’s socialite mother was also of a somewhat Bohemian bent. She was of a moneyed background, her maternal grandfather being James Lawson, who founded Lawson’s Auctioneers in the 1870’s. She maintained a flat in Double Bay in Sydney, where she regularly entertained numerous artistes.
Donald’s early education was received at Cranbrook School, Tudor House and Sydney Grammar School. He was removed from the latter when his mother had to vacate her apartment in 1931 due to looming insolvency, in consequence of the Depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
His father owned two sheep ranches and Donald and his brothers were sent to Glendon, near Warialda in New South Wales. Here, Donald was required to muck in and help with mustering and castrating the animals as well as the general running of the ranch. However, his mother had organised Donald a studio on the property where he retreated to create his art and write in his diaries that were to become famous in their own right.
At age 17 and after his first sexual encounter, a scandalous liaison with a young Thai boy, Donald ran away from home with his mother’s assistance. He lived in Queensland with the Sailor family who originated from the Torres Straits Islands, which he also later visited. He returned to Sydney in 1934 with his first series of drawings, to study for two years under the Italian-born artist Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. In 1936, Donald travelled to London where he enrolled at the Westminster School of Art, where he studied under portrait painter Mark Gertler and figurative and landscape artist Bernard Meninsky.
In London, Friend was exposed to the work of Paul Gauguin, Picasso, El Greco and Hieronymus Bosch, but it was the work of French artist and draughtsman Georges Braque that most influenced him. In 1937, Friend’s drawings were shown at a joint exhibition, the Bond Street Gallery R E A Wilson, where he was given a solo exhibition in 1938. Despite being undoubtedly homosexual, Friend had an affair with Wilson’s mistress in 1938, who subsequently gave birth to a daughter.
That year he developed a relationship with one Ladipo, a Nigerian from Ikerre in Ekiti State. Friend travelled to Nigeria and was appointed financial advisor to the leader in Ikerre and also began work on a book on the arts and rituals of the local Yoruba people. The outbreak of World War Two saw Donald returning to Australia and enlisting in the Australian Infantry Forces as a gunner on 29 June 1942. March 1945 saw him commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned as a war artist. He was sent to Indonesia and Borneo where his encounters with Japanese fatalities would become subjects of his art on his return to civilian life in March 1946, after resigning his commission.
Friend had maintained diaries from an early age and those that he wrote of the war were published as Gunner’s Diary (1943) and Painter’s Journal (1946).
In 1946, Donald joined the Merioola Group, aka the Sydney Charm School. Merioola was a boarding house that started life as a Victorian mansion and subsequently housed many artists of various genres in the 40’s and 50’s.
His itchy feet saw Donald leave there in 1947 to buy a cottage in Hill End, a remote and mostly abandoned gold mining village, which he shared with Donald Murray. Here, he painted The Apocolypse of St John the Divine (1948) and which gained him the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 1955. The preparatory sketch of this work sold at auction in August 2013 for A$4000. Friend’s diary entry of 5th July 1948 about the painting reads “I see at last just what I have done in this picture. It is a mass of research, a translation, a store of various sorts of erudition. It contains absolutely nothing of belief in what purports to be the subject—no fear of the Hells, no hope of the Heavens, no credence in the prophecies. It is an expression of certain lusts and admirations and its main concerns are with art, imagery, the fecundity of invention and a delight in showing just what can be done with the medium. The net result is broadly a decoration with a strong literary appeal.”
Friend first visited Italy in 1949 where he described Florence as “… fantastically beautiful – every house, every street shows something admirable, something one has known about as long as one was conscious of art. I feel sick and lonely but at last a place that pours over me the richness of the civilisation I need.” He also met and fell in love with Ronaldo, a 17-year old boy who also became Friend’s model. On the second of four trips to the country in 1950, Friend began a life-time relationship with 19-year old Attilio Guarracino, an island fisherman and diver. Guarracino was at the time in a relationship with fellow artist Jeffrey Smart, but Friend arranged for his lover to go to Australia before his own return. Donald’s description of himself at the time was “I become a sentimental pederast.” He went on to state that all he wanted was “sex, love and money”. During this period, he created many works of young male nudes; Attilio (1950) (one of a number of works with the same title) sold for A$9500 in October 2013 and Studies of Omu (1952) sold for A$8500 in June 2014.
In October 2013, Guarracino, who had by then been married four times, auctioned a collection of Friend’s art and artefacts, where Self Portrait in a Carved Mirror (1972) sold for A$55 000.
In 1951, Friend was awarded the Flotta Lauro Travelling Art Prize for Australiana. He returned to Hill End in 1953 where he wrote A Collection of Hillendiana, published in 1956, a mixture of fact and fiction of Hill End and its environs. He painted a number of works of the area; Lucky Digger Hotel, Hill End (1953) sold for A$40 000 in November 2016. Of various pieces entitled Hill End, one version painted in 1956 sold for A$32 000 in August 1996. He created a number of limited edition, ornately illustrated books, including Bumbooziana in 1979. A copy of this sold for approximately seven thousand dollars in May 2017.
In 1957, Donald moved to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where he stayed until 1962. From 1967 to 1979, he lived in Sanur in Bali, indulging in a luxurious and hedonistic lifestyle. Sanur in the 1930’s was not the tourist enclave of today. Friend was introduced to a local architect, Wija Wawo-Runtu. His home contained dozens of examples of local art, inspiring Donald to amass a collection of Balinese art including sculptures and paintings, but which he viewed as primitive, not of Western standards. The aftermath of social unrest following an attempted coup two years earlier resulted in an unstable economy that Wija and Friend exploited in their acquisitions. The same applied to land values and in 1967, Wija and Donald bought a tract on the beach. Donald built a house in traditional Balinese style, but also containing a studio and space to exhibit his ever-expanding art and antique collection. Friend’s painting methods including becoming patron to local artists, who copied his style, and to which work he is rumoured to have signed his name.
His indulgent lifestyle lasted until 1975 when his health began to suffer. He had TB and emphysema and frequently travelled back to Australia for treatment. He had a hostile relationship with Wija’s wife and when his health forced him to remain in Australia from 1980, Wija refused to compensate him for his share of the property. He went to live with Attilio Guarracino and his wife in Melbourne but moved to Sydney in 1981.
In 1987, he had a stroke and sheer determination saw him teach himself to draw with his right hand, being naturally left-handed. He died in Woollahra on 17 August 1989. He was cremated, and his ashes scattered over a pool in Bali.
Friend’s diary of his time in Bali included explicit descriptions of his sexual adventures with a ten-year-old boy. When Friend donated his 44 journals to The National Library of Australia, it was on condition that they be published. The institution complied and released four volumes of the book between 2001-2006. However, the boy had been identified in Volume 4; he still lives in Bali where he works as a tour boat operator. He was advised by a film-maker documenting Friend’s life of a book based on these journals: The Donald Friend Diaries: Chronicles & Confessions of an Australian Artist. He had not been aware that Friend had kept written records and drawings of him and their relationship. He is now seeking compensation from the Library as he was never approached to give his permission for the contents to be released publicly.
Controversy reigns over various art galleries and institutions either failing to publicly acknowledge Friend’s paedophilia or acknowledging him as one of Australia’s leading artists.
In June 2013, Moving Figures, depicting young boys in sexual positions, was auctioned for A$8000 and again in March 2016 for A$6000. Many of Australia’s leading galleries collectively hold numerous pieces of Friend’s work. However, few of these are available to see, being discreetly held in storage. The Australian War Memorial bucked the tradition by displaying a number of Friend’s wartime works, countering the 1988 Australian Bicentennial exhibition failing to include a single piece of his art. That year, the University of Sydney Union presented Friend with a medal. In 1990, a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was never charged by the 2012-13 Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse with any crime as none of the incidents was committed in public.
Colourful, controversial and talented, Donald Friend will remain a stalwart of Australian art.