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Sitter still

by Jaynie Anderson, 28 August 2015

Jaynie Anderson, 1962 by Reshid Bey
Jaynie Anderson, 1962 by Reshid Bey

Reshid Bey asked me to sit for a demonstration picture for his class on portraiture at his studio in Selbourne Park Road, Toorak, in 1963. The portrait sketch was completed in one sitting. The invitation came from Reshid’s wife, Judy Chirnside, who was my mother’s best friend and whom I had known from childhood. I was then in my second year at the University of Melbourne, studying fine arts and history, becoming fascinated by Venetian portraiture, especially from around the beginning of the sixteenth century, which I had encountered in a course on Renaissance art. Reshid gave me the portrait some weeks after completion, which I have always treasured.

It remains challenging to put the two experiences together; that is, my knowledge of Reshid as a portrait painter and my understanding of Giorgione and his contemporaries in Renaissance Venice. Could there be any relation between the two? These were the thoughts that went through my mind as I posed, high on a stool, before a class that attempted to catch my likeness. Likeness, I thought to myself, is not really the only criteria for portraiture. Rattling around in my head were ideas that I had read in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci about how you should leave behind ideas of conventional likeness in portraiture, and that the artist should introduce the provocative component of movement that might tell you something about the mind of the sitter. Indeed, I assumed a pose that was exceptionally original in the first decade of the sixteenth century, when Giorgione invented the ‘turning portrait’ in response to Leonardo’s suggestions. Reshid was compliant at the choice, indeed enjoyed it. It is a picture that still has an exuberant, joyful feel about it for me. Photographs of the sitter taken at the time show that the portrait was a good likeness, but it was more than that.

Laura, c. 1506 by Giorgione

For the first time in his portrait of Laura, (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) Giorgione introduced the conception of a turning portrait, a face in movement, which he adopted for other portraits, as did his followers, Sebastiano del Piombo and Palma Vecchio. Even Dürer, always attentive to Venetian inventions, appropriated it for a portrait drawing of his brother Endres (Nationalmuseum, Nurenberg). This was the Giorgionesque idea around the pose.

I had first sat for Reshid when I was five for a portrait commissioned by my mother, Bonnie Surridge, a pianist, who had firm and rather conventional ideas about art. For the first portrait I remember being dressed in a red velvet frock, trimmed with brown lace at the neck. To complete the French effect I was given a basket of multicolored roses to hold. My hair was arranged in long brown curls, having first been set painfully in rags. I sat for what seemed like an eternity while Judy read many Beatrix Potter stories. At times I was allowed to escape from the studio in Williams Road to play in Como Park, where I willfully played with mushrooms and toadstools, dirtying the velvet dress. When finished, the portrait remained prominently in our dining room, a reminder of how my mother wanted me to be.

There was a rather lengthy article about this first portrait in The Listener In (15-21 January 1949), entitled ‘Young Musician with many strings to her Bow’. The Young Musician in this instance was my mother who emerges in the article as a superwoman with many attributes. She was a pianist, who frequently played with Percy Grainger and Richard Taubner, as well as with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. She was also a painter on china, a hostess of notes, and a busy general practitioner’s wife. Our living rooms were filled with grand pianos where she and her friends played.

For the second portrait there were no allegorical attributes. I wore the softest cashmere brown jumper that I still remember caressing my skin in the freezing cold autumnal studio. I did not want to be represented in a static pose, either a frontal view or a profile view, but in movement turning around. Reshid’s style of painting was puzzling and hard for me to define in relation to the portraiture in art that I was studying. It was definitely European, reminiscent of French impressionism, or more accurately still Salon painting, but could not really be characterized as that. I knew that he had once been a finalist in the Archibald Prize for a portrait of John Casson Esq. in 1953, but never a winner.

Jaynie Anderson, 1983

Reshid’s father Shefik Bey had been Turkish Ambassador in many European capitals, including Berlin, where Reshid was born, as well as Paris and London. Shefik was a gifted amateur artist who delighted in painting portraits of aristocratic women. In 1913 he married a great beauty, Florence Winter Irving, an Australian who came from a family in the Western District, where her father had been a member of parliament. She was then on the grand tour of Europe. When Turkey became a Republic, Shefik left the diplomatic service to become a portrait painter in Mayfair, London, where he celebrated beautiful women in pastels. Although Reshid was groomed by the Winter Irving family to become a wool buyer, he had been educated at home in various European embassies, and in painting schools in Paris and London. But at some point he decided to become a painter of portraits, still lives, and landscapes.

I had many memories of fabulous children’s parties arranged by Judy, who was an exceptional and daring hostess. One characteristic birthday party was held in Como Park where we practiced archery with real bows and arrows. We were aged ten and real weapons were never allowed at any other Australian party. At another we ate kebabs on real Turkish swords. Judy was a deeply generous person, who inspired creativity and energy in others. She was a classic beauty, and even as a mature grandmother was the sort of woman one focuses on across a crowded room. Like Florence Winter Irving, Judith Chirnside came from a Western District family and was brought up at her parents’ station, Carranballac, in Skipton, Victoria.

In some ways Reshid imitated his father’s career, although he had no direct experience as a child of the home countries in which his parents grew up, Turkey and Australia. In the end he chose in favour of his mother. Reshid arrived in Australia in 1937 at the age of 21. His mother Florence Winter Irving returned too, after thirty-five years of absence, only to be diagnosed with cancer. Reshid had been educated as an artist in Europe at the Chelsea Polytechnic, but took a refresher course at the art school at the National Gallery of Victoria after his arrival. Yet Reshid’s conservative French Salon style always remained alien to the main traditions of Australian art and portraiture. He held his first exhibition with his father at the Hotel Australia, in the Gold Room, on 18 May 1945. Alan McCulloch noted in his somewhat condescending review in The Age, 17 May 1945: “Shefik Bey specialises in pastel portraits of leaders of society. His objective is to reveal them in the best possible light, an objective which sympathetic understanding and natural good taste enable him to obtain. An adequate technique, combined with the exotic flavour of his Eastern origins, further enhances his chances of success.”

Reshid’s portraiture emerged from his father’s, but he attempted to be more complex. His self-portraits are questioning images, such as Self-Portrait as a Clown, shown in the Paris Salon in 1949, and Self-Portrait as a Man in the Fog, exhibited in 1959, in which he appropriated the famous image from Gustave Caillebotte’s painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. Still he never managed to cut it in Australia. The history of Australian art in the 1940s is always a narrative of modernism and artists like Reshid are ignored. Other immigrant artists came from Europe, recognizing Melbourne as a safe haven, away from war torn Europe. As a child I remember that Reshid and Judy were well known in society, but artistic success was always to evade him. Would a twenty-first century viewer or art historian be able to reconstruct the ideas that were, for the sitter, a part of the portrait experience, as recounted here? Almost certainly such speculation would be regarded as fanciful unless there was an account such as this.