Talking About Joe Lynch

Here’s some notes from my gallery talk on Saturday:

First up I quoted this:

Joe was a giant, lean and powerful, with red upstanding hair, and the most amiable of grins: but once he had fallen down, a habit he had when very drunk, he would lie contentedly on his back with a gentle smile and grin up at you while you tugged at shoulders, arms and legs, and he softly explained that the whole police force with an elephant to help couldn’t shift him an inch; and I’m afraid he was right. A splendid fellow, Joe, who was to disappear from life magnificently.

. . . from Philip Lindsay.

Then I read from Geoffrey Dutton’s life of Kenneth Slessor (p. 95-6):

Joe Lynch was one of a remarkable group of black-and-white artists, including Unk White and George Finey, who came from NZ to work in Australia. Finey was a friend of the Lynch family in Auckland and in a letter to Douglas Stewart recalled that:

‘Every Saturday night the Lynch family used to stage a cultural party – poetry reading, literary discussion, art chatter, and always, time was given to sculptors, past and present. Papa Lynch was a stonemason. At these get-togethers Joe was in his element and played several violin compositions. He was a good musician.’

Joe’s brother Frank, known as Guy, became a successful sculptor in Sydney. Joe and George Finey met in London during the war. George was in the army but Joe was too young, so had to get away to the action in the Red Cross. 

Finey crossed the Tasman in 1919 to join Smith’s Weekly, and urged Joe Lynch and Unk White to join him. Joe’s first drawing appeared in Smith’s in 1923.

In the same letter to Stewart, Finey says that it was ‘through Nellie Melba’s influence with the Herald people’ that Joe Lynch was appointed artist to that paper. Jack Lindsay corroborates this, and says that Melba knew Joe through her admiration of his brother Guy’s work. 

Vane Lindsay speaks of Lynch’s ‘typical-of-the-times “innocent” humour that was incredibly so at times,’ and goes on to say, ‘His drawing style too typified that of the period but without “art deco” mannerisms. He drew with both pen and brush – his Punch work was a combination of both, characterized by crisp, distinctly individual draughtsmanship that was truly comic.’

. . . Unk White said that he found Joe ‘a warm and helpful friend, yet with a nihilistic streak to his character’ which White put down to ‘too much reading and philosophy, it made him pessimistic . . . He had read Lenin.’ Jack Lindsay, more amenable to Lenin, recalled him as ‘A sprawling good-natured lad fired with socialist hopes and ready to fight the whole villainous world single-handed.’

Next I plundered the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Frank ‘Guy’ Lynch, of which this is a doctored version:

Joseph Young Lynch was the younger brother of Francis Ennis Lynch, usually known as Guy; they were born, two years apart, in the 1890s in North Carlton, Melbourne, sons of Joseph Patrick Lynch, mason, and his wife Annie, née Connor, both Victorian born. The brothers were educated at Christian Brothers’ College, East Melbourne, before the family moved to Auckland, New Zealand.

Guy Lynch enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, was allocated to the artillery, fought at Gallipoli and in France; in 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal ‘for acts of gallantry in the field’ and promoted sergeant. Meanwhile Joe Lynch worked with the British Red Cross Society in London and France. After the war was over Joe studied briefly at the Elam School of Arts & Design, Auckland, before abandoning formal tuition in favour of developing his drawing by sketching street-life alongside his friend C. J. (‘Unk’) White.

Guy Lynch became a sculptor and was commissioned to make war memorials in Wellington and at Devonport, Auckland. In 1922, artist and army friend George Finey, who was working there for Smith’s Weekly, persuaded him to come to Sydney; Guy in turn convinced his brother Joe to come along too.

They entered the bohemian community ‘for ever bawling in honour of Michelangelo’. On one drunken evening the damp clay of a commissioned bust of Sir Joynton Smith, publisher of Smith’s Weekly, provided material for a studio mud-fight. Guy’s work ‘The Satyr’, shown at the Society of Artists’ younger group exhibition in 1924, created a sensation, being hailed as a masterpiece and damned as ‘a pagan work’. It was bought for the National Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The Satyr was modelled upon the features of Joe Lynch, described by Jack Lindsay as ‘a looser and wilder version’ of his brother; who had, also in Lindsay’s words, ‘an Irish-Australian face, rough and tough and of the wildwood, yet sensitive’. Joe was a black and white artist and a freelance cartoonist; by 1925 he was drawing for Melbourne Punch, where he met Kenneth Slessor. In 1926 he was back in Sydney as the youngest member of the Smith’s Weekly art staff. On 14 May 1927, while drunk, Joe threw himself off a Mosman-bound ferry near Fort Denison, fought off a would-be rescuer and drowned; his body was never recovered. Joe’s unruly life and tragic death inspired Slessor’s elegy, ‘Five Bells’.

Guy ‘went to pieces’ after Joe’s death. However he in time recovered and went on to have a long and successful career as an artist, and, latterly, as a poultry farmer at Picton. In 1977 his widow paid for ‘The Satyr’ to be cast in bronze. Placed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, it is a memorial to the unfulfilled promise of both brothers.

Actually, I think I only read fragments from the last two paragraphs but did summarize some of the other material. This was by way of an introduction to reciting Michele Leggott’s poem ‘The Digger and the Faun‘, which is about two Guy Lynch sculptures – one on the war memorial at Devonport, Auckland, the other the Satyr in the Botanical Garden’s in Sydney. I had Michele’s permission to read the poem and she has extended that permission to include its reproduction here:

the digger and the faun

Joe Lynch is that you    the untidy

soldier above the eighty six names

of those who didn’t come back    you’ve

removed your hat    you stare down

the road to where the Kea is embarking

another load of partygoers for the city

Joe Lynch your blue eyes are entirely notional

but he hears the quartermaster’s whistle

and remembers the boats taking them off

under cover of darkness    did he set you up

little brother    a paid job after the war

before you ran for the Sydney boat

the mad Lynches leaving town together


it wasn’t the first time    and maybe

he wanted the face of a returned man

up there on the stone that faces

the harbour    you were both on the turps

in King Street by the time they unveiled it

celebrating another adventure with

the art-loving public    goatfoot dancer

redheaded slinger of mud and one-liners

Joe Lynch you roaring Dionysian    quiet

in bronze above another harbour    watching

the ferries plug around the point    they said

you jumped off because the Kiandra was slow

and the bottles in your pockets heavy

they said you wanted to get to the party

Joe Lynch is that you    digger and faun

watching each other across the dark water


And here’s the faun:

After that I mentioned the fact that in Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ Joe Lynch, or his avatar, is mute; and went on to talk a bit about the muteness that afflicted me, as a NZer in Australia, in the first decade of my sojourn here. In the early 1990s, I think it was, I found an image of this muteness in a consideration of Middleton Reef, which lies embryonic and littered with shipwrecks out in the Tasman Sea. I guess I felt like one of those wrecks myself – and perhaps at times still do – but remember resolving this feeling by means of a found story. A single-handed sailor, making the Tasman crossing from east to west, was wrecked on the reef and spent some time stranded there subsisting upon molluscs and rain water; exploring the hulks; and I don’t know what else. When he was at length found, and his wife in New Plymouth was told, she evinced no surprise. I always knew he was alive, she explained. I could hear him thinking. As if the head were a radio that may be tuned into randomly, over distance, by whoever. This thought comforted me and I was able to move on.

My talk, too, moved on – to the inception of Colin McCahon’s muteness, or something very like it, during his 1984 visit to Sydney; but I was more interested in telling the audience what I could about his first visit here, in 1951, during which something intrinsic to his development as a painter was unlocked. I was interested in that arc, from the descent upon him of expressive power, in 1951, to its final departure from him, three and a bit decades later, in 1984. There was a long section about that 1951 visit in the ms of my book ‘Dark Night : Walking with McCahon‘, that for various reasons which I won’t go into here (tho’ I did in the talk), was excised from the text.

I mostly quoted McCahon’s own words:

‘In 1951 poet and cultural impresario, the independently wealthy Charles Brasch, paid for McCahon to take a six week trip to Melbourne to look at the paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria. Brasch did so as an ‘anonymous donor’ but that would seem to have been a convenient fiction, at least in so far as McCahon, who certainly knew the identity of his benefactor, was concerned. He sailed on the Wanganella to Sydney, spent a day or two there, and then went, probably by train, to Melbourne—there is a letter to Brasch from somewhere north of Wagga Wagga, through which the railway line goes: . . . it is all so magnificent. The vast tree-dotted landscape in such lovely colours. It feels so entirely unlike N.Z., in spite of its size so much more friendly.

McCahon was in Melbourne during July and August of that year and spent some time travelling, for instance going to stay with a friend, Alan McCullough, on the south coast of Victoria. He loved Australia, which he found to be a really foreign land . . . so much country which is beautiful, just so different to N.Z. So much more human & soft. Little or none of the N.Z. grandeur . . . The greens are quite unbelievable & the soil all light red. Trees everywhere but no undergrowth. Hill shapes very different from ours too & the feeling of distance even in small areas of landscape enormous. The hills in the distance really blue becoming ink blue further away. He even anticipating moving countries and becoming a New Australian: I am sure I will do so sometime & when the cost comes down.

He was not so impressed by the paintings he saw: Am most disappointed by almost all the local painting. A lot more slickness than in N.Z. (but we will get around to that I’m sure). A lot of modern art which is worthless—nothing more than just fashionable. Nor were the old masters the revelation that they might perhaps have been expected to be: The gallery in the end comes down to very few memorable pictures—the best the small Rembrandt self portrait, the Goya portrait & the El Greco portrait (which is the most interesting & best to learn from), the Cézanne in the second flight, a green Pissaro landscape, a large Turner landscape. The rest don’t count in the end. The Georges Rouault painting, Christ on the veil of  St Veronica (1938), a recent acquisition, caused him real distress. Murray Bail, speculating on this reaction, suggests it was not art-distress but life-distress—the idea of one man taking on such an amount of suffering. McCahon’s series of figurative Christian paintings concluded soon after his Australian trip and perhaps there is a negative connection here.

The most significant result of the Melbourne visit was an encounter with an older woman artist, Mary Cockburn Mercer, from whom McCahon took some lessons. Mary was old, she had attended the banquet for Rousseau in 1908. She had a broken leg and no money. She charged me three shillings an hour for ‘tuition’ for two hours in the afternoons—painting—and nothing at all for the mornings of looking—at the National Gallery—and nothing for the extra hours of conversation in the late afternoons. I was taught how to be a painter, and all the implications, the solitary confinement that makes a painter’s life. I remember her with great affection and gratitude. These lessons, he said, toughened up his thinking. I learned more in 3 days from her than ever before . . . I am both exhausted and elated.’

And this, from much later
‘In a 1978 letter to Kees Hoss, McCahon gave some insight into what that overseas trip had meant to him: If I got to Australia again I could be torn between there and here as I was in 1951. It does no good. And in the States I was mucked up by the open land around Salt Lake and out of Colorado. I don’t trust myself with new land. But here I know what I’m on about and don’t have to wonder where I belong and a problem is solved right away. I belong with the wild side of New Zealand. I’m too young yet to leave it. He was then nearly 60 years of age.’
Finally, I read a short section from ‘Dark Night’
‘Then I noticed the light: it had gone silver. A soft silver grey that was more intense than the ochre dark it succeeded, and seemed to have no source. Everything was suffused in this silvery grey emanation. I looked at my hand and it glowed with the same calm radiance. I walked a little way out into the open and stood, turning slowly full circle while watching the round of trees that ring the ground, turning too. Their tops were feathery and dark against the silver sky and they were pulsing, opening and closing the way anemones will in a sea pool. It was quieter now than it had been, quiet as it ever would be: in the dead of night, everything was alive.
Out on that hallowed ground I felt my own consciousness go, not into exile or oblivion but into what was round about. The earth hummed beneath my feet and that occult vibration rose through my legs, my trunk, my neck and out the top of my head, flowing forth in an invisible cloud to join the visible clouds above. My breathing synchronised with the breathing of the trees, my heart beat too. It was as if the very molecules of my body had joined a universal pulsation that did not have to mean, only to be. Like McCahon when he was lost in here, I had surrendered my identity; I had, like him, become just another entity among entities: as the trees pulled up moisture from the earth and exhaled it through their leaves into the air, so too did I inhale and exhale, so too did the insects, the birds, the animals; clouds and stars were likewise mortal bodies that expanded and contracted rhythmically for a long or short while then passed away.’

Curiously, in the question time afterwards, there was a lot of interest expressed in Mary Cockburn Mercer, who is not well known here. I ended up giving the copy of the excised ‘McCahon in Australia’ document I had read from, which includes a three or four page bio of Mary, to someone who wanted to know more about her.

I don’t know if I said in the talk, or perhaps afterwards, and it’s not original to me – tho’ I can’t remember who did say it – that Australia and New Zealand are like hemispheres of the same brain whose lateral connections have been severed, the way the corpus callosum (= ‘tough body’) used to be cut in those suffering from intractable mental disorders.

I should add that it’s probable that Joe Lynch, rather than throwing himself off the ferry, or attempting to swim ahead to the party (at George Finey’s) to which he was going, might simply have fallen backwards off the rail upon which he was sitting when the ferry lurched across the wake of another vessel.




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9 responses to “Talking About Joe Lynch

  1. Rachel

    Joe and Guy Lynch were my great uncles!

  2. Adrian Ingleby

    I live in Sydney. My grandfather Bernard Ingleby was an advertising writer/part-time poet who lived in NZ bet 1914 and 1925. I have family photographs taken at Bondi, NSW of Guy Lynch and Unk White who were close friends of Bernard & my parents. Are you interested in copies?

  3. Michael

    The picture of Middleton Reef brings to mind the final scene of ‘Solaris’. . .

  4. Tony Carr

    I have a friend, Phil Lynch, himself part of a large Irish-New Zealand Catholic family. He is, or was when I worked with him, a gifted and inspired psychotherapist and champion drinker. It pleased me then to refer to his family as the Lynch mob. When I met any of them they seemed to have that mixture of passion and creativity with an undercurrent of maudlin self-destruction.

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