This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Samuel Laurence (Sam) Atyeo (1910-1990), artist, designer and diplomat, was born on 6 January 1910 at Brunswick, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Alfred Vincent Atyeo, chauffeur, and his wife Olivia Beatrice Victoria, née Cohen. In childhood Sam suffered from bronchial illness and during prolonged periods of convalescence occupied himself with drawing. He studied architecture at the Working Men’s College and attended the National Gallery schools (Grace Joel prize, 1930). His submission for the gallery’s travelling scholarship was rejected because it lampooned the director, Bernard Hall. The painting was controversially unveiled in the Collins Street shop of Frederick Ward, a furniture and interior designer. Atyeo later replaced Ward as main designer at Cynthia Reed’s shop in Little Collins Street, where, exhibiting his paintings, he met Bert Evatt and his wife Mary Alice; they became lifelong friends.
At a time when Australian painters such as George Bell and William ‘Jock” Frater were preoccupied with post-impressionism, Atyeo was impelled to explore emergent styles in European art. John and Sunday Reed encouraged him and he joined their circle. In 1934 he produced what is believed to be the first Australian abstract canvas, `Organised Line to Yellow’ (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra), in the style of Paul Klee. Atyeo’s output over the next three years influenced the development of an Australian school of abstract painting. Applying his architectural training, he also designed façades and interiors, notably for Edward Dyason.
In October 1936 Atyeo sailed for Paris. There Louise Dyer befriended him and he regularly attended her salon of artists and composers. Other than surrealism, which he regarded as stillborn, Atyeo delighted in the artistic movements of the day. His socialist views were strengthened by contact with refugees of the Spanish Civil War; he designed propaganda posters for the Republicans. In 1939 he bought a farm at Vence in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France. He moved there with Moya Dyring after the German occupation of Paris in 1940. Atyeo and Dyring made their way to the Bahamas then to Dominica. They were married in a civil ceremony on Barbados on 29 May 1941 and later divorced.
Evatt, as minister for external affairs, personally recruited Atyeo into his service, probably in 1942. During a temporary appointment that was to last for about eight years, he enjoyed unhindered access to Evatt; this intimacy and Evatt’s use of him to inform on officers in the Department of External Affairs caused many career diplomats to be suspicious and jealous of him. Atyeo was first attached to the office of the director-general of war supplies procurement in New York. Soon he was accompanying Evatt in both official and unofficial capacities as one of his few trusted advisers. Atyeo earned a reputation for gregarious bluntness and intemperate speech; (Sir) Winston Churchill is reported to have described him as the most foul-mouthed diplomat in the world.
By 1945 Atyeo was a second secretary with the Australian legation in Paris. He was often paired with a senior diplomat, John Hood, to handle briefs Evatt regarded as sensitive. In 1947 he assisted Hood, the chief Australian representative with the United Nations special committees on the Balkans and Palestine. Unlike Evatt, Atyeo opposed the partitioning of Palestine. Atyeo’s selection in 1948 to succeed Thomas Gregson as Australian delegate on the Balkans committee was questioned by the Federal Opposition and the Commonwealth Public Service Clerical Association. With the fall of the Australian Labor Party government in December 1949, Atyeo lost Evatt’s protection and was dismissed from the service on 1 April 1950.
Atyeo returned to his farm at Vence and grew roses and grapes. In November 1950 he married Anne Lecoultre. Having virtually ceased painting in the late 1930s, he returned to his easel about 1960. He rarely visited Australia and seldom exhibited after World War II; among his Australian exhibitions, one was organised by John Reed at George’s Gallery (1963), Melbourne, and another by Jennifer Phipps at Heide Park and Art Gallery (1982-83). Survived by his wife, Atyeo died on 26 May 1990 at Vence.
The importance of Atyeo to the modernist movement in Australian painting and design is often neglected. He valued the sheer power of colour and its relationship with other arts such as music and poetry. His approach to modern interior design was premised on a fusion of utility and simplicity in keeping with contemporary social and economic conditions of domestic living. He championed greater use of natural light, brighter interiors and diversity of materials. In later life he disparaged his diplomatic career as mere `international politicking’.
Daniel Mandel, 'Atyeo, Samuel Laurence (Sam) (1910–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/atyeo-samuel-laurence-sam-12154/text21777, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 October 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007