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Donald Stuart Leslie Friend (1915–1989)

by Anne Gray

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Donald Friend, by Judy Cassab, 1976

Donald Friend, by Judy Cassab, 1976

National Library of Australia, 20511900

Donald Stuart Leslie Friend (1915-1989), artist and writer, was born on 6 February 1915 at Cremorne, Sydney, second of four children of Sydney-born parents Leslie William Moses, grazier, and his wife Gwendolyn Emily, née Lawson. His maternal grandfather was James Lawson. After a family quarrel in about 1920, Leslie Moses, with his brother Henry and their families, reverted to their mother’s maiden name of Friend. Donald attended Tudor House, Moss Vale, Cranbrook School, Sydney, and Sydney Grammar School, studied art with Sydney Long, and learned etching. On leaving school in 1931, he worked on the family property Glendon, near Warialda. With his mother’s clandestine support he ran away from home in 1932 and travelled north to Queensland and Torres Strait. When he returned to Sydney in 1934, he attended Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo’s classes.

In 1936 Friend went to London and enrolled at the Westminster School of Art under Mark Gertler and Bernard Meninsky. His drawings were shown in a group (1937) and a one-man (1938) exhibition at R. E. A. Wilson’s Gallery. In London Friend was impressed by the paintings of Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, El Greco and Hieronymus Bosch. Enjoying the African nightclubs, he fell in love with Ladipo, a Nigerian man from Ikerre, and in 1938 travelled to Nigeria, where, next year, he became an adviser to the Ogoga (leader) in Ikerre. Friend sought to understand Nigerian life and attempted to make sculpture with the casters’ guild, using their methods of `lost wax’ bronze casting.

On his return to Sydney in 1940 Friend mixed with the artists (Sir) Russell Drysdale and (Sir) William Dobell, and exhibited at the Macquarie Galleries and with the Society of Artists, Sydney. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 29 June 1942 as a gunner, he volunteered to be a guinea pig in experiments carried out in North Queensland in 1943 to test the efficacy of anti-malarial drugs. In March 1945 he was commissioned as a lieutenant and appointed a war artist. From May to September he served on Morotai and in Borneo. Back in Australia, he relinquished his appointment in March 1946. Many dramatic works—including evocative depictions of the Japanese dead—resulted from his official commission. His war diaries were published as Gunner’s Diary (1943) and Painter’s Journal (1946). He had painted his first import­ant works in Brisbane—dark, powerful images of human figures in the landscape.

In 1946 Friend moved into Merioola, a boarding house at Woollahra that was a Bohemian enclave. When he tired of that life he visited North Queensland and western New South Wales. In 1947 he purchased a wattle and daub miner’s cottage at Hill End, in which he lived with Donald Murray. Friend produced many images of Hill End and wrote a social history, Hillendiana (1956).

Ever restless, from 1949 Friend moved between Italy, Greece and England. In 1951 he was awarded the Flotta Lauro travelling art prize for his mural design Australiana. In Italy he met Attilio Guarracino, who became an enduring friend. Impressed by the Italian masters, Friend created a number of works in the Byzantine manner based on the icons that he collected. On his return to Australia in 1953 he painted at Hill End, in North Queensland, and at Drysdale’s studio in Sydney, with an occasional visit to Melbourne; he was often running away from unhappy love affairs.

In 1955 Friend won the Blake prize for religious art with `St John the Divine and Scenes from the Apocalypse’. From 1957 to 1962 he lived in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and between 1967 and 1979 in Bali, Indonesia, where he became known for a luxurious life in his house at Batujimbar, Sanur, surrounded by his collection of Balinese bronzes, carvings and porcelain. There he lived like a feudal lord, attended by houseboys and gardeners, and entertained by his own gamelan orchestra. He wrote Donald Friend in Bali (1972); a picaresque novel, Save Me from the Shark (1973); a celebration of Balinese life and culture, The Cosmic Turtle (1976); and an account of factual and fictional birds of Indonesia, Birds from the Magic Mountain (1977). An English film crew made a documentary, Tamu (The Guest) (1972), about him.

Suffering health problems and difficulties with Balinese authorities, in 1979 Friend returned to Australia, living first in Melbourne with Attilio and Ailsa Guarracino and from 1981 in Sydney. He published Coogan’s Gully (1979), Bumbooziana (1979), The Farce of Sodom (1980), An Alphabet of Owls Et Cetera (1981) and Songs of the Vagabond Scholars (1982). His last book, Art in a Classless Society & Viceversa (1985), was a satire of the Australian art world. In 1987 he suffered the first of several strokes. Previously left handed, he taught himself to paint with his right hand.

Friend’s drawings have a decorative, flowing quality, with a remarkable facility of line. His figure drawings reveal a sensuality that reflects his attraction to young men and boys. The humorous vein in his work had a serious purpose, in the tradition of English illustrators such as William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, and Shakespearean clowns. He made appealing drawings in Bali—exotic watercolours with oriental patterns and motifs—but many lacked the perception and vigour of his European and Australian work. Following his return from Bali he concentrated on still lifes, interiors and window views, in which he used sumptuous colour and dramatic compositions.

Despite his strong sense of self, Friend experienced considerable inner doubt. At 16 he had believed that he was `blessed with a genius for art and a talent for writing’. Coming from a privileged background he endorsed upper-middle-class values, yet he delighted in a creative rebelliousness. His assertive presence gave the impression of arrogance. A good conversationalist, he enjoyed playing practical jokes—in his life and art. Although he was noted for his biting wit and prickly nature, he also had qualities that enabled him to make strong friendships. He was flamboyantly homosexual but an affair in London in 1938, with the mistress of his dealer R. E. A. Wilson, had resulted in the birth of a daughter.

Friend painted many self-portraits including 'Donald Friend Starring in "Hamlet the Broken Hearted Clown"' (1966, National Gallery of Australia), in which he showed himself with many heads, like Cerberus, and cast himself as Hamlet, the thinker, who feigned madness. Drysdale twice (1943 and 1948) painted Friend’s portrait: the former is held privately, the latter by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The University of Sydney Union awarded Friend a university medal for his art in 1988. He died on 17 August 1989 in his home at Woollahra and was cremated. A retrospective exhibition was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1990. The National Library of Australia has published his diaries; his self-acknowledged paedophilia shocked many readers.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Hughes, Donald Friend (1965)
  • G. and C. Fry, Donald Friend: Australian War Artist 1945 (1982)
  • B. Pearce, Donald Friend 1915-1989 (1990)
  • L. Klepac (ed), The Genius of Donald Friend (2000)
  • The Diaries of Donald Friend, vol 1, A. Gray ed. (2001), vols 2 and 3, P. Hetherington ed. (2003, 2005)
  • series B883, item NX96987 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Anne Gray, 'Friend, Donald Stuart Leslie (1915–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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