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Albert Lee Tucker (1914–1999)

by Janine Burke

This article was published online in 2024

Self portrait by Bert (Albert) Tucker, 1940

Self portrait by Bert (Albert) Tucker, 1940

State Library of Victoria, 1811908

Albert Lee Tucker (1914–1999), artist, was born on 29 December 1914 at Footscray, Melbourne, youngest of three children of Victorian-born parents John Henry Lee Tucker, train carriage repairer, and his wife Clara Ann, née Davis. He was named after his grandfather Albert Tucker (1843–1902), an enterprising businessman and shrewd politician, who was twice mayor of Fitzroy and a member (1874–1900) of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Tucker’s dour and lacklustre father worked for the Victorian Railways. Educated at Spring Road State School, Malvern, Bert left school at the end of 1929 after winning a drawing competition, the prize for which was a year’s free tuition at a commercial art school. He also spent a day a week learning carpentry at Swinburne Technical College, Hawthorn. It was an education that well equipped him to find work during the Depression as a commercial artist and ticket and sign writer.

From 1933 Tucker attended life drawing classes three nights a week at the Victorian Artists’ Society, East Melbourne. It was the beginning of his long, self-generated apprenticeship. Malcolm Good, a fellow student, remembered Tucker’s sense of high purpose and ambition: ‘He had a conception of himself as a professional artist with a career and a market ahead of him’ (Burke 2002, 30). Tucker considered university study or enrolment at the National Gallery Art School but could afford neither. In a review of a 1937 VAS show, the Herald art critic Basil Burdett praised Tucker’s Self Portrait (1937), describing it as ‘turbulent and romantic,’ with a ‘real command of form’ (1937, 11).

In 1938 Tucker met Joy St Clair Hester (1920–1960), a gifted student at the National Gallery Art School. The couple shared a home and studio in a Little Collins Street loft and became part of an inner-city bohemia that frequented galleries, cafes, and bookshops. Tucker was a founding council member (1938) of the Contemporary Art Society, a backlash against conservative cultural forces that was initiated by the influential modernist artist and teacher George Bell. A new emotional maturity and depth entered his art accompanied by the influence of surrealism, evidenced by the dream-like landscape and enigmatic figure of The Philosopher (1939, National Gallery of Australia).

Tucker and Hester became closely involved with the art patrons Sunday and John Reed, and were regular visitors to Heide, the Reeds’ home on the Yarra River at Heidelberg, with its extensive library and art collection. To support Tucker’s art career, the Reeds would pay him a stipend until 1953. (Sir) Sidney Nolan (1917–1992), who was Sunday’s lover, was also part of the group, as was the Adelaide-based poet Max Harris (1921–1995), founder and editor of the arts journal Angry Penguins. Other members of Tucker’s circle included Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Yosl Bergner, and Danila Vassilieff. His evocative photographs capture their intense, entwined connections.

On 1 January 1941 Tucker and Hester were married at All Saints Church of England, Greensborough. Unwillingly, he was mobilised in the Citizen Military Forces in July, but he avoided an immediate call-up. In January 1942, feeling pressure to serve after Japan’s entry into World War II and believing the military police were pursuing him, he volunteered using the name Herbert Leslie Tucker. Beginning full-time duty in April, he trained as a medical orderly at Wangaratta. In September, diagnosed with mild schizophrenia, he was admitted to the 115th Australian General Hospital, Heidelberg, where he began to draw patients in the plastic surgery unit. He was discharged in October.

Returning to civilian life, Tucker established a prominent position for himself through his ‘aggressive participation in debates on the direction of modern art’ (McAuliffe 2011, 45). In an essay published in Angry Penguins, ‘Art, Myth and Society’ (December 1942), he attacked the cultural policies of the Communist Party of Australia (he was a member of the artists’ branch), declaring ‘There is no use for the progressive revolutionary artist, right, centre, or, unfortunately, left’ (Tucker 1942, 50). He rose to the presidency of the Victorian branch of the Contemporary Art Society in 1943, the year the art historian Bernard Smith proclaimed Melbourne ‘the chief storm centre of Australian art’ (Smith 1989, 24). The next year he criticised the selection of official war artists, whom he described as ‘one and all academic painters producing a dull and stereotyped version of 19th century European impressionism’ (Tucker 1944, 7).

Tucker’s wartime drawings of soldiers hospitalised for both physical and psychiatric conditions changed the tenor of his art. He discovered a visual vocabulary of disfigurement, trauma, and suffering on which he drew for the rest of his life. The initial result was Images of Modern Evil (1943–48), arguably Tucker’s most impressive series, which he painted while living in seedy boarding houses in East Melbourne and St Kilda. Informed by a chthonic surrealism, it depicts sexual licence and unease in Melbourne’s shadowy, wartime streets, where sinister homunculi float beneath street lights, their eyes on stalks, their mouths gaping, grinning, red crescents.

In 1945 Hester gave birth to a son, Sweeney. The marriage collapsed in April 1947 after Tucker’s return from a three-month trip to Japan, during which he had produced water colours for an American journalist. While Tucker was away, Hester had begun a new relationship with the artist Gray Smith and had also been diagnosed with cancer. Unaware of Hester’s previous affairs, Tucker was devastated. He took Sweeney to Heide to be cared for by the Reeds, who later adopted him. Tucker and Hester would eventually divorce in 1959, the year before her death.

Tucker left Australia in September 1947, sailing to London, before settling in Paris the next year. In 1949 he began a relationship with Mary Dixon, a French speaking American schoolteacher, who helped him to arrange a solo exhibition in Paris in 1952. Tucker built a caravan in which the couple lived by the Seine. They also spent time in Rome, where Tucker had an exhibition in 1953 and a combined show with Nolan in 1954. He contributed paintings to the Venice Biennale in 1956, then returned to London for two years. In 1958 his relationship with Dixon ended and he moved to New York, where he sold two paintings to the Museum of Modern Art and another to the Guggenheim Museum.

In October 1960 Tucker returned to Australia for the opening of an exhibition of his work at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art, founded by the Reeds. The show, which was followed by a national tour, was a critical and financial success, and presaged Tucker’s rise to pre-eminence in Australian painting. The next year he purchased a 1.2-hectare property at Hurstbridge, where he lived with Barbara Anne Russell, née Bilcock (1934–2015). She resigned her employment as a proof-reader at Melbourne University Press when they married in 1964. Tucker’s work had been referencing the Australian landscape for some years, but his return to Australia and his new environs gave it a fresh authenticity: ‘he was spellbound by the bush around him, the sight, sound and smell of nature pressing up against the windows of his studio’ (Fry 2005, 198). In earlier series such as Explorers, Antipodean Heads, and Bushrangers, Tucker had been exploring the theme of masculine endeavour and defeat set in harsh desert environments. He continued to develop this theme, but the grim male profiles were now titled Intruders, underscoring Tucker’s recognition of Indigenous dispossession.

Tucker was part of a wave of his contemporaries, including Boyd and Perceval, who profited from the 1960s boom in Australian art. His association with the stylish commercial Australian Galleries from 1962 to 1966, with the Herald art critic Alan McCulloch, and with Eric Westbrook, the director (1956–73) of the National Gallery of Victoria, meant he was well placed to capitalise on his good fortune. In 1964 he painted a sun-bronzed figure for the cover of Donald Horne’s bestselling The Lucky Country. He exhibited regularly both in Australia and overseas, including an exhibition of Images of Modern Evil at his son’s Sweeney Reed Gallery in 1972.

By 1961 Tucker’s connection with the Reeds had severed, and he wrote to Nolan that they were ‘a spent historical force’ (McCaughey 2006, 217), but his later ruminations on the Heide Circle and other participants in 1940s culture led to a 1985 exhibition and subsequent book Faces I Have Met (1986). It included portraits of Sweeney, who had tragically taken his life in 1979, and of the Reeds, who both died in 1981. The portraits reveal the deep and often troubled place Tucker’s circle occupied in his psyche: in several Sunday Reed is caricatured as a raddled hag and the images ‘verge on the demoniac’ (Haese 1986, 7). Tucker’s past emerged in another pictorial form. In the late 1970s he had left Hurstbridge and returned to St Kilda, purchasing ‘Woodside,’ a large Victorian home, from where he revisited Images of Modern Evil. In Night Ladies (1988, Heide Museum of Modern Art), the female demons of desire once more haunt his work, grotesque apparitions in St Kilda’s dark streets.

Tucker’s face was strongly boned with a definite, fleshy nose and alert, blue eyes. His usual attire was a crisp check shirt under a V-necked pullover with his hair and beard slicked into perfect composure. He appeared youthful even into his sixties. His strong, lucidly delivered opinions meant he was favoured by journalists, gallerists, and art historians. Robert Hughes observed Tucker was ‘a difficult man: sophisticated, brutally shrewd, obsessed with reputation, ironical, [and] intelligent’ (1964, 250).

Appointed AO in 1984 and honoured by a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1990, Tucker entered his older years with contentment and pride, an honoured cultural figure. In 1995, however, it emerged that Max Joffe, a friend and a gallerist, had stolen many works from Tucker’s studio. After a month-long trial, Joffe was convicted of theft in April 1998 and sentenced to eighteen months’ jail. The Tuckers decided to leave St Kilda to settle at Hoddles Creek, a lushly wooded area east of Melbourne. Debilitated by the stress of the Joffe trial, Tucker died on 23 October 1999 at Wantirna, and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Prior to his death, Albert and Barbara had promised more than two hundred artworks for progressive transfer to the Heide Museum of Modern Art, including some by Hester, Nolan, Boyd, Vassilieff, and Bergner. Barbara Tucker subsequently gave generously to the State Library of Victoria and after her death in 2015 the Albert and Barbara Tucker Foundation was established.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Albert Tucker: A Retrospective. Edited by James Mollison and Jan Minchin. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1990. Exhibition catalogue
  • Burdett, Basil. ‘Dull Mediocrity in Art Show.’ Herald (Melbourne), 26 April 1937, 11
  • Burke, Janine. Australian Gothic: A Life of Albert Tucker. Milsons Point, NSW: Knopf, 2002
  • Burke, Janine. The Eye of the Beholder: Albert Tucker’s Photographs. Bulleen, Vic.: Heide Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1998
  • Fry, Gavin. Albert Tucker. Roseville, NSW: Beagle Press, 2005
  • Haese, Richard. ‘Introduction.’ In Faces I Have Met, by Albert Tucker, 1–8. Hawthorn, Vic.: Century Hutchinson Australia, 1986
  • Hughes, Robert. ‘Albert Tucker.’ Art and Australia 1, no. 4 (February 1964): 250–59
  • Images of Modern Evil: Albert Tucker. Edited by Lesley Harding. Bulleen, Vic.: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Exhibition catalogue
  • McAuliffe, Chris. ‘“Footloose Fillies” and “Pretentious Penguins”: Victory Girls, Modern Evil and the Politics of the Melbourne Art World. In Images of Modern Evil: Albert Tucker, edited by Lesley Harding, 45–51. Bulleen, Vic.: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Exhibition catalogue
  • McCaughey, Patrick, ed. Bert and Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2006
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V155260
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V340454
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Smith, Bernard. The Critic as Advocate: Selected Essays, 1941–1988. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1989
  • Tucker, Albert. ‘Art, Myth and Society.’ Angry Penguins 4 (December 1942): 49–54
  • Tucker, Albert. ‘War Artists.’ Herald (Melbourne), 5 May 1944, 7

Additional Resources

Citation details

Janine Burke, 'Tucker, Albert Lee (1914–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tucker-albert-lee-32674/text40573, published online 2024, accessed online 29 May 2024.

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