Bill Remembered

Terence Clarke AM

Lynne and Terence Clarke at the Australian Galleries Exhibition, October 2006

I know very little of Bill�s country childhood, but it prepared him for life in the most enviable way; it gave him a wonderful sense of himself, an adamantine integrity. And perhaps the Australian countryside itself � its rhythms and seasons, the closeness to nature, the gentle toughness � provided one of the major themes of his life, not least of his art.

On leaving school in 1942 and not yet 18, he enlisted in the Navy; he served his country in destroyers in the Pacific. On discharge in 1946, he studied painting at East Sydney Technical College and the Julian Ashton Art School. He began his career as a painter in figurative work and cityscapes, and then in formal still-lifes. This was, by a progression � his paintings becoming less formal, the flowers less exotic � to lead him to his true metier. His paintings of Australian native plants, often in bushland or surprisingly surreal settings, have been acclaimed both by critics for their artistry and by botanists for their accuracy. He is represented in the National Gallery, in regional collections in New South Wales and Queensland, and in private collections in Great Britain, the USA, Europe, and as far a field as Ethiopia. In the last few years of his life he taught himself screen printing, and began a series of wonderfully detailed prints. Towards the end, ill-health (which he typically made light of) increasingly slowed him down. He is reckoned as fine a painter of Australian flora as we have produced. Had he been more ambitious he might have gone much further; but that was not his way, not his life.

That brief history is easily given; but how can I present the essence of the man? Bill had many qualities. He was self-effacing, as only the self-sufficient are. In his attitude to life he was one of the most fearless and capable people I have ever met. If something had to be done, who better to do it than he? A friend cannot afford furniture for his new house? Buy the tools and wood, design the plans, and help him make it; and, for good measure, carve an intricate linenfold pattern. A new coat is too expensive? Buy a sewing-machine, borrow a book on tailoring from the library, and there is your new coat, and trousers too. He could turn his hand with equal facility, with the same quiet confidence, to carpentry (he substantially assisted in the alterations and extensions to the Church Point house), paperhanging, crochet, house-painting, paper-making, pest control, gardening, tennis, cooking, car maintenance... To each task he brought a painstaking thoroughness and a zestful enjoyment that ensured the results were excellent, the task worthwhile. He was contented and fulfilled.

Bill was something of a Bohemian, both in his way of life and, more profoundly, in his lack of interest in worldly success and mindless conformity. Although not an intellectual, he pursued ideas intuitively; thus, to produce a series of circus paintings, he joined a travelling tent-show for a year. In the second half of his life, he tended to be reclusive; he was, nevertheless, a concerned citizen, and was engaged by the issues of our times, though he come to repose less faith in political parties and in institutions generally than once he had done.

I shall remember him most, perhaps, for the qualities he brought to friendship; he took friendship seriously, was indeed a passionate and loyal friend, which may seem ironical in one so self-sufficient. Peaceable; sweet and amiable; kind; serious, yet with a twinkling sense of fun; calm; understanding; always wanting to know what you had been up to, how it was with you � he was one of the few people whose company I always welcomed. Bill and Trevor Andersen lived together for 23 years; Bill�s love, devotion and support were an example to anyone fortunate enough to bask in their reflected glow.

Do I seem to be describing a saint, someone larger than life?

He was wonderfully life-size, with an appetite for life that makes most of us seem dainty eaters; he was surely in touch with the wellsprings of existence. And as to sainthood: well, we are all called to be saints.

I have images of Bill: thoughtful at his easel; playing the recorder; sitting after dinner listening to music (one of his great loves) while he crocheted; Bill in the garden, talking to the plants, perhaps discovering something new; Bill feeding the cats; Bill in the kitchen with a glass of wine, laughing as he prepared a meal (and always a delicious meal). And I realise that what I treasure most in Bill is simply this: his goodness. He was a good man. I have not known many.

From the book William Ernest Fletcher 1928–1983: Australian Wildflowers, Still Life and Streetscapes (2006)