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Donald Friend: a charmed life.

Donald Friend (1915-1989)

The Piazza, Portofino

Manuscript Collection, MS 5959/34

National Library of Australia

Painter, draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor, illustrator, writer, genius, rascal--Donald Friend's life attracted as much comment as his work. Born in 1915, Friend was one of Australia's leading modern artists, mentioned in the same breath as Russell Drysdale and William Dobell. Yet at the time of his death in 1989, he was as famous for the luxurious life he led in Bali, where he lived and worked from 1966 to 1980, as for his work as a visual artist.

This summer, the National Library of Australia is exploring Donald Friend's artistic and personal life through his art and his writings, particularly those in his substantial and captivating diaries. The exhibition, Donald Friend: A Charmed Life, curated by Lou Klepac, is a biographical survey of Friend from his earliest known work until the 1980s. Featuring 155 works, the exhibition takes the viewer to Hill End, depicts Friend's life as an official war artist, and traces his time overseas in London, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Bali, and in his hometown Sydney.

The highlight of the exhibition is the inclusion of all 44 of Friend's diaries from the Library's collection. On display for the first time, the diaries are a mixture of gifted writing and magnificent watercolour, pen and ink, and gouache drawings of some of the people, places and events that influenced his life.

Known as Manuscript 5959, the diaries are also the basis of an ambitious publishing project. Over the past five years and with the assistance of the Morris West Trust Fund, the Library has published four edited volumes, the final volume of which has just been released.

While some of his diary entries are very matter-of-fact, Friend's style is more often various, finely observed, irreverent, iconoclastic, snobbish and expansive. He is a wonderful storyteller:

'I got a little freshwater turtle--a tiny creature hardly bigger than a penny in circumference, and so cunningly designed, so neatly fitting, that he seemed to be more a work of art than of nature--an olive brown and green, jade colours shading to ivory, like a Chinese carving.' (28 November 1943)

He is also a fascinating chronicler of his life and times, a kind of latter-day Australian Samuel Pepys, but more wide-ranging than Pepys.

'The American sailors who periodically invade the town, land on the beach from great invasion barges such as they use in New Guinea. I stood awhile this evening watching them. They seem to be very jolly and undisciplined and full of loud voice. An odd thing I have noticed about Americans, they walk differently to us; they walk with a sort of mooch, a roll, a little like a camel, or like the sturdy Texan cowboys in films. Maybe that is why. They are so intensely Hollywood conscious, that with them one feels that every man is his own Gary Cooper.' (14 March 1943)

The fourth and final volume of The Diaries of Donald Friend (RRP $59.95), edited by Paul Hetherington, documents Donald Friend's legendary years in Bali in the 1960s and 1970s and his subsequent final decade in Australia. In Bali he lives luxuriously, like a lord--even keeping his own gamelan orchestra--and becomes an international celebrity artist. He welcomes guests such as Mick Jagger and the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, entertains numerous other visitors who want to buy his paintings and drawings, and socialises freely with friends, including many other artists. He engages in significant building activity and property development while also producing superb illustrated manuscripts and books. And despite increasing ill-health, Friend continues to revel in his life's drama and creativity, remaining an eloquent, often charming and sometimes irascible companion. Including over 60 drawings from the diaries, many of them in colour, this volume confirms Friend's quicksilver creative brilliance and extraordinary insight. He is perhaps Australia's most important twentieth-century diarist.

Donald Friend: A Charmed Life is in the Exhibition Gallery until Sunday, 4 February 2007

The Diaries of Donald Friend, Volumes 1-4 are available from the National Library Bookshop or online at

Kathryn Favelle

Manager--Publications and Research
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Author:Favelle, Kathryn
Publication:National Library of Australia Gateways
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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