Neil Douglas

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Neil Douglas (1911-2003)

Aotearoa New Zealander | Australian | British



Aotearoa New Zealand
October 2003

Nhill, Victoria, Australia
Australia from c. 1912

Neil was born in New Zealand in 1911, the son of Robert and Ethel Douglas.  He then moved to Melbourne to study painting at the National Gallery School of Melbourne, but devoted most of his time to pottery, Douglas introduced a unique style of the environment to the earthenware produced in the AMB (but also painted on a regular basis He continued to make pottery until about 1964, at which time he resumed painting, in the same year he held his first one- man exhibition of paintings at the Toorak Gallery in Melbourne. Towards the latter years in Neil Douglas career he found a keen interest in the protection of the natural environment

Douglas introduced a quirky depiction of the environment to the earthenware produced at AMB. Using a direct, tempera-style technique – applying the underglaze colour onto the leather-hard clay surface before the application of a clear overglaze and subsequent firing – he created idiosyncratic pieces that combined a feathery but skilful painting style with simple thrown forms.

Kangaroo platter, c.1950, is an excellent example of Douglas’s practice of this time. It is wheel-thrown glazed earthenware with a painted underglaze image of kangaroos in a bush setting composed with grass trees and eucalypts. The form, a simple plaque, and the scene, deftly painted but poetic, are characteristic of Douglas’s style. Formerly in the collection of Gora Singh Mann, Sydney, Kangaroo platter was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, along with three other fine pieces by Douglas, from a prominent Melbourne collector.

Douglas moved to Kangaroo Ground, Victoria, in the early 1960s following the closure of AMB. He continued to make pottery until about 1964, at which time he resumed painting, which had been the major part of his creative practice before the mid 1940s. In later life Douglas moved to Nhill, in western Victoria, where he continued to paint, often spending extended times in the bush.

During his lifetime, Douglas was highly regarded as both a potter and painter. He was also recognised as a passionate conservationist and a charismatic and eccentric individual. In 1975 he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to conservation and the arts. The occasion was described by Philip Jones in an obituary that appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald after Douglas’s death in 2003:

On October 1, 1975, 63 distinguished citizens of the State of Victoria foregathered, each to receive an imperial honour … The male recipients, mostly sportsmen – including footballer Keith Grieg and cricketer Ian Redpath – donned neat blue suits … The odd man out was Neil Douglas. This much loved environmental artist wore a hessian suit he had woven, dyed, and tailored himself. To add insult to injury he was shoeless. His hair (which, he claimed, had not been cut for 20 years) and his beard almost obscured his quizzical, rosy, bony face … His contribution to our Australian civilisation was, arguably, greater than any other of the Queen’s chosen few at Government house that day.

National Gallery of Victoria


Neil was one of a kind. He battled government bureaucracy, vested interest and public indifference to preserve the integrity of the bush.

He was a gardener of genius, a lobbyist of pragmatic skill and an artist of talent. He was a proselytiser who constructed a unique lifestyle; a way of living which would, he hoped, be emulated by a generation of "drop-outs" - or, as he preferred to designate the phenomenon, "drop-ins".

Neil's family emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand after the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde at the end of the 19th century in Britain. Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar's lover, was a cousin and the shame associated with the scandal drove this branch of the family to the nether ends of the Earth.

Neil created three distinct gardens throughout his lifetime. The first was a bush landscape on Kangaroo Island (South Australia) when he was a teenager. When his father asked Neil what he intended to do with his life after escaping from the family home in Adelaide, he replied, "I intend to retire."

The second was an "English" garden on a property bought by his widowed mother at Bayswater, Victoria.

"It is possible," he said, "to make a few acres into an island of plenty, I planted the garden at Bayswater like that, so it was at once useful, tame and ordered, and yet everywhere a tumultuous tangle of tumbling richness all around the house. When I came back from the army I can remember smelling my home from half a mile away."

It all came to a tragic end when his mother sold the property to a quarry and the garden was bulldozed. Neil had mounted a campaign to save it and, although his efforts failed, he discovered in himself a talent for public relations. The Age, in particular, gave sympathetic coverage to his cause.

Sadly, the problem emanated from Neil's estrangement with his mother. Once Mrs Douglas had disposed of the property there was little that the state or the media could do about the impending loss of a great garden. The protective role of the National Trust was not to come for another decade.

Neil's best-known garden - even by those who never visited it - was at the Bend of Islands, Kangaroo Ground. In 1964 Neil formed a co-operative consisting of 47 families who wished to live in harmony with the bush and indigenous wildlife.

He was their undisputed leader and became their spokesman for State Government approval. Dogs and cats were banned, but Neil - to the chagrin of some members of the community - insisted on keeping goats. He always tended to be a law unto himself.

Neil enjoyed a comfortable childhood and received a good education. His father was a businessman of middle rank who, with his wife and three children, moved from New Zealand to Australia.

Neil went to Brighton Grammar School, in Melbourne, and St Peter's College, Adelaide.

He first became fascinated with the natural world when, as a small boy, he explored the ti-tree coast of Port Phillip Bay.

"There were possums, birds and wild orchids. Apart from this patch of bush most of the beach front had been cleared to the high-tide line and built on. I was angry at what my elders were doing. It turned me into a raging conservationist."

At that time Neil was aged eight.

Today the once misfit Neil Douglas is as much honoured at Brighton Grammar as is the iconoclastic Barry Humphries at Melbourne Grammar School.

Neil lived at Heide with John and Sunday Reed in the late 1930s; he became their close friend, and worked with them on their seven-hectare garden.

One humiliating incident remained in his mind. After lunch one day the Reeds and Sidney Nolan went down to the Yarra River to sketch.

"Since you're not interested in art, you can do the washing up," John Reed instructed him.

When war was declared Neil joined the army and was permitted to join the non-combative meteorological section. In the adjoining cartographic division he met Arthur Boyd and John Perceval.

After the war he worked with them firing and decorating pottery at Murrumbeena.

In 1949 he married Vivienne Eccles, a chemist with the Country Roads Board, with whom he had three children. He was rarely out of the news and a storm of controversy arose when his son Fabian was asked to leave the Hurstbridge School because of his refusal to cut his long hair. Again The Age supported a Neil Douglas campaign for personal expression.

Neil's last great cause was to fight the Board of Works decision to allow wholesale development of 154 hectares of land in Warrandyte on the opposite side of the river to the Bend of Islands. After a strenuous campaign the forces of rural enlightenment won.

The Age reported in November 1981, "He [Neil] would like to have it on record that the battle was won because of the efforts of the locals, the shires, the Liberal and Labor Parties and the government." A rare example of Neil attempting to control his ego.

After his marriage to Vivienne ended around 1960 he lived with his common-law wife, Abigail Heathcote, at the Bend of Islands. They collaborated on two books, Far Cry, and Book of Earthly Delights, which detailed their day-to-day lives in the bush with Heathcote's daughter Biddie.

After this relationship ended in the early 1970s, he became a recluse. He lived in a caravan in South Gippsland and painted with furious intensity. Success, albeit late in life, followed with exhibitions at the Georges Gallery and the Toorak Gallery in Melbourne.

He spent his last, fading, years in Nhill where he was cared for by his close friend, Pauline McCracken. It was conveniently close to his beloved Little Desert, whose wild flowers he had painted over several decades.

Neil leaves his sons Linden, Fabian and Rowan, and his sister Margaret.

Philip Jones

1.  When I was introduced to this artist, I thought that he would be a descendant of the Douglas family of Kangaroo Point, but that appears not to be the case.  I would welcome further details of his ancestors. Perhaps there was a conection and that is why he cose this location to settle in?



Sources for this article include:
  • National Gallery of Victoria

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