Clifton Pugh, one of Australia’s most celebrated artists and three-time winner of the Archibald Prize for portraiture, lived on his 15 acre property “Dunmoochin” at Cottle’s Bridge in country Victoria. Clifton, born in Melbourne on 17 December 1924, was a prolific painter and print-maker of landscape and portrait subjects. He received the honour of Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to art. A staunch supporter of the Australian Labor Party, one of his memorable Archibald wins was for his 1972 painting of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.
I first saw one of Clifton’s paintings during the early sixties, and was impressed by the very “Australian” style he used. That painting was of the carcase of a dead animal in the desert, painted in strong yellows and reds, with expressionistic black outlining. I got to know Clifton in about 1988, whilst photographing a series of works he had produced on the theme of Leda and the Swan; for which I used a studio lighting technique I had developed which correctly threw the brush-strokes into relief. They were made into high-quality posters, which Clifton loved, saying that they looked as good as the originals.
He wanted to talk about photographing his entire (vast) collection, so I visited him at Dunmoochin to discuss the idea. That led to a very pleasant day of chatting, eating, and drinking some very fine wines produced by neighbour and good mate, Professor Malcolm Lovegrove. The pictures I shot of him were made in his living area, where a cute wallaby was hopping about, and emus were occasionally putting their heads in through the windows.
Victoria was suffering from an extended drought at the time. More wines had been opened, as Malcolm had come over for an afternoon chat. The conversation had really relaxed, when I asked where the toilet was. Clifton said “There’s not enough water in the tanks for that, come with me”, and led me out onto his back verandah. “There you go, piss over the edge”. As we both stood there, pissing over the edge, he told me a great little story.
He had served in New Guinea with the Australian Infantry Forces during WW11. He and a small group of soldiers had been assigned the task of destroying a Japanese post. As they were watching the bamboo building, one of the Japanese soldiers came out onto an upstairs balcony to relieve himself over the edge. Clifton and his group took the opportunity and opened fire, machine-gunning all occupants.
“Funny thing is, whenever I take a piss out here, I always have a furtive little look around for Japanese”.
Several months later, Clifton suffered a major heart attack. He felt so restricted in hospital, and insisted that his painting gear be brought in, so that he could spend his time painting in his hospital attire, with various tubes attached to his body. He was unstoppable, until 14 October 1990, when he finally gave up the ghost.
P.S. I recently read that the WW11 exploit he described was a somewhat different story. Apparently, the Japanese soldiers they had killed were in the process of surrendering. Clifton was overcome with guilt, and from that moment became a pacifist. He was stridently opposed to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war.