The Antipodean artist Charles Blackman was best known for his paintings of schoolgirls and the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland. Largely, but not entirely, self-taught he became one of Australia's most popular artists.
Charles Blackman was born in the Sydney harborside suburb of Harbord, the third child of Charles Cervic Blackman, a mechanical engineer, and his wife Marguerite Brown, who always preferred fantasy to reality. His father abandoned the family when the boy was four, leading his mother to work long hours at a waitress at Circular Quay – and when she could not cope the children were placed in Dalwood Homes. In primary school he was (briefly)taught by Rah Fizelle. He left school at 13, after an extended bout mumps which confined him to bed. His mother gave him paints to keep him occupied. In 1942 he was employed by the Sydney Sun, first as a copy boy and later as an art cadet. In about 1947 he enrolled in painting classes under Hayward Veal at the Meldrum School of Art, but did not find this to his taste. However he did enjoy the drawing classes at SORA (Studio of Realist Art)and the Sketch Club in Haymarket. The New Zealand poet, Lois Hunter, introduced him to modern art and he began to read twentieth century European literature. Her edition of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror introduced him to the work of Odilon Redon. In 1948 he followed Hunter to Brisbane where he met other modernist artists and poets, including his future wife, Barbara Patterson. In 1951 Blackman and Patterson moved to Melbourne where they married, spending the following years. In 1952 Blackman came to the attention of the art patrons John and Sunday Reed, with whom he later quarrelled, as well as the art critic Alan McCulloch. Accounts of the unsolved murder of Barbara’s childhood friend, Betty Shanks, inspired his first series of schoolgirl paintings. Barbara was slowly going blind, and so he read to her children’s and fantasy literature, which came in turn to influence his own art, especially Alice in Wonderland. In 1959, encouraged by Bernard Smith, he joined with fellow artists to assert the value of the figurative image in the Antipodeans exhibition, and designed the exhibition poster. On seeing his paintings Sir Kenneth Clark suggested he exhibited in London. The Blackman family arrived in London on 2 February 1961, and soon joined the lively expatriate community of Australians. In 1966, missing the sunshine and the beaches, they returned to Australia, travelling first to Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane but ultimately to Sydney. In June 1978, in part because she was irritated by his constant infidelity, Barbara wrote a formal resignation from their marriage, giving him two weeks notice. Blackman subsequently painted a series of nightmare paintings, based in part on Fuseli’s horse, using the actress Kate Fitzpatrick as his model. A relationship with a 19 year old student, Genevieve de Couvreur, led to his second marriage. He continued to admire Barbara and at his 50th birthday presented her with the large canvas, Fifty Flowers (with a white cat in the corner). He first stayed at Buderim, on the Gold Coast, in 1979 and by 1981 was spending most of his time there, painting on themes of lovers, living in idyllic lush tropical beauty. In 1982 he collaborated with the Sydney Dance Company in Dialogues, Daisy Bates and later Spindrift for the Western Australian Ballet Company. In 1984, after the birth of their second child, Blackman and Genevieve separated. From 1985 he began to base much of his work on the butterflies and vegetation of north Queensland, travelling with the poet Al Alvarez. He also worked closely with the Sydney print workshop, Port Jackson Press. In 1989 he married Victoria Bower, whom he later also divorced. His later exhibitions of recent work were not well received by the critics, who noted their uneven quality and bulk production. However the 1993 retrospective, Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels at the National Gallery of Victoria, demonstrated the full range of his poetic vision. In his last years Blackman suffered from dementia and his affairs were managed by the Charles Blackman Trust, established by his accountant Tom Lowenstein. He died a week after his 90th birthday.