1996 - 1998 Qantas Commission and QE2 works


by Helen Norton January 01, 1998

  

Cick here for the QE2 Exhibition

In 1996 a landslide of opportunity came my way after I held my second exhibition in Sydney. This first step led to 3 prime commissions with Qantas, several trips to Europe, a trip on the QE2, all expenses paid, an exhibition in London, and later an exhibition on board the QE2 on its Sydney to Darwin leg not to mention the making of some wonderful friends along the way.  My mental landscape grew exponentially from being that 'Broome painter from the outback' to one of the most sought after artists in Australia in very short time. 

The events morphed into one another as I found myself at the feet of opportunity from the get go. Of course I could have just settled for the first step - the commission but as is my way, I am an opportunist, and as I travelled I encountered openings and I just kept on saying YES to everything that came my way and threw in a few other ideas as well!  


It began when I was approached by Robin Berkeley and Trish Lamprell from Sydney Fine Art Publisher Berkeley Editions to paint a commission in 1996. Qantas had asked them to line up 12 top Australian artists to create an image each for a year of Qantas Club magazine covers.  In order to create the work each artist was flown to the destination preset by Qantas as the subject of the artwork.  Due to my work with dramatic character portrayal they chose me to do "The Captains Table".  I felt I got the best brief.  The 'research' involved me being flown to London, then travelling to Southampton to board the QE2 to sail the Transatlantic crossing to New York.  

I remember clearly Trish phoning me in my Broome studio.  She asked me if I was sitting down first, and then gave me the news. My first response (shock clearly gets covered with pragmatism!) was "But Trish I don't have a passport".   I soon made the arrangements and was waved goodbye by Robyn and Trish from Sydney airport a month later. I had two young children and so I had to arrange a nanny to care for them, and this was going to be my longest trip away.  I was excited and extremely reluctant to leave them. 

It was an incredible experience and my first ever trip overseas. A menagerie of new images flooded into my sphere at every turn.  When I was in London for a week prior to leaving, a client of mine had suggested that their local gallery, The Llewellyn Alexander Gallery at Waterloo,  was interested in looking at my portfolio with a view to holding an exhibition with me.  This went well and arrangements were made for an exhibition in January 1998.  The resulting exhibition was  "Dark Knights of the Soul" .  The days I had in London were cram packed with collecting ideas and photographs of the new world around me in rapid pace. I was in sensory overload and the journey for the commission had not even began.

 









When I boarded the QE2 in Southampton it was like entering a time warp.  The decor, the aura, and the mannerisms took me back to a place I had never been alive in! Perhaps the 1940's or even earlier.  Art deco reminding me of the first wild and wacking flapper days in the 20's. It was a capsule of memories obviously deliberately retaining a certain hey day feeling for many of the wealthy elderly regular travellers, some of them having made the QE2 their permanent home. I enjoyed excellent assistance from the officers and staff in gathering my material through interviews and access to areas of interest, including being sat at the Captains table to obtain really authentic research.  Of course the end painting is a fictional representation of those I met. I was after an exaggeration and caricature of past guests and a general feeling of the luxurious carnival of dining, lounging and lifestyle on board.



 

  

   


I met some very eccentric folk on board including the late James Stephenson the Third, a wealthy gay man from Florida who took me under his wing. When we arrived in New York the atmosphere was like nothing I have since experienced. Sounds so cliche, but it was very early in the morning and the sky was pink.  It blended into the sea, as we creased into the harbour silently under the great Varisano bridge, the twin towers still in the background.

I was so grateful to have James to escort me.  I was whisked away from tourist and travelled through the city with the locals.  What struck me was how people really lived in the city.  It was the epitome of a living breathing city, not the empty business buildings I was used to in Australia. Laundry shop fronts opened directly onto the very wide side walks, with huge streets and HUGE cars. James took me to meet some of his oldest friends in New York New York, and here I had a rare glimpse into inner city apartment life, and perhaps I might never have done so if it were not for James. 

 

 

 

 

I returned home very tired, on a long flight back from JFK Airport, then directly back to Broome from Sydney, which is another days flight.  I had only a week to complete the artwork before Bernard Shirley, Chief of Qantas Public Relations and his wife Toni were going to be in Broome.  Of course it was impossible and I am sure they didn't expect it completed so soon, but I wanted to and knew I could. I was deeply appreciative of the opportunity I had been given. I was quite crook from the journey and some thing I had eaten (and probably lack of sleep), had not seen my little kids in almost a month, and I had to do the work!  Anyway it was done, and I was happy with the result as were they. The work had to dry, be photographed and was then shipped over for their collection in the Qantas Club Lounges in Sydney. 

Exhibition on board the QE2 1997

While in London as I mentioned, I had set up the exhibition at Waterloo.  That was the next body of work for me to complete but I had another idea.  I thought it a great shame that I had collected so many images, ideas and sketches for a complete body of work while on the ship and only had one painting to create from it (the Qantas commission).  Of course I could have used the QE2 theme for the Waterloo show but I had already created a very London based theme for this.
So I booked a flight to Sydney and made an appointment with the director of Cunard lines (QE2) in Australia.   I took in a portfolio of paintings I had put together with the QE2 theme and asked if they would consider an exhibition especially for the QE2 in any of their venues or at an event.   The director did better than this, she offered me an opportunity (if I could manage the logistics) to hold the first full art exhibition on board the QE2 when it next returned to Australia.  I said yes of course, and zoomed home to get it done.  There was not much time but you know how it goes, when there is demand there is energy in any project.  Trish Lamprell joined me as my PA and together we dragged all the easels, paintings and our 'set up' on board in Sydney and collected our complimentary tickets to our little cabin to set sail from Sydney to Darwin.  I will always be deeply grateful to Robyn Berkeley and Trish Lamprell for these years.  We had much fun, and put all our passion into everything we did.  It was about just getting in and doing it!

 

 

 

 

I had also gathered material to create the portrait of the Commodore John Burton Hall. I made good friends with the Commodore and his wonderful wife Rosemary. They inspired quite a number of paintings after sharing many stories with me. I later stayed with them in their 400 year old home in Surrey.  The portrait can be seen in the background of the pictures of me in their cabin.

As a little side tangent in case you are wondering who the priest is - I also made a long time friend with the on board pastor Archdeacon Robert Willing (the gentleman on the left).  We caught up and shared letters for many years until his death by cancer.  A few years after we met, I was a mothers caution (my own) away from moving to New York at his invitation to begin a life there with him, with my boys at his property in Woodstock.  I wonder where that would have all led. So you see how many things blossomed (well almost) from the one Qantas commission.  The friendship I take with me as intensely important.  Perhaps its one of those forks one decides not to take.

On a career note, turning away from potential 'expansion' of my horizons was difficult, very difficult and not something I was inclined to do.  Saying NO was not my way however I was a mum with young children above all else and I felt vulnerable with the boys at that time due to some other matters going on in the background. I was also worried as to how I would care for him and my sons.  I knew how it would have worked out for me regards to my career if I had  moved to New York, as he was a high profile figure in New York and a very supportive man in regards to my work, and he wanted to amplify my career.

I miss him and our heated debates on the meaning of life, religion and love. It was a rare chemistry. The religious man and the atheist and yet we found common ground, in fact we grew as a result of respecting each other over this issue and wanting to find middle ground. The relationship caused us to question our beliefs and non belief. All I have left are boxes of love letters, and a few photos.  Such is life on the high seas?  

 

Back to the QE2 - We put on the show, did some dancing, dining and I gave a few talks.  We didn't sell much as far as the major works, as people just can't fit paintings in their suitcases, but we had a ripper time, sold lots of cards, small pictures.  


So what next?  Well we had a boat load of wonderful artworks which came off the boat with us at Darwin.  So Trish and I packed them all back into cartons, and had them trucked back down to Sydney.  Here we arranged a full solo exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour which would be opened by Mr Justine Miller, the Managing Director of Southeby's Australia.

So I think (from memory) I went home for a catch up again with the boys for a while, (who my dear Mum had been looking after), did a few more paintings to send over, and then back to Sydney again. Shown below above are some shots of the studio back in Broome at the time.  Rosa my studio assistant and framer is trying to sort out her son Max who decided to decorate his head with wet paint.  I am shown working into the wee hours on the same work.

 

Some shots below of Trish and I at the Maritime Museum setting up.  The exhibition was a huge success and we more than made up for the lack of sales on the big ship!

 

 

  


Ongoing Commissions

After all this, Qantas used my painting "The Birthday Piano" on the cover of their December 1996 Inflight magazine.  And shortly after they commissioned me to paint a major work to celebrate the 'upgrade' they made to their business class services.  I did the best I could with the info I had been given.  It was a tricky one.  How do you be artistic, and 'feature' all the celebs they wanted in the picture including Neil Perry the chef and their ambassador Deborah Hutton.  I had to capture the essential spirit of Australia and Qantas the 'flying kangaroo', as well as the ceremony in one.  

  



In between all this, I had returned to London to put on the show, which went really well.   The logistics were difficult as we sent the works unframed.  I was invited back to do more shows, but things just got more busy in Australia and quite frankly I didn't have the time.  I suppose I could see through the fame game a bit and ultimately was the pragmatic one.  Logistics were more logical in Australia, and getting things through customs, framed by crazy expensive framers in UK, and then trying to get them back again if not sold was just a  pain in the rear end.  I focused on Australia.  Of course back then everyone expected things to be framed well, and those big chunky but delicate gold leaf frames added hugely to the cost of not only presentation but movement of the works.  Now with the fashion being to show works only stretched it is hardly an issue!   Remember we barely had internet back then to speak of and ZERO social media to help promote.  Different days indeed.




Helen Norton
Helen Norton

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