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Tim Olsen's memoir of life with his famous dad is a fascinating insight into the Sydney art world

Canberra Times 21 November 2020

Sasha Grishin

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Tim Olsen is the son of the high profile artist, 92-year-old John Olsen. As painters of his father's generation considered themselves as "brothers of the brush", Tim Olsen, by extension, calls himself a "son of the brush". This is a personal memoir - lively, chatty and quite readable.

It starts with the interesting account of Tim's own birth. John Olsen developed a crush on a pretty student in his painting class, Valerie Strong, feelings were reciprocal and the love affair blossomed until Valerie became big with child, literally begotten at the National Art School, or the East Sydney Tech as it was then known. There was a minor obstacle as both Olsen and Strong were already married at the time, but a couple of quick divorces and a hastily arranged marriage meant that Tim came into the world as a legitimate offspring.

Tim Olsen's memoirs frequently pause on his father's various sexual indiscretions (according to the son, his father was a serial philanderer) until about 1980, when his father left home for good and moved in with the volatile artist Noela Hjorth, leaving behind his completely devastated wife Valerie and his children Tim and Louise. A daughter from his first marriage, Jane, occasionally crops up throughout the account. Subsequently, John Olsen escaped from his third wife only to be ambushed by Katharine Howard, who became his fourth wife. Katharine died in December 2016 and after unpleasant litigation with Katharine's daughter Karen over inheritance, the aging artist continues to live and paint in Bowral despite his failing health.

It is against the constant backdrop of his famous father that Tim Olsen weaves his autobiography from his early education in a single-teacher bush school to spells in the elite Cranbrook and King's schools in Sydney. After early experiences working in the rag trade, Tim went to art school, took dance classes and settled on working as an assistant to Rex Irwin, an enterprising and erudite art dealer in Paddington. After several years in Sydney galleries, he opened his own commercial art gallery in 1993, Olsen Carr Art Dealers, then in 1999 he went solo as the Tim Olsen Gallery, followed by Olsen Irwin Gallery in 2013 and finally simply Olsen in 2016 with a filial operating in New York.

Following a couple of failed marriages and the birth of his son James from his second wife Dominique Ogilvie, Tim Olsen plunged into morbid obesity and alcoholism. Three months in a rehab clinic in America and despite several relapses, with the help of AA he has pulled his life together to resume his commercial gallery empire and to produce this chronicle.

What do we learn from this book? Although there are constant references to John Olsen's art throughout the nearly 500 pages of the book, there is little that we do not already know from Deborah Hart's excellent monograph, Darleen Bungey's biography, Olsen's published journals and the spate of books on Olsen's art by Ken McGregor. As an art dealer, there is little attempt made to establish a critical distance concerning the quality of his father's work, and there are constant references to prices achieved at exhibitions and auctions. The argument that John Olsen is Australia's Picasso is plain silly and his son hints at it, I assume, with tongue in cheek.

Possibly the main value of the book is to see it as an account of the Sydney art scene from the perspective of an insider, one who is acutely aware of his father's opinions on everyone and everything. We have insights into the activities of other Sydney art dealers, including Barry Stern and Ros Oxley, interesting profiles on the artists Donald Friend, Mike Brown and Brett Whiteley, and a discussion of the activities of his godfather, the art critic Robert Hughes. We learn that his father renamed Prince Philip as Prince Philistine, in view of his total ignorance and lack of interest in contemporary art, and that Brett Whiteley referred to the art critic John McDonald as a "visual cretin". There is a considerable amount of public washing of Sydney art world dirty linen, although nothing too drastic to excite litigation.

This is a very Sydneycentric account and whenever the author strays outside his native city errors occur. For example, it is wrong to say that John Brack never exhibited with the Australian Galleries - he did in 1958, but stopped exhibiting with them when the proprietor Anne Purves burnt her portrait that she commissioned from Brack for being insufficiently flattering. Factual errors not withstanding, it is a fascinating account of how the Olsens view the world, for although Tim wrote the text, there is constant reference to the fact that his father and his sister Louise read and discussed the drafts.

Tim, at the age of 58, shows an uncanny physical resemblance to his father and now his son is growing into an image of his father - perhaps we have the making of an Olsen dynasty.


This article was also published by The Area News (Griffith, NSW) and The Courier (Ballarat, Victoria)

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