Sex scandals and inner turmoil: growing up in the shadow of John Olsen

By Helen O'Neill

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Tim Olsen – international art dealer, philanthropist and newly minted memoirist – wants to show me a painting.

Our location is his apartment, high above his gallery in the prosperous Sydney precinct of Woolahra, and the image depicts Lake Hindmarsh in western Victoria's Wimmera.

The 92-year-old who created this half a century ago is routinely described as Australia's greatest living painter. He is one of an elite stable of creatives represented by Olsen. More to the point, he's the art dealer's dad.

Sydney gallery owner Tim Olsen and his father, artist John Olsen, at John's home and studio in Glenquarry, in the Southern Highlands.Credit:James Brickwood

"I've been offered a million dollars for this," declares Olsen. "There is no way I'm selling."

He launches into the painting's symbolism with impassioned intensity, describing how "the existential true soul of Australia" is revealed via a lake "in the shape of a breast".

"Look here," he points to a small, seemingly inconsequential artistic flourish – a crucifix-shaped smudge that is actually a gliding bird. Olsen had no idea the smudge was a self-portrait until his dad told him: "That is me; here I am in this vastness."

"The yin and yang of my father," he shrugs. "He is so gregarious and so entertaining, so publicly opulent with his beret and what-have-you. [Then] there's the other side of him … who spends months in the studio. That's the side of him people don't know."

It's an ironic statement from a man who has fought so fiercely to become more than just a dot on a great artist's landscape. As is spelt out in his 486-page memoir, Son of the Brush, there is a lot that people don't know.

'Tim by Dad' (1966) by John Olsen.

Tim Olsen drew his first breath on Wednesday, May 6, 1962, in the Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney's Surry Hills. His parents, John Olsen and Valerie Strong, had met at Sydney's National Art School (he a teacher, she his student) and married just weeks earlier. Both executed swift divorces first.

From this unconventional pairing emerges an unsettling tale, a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a family regarded as art royalty.

In narrative terms, this has everything from gossip (the rich and famous frolic through Olsen's memoir) to courtroom drama (the recent bitter battle pitting the artist against his step-daughter) and sexual scandals galore.

It explores the breakdown of a family, and the genesis and recovery of a suicidal alcoholic, prompting questions about the tangled interplay between art, money, fame, abuse and masculinity. But at its core is a blistering portrait of pain.

Today, Olsen talks candidly about "the brutality attached to living under the shadow" of his father.

"I turned my father into a demigod who [metaphorically] ended up slapping me about. It was confusing and easy to want to … find an escape."

John Olsen with Tim (left) and baby Louise in Watsons Bay in 1964.Credit:Robert Walker

In answer to the question of why he has decided to publish, he relates a story of a hospital visit in 2011 to see his mother, who was dying of brain cancer.

To his surprise, she told him: "I don't really care much for your gallery, nor your flashy car or your fashionable friends."

Olsen replied: "Mum, that's not like you to criticise me or judge me."

She replied: "I'm not, darling; what I'm saying is that those things don't matter. The fact that you've learned how to love yourself … is the greatest gift I have ever wanted for you and I'm so glad you finally got there."

Olsen burst into tears. Why had she not told him sooner?

"She said, ‘because you had to learn the hard way'," he relates. "That was really the last thing she ever said to me."

Valerie Olsen (nee Strong) in Tim's favourite picture of her. Credit:Robert Raymond

Later in our conversation, he addresses the question directly: "I wrote this book to make sure that I had something to hand on to my son. To also use it as a catharsis … to see how my pain looked on paper and to realise that, really, there's no baggage [I] need to hang on to here."

Olsen's memoir frames his world and that of his younger sister, Louise (who co-founded Dinosaur Designs), as one that existed "within a vast body of work". Every aspect of his family's trajectory seemed propelled by the creative drive of his father, a reality within which "the line connecting art and life was never broken … we lived through every physical manifestation of the Olsen landscape".

Outside painter John Bell’s studio at Dunmoochin, Victoria, 1969. Louise is on the car; Tim, at far right, stands behind John Olsen.

His father emerges as colourful and loquacious – a magnetic, mischievous, selfish man. He describes his mother more tenderly as a deep thinker and listener, "never boastful or domineering … she considered [her husband's] success to be her success".

Looking back, Olsen realised he had always sensed tensions, often triggered by "Dad's fleeting indiscretions". He recalls his father criticising his mother's approach to her artwork, noting that while the pair were together, his father's work developed in leaps and bounds.

During the early years, the young family roamed from Watsons Bay to Europe, where the young boy picked up Andalucian Spanish, Portuguese and the ability to handle himself in unfamiliar terrain. In 1969, John decided they should settle in a bushland artists' commune, and a mudbrick dwelling at Dunmoochin, a bucolic property northeast of Melbourne owned by the painter Clifton Pugh, became their home.

Artist Clifton Pugh in 1969.Credit:Fairfax Archive

Here, artists such as Pugh, Olsen's father and Fred Williams painted voraciously. Famous actors (The Avengers' Patrick Macnee), comedians (Barry Humphries) and prominent politicians (Gough Whitlam) dropped by. In some regards, nothing had altered: the cornucopia of excellent food continued, as did the conviviality and evenings of sparkling conversation.

Pugh, father of two boys, had established what Olsen describes as a bacchanalian free love cult in which nudity was normal and sexual experimentation encouraged. Pugh engaged in violent fights with his wife, Marlene, and slept with a loaded gun.

On one occasion, young Olsen innocently picked the weapon up and pointed it straight at his terrified mother. On another, when his mother and sister were visiting Sydney, the seven-year-old walked in on three people having sex: his father, the partner of one of the artists, and Pugh.

When his mother got back, Olsen told her. His father scolded him, saying: "There are some things men, as a code, keep secret."

Trouble extended beyond the commune's boundaries. One day, eight local children attacked Olsen, pinning him down and taking turns to piss on his face. He wrote: "I remember the urine burning my eyes and the stench of ammonia. Even a girl lifted her skirt and squatted over my mouth."

Today he says: "That was as bad as being sodomised, as far as I was concerned. Not that I've ever been sodomised but it was a huge violation." His words begin to stumble.

"I was nearly sodomised but, you know, I never, ever – " He breaks off and whistles through his teeth.

The Olsen family, from left, John, Louise, Valerie and Tim at Watsons Bay in the mid-70s.

"I've always struggled to trust friendships … because of that. I've always had an incredible fear of being close to people and being let down or being deceived. Being betrayed … I've really had to do a lot of work on being able to trust intimacy."

After two years at Dunmoochin, the shattered family drove to Sydney, stopping for the night at a country pub. Tim visited the outside toilet only to be accosted by a stranger offering him 20 cents for sex. "He threatened to kill me if I told anyone," wrote Olsen. "Terrified, I turned and ran. It was my first encounter, but not my last, with a paedophile."

Back in Sydney, Olsen's schooling took him to Cranbrook and boarding at The King's School. He turned 18 and realised the fault-lines in his parents' marriage had become irreparable fractures. His father left his devastated mother for Noela Hjorth, a woman he'd been having an affair with. The marriage was at an end.

But things kept moving. Olsen tackled visual arts at the National Art School, where his parents had first met, then a Bachelor of Education at the University of NSW's College of Fine Arts.

He took jobs in galleries and in restaurants, working with some of Sydney's top chefs. His understanding of the sacrifices his mother had made for their family deepened but Olsen's relations with his father soured.

"I struggled to forgive him for abandoning me," he says, jumping to the moment in 1986 when Olsen heard from chef Tony Bilson that his father had married Hjorth. Bilson had been invited to the wedding.

Louise, Valerie and Tim at Pearl Beach around 1983.Credit:Jon Lewis

The news hit him like a "stab in the heart. That's when I really felt that I'd lost my father".

His father's career became ever more stratospheric, and another woman, Katharine Howard, became wife number four.

"My sister and I were basically barred from visiting him," Olsen says, adding that they didn't have a Christmas together for 15 years. "It was sad to see that he was so manipulated, so terrified of dying a lonely man that he was willing to compromise everything."

Olsen's own life appeared to be progressing. At 29, following a whirlwind romance, he married Harriet France. He became reacquainted with half-sister Jane (from his father's first marriage) and in 1993 launched a gallery.

The marriage dissolved but the art world was booming and Olsen's career as art dealer, consultant and corporate advisor took off.

'At a flick of a switch … you're in addiction. The more trauma that happened in my life, the more it led towards wanting to imbibe.'

As the century turned, he married Dominique Ogilvie. In 2004, a year after the launch of his second gallery, their son, James, was born. Publicly, Olsen was emerging as a force in the art world. The real picture was one of intense private turmoil, where depression and alcoholism reigned.

Olsen's love of food became weaponised. He grew morbidly obese, hitting 148 kilograms and drank constantly to numb his psychic pain.

"At a flick of a switch … you're in addiction," he says. "The more trauma that happened in my life, the more it led towards wanting to imbibe."

At one point, he found The Gap, Sydney's notorious suicide spot. He says the only thing that stopped him jumping was the thought of his son. The real crunch came in 2007, the year he "consolidated" his galleries by opening his current Woollahra premises.

His wife had taken a mini-break, leaving Olsen in charge of their son. He began drinking in the morning, had an alcoholic blackout and was found in the pool by their live-in nanny, naked and almost unconscious. James, who was in the shallow end, could have drowned.

John Olsen with Tim and his son James in front of 'Popping Blue Bottles' at John's exhibition A Salute to Sydney. It was the first show at Tim's new gallery on Jersey Rd, Woollahra.

Dominique booked him into the Betty Ford Center in California. Olsen had a few brief, half-hearted stints at other rehab centres but there nobody knew him as an identity of the art world, and his father's name meant nothing. The road to recovery had begun.

Olsen cites artist and family friend Margaret Olley, herself a recovered alcoholic, as one of those who "helped me get out of it". Olley had ordered Olsen to stop drinking.

"She knew what Dad was like, she knew what my life was like, and she could understand why I ended up where I did," he recalls.

"She said to me once, ‘Tim, every time you pick up a drink, you're insulting yourself. Every time you pick up a drink, there's one point scored for your haters. And every time you don't pick up a drink, there is one point for you'."

Olley died the same year his mother did and he misses her "enormously".

"She was the most loving woman," he says. "My fairy godmother who looked like a bag lady. I adored her."

He pinpoints the motivation to stay sober as being focused on James, who "deserves a father".

"Let me be the Olsen that changes the paternal pattern … I don't want to hand on misery to my son."

Artist Margaret Olley ordered Tim to stop drinking.

He never quite lost his sense of humour. At one point, he jokes that however bad things might have got: "I've never been a criminal. I pay all my artists. I do the right thing. I've never raped a woman. I've seduced many." With that, he dissolves into a deep throaty chuckle.

It is fair to say that John Olsen does not come out of his son's memoir smelling of roses.

The author says his father has read the book, a fact confirmed by John Olsen, speaking later by telephone from his home in the NSW Southern Highlands.

Asked what he thinks of the memoir, the elderly artist declares it "very good … because he's my son, he has stories that no one else can know".

He adds, "to be able to write about the jungle of the art world in itself is something that Kafka hadn't tried".

His son details considerable pain in this book, of which the artist emphasises he was "totally unaware … which in itself is extraordinary because it posits other questions about [why] he never expressed that to me".

John Olsen and Tim at the launch of John’s book 'My Salute' at the Sydney Opera House in 2015.

Perhaps he should have known, he muses, citing troubled father-offspring relationships experienced by other revered Australian artists such as Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman and Sidney Nolan.

"It seems quite a common thing."

Does he regret anything that happened?

"What I have to say about the past is that it's irredeemable," replies the artist firmly. "Things happen and it's what you do with it that's important."

A broader issue is if talented artists need to be over-indulged.

To this, John Olsen says: "No, but it happens … It's great but with it comes fearful responsibilities. How are you going to survive as an artist with all this adoration, to maintain your own sense of balance? It gets out of control."

An easier question, perhaps, is whether he is proud of his boy.

"Extremely," he declares, speculating that the memoir may pave the way for another book.

'I do have enormous understanding of how hard it is for women and the sacrifices they often make.'

His son had planned one on the late artist Donald Friend, I remind him. Tim Olsen had done a series of interviews with Friend shortly before his 1989 death. In 2006, publication of Friend's final volume of diaries, in which he detailed sexual assaults on Balinese children as young as nine, scuppered the project.

"Talk about kangaroo courts. I mean, Donald Friend's image and paintings have been so damaged," says John Olsen, who visited Friend in Bali but stresses he knew nothing of the artist's paedophilia.

"The way that he looked after these Balinese people … do you know when he left Bali, that he left each of those boys with land? Now in Bali that's really something. And none of that's mentioned. Nothing."

To those boys, Friend was "just one huge joke", says John Olsen. "Unfairly treated. But I'll tell you one thing: Now is the time to buy Donald Friend."

Public perception of the crime is such that "it would be better to be guilty of manslaughter in the present climate", says the artist.

Agreeing that paedophilia destroys lives, and that Friend himself admitted to it, John Olsen responds: "Yes, but don't forget … he did beautiful paintings. Now, if you're going to [make] that kind of judgment on artists or writers as well, that there are certain examples, like Caravaggio, a renaissance painter, a genius, [who] would be, scratched off the books.

"An artist's work is separate from his personal life."

In every case, does he feel?

"In every case."

The late Donald Friend at the Holdsworth Galleries in Woollahra in 1979.Credit:Julian Kevin

For Tim Olsen, the issue is more problematic. He, too, was shocked at Friend's posthumous declaration of paedophilia. Asked if the art world enabled Friend, or if those who visited him in Bali knew, Olsen says: "Look, everyone thought of him as a homosexual, for sure.

"But I remember him turning up with … Balinese boys with harelips and deformed bodies who he'd flown out to pay for their operations … I remember him doing good things to … young boys. He cared about certain families in Bali. He was philanthropic and empathetic with people living in a third world country. It saddened me to hear that there was another side to him."

And that Friend may have demanded a quid pro quo?

"Possibly," Olsen says quietly. "I don't know."

Friend was part of Olsen's childhood. "I never felt unsafe with Donald," he volunteers, adding that the art world had had "plenty of predators".

Olsen's parents refused to let him take a job in one gallery run by "a man who definitely had a sex addiction". Another job he did take as a young man ended with him quitting when an art world figure "tried to touch me up — he put his hand in my pocket and tried to grab my penis".

"It's just disappointing more than anything because it gets right back to that experience of being urinated upon," says Olsen, speculating that the urge to assault someone is "a demonic kind of … metamorphosis or … possession".

"What they wanted to abuse most was my innocence. They want to destroy something that was destroyed in them."

Gallerist Tim Olsen has fought so fiercely to become more than just a dot on his famous father John's landscapes.Credit:James Brickwood

Talk turns to Olsen's philanthropic endeavours, his fascination with "the rawness of Indigenous art", and the effect on Aboriginal communities of selling their work through his New York gallery. He's in the process of opening a gallery in London in which he plans to do the same.

Every now and again, he parts ways with artists he has nurtured. It sparks echoes of abandonment, he notes, "a bit like seeing my mother put all the hard yards in with my father … The subsequent marriages were the ones that received all the success and all the money."

"I do have enormous understanding of how hard it is for women and the sacrifices they often make," he says, adding that an exhibition of her work is under way, as is a book about her that he is writing.

"I'm determined to give my mother the audience that she deserves."

'What they wanted to abuse most was my innocence. They want to destroy something that was destroyed in them.'

Olsen admits to nerves about his memoir's reception but is otherwise happy. His love life? He has just met someone, he confesses, but he won't reveal more.

The close bond he now shares with his father is a source of profound comfort.

"When I go and stay with him … he says, 'I love you, I'm very proud of you'," Olsen recounts. "It took him a long time to say that.

"It's wonderful when you're given time to make amends with someone, and he's not just making amends with us; he's making amends with himself. Because he's fully aware of how selfish he's been at times but to him that was his survival mechanism. Because without his art, he had nothing, he thought.

"Now he's realised that he has his children, and that we've both been achievers is not the point."

Son of the Brush by Tim Olsen will be published by Allen & Unwin this week.

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