A stellar crowd of friends gathered at Lucio’s restaurant in Paddington, Sydney, on Saturday 12 August 2017, to welcome Kay Lanceley into the gracious company of octogenarians.
She did it in typical style, with much laughter and general gaiety. As very young people might say, the celebration was “awesome”.
Kay, widow of the acclaimed artist Colin Lanceley who died in January 2015, started planning an event with a guest list of just six people. That was never going to work, and before very long it grew to 32. Such is Kay’s ability to make lifelong friendships with former workmates, chance acquaintances and people in the arts world, the media and politics, it’s a miracle there weren’t 150 guests.
I spotted Edmund Campion, Susie Carleton, Jan and Helen Senbergs, Bob Sorby, Eric Walsh, Stuart Purves, Patsy Zeppel, Richard Ackland, Yvonne Kux, Lynne Clark, Brigid and Simon Patfield and Leo Schofield, but there were many more.
Sarah Morton, wife of the late Brian Johns, opened the formal proceedings with an hilarious speech which shed light on Kay’s generosity, her acute sense of the absurd and her activism.
She was followed by a lifelong Lanceley admirer [i.e. me] and this is what I said:
“Kay Lanceley – what an exotic life. It deserves a mini-series. It would make Game of Thrones look like Home and Away.
I imagine a precocious child actor playing Kay growing up, the human hologram Kate Blanchett as Kay in her 40s and 50s, followed by a majestic cameo by Meryl Streep doing a perfect Western Sydney accent.
Yes, one of the big surprises of her amazing life is that before she was Kay Lanceley, and the quintessential East Suburbs celebrity, she was Kay Morphett from Sydney’s Western suburbs.
As a girl growing up in the fringe of Sydney, Kay dreamed huge dreams. On Monday she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Joan Sutherland and perform at Sadlers Wells. On Tuesday she dreamt of becoming a doctor or a lawyer. On Wednesday she daydreamed about following Dawn Fraser to become an Olympic champion. On Thursday she had her heart set on being fullback for the Parramatta Eels. But by Friday she wanted to be a journalist and travel the world.
Kay’s appetite for excitement and adventure was fed by her Scottish grandmother who provided her with a constant supply of novels, the literary classics. As she consumed them, she existentially roamed the world, especially Britain and Europe. At school when teachers asked the class to improve their reading with children’s books, Kay sat in the corner with her head buried in the Bronte sisters, Conrad or Dickens.
She married unhappily … and then met Colin who had a passion to become a successful and notable artist. Thus began a partnership in which they shared a creative and courageous objective.
Early in 1963, my flatmate in Paddington, Laurie Oakes, a former editor of Honi Soit, took me to a gallery opening where I first met Colin, the youngest among a group of artistic heavyweights, including Russel Drysdale, John Olsen, Donald Friend and others. He was on his way to London to escape the arid, blinkered culture inflicted on Australia by Menzies and his Cabinet of philistine forelock-tuggers. And three years later I was on my way to London too where the Lanceleys had established a family home of immense warmth in Notting Hill.
This is another aspect of Kay’s character; she is a home-maker; she can take a residence and turn the kitchen into the dining room, a place where there are three central objectives – eating, drinking and debating. Or in my case, shouting.
With my former partner Joy Pinnock and our two children, Laura and Lachlan, first living in Cambridge Gardens and then Ladbroke Grove, Christmas meant lunch at the Lanceleys. Guests dropped in, ate, drank and disappeared. Other people arrived – artists, MPs, writers, lawyers and ex-pats just off the boat. More food miraculously appeared from the kitchen, more bottles of red were opened; the cheese board, the homemade paté and locally baked bread were to die for. At times it was like Don’s Party on steroids. When the Queen’s speech came on television we hurled subversive abuse at the screen and swore that the first thing we’d do when we returned home was to campaign for an Australian-born president of an Oz Republic. Malcolm “I am a strong leader” Turnbull arrived later and was not ever part of our Republican Push.
During the long-running Pilkington glass workers’ lockout, the workers’ wives organised a summer fair on Merseyside to raise money by selling donated food, clothing and jumble. There was a monster raffle with signed gifts from professional well-wishers – actor Glenda Jackson donated a signed photograph, poet Adrian Mitchell wrote a special verse and signed it, painter David Hockney sent a signed print and Colin gave an original from his tiny London collection.
Weeks later he asked how much it had made for the locked-out workers. He told me that it was worth at least £500 in 1968 and would fetch a lot more in a few years’ time. I didn’t have the heart to tell Colin that it had been sold for 50 quid, but I did tell him that a Liverpool docks shop steward had bought the painting and it now hung in his council flat.
Kay had other concerns. Colin had received a commission from the multi-millionaire Tory Lord Pilkington to produce a painting for the boardroom. His lordship was never told, of course, that the rising Aussie artist was helping to finance the furious pickets laying siege to his factory gates.
What was unique about Kay and Colin in London was that while they were loved by Australian expats, many of their friends were British or European. They travelled to France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain; they didn’t lose their Australian identity, but they became European in their outlook, their culture and their preference.
Back in Oz in 1986, Judith [White] and I were invited to an opening at the Art Gallery of NSW. It was a moment of serendipity – we found ourselves standing at the back of the main foyer next to Kay and Colin. It was a reunion of such excitement; a long dinner followed. Subsequent visits to their place on Moore Park Road confirmed my long-held view that Kay is the ultimate home-maker. It had a giant dining room, a spacious courtyard, an endless supply of mouth-watering nourishment from a local (European) deli and, of course, French wine. They introduced us to Sancerre from which my liver has never fully recovered.
In return for their years of generous hospitality Judith and I organised a Boxing Day party in the backyard of our place in Leichhardt. Kay asked whether she could bring their house guest, Warwick, who was over from England. “We’d be delighted to meet him,” I said.
The three of them arrived and later in the day I found him with our son, Scott, in his bedroom where the walls were covered in his drawings, film posters and family photos. Toys and story books were lying everywhere – a typical small boy’s playpen. “Warwick” was reading him a story. He looked up and said ever-so-quietly: “What a perfect room. I wish I had one like this when I was growing up.”
As he was leaving, I wished him all the best and said he was welcome to call any time he was in Sydney. When I next saw Kay she told me that their house guest loved the Leichhardt barbecue – he’d never been to one before – and he was delighted by Scott’s room as well as his manners. “Did I tell you that our surprise guest was David, the Earl of Warwick?”
I was completely gobsmacked. At one point during the barbecue I think that I asked him: “How are they hanging, Wazza?” No wonder he looked perplexed.
In those days, the ever-restless Kay was never happy unless she had a project. In the 1980s it became building the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She twisted arms, lobbied, coerced and schmoozed across Sydney’s boardrooms and then went to Wollongong, “Steel City”, to persuade BHP workers to fabricate the metal infrastructure for the pavilion. John Menadue, CEO of Qantas and an old friend, eagerly supported the project and offered cargo space on his aircraft.
Transfield boss Franco Belgiorno-Nettis was a tougher nut to crack. Kay recruited me to give Franco some uplifting publicity in The Sun-Herald to secure his support and transform him into a generous arts patron giving back to his homeland. (To be perfectly honest, I think his donation came from the extraordinary contract he won from the Wran government and Laurie Brereton to build the Sydney Harbour Tunnel: a perfect example how business and culture are done in the Emerald City.)
The Biennale was a huge success; the Australian pavilion was attended by thousands of visitors and the reviews were sensationally positive. Another behind-the-scenes victory for Kay.
Next she appeared at SBS on its media team. While the senior executives were too frightened to go to Canberra and lobby politicians, Kay took time off, flew to the capital, checked into a spare room at Eric Walsh’s sprawling home on Melbourne Avenue and in a couple of days saw most leading ministers in the Hawke-Keating government to press the case for funding and network independence in multicultural Australia. David Hill’s plan to merge the ABC and SBS was killed stone dead: as Kay told them, it would electorally toxic for Labor and Western Sydney and inner-Melbourne seats.
The stories of Kay’s generous lobbying and networking are legendary. In 1991 Colin won a “Keating”, one of Paul’s Commonwealth Arts Awards, but I have always though it should have been a shared award between Colin, the painter, and Kay, the power behind the palette.
Charge your glasses and let’s drink a toast to our hostess – Happy Birthday, Kay!”
– Alex Mitchell, 12 August 2017, Lucio’s, Paddington, Sydney
NEXT WEEK – Normal service resumes: How Trump, Republicans and Democrats are wrecking the American empire.