Monday, December 24, 2012

The Dame

I knew Dame Elisabeth Murdoch not well, but slightly. When I was no more than an extremely callow undergraduate, barely aged seventeen (1982), I served for a bit on the committee of the friends of the library of the National Gallery of Victoria, of which Dame Elisabeth was naturally president. She was exceedingly kind to me then. Later, when I worked at Government House in Melbourne, Dame Elisabeth was—I do not think that this is an exaggeration—a favorite luncheon guest of Dr. McCaughey, whom she obviously worshipped. She was usually seated to the Governor’s left, and always responded to this compliment, even as she approached the age of eighty, with disarming girlishness—a quality I gather otherwise she strictly rationed. Just before she died my mother filled a vacant spot in a regular four who played bridge at Cruden Farm. This was, I think, the last social engagement Mum ever fulfilled and it was clearly too much for her—though she thoroughly enjoyed those intense afternoon rubbers, and was only mildly critical of Dame Elisabeth’s chicken sandwiches. The late and much lamented Jack and Elizabeth Kennedy, who were dear old friends of my parents, took a kindly interest in all the affairs of Dame Elisabeth; they shared a passion for the meticulous cultivation and cross-pollination by hand of violently colored zinnias. I have a feeling that Jack was Dame Elisabeth’s accountant. The Dame was patron of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, where Mum wound bobbins with Nancye Cain and many other volunteers. The Dame was also interested in the welfare of Trinity College in the University of Melbourne, where occasionally I bumped into her in the early 1990s. So the connections were many and varied. As Rupert Murdoch pointed out in his tribute last week in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dame Elisabeth’s life ran parallel with, and for almost the whole extent of, that of the Commonwealth of Australia thus far. I gather she was also popular at the Palace. May she rest in peace.

As we get older I suppose that point about many and varied connections becomes truer of life itself. Looking back over the past year’s blogging, I am struck by the number and variety of regretful reminiscences of the fallen that I have felt compelled to scatter like rose petals among more frivolous musings about art, scarlet heels, and other ephemera—Ronald Searle, John Gage, Dame Joan Sutherland, Pope Shenouda III, the King of Tonga, Margaret Whitlam, Peter Steele, Jean McCaughey, Richard Warren, and, now, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. No doubt this is symptomatic of advancing years. Yet I am no obituarist. In fact, notwithstanding the restorative hours before dawn that I often spend devouring two whole pots of tea in my bloggy haze, I have been busier this year than at any time in the past ten. Our huge book and exhibition are essentially finished, and merely await the arrival of the crates. We open on February 27. I should say that Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century has been, is, and will probably remain, the central episode of my working life, and I am mighty proud of it. Please do come and see the show. I suspect the blog has kept me sane, though not as much as my wonderful Lyolik. And now I must go to New York for Christmas.

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