Former Albury art gallery director Audray Banfield opens our series on Identity
She was 16 when the dream floundered, devoured by a cloistered world of post-war austerity, of family expectations, of not getting ahead of yourself.
It wasn’t a tale of absent love, or insecurity or riding a wave of foolish, baseless ambition.
But hankering after such things outside your normal family orbit – in conservative times when sensible stood for safe – wasn’t the way.
And Audray Banfield’s father had seen plenty.
Every three or so years there was a new posting, taking the family (for much of that she was an only child) from one country town to the next.
They weren’t always shielded from what he saw, from the “loonies that ran around the countryside”.
“I had some interesting experiences as the daughter of a policeman in a small country town,” is all that she will say.
So yes, she had a real talent for the fine arts and could also write. Maybe one day, she hoped, she’d even get a job as a journo’.
But at 16 it was over. A daughter of his didn’t need all that learning. You got a job, you got married. The fact her artistic sensibility was rooted in more than a modicum of practical nous, that she was dux and so the final two years of school – possibly in Melbourne – held genuine promise, was irrelevant.
“And I wasn’t ready to get get married at all.”
This was a period, she says, that resonates when she considers the question of identity.
“Once you retire, you really retire … you do kind of speculate on where you came from and why.”
It’s not as if it’s something she has never mulled over. Conversation and consideration is a way of life for the 85-year-old, the more intellectually rigorous the better. She holds on to one certainty; that identity has been a ever-reliable, driving constant from when she was a child.
Enlightening, inspiring mentors and chance encounters – the latter becoming less coincidental by the year as her achievements and reputation grew – just gave this a different shape at different times.
“I’ve always wanted to find out why and I’ve always pursued that.”
She laughs at herself over her “gift for the gab”, and then keeps on talking. A sentence left half-finished as husband Roy Guthrie, on his walking frame, gliding slowly but steadily through the lounge room of their South Albury home, isn’t left dangling awkwardly from the scaffold.
Roy’s gently rebuked with a “you’re not going to sit in on this, are you?”, to which he says kindly, but with a mischievous delight: “I’m here to make sure you’re not bullshitting too much.”
She returns serve. “Oh, please!”
With a smile, he completes his orbit back to the study.
And then she returns to that sentence, picking the right word to make the link.
As a teenager she was not mired in indecision, certainly not over her ambitions. But first she wanted, as a girlfriend at their Bacchus Marsh school also planned, to head to Melbourne to pursue her matriculation.
This shouldn’t have surprised; their school didn’t even offer the final two years leading up to university.
Her experience, as she says with no bitterness, was so much a story of the times.
The pair had hankered after the prestigious state selective school MacRobertson Girls High in Albert Park, where she first lived before her father’s policing career took him right around country Victoria (“though we never went to Gippsland – I don’t know why”). It’s a suburb in which she now “couldn’t afford to breathe”. She would have lived with an aunt, and that would be that.
University would surely follow, as would a robust career in the arts informed by that gloriously worldly, rigorous education.
“And I was reasonably talented as an artist. The art teacher was my first mentor, she took an interest in me. She had classes after school for what she called her ‘promising girls’.”
But Mum told her she couldn’t be a journo because “you’ve got to go out and confront the world”.
The confidence and clarity stoked by being an only child for her first 91/2 years, in being “the centre of everybody’s universe, with adoring aunts”, made no difference.
Not even her scholarship could change Dad’s mind. The principal, also a mate of his, “rang him up to tear strips off him” but produced “quite the reverse”.
It was like someone had stuck a feather duster up an exhaust pipe. Dad stuck tight; his clever girl tasted anger.
“And so, I got a job on the telephone exchange.”
It was 1947. The family had instead moved to Benalla, her home now for many years ahead.
MISFITS in the eyes of others. “God’s angels” in hers.
An acclaimed avant-garde artist of the day, this American telling her kind of story, of the society she valued.
But Benalla’s mayor four decades ago wasn’t happy. “Now Audray, people don’t want to see people like that.”
She countered, as the gallery’s director, with “perhaps the people who are like that would like to see themselves”. In the photo was a group of happy picnickers, all with Down syndrome. “I’m sorry, that’s an international exhibition,” she recalls saying. “Do you want to create an international incident by pulling it down off the walls?”
Marriage, office work as a tracer after a job interviewing migrants from Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania (“finding a way through some of their languages”) to get their details for a Benalla business that soon enough went bust.
She settled into being a mum, but not at home. Drama club, Benalla’s arts council, singing in a couple of choirs. “I was on a creative bent,” out of which came the Blue Door theatre group.
Through another door came another mentor; a doctor’s wife who loved the theatre. At a civic reception in Albury, while touring a one-act play, Audray and Mary were shown paintings on the town hall walls.
It was 1966. With connections Mary had in regional galleries development in Victoria they were able to switch the Country Party’s priority from Wangaratta.
By 1968, they had been able to conjure-up an exhibition, featuring such notables as the early modernist George Johnston. It came in handy that “a local girl from Benalla, from Baddaginnie” had married a then up-and-coming lecturer at Melbourne Uni’. That was Patrick McCaughey, later director of the National Gallery of Victoria. He put out the word in Melbourne, resulting in an exhibition that Audray says “blew the minds of the locals”.
Right down the line in her 11 years in Benalla, 25 in Albury, were those guiding lights: a scheme at the NGV led to her coming under the wing of Dr Ursula Hoff, curator of prints and drawings.
She offered a place in her curator training course, sponsored by the Courtauld Institute in London. Hoff’s family fled to Britain on escaping Nazi Germany in 1930.
“She sent me a sample examination question and it might have well been written in Greek; in fact, I understood Greek better.”
Photography, once “a side issue”, was her opportunity. While scanning a little gallery in Toorak she met the renowned Rennie Ellis, a pioneer in social documentary. That led to an exhibition of Bill Henson works at Benalla, and on going to Albury she was able to buy six Max Dupain prints for $250 a pop.
If she had won-over her father she reckons she might have got to where she did “sooner and with more knowledge”.
But those “tumultuous” Benalla years were invaluable.
“That sort of defines how I made my way through the incredibly autocratic and arcane field of the visual arts. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and so I’d just plunge in and do it.”