For the past 40 years, Colin and Elizabeth Laverty led the way in acquiring contemporary Australian art. To mark the auction of part of their collection in March, John McDonald visited the Lavertys shortly before Colin's death last month

William Robinson was a late starter. He didn't begin to exhibit until well into his fifties. Although the quality of his paintings is self-evident, Robinson was rejected by some of the cognoscenti – who felt the Australian landscape tradition was exhausted. It was private collectors who led the way in the booming market for Robinson, and as a result, the artist's reputation has soared. While the public galleries hesitated, Colin and Elizabeth Laverty acquired 25 of his paintings. It's a lesson for collectors to buy early and have the courage of their convictions.

The major piece in the sale of works from the Laverty Collection is Robinson's Blue Pools Springbrook (2000). It is one of the rainforest scenes that brought Robinson to prominence in the 1990s. These pictures rejected the stereotypical 'blue-and-gold' Australian landscape, with its sparse gum trees and bleaching sunlight. Robinson's views of the rainforest showed another aspect of the country – the dense, dark vegetation that flourishes in the tropics.

Although Robinson virtually reinvented Australian landscape painting at the end of the 20th century, his work is very different from that of most artists represented in the Laverty Collection, which is mainly devoted to abstract and indigenous art. It is only when one looks deeply into Robinson's vertiginous compositions that the abstract elements become apparent.

Colin Laverty, who died in February after a long illness, never tried to rationalize his taste in art or limit himself to any particular style. Before he became one of Australia's leading collectors of contemporary art, Laverty was an expert on colonial sporting and animal pictures. In 1980, he published a book on the equestrian painter, Frederick Woodhouse. This was a hobby rather than a profession. In his day job, Laverty was one of Australia's foremost gynecological pathologists. The qualities he brought to his vocation as a medical researcher were duplicated in the scrupulous way he documented the artworks he acquired. Laverty's foray into colonial art revealed his versatility as a collector – his willingness to follow his impulses rather than follow a predictable course.

Laverty had been attending exhibitions and buying works by living artists since his student days. Inspired by shows such as Two Decades of American Painting in 1966, Laverty developed a strong predilection for Abstract Expressionism, and acquired pieces by Australian abstract artists such as Tony Tuckson, Stan Rapotec, Peter Upward and Robert Klippel.

The Lavertys' house in inner-city Balmain reflects the various lives of the collection. One enters a large bungalow, with rooms on either side hung with colonial pictures. At the end of a corridor, the house opens up into an airy, contemporary space, crammed with modern paintings, sculptures, ceramics and artifacts. The most recent extension is a long room densely hung with Aboriginal paintings, and with a set of purpose-built storage racks. "We're a bit compulsive," Colin pointed out.

With more than 2,000 works in the collection, divided equally along indigenous and non-indigenous lines, the majority of pieces have to be stored off-site. "We love all our paintings," Liz Laverty told the Australian Financial Review. "We collected from the heart, but there's just so much work and so much of it in storage."

The collection gathered momentum when Colin married Elizabeth in 1982. They shared a passion for art: Colin's tastes inclined towards abstract art while Liz preferred figuration. There were, however, many points of crossover. For instance, Peter Booth's early works, such as Untitled (1970), were abstractions; but by the late 1970s he had become a painter of powerful expressionist images taken from his dreams. This later period is best represented by Untitled, 1978 – a scene from a nightmare, with blackened faces peering from red flames. The Lavertys followed Booth as he made the transition from abstraction to figuration, acquiring 35 pieces.With an artist such as Richard Larter, who paints in abstract and figurative styles simultaneously, they have accumulated 41 works, ranging from decorative abstractions such as Mole Hoppers Shift (1970) to riotous Pop pictures such as Untitled (Australians) from 1981.

Booth and Larter might both be considered eccentric presences in Australian art: British-born individualists who have never questioned their freedom to change styles or make paintings that challenge
their audiences. In Booth's case, a work may be an interiorised horror show, while Larter takes an uninhibited approach to sexuality. Both men have tended to sell to collectors, like the Lavertys, who always come back for more.

This willingness to follow an artist from one exhibition to the next is a hallmark of the Laverty Collection. Their choices have been made with no concessions to fashion or investment potential, but time has usually proved them right. Their faith in Ken Whisson (b. 1927), another artist whose work combines abstract and figurative elements, has been justified by a 2012 retrospective exhibition at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. At the age of 85, Whisson has finally shaken off his cult status and looks like a talent to put alongside better-known figures such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. The abstract painter, Ildiko Kovacs, has been a long-term favorite of the Lavertys who helped sponsor her visits to Aboriginal communities, where she has worked alongside indigenous painters. Some of her linear abstractions from a decade ago owe an obvious debt to artists such as Rover Thomas, but never descend into mere imitation. Works such as Beech (2001) or Traveling Pink Line (1995) are trademark pieces.

It was always important to the Lavertys that Aboriginal art is seen as part of the contemporary art world, not as a separate category. This is one of the reasons why Kovacs's work, which suggests a confluence between western and Aboriginal art, is of special interest. Aboriginal art is yet another field in which the lines between abstraction and figuration are blurred, as most pictures represent distinct stories expressed in shapes
and symbols.

Colin Laverty gave an extensive interview in a previous issue of Bonhams Magazine about his holdings of Aboriginal art – which, after all, comprise 60 per cent of the Laverty Collection. One of the most admired acquisitions is Mick Namarari's Untitled (Rain dreaming at Nyunman), 1994. Although it relates directly to Namarari's ancestral lands, most viewers will admire this painting for its subtle sense of color and line. To understand the depth and breadth of the Laverty Collection one need only imagine Namarari's deeply felt evocation of the central desert landscape alongside William Robinson's visionary views of the rainforest.

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and film critic for the Australian Financial Review.

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