In 1913 Merric Boyd’s parents bought him a plot of land in the newly formed suburb of Murrumbeena, on what was then the south-eastern fringe of Melbourne. The land was nothing special; it contained the remnants of an old orchard and abutted the Outer Circle railway reserve. Yet this simple property, which Merric named Open Country and on which a modest weatherboard house was erected, was to become the centre of an extraordinary artistic community which for the next fifty years saw the coming and going of some of the most important figures in twentieth-century Australian art.
The Boyd family holds a distinguished place in the arts in this country, particularly in the fields of painting, sculpture, ceramics, literature and architecture. This remarkable dynasty began in 1886 with the marriage of Arthur Merric Boyd and Emma Minnie à Beckett and the uniting of two of Melbourne’s most eminent families. Emma Minnie and Arthur Merric Boyd were both artists and placed a high value on artistic pursuits, which they passed on to their three sons Merric, Penleigh and Martin, and their daughter Helen. The parents provided the stimulus and inspiration for their children to follow creative careers, and they, in turn, encouraged pursuits in the arts and culture in their children, setting an illustrious legacy in motion that continues to the present day.
Arthur Merric and Emma Minnie Boyd: the beginnings of an artistic dynasty
The Boyds and the à Becketts were part of colonial Melbourne’s upper-class establishment, and members of the families held high positions in the judiciary, government and the military. Arthur Merric Boyd was descended from the military Boyd and landowner Martin families, while Emma Minnie à Beckett was descended from the judiciary à Beckett and beer-brewing Mills families. It was the Mills’ money that allowed the Boyds to live a life of leisure in relative comfort throughout the nineteenth century. Both studied art at the Melbourne National Gallery School and exhibited here and abroad – each showing at the highly prestigious Royal Academy in 1891 during a period when they resided in England and travelled in Europe. Their art reflects their interests: Emma Minnie’s often showing the domestic intimacy of her family, in paintings such as Interior with figures, The Grange, 1875; and Arthur Merric’s his love of the country, the sea and of sailing.
Arthur Merric’s and Emma Minnie’s first son, Gilbert, was born in 1886 but died at just ten years of age in a riding accident. (William) Merric Boyd was born two years after Gilbert. In 1890 the family moved to England where Penleigh was born later that year and, in 1893, while on a painting tour of Europe, Martin was born in Lucerne, Switzerland. It was at this time that the Boyds received news of the collapse of the land boom in Victoria, which reduced their substantial wealth by half. The family returned to Australia in 1894 and moved first to Brighton, then Sandringham, before buying a dairy farm in Yarra Glen on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne in 1906.
Early on in his life, Penleigh demonstrated a passion for painting and in 1905, at fifteen years of age, he enrolled at the National Gallery School. He quickly established himself as a successful painter, and like his parents exhibited at the Royal Academy, London. Penleigh married Edith Anderson, also a painter, and their younger son Robin later became Melbourne’s most noted modernist architect. Tragically, Penleigh died aged only thirty-three. His brother Martin became a respected and celebrated author who often drew upon his extended family as the basis for his narratives. Their elder brother, however, the shy and slightly awkward Merric, took time to find his artistic path. He explored a number of career options, including jackarooing, agriculture and theology before finding his true vocation.
Formed from clay: Australia’s first studio potter and the creation of Open Country
Merric first began working in clay around 1907 when, inspired by sculptor and family friend Charles Web Gilbert, he used the medium to model small sculptures. In 1910 Merric taught himself how to make wheel-thrown pottery and, with some assistance from commercial potter Archibald McNair, also taught himself the process of glazing and firing. Around the same time he undertook classes in drawing with Frederick McCubbin, and in painting under Bernard Hall at Melbourne’s National Gallery School. Merric held his first exhibition in 1912 – the first solo exhibition of studio pottery in Australia.
In 1913, at twenty-five years of age, Merric established Open Country. The family money, reduced by the 1890s depression, and later exhausted by the Great Depression of the 1930s, funded the purchase of 8–10 Wahroongaa Crescent, Murrumbeena. It was here that Merric built an unpretentious weatherboard cottage and by the 1920s had also added a well-equipped pottery studio. This property provided Merric with the stability to pursue his passion. In time it also became the home for his family, a hub for a range of artistic activities and a stimulating artists’ colony.
Merric married Doris Gough in 1915 and together they lived and worked at Open Country for the rest of their lives. Doris was also an artist and it was in the nurturing environment they created that they raised their children Lucy, Arthur, Guy, David and Mary. Over the years the house was extended, and studios built and later modified. The garden became an enchanting wilderness in which neighbourhood children played. The sitting room, known as the Brown Room, became the heart of the house where the family, relatives and their circle of friends gathered to sing, dance, play or listen to music, perform and read aloud; where readings from the Bible were supplemented with philosophy texts; and émigrés fleeing from Europe were welcomed. Open Country was a haven of constant encouragement and loving support, underpinned by humanist cultural values.
The war years
When the Second World War was declared in 1939, the Boyd family’s pacifist beliefs were challenged. Arthur, Guy and David managed to avoid active combat, instead serving with the military in Victoria. Working in the Cartographic Unit in Melbourne, in 1941 Arthur and Guy met the young artist John Perceval. When Perceval was discharged the following year, he settled at Open Country and in 1944 married Mary Boyd. In 1942 Arthur met his future wife Yvonne Lennie, an artist who was friends with Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, John and Sunday Reed and other members of the recently formed Contemporary Art Society, many of whom became close friends and regular visitors to Open Country.
At this time Melbourne’s small art community was intensely stimulated by the confronting art and personal experiences of émigré artists such as Yosl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff; by the modern European art revealed to Melburnians at the Herald Exhibition in 1939; by the vehement political arguments raging in Australia; the reports of fighting overseas and the sudden, sordid transformation of wartime Melbourne. In response, young artists such as Arthur, Perceval, Lennie, Tucker, Hester, Bergner and others explored elements of Expressionism, Surrealism and Social Realism. While Perceval created powerful paintings to represent universal suffering, Arthur produced a disturbing series of drawings and paintings of real and imagined motifs, such as moths, cripples, flowers, entwined lovers and hybrid creatures, which formed the origin of his personal and ongoing iconography.
Continuing the tradition: the Boyds and postwar pottery production
By the end of the war, all of the Boyd children had established themselves in the arts in some way. Having grown up at Open Country, working in clay would have seemed a natural thing to consider as a vocation. While the ceramic works each of the children produced are very different to Merric’s, they share his inventive and unconventional use of the medium and expressive use of decoration.
In 1939 Lucy married Hatton Beck, who had been assisting Merric at the Open Country studio, and together they set up a pottery in nearby Neerim Road. In 1944 Arthur, John Perceval and philosopher Peter Herbst took over this space and established the Arthur Merric Boyd (AMB) Pottery, named after Arthur’s beloved grandfather. As the Government at the time supported enterprises that provided essential goods and services for the war effort, such as the manufacture of functional domestic ware, Arthur was able to leave the army. Following his own discharge, Guy moved to Sydney to study sculpture and, with David, set up a pottery studio there in 1946. David subsequently met his wife Hermia Lloyd Jones at that studio; later they set up their own potteries, in Sydney, England and France. In the early stages of their careers, the production of pottery for the young Boyds was not only a means of achieving an income, but also, importantly, helped them to establish professional careers as artists in other media.
In Murrumbeena, and in a similar vein to Open Country, the AMB Pottery was a free-spirited enterprise where many other artists worked for periods of time, including Yvonne and Mary Boyd, Jean Langley, Dorothy Meyer and Tom Sanders. Visitors were often given a blank vessel and encouraged to paint it. When Herbst left in 1950 to continue an academic career, his share in the partnership was taken up by the gardener and conservationist Neil Douglas, who had been working at AMB Pottery for some time already.
While the pottery was initially established in order to make utilitarian wares, by the late 1940s artists at AMB had begun exercising their personal artistic inclinations and many items were created as one-off pieces. From 1948 Arthur increasingly distanced himself from the production at the pottery, focusing instead on his landscape paintings and an impressive series of luminous glazed earthenware tiles and chunky Cubist-inspired ceramic sculptures. This culminated in a monumental sculpture that was commissioned and installed outside the Melbourne Olympic Swimming Stadium in 1956. Perceval, too, began painting en plein air, fascinated by the seascapes around the port of Williamstown, and began his series of idiosyncratic and quirky ceramic angels. As Arthur, Perceval and their young families bought their own houses and moved away from Open Country, and their work developed in new directions, their involvement in the AMB Pottery declined, and ceased altogether in 1958 when the partnership was dissolved.
Merric Boyd died in September 1959. He had been ill for some time and, while he was no longer able to make pots, drew constantly in his last years. After Merric’s death, Arthur and Yvonne departed Australia with their children. Arthur was on the verge of international recognition as a painter when Guy sent news of his mother’s passing – less than one year after his father’s. For a period, Lucy and Hatton moved back to Open Country and attempted to run it as a pottery school; however, by 1964 it was clear its soul was gone and the family agreed to sell the property. Open Country was bulldozed and in its place there now stands a block of flats.
The story of Open Country is an important chapter in the history of twentieth-century Australian art. The production of pottery formed a common thread, but it was the great spirit of creativity and warm hospitality that gave those connected with Open Country the freedom to explore and to follow their hearts in whatever way or medium they chose. It was a fertile place, but it was ultimately the people and personalities – the Boyds and their circle – that gave life to Open Country.