Sunday Reed née Baillieu was born on a Sunday in 1905 into wealth and privilege. She married John Reed, an equally privileged if slightly less wealthy man of the Melbourne elite. Together, they fostered a generation of Australian artists using their money, their social connections and, in some cases, their sexual favors. The Heide Museum of Modern Art is their legacy.
Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed reads like a hagiography. This is perhaps not surprising as the two authors, Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, are curators of the Heide Museum. Sunday is beautiful. John is upright. Their taste is impeccable.
I had hoped Modern Love would give me insight into modern and contemporary Australian art. I was encouraged by this content warning in the preface to Modern Love.
We are mindful that for people who knew John and Sunday and their adopted son Sweeney, this account will bring to the surface memories both good and bad, but hope that it will, as it has for us, extend understanding of them as individuals–with all their strengths and shortcomings–and as historical identities.Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, Preface to Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed (The Miegunyah Press 2015)
A New World
What strikes me first about Modern Love is how very removed Sunday and John were from “ordinary” Australian life. The Great Depression hit Australia in the 1930s. Sunday and John have just met at a tennis party. Their courtship is delayed while Sunday travels to London to finalize her first divorce. They marry in 1932. That year, the official unemployment rate in Australia hits 32%. There is no mention in Modern Love of an economic crisis.
By the time World War II begins, Sunday and John have purchased a large rural property outside of Melbourne which they dub “Heide.” It becomes home to a revolving cast of poets, painters and sculptors who live with and off of the Reeds. Many of these artists are young men like the painter Sidney Nolan who are, sooner or later, drafted into military service.
Their version of the war is very different from, say, the protagonist in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. In that novel by Richard Flanagan, Dorrigo Evans sees combat at the Battle of Java, is captured by the Japanese and sent to labor on the Burma Railroad. By contrast, Nolan never left Australia.
His experience of military life became largely confined to guard duties and loading supplies onto railway wagons to be sent to the soldiers fighting the Japanese in New Guinea.
Indigenous peoples are mentioned three times in Modern Love and then only in passing. As for the convict past that looms so large in the Australian psyche, there is no mention at all. Instead, the authors of Modern Love are careful to note that none of Sunday or John’s ancestors arrived on the farthest shore in chains.
The litany of names befuddles me. There are lovers, friends, nemeses, betrayers, estranged family members, suicides. The only name that rings a bell in my mind is Sidney Nolan’s and that in relation to Ned Kelly. The latter has been immortalized by numerous writers, including Peter Carey, who described Kelly as
the last and greatest of Australia’s bushrangers, or rural outlaws, and still the country’s most legendary hero.Peter Carey, “True History of the Kelly Gang, First Part” in Granta: Australia (70: 2000)
Sidney Nolan chose to remake this Australian anti-hero as a man wearing a black letterbox for a helmet. While a houseguest at Heide and a bedmate to Sunday, Nolan created his Ned Kelly series.
Sidney Nolan’s 1946–47 paintings on the theme of the 19th-century bushranger Ned Kelly are one of the greatest series of Australian paintings of the 20th century. Nolan’s starkly simplified depiction of Kelly in his homemade armour has become an iconic Australian image.National Gallery of Australia, “The Ned Kelly series” [accessed on 28 Aug 2021]
I would have loved to learn more about the “national culture without jingoism” that Nolan and his fellow Heide acolytes so desperately longed to create. In Modern Love, all I get is the back-fighting and squabbling over who had the idea first.
I was going to write this bloody marvelous poem about Ned Kelly. Then we went back to Heide and Nolan snuck away and sat up all night with Sunday feeding him coffee, and when I’d got up the next morning Nolan had 12 paintings all around the dining room.Letter from Max Harris, quoted in Modern Love
The hand that feeds
One after another, the artists Sunday and John Reed nurtured turned on them. Sidney Nolan was perhaps the most vicious example but he was not alone. The authors of Modern Love tend to shift the blame on the ungrateful artists rather than on their generous benefactors. But I think one of the Heide artists, Albert Tucker, might have gotten it right. He saw Sunday and John as
bored rich people, a hot-house with exotic sorts of tastes with real education and discernment on the one hand, but they were basically and profoundly bored and looking for outlets—and areas of social usefulness too, to be fair.
If you’re not already immersed in the Heide scene or have otherwise drunk the kool-aid, it’s hard to think of a reason to read Modern Love. Even when read strictly as a biography of two wealthy individuals, John Reed fades in comparison to his more temperamental wife. Sunday was the one who demanded love, who retired to her bed when she didn’t get her way and used her money to buy loyalty. A more critical analysis might have yielded a more complex individual. As it is, Modern Love might be summarized so.
Sunday’s child is full of graceEnglish nursery rhyme
29 Aug 2021 | Karen Kao