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A Portrait of Love

First published: Caliper 06, Love Edition, December 2019

Prologue

My grandfather Claude was an astonishing influence on how I have viewed the world. He would attend at Christmas, crossing the volatile piece of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand on the ferry and with my grandmother in the passenger seat beside him, drive down the eastern coast of the South Island pulling behind an enlarged caravan and a smallish jet boat.  His spare time was thence spent driving me and my twin brother around rural Canterbury in his enormous Holden, coloured a dirty-gold with a red pleather interior, us in the back with no seatbelts, sucking on grainy pink lollies composed of what tasted like aniseed mixed with suntan lotion.

Sometimes, my family reflected their downward journey, and we travelled north to their place in Wellington. Routinely my grandfather would send us and our similarly aged cousins, each burdened with a bag of jellybeans, into the bush that backed on to their house in the hills of Upper Hutt. With zero supervision we were instructed to return when the light began to dim, so that we arrived back just before dark. Somehow, we always managed to find our way following creeks or crevices.

On our return we would hound him till he allowed us to look at his toy train set composed of two full-sized pool tables that could be winched down from within the garage roof space. Together they construed a Boschian stage for trains, Christmas lights, engineered Meccano, plastic toys from the low-cost toy store and fake powdered grass. In this grotesque petri dish of imagination dwelled model people going about their day. If lucky one of us was invited to turn or pull the levers embedded in the periphery of the pool-table, made from the parts of a washing machine or similar, to reveal hidden in the thickness of the table and its fake mountains, smaller more engrossing worlds.

I remember a spinning carnival ride made from Meccano that pivoted up from between a row of model shops and a zoo inhabited by plastic dinosaurs. Its vertical stem was stuck with climbing plastic gorillas, their smeared colouring communicating an opportunistic purchase in the local supermarket. When turned at high velocity by the drill motor at its base, crooked arms would jolt from this stalk and throw a set of plastic planes, of even lesser quality than the gorillas, almost horizontal in wild formation above a forest made from coloured Christmas lights set to flash with each revolution. The completeness of this world has languished in its details over time. I only have glimpses of its parts and of my grandfather whose face is turned away from the camera in the only picture I have of him.

It was during my final year in the office of Edmond & Corrigan, while I was sitting in front of the computer with an opera design on screen, that Peter received a phone call notifying him of the birth of his granddaughter to his son Matthew. After he put down the receiver, he pulled a chair next to me, and with his arms crossed and his body idly slumped, he asked me who my grandfather was. And so, I told him what I have just told you of the gorillas and Meccano, aniseed and the bush, the Christmas lights and dinosaurs. With a small nod of the head he remarked laconically, ‘good’.

Epilogue

In the RMIT Design Archives amongst the office papers and architectural documentation of the Melbourne architectural practice of Edmond and Corrigan I came across a series of photographs. They show a mural commissioned by Peter Corrigan and Maggie Edmond and painted in the nursery just before the birth of their son Matthew. The artist of these murals was the iconic Robert Pearce, a designer, illustrator and provocateur of notable originality and energy.  The murals remained at 985 Drummond Street until the family moved to 1025 Drummond Street across the road. Conceivably they remain painted around the fireplace, a small side window and the mass of a set of stairs that infringed into the room, but under layers of real-estate white. Beneath this veil of ordinariness would be found something marvellous, two-winged angels who announce the arrival of an archangel within a celestial ground of pale blue sky and clouds flecked with red, blue. The photographs in the archive show a cherub blowing a trumpet that shoots individual floral testimonials. The other cherub appears to wear a black two piece. While the third figure is dressed in a pink gown with a silhouette reminiscent of John Waters, the outfit completed with black gloves (ala Audrey Hepburn), a black corset and pink cat-eye sunglasses. The angels face is painted, and their strawberry blonde hair held back against the halo and wings, the only vestiges of divinity. They bequeath a love heart blessing.

Robert Pearce died in 1989 aged 39 from AIDS. I am not surprised when I learn that Peter authored an obituary that was published in the architectural journal Transition that year. In it he asserts Robert’s attributes: a political activist, a good friend, a reasonable human being, and finally a painter with vision. Peter is concise and to the point. Clearly the loss of this figure is immense, but I am astonished to read the final paragraph:

“I commissioned him to do a mural on the wall of my new-born son’s bedroom. In the flurry of the activity that surrounded the birth, I took little notice of Rob working away behind the closed door. Eventually, the big shot was installed in his room, and I examined the mural.  It consisted of a series of plump winged Giotto type cherubs, a favourite motif, acting as solemn custodians high upon the walls, hovering amongst a flotilla of pastel and gold smeared clouds. Then I noticed another lone smiling angel, something of an outsider, she hovered on the wall below the mantlepiece, wearing  diamanté glasses and a black leather brassiere over a pink satin sheath with a flared taffeta hem. I expect Rob is elsewhere laughing with that very angel” [1]

A week before Peter passed away in December 2016 I missed a call from him. He left a message. I suspect it was just a huff and then the click of the phone, or maybe an uncertain reproach for his intrusion. I don’t know. I never listened to it, and it remained unanswered. After Peter’s death I had the mobile provider secure it so that it will never disappear.  Once and awhile, when my thoughts are on other things, I receive a dispatch telling me I have just missed a call from ‘Mr Peter Corrigan’. And in this moment, I remember my grandfather, and around me I hear the trumpets of angels.

 

 IMAGE CREDITS: Mural by Robert Pearce,  RMIT Design Archive, Gift of Edmond & Corrigan, 0006.2017.0057-59

 

[1] Peter Corrigan, Obituary: Robert Pearce, in Transition: Discourse on Architecture, RMIT Department of Architecture, Summer/Autumn, 1989, p.131

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