Lina Bryans invited Ian Fairweather to stay at Darebin Bridge House from 1945 to 1947, creating one of the most fruitful, yet private dialogues in modern Australian art. It was an unlikely friendship between the dour Scot Fairweather and the stylish and sociable Bryans.

Bryans’s ‘Painters’ Pub’ at Darebin in the 1940s became a well-known cosmopolitan milieu for modernist artists and writers. Post-war Melbourne saw many artists leave for overseas, and creative life lapsed into near torpor. Open-minded and generous, Bryans during these ‘faded years’ maintained a lively artistic centre at Darebin Bridge House, on Heidelberg Road. She bought the old coaching house in 1943, opening up its dusty rooms, waxing the floors with coloured waxes, and painting the outside walls pink, dubbing it the ‘Pink House’. Artists lived there, including Ada May Plante and Ambrose Hallen; others like Jock Frater frequented the house; as well as writers, including the editor Clem Christesen, and members of the fledgling journal Meanjin; art curators, theatrical producers and musicians all came. Bryans’s energy in the mid-1940s was famous. Brian Finemore, curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Victoria, said: ‘Lina Bryans was friend to all those fine spirits questioning the basis of Australian attitudes, artistic and intellectual.’

Having established herself during the early forties as an ‘artistic dynamo’, she maintained her vivid intensity throughout the arid post-war years in her lively Darebin Bridge House community.

Trained in the Slade School tradition in London, Fairweather first visited Melbourne in 1934, and exhibited at Cynthia Reed’s in Little Collins Street. But Bryans did not meet him then, although she knew of his work through her friend and mentor Jock Frater. Frater and Fairweather were fellow Scots and were nearly the same age, Frater having been born in 1890, the year before Fairweather.

Fairweather’s reputation as one of the Slade School’s outstanding students preceded him. Daryl Lindsay, a friend of Bryans, who earlier also trained at the Slade, had word of Fairweather’s arrival through his old teacher, Sir Henry Tonks. Bryans attended the show and with her acute eye, selected one of the best pictures, beginning her life-long patronage of the artist.

In July 1938 Bryans bought several of the Manila paintings sent by Fairweather to Frater for him to sell. Beginning her patronage of artists she believed expressed the essence of their subject, Bryans bought Fairweather’s Boats at Soochow Creek, 1938, depicting the view from his window in Shanghai, and Beach at Manicahan, 1938, which traces the graceful palm trees of the Philippine jungle with expressive brushstrokes. Again in July 1939, from Cairns, Fairweather consigned works to Frater, and again Bryans bought them.

Bryans and Fairweather were eventually introduced by Frater over lunch in 1943, when he stayed at Darebin Bridge House during a brief, week-long visit to Melbourne. On this visit Fairweather signed all his paintings of the 1930s acquired by Bryans through Frater, when he was acting for Fairweather. When he returned to Melbourne in October 1945, Bryans offered him a room at her Darebin home, and he accepted her invitation, living first on the ground floor, before removing to the basement. His messages for small items like cigarettes, passed through the old rubble into the kitchen would amuse Bryans. He stayed for two years, completing 160 paintings, and one sculpture.

At Darebin Bridge House Bryans provided the privacy and freedom from financial harassment which was essential to Fairweather’s creativity. He would sit on the verandah reading his Chinese dictionary, and occasionally playing chess in the kitchen with the bohemian, Tahiti-travelled Shorty Lee. Fairweather took long walks with Bryans when they discussed their art together. Fairweather was a recluse, casting, as Alan McCulloch recalled, a melancholy spell on Darebin Bridge House. High spirited visitors who attended Bryans’s famous dinner parties would speak in whispers while Fairweather was in the house as an unseen, obsessive presence until he went out in the evenings.

He also influenced Bryans in her art. Fairweather’s Philippine Girl, 1945–47 offered Bryans the simplicity of means she expressed in The Student, 1947, a portrait of her friend, Russian academic, Nina Christesen reading.

Fairweather discussed with Bryans, an intuitive artist, the problem of holding the subject in place while allowing the brush to express its own line. He had come under the spell of Turner’s light and colour, and ‘pure sensation’ while studying at the Slade School. Bryans’s portraits of the 1940s also leave thinly-painted areas between swiftly-brushed colour, similar to the powerful lines of the heads in Fairweather’s Landlady and Daughter, Cairns, 1941, which Bryans bought. Many of Fairweather’s portraits showed the same Slade tradition of drawing evident in the portraits of his teacher, the superb draughtsman Augustus John. The paintings of Fairweather’s hibernation at Darebin Bridge House were nurtured by Bryans’s sharing with him ideas about Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, and a respect for the writings of the British art critic Herbert Read.

Bryans tried to help organise the sale of Fairweather’s Darebin paintings in London. According to a letter to Bryans from Laurie Thomas, writing from Cambridge in June 1948, ‘he [Fairweather] sent practically 100 to the Redfern direct from Darebin before he left [in 1947]’. Bryans later gave permission for her entire Fairweather collection to be shown during the touring Fairweather Retrospective exhibition, curated by Laurie Thomas, which opened in the Art Gallery of Queensland on 3 June 1965.

Fairweather and Bryans together captured a particular period in Australian cultural history during and after the bleak post-war years. Bryans was the ‘Gertrude Stein of Melbourne’ according to her early painting friend, Alan Sumner, befriending everyone, and always to their advantage. The writer Nettie Palmer who had been a regular visitor to Darebin during the 1940s, remembered with affection ‘the Lina house, the house with the green verandah roof and its long past as a cool change across from the river’. This was the haven Lina Bryans offered Fairweather, a Celtic bird of passage, between 1945 and 1947.