Germaine Greer hated this portrait but it could be worth $1.5m

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 25 August 2022

Jeffrey Smart’s famed portrait of his friend Germaine Greer is on the market for the first time since it was painted in 1984.

With an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million, the work, which was recently on loan to the National Gallery of Australia for its Smart retrospective, could well set a new auction record for the artist.

It comes from the collection of Joan and Peter Clemenger, whose names are synonymous with art patronage and the advertising industry.

“It’s a marvellous painting, it’s much admired,” says Peter Clemenger, a quick-witted 94-year-old who is also selling another three major works from the family collection through Deutscher and Hackett next month.

The Greer portrait is one of Clemenger’s favourites and hung in the dining room of the couple’s Melbourne home, “so Jeffrey Smart could see it when he came here”, he laughs.

Contrary to Greer’s reputation as a bold and fearless feminist and writer, Smart mischievously depicted her demurely dressed, modestly posed, and clutching a handbag firmly on her lap.

Greer, reportedly, was not amused – complaining that she never used a handbag and did not sit with her legs so primly closed. But Smart has form when it comes to teasing his famous friends – Clive James was rendered as a near-microscopic figure in a domineering urban landscape; David Malouf as an overall-wearing, hose-holding labourer.

Clemenger and his late wife, Joan, who died in January aged 89, started collecting art in the 1960s, with no plan other than to buy what they liked. In the process, they acquired some of the most exceptional works from the canon of Australian art.

“We started rather small, two Thomas Gleghorn paintings for £5 each, and then we bought a Ray Crooke from Barry Stern in Sydney for £25,” Peter says.

The four works he is selling next month, all on the secondary market for the first time, are worth pronouncedly more. Another of his favourites is a small, blunt, Brett Whiteley self-portrait, with a curly thatch of the artist’s real hair attached.

“We were lucky to get the self-portrait,” Clemenger says.

The couple bought the painting in 1979 from Melbourne’s Joseph Brown Gallery for $4400 (about $22,800 today). It’s now valued at $280,000 to $350,000.

Not that the Clemengers ever purchased art with the idea of a reaping a profit.

“No, no way,” Clemenger says emphatically. “We bought because we liked it, there was no sense of investing at any stage, either at the beginning or the middle or the end.

“I mean, it’s proven to be a very good investment, but that’s not why we did it. We did it because we enjoyed the whole experience and I look back on it and I think somehow or other we did reasonably well.”

The portrait of Greer has stood up exceedingly well; the Clemengers bought it for $25,000 (about $57,900 today) in 1989 from Sydney art dealer Rex Irwin.

“It doesn’t sound a lot now, at the time it was a lot of money,” Clemenger says.

Also off to auction is the magnificently minimal Fred Williams painting Lysterfield Landscape, 1968 to 1969, which the Clemengers bought from London’s Marlborough Fine Art in 1996. It has an estimate of $1.6 million to $2 million.

The fourth work from the Clemenger collection is John Brack’s Posies, 1990, a symbolic still life of six wooden hands holding bouquets of flowers – a family portrait, actually, with the central hands clasping the larger posies representing John and Helen Brack, and the four smaller hands their four daughters. It is estimated at $600,000 to $800,000.

All of these works have hung in the Clemenger’s Guilford Bell-designed home since it was built in 1982 with their collection in mind.

“The house he designed for us is 100 per cent perfect for showing the paintings at their best,” Clemenger says. “There’s a certain sadness about what we’re doing, but you don’t own paintings forever. Hopefully, somebody will buy them and enjoy them… we’ve been lucky enough to have them in the house for nearly 40 years.”