Lina Bryans was a successful female artist and an independent single mother, at a time when both were less common. She also threw a hell of a party.
Bryans was born Lina Hallenstein, in Hamburg, Germany in August 1909.
Her family was from Australia. Bryans’ father was a wealthy industrialist, and her parents had been on an extended holiday in Europe; they returned to Melbourne the following year and settled in Toorak.
Her upbringing was privileged.
Bryans attended St Catherine’s private school, and then finishing school in Paris. Afterwards, her father accompanied her on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, the traditional rite of passage for young people of means.
In her travels, Bryans’ spent significant time in the leading European galleries, where she developed a love of painting.
The Hallenstein’s were well connected to the Melbourne establishment, and Bryans’ mother now set to finding her a suitable match.
But her daughter was already showing signs of a rebellious streak. After her return from Europe, Bryans took an extended stay with a cousin in Sydney, living independently for several months.
Her mother eventually insisted she return to Melbourne. Bryans then joined the debutante circuit, attending a series of parties and balls with other members of her social set.
She was courted by Baynham Bryans, the son of another wealthy family, and the pair married in 1931. They had a son, Edward, the following year.
Her life seemed to be following its proscribed path.
But Bryans never felt particularly close to her husband.
‘I loved to go dancing, and he was a very good dancer. But there was not a lot of depth to the relationship.’
– Lina Bryans
The couple were married for five years, before separating in 1936. Bryans then began living independently again, moving with her son to a flat in South Yarra.
It proved to be a fateful decision.
The apartment had been newly built, and the windows were decorated with stained glass. Bryans did not care for the pattern, and visited a local glazier to discuss having them replaced.
There she met William Frater, a Scottish born artist who also designed stained glass windows. The two fell into conversation, and quickly became friends.
Frater participated in a world Bryans had only experienced as a spectator.
He had found some success as an artist, and his stained glass designs had been installed in churches across Scotland, England and Australia. He also painted, and had participated in a number of exhibitions in Melbourne.
Frater helped Bryans with her windows, and shortly after painted her portrait. He also offered to teach her basic painting technique.
But Bryans independent streak surfaced again. While she had long harboured a desire to paint, she was reluctant to take any instruction: she wanted to figure it out herself.
Frater was away over Christmas 1936, and offered the use of his apartment while he was gone. If Bryans wanted to try painting, she was welcome to use his equipment; it would be a private space, where she could experiment.
Her first canvas was a pink and grey abstraction, inspired by some flowers in a vase on a Frater’s mantelpiece. When he returned, Frater was impressed, and encouraged her to continue.
While Bryans’ technique was rudimentary, she had a natural sense of colour and style. She trusted her creative instincts to guide her.
‘Art is instinctive. It is just how much the artist has in himself to express that makes it important. The material, the methods, even a great technical facility are ultimately of no avail if the instinctive emotion is lacking.’
– Lina Bryans
Bryans pictures were distinctive, and made some impact immediately; she exhibited her first works in public just the following year, in 1937.
To pursue her painting, Bryans rented a small studio in the city, in Little Collins Street. Frater had his own studio next door, their rooms were connected by a shared door.
In the morning Bryans would drop her son at school, then make her way into the city.
Most days she went for a swim at the Melbourne Public baths, then would breakfast at a cheap café. Afterwards she would head to her studio, and spend the rest of the day painting and chatting to Frater.
She was suddenly living her dream lifestyle.
Frater introduced Bryans to his friends in the Melbourne artistic community. There were other painters but also writers, actors, intellectuals, and critics.
Australian visual art in this period was divided into two camps. There were traditionalists who favoured established subjects like landscapes, delivered with as much technical accuracy as possible.
Then there were the ‘Modernists’, who took inspiration from the Impressionists and Post Impressionists in Europe. They tackled more contemporary subjects, utilising brighter colours and more innovative techniques.
The two sides criticised each other; the Modernists dismissed the traditionalists as bland and repetitive, they accused the Modernists of lacking technical ability.
A latecomer to the scene, Bryans largely avoided this debate. But her bold, colourful work, and circle of friends, placed her in the Modernist camp.
Bryans sometimes painted landscapes, and would roam the parks of Melbourne, looking for inspiration.
In 1940 she was exploring Darebin Creek, north of the city, when she came across an old pub, the Darebin Bridge Hotel. The hotel stood on Heidelberg Road, alongside a 19th century stone bridge that crossed the river.
When Bryans stopped to admire the building, she was chased and bitten by a dog. A woman then came to her aid; this proved to be one of the residents of the hotel, the artist, Ada May Plante.
Plante, then in her sixties, was also a painter in the Modernist style. Bryans was an admirer of her work, although the two had not previously met.
It was another fateful turn of events.
Bryans and Plante became friends, and the younger artist a regular visitor to the hotel. Tired of the city she began using it as a studio, and eventually moved in.
The hotel’s location was idyllic; in a quiet spot alongside the creek, it had an extensive private garden to the rear.
In 1942, Bryans’ mother passed away, leaving her a small inheritance. She used it to purchase the hotel outright.
‘Lina bought the place in 1942 and transformed it – making structural changes, painting the walls and floors in bright colours, and the exterior a warm pink. Paintings were everywhere, even in the kitchen.’
– Jane Miller, State Library Victoria blog
Bryans intended to use the hotel as an artistic retreat. It quickly became a popular getaway among her circle; due to the exterior, people called it, ‘The Pink Hotel.’
Bryans continued to live in the hotel, along with Ada Plante. Other permanent residents included artist Ian Fairweather, and Bryans’ old friend William Frater, who set up a combined studio/cottage in the garden shed.
Although the gossip was that Frater and Bryans were lovers, and the shed just a cover.
Many others came and went, staying overnight or for longer periods. The atmosphere was informal and friendly; people came for a break, or to work on their artistic projects.
Bryans had discovered she had a particular facility for portraits, and painted many of her guests. Her best known works are from this period, including perhaps her most famous painting; titled ‘The Babe Is Wise’, it depicts writer Jean Campbell.
The Pink House also became famous for its parties.
Once a month, Bryans would travel to the Queen Vic Markets in the city, and stock up on provisions. She’d then return to the Pink House to prepare, doing most of the cooking herself.
The war was on, many food items were in short supply. Bryans would make simple fare, usually a soup, and a few sides.
In the evening 50 or 60 guests, members of Melbourne’s artistic community, would show up to eat and talk, late into the night. The gatherings were animated, the discussion passionate. Parties at the Pink House became one of the highlights of Melbourne art scene.
Bryans loved to entertain, and relished being at the centre of these gatherings.
She would live, and party, at the Pink Hotel until 1948. That same year she held her first solo exhibition at the George Gallery, in the city.
Then, Bryans started an affair with a married clergyman. She sold the Pink Hotel to run away with him, mildly scandalising her friends.
The pair lived for a time in the countryside, as share-farmers; later Bryans would describe him as ‘an awful man’, but herself in need of a change.
After this hiatus she travelled abroad, spending several years in North America and then France. Returning to Melbourne, Bryans purchased a house in Harkaway, and returned to painting.
In 1954, Bryans met architect Alex Jelinek, a recent immigrant from Czechoslovakia. Sixteen years her junior, the pair were opposites in many ways: Bryans lively and social, Jelinek ascetic and reclusive.
They started a relationship, which would last the rest of Bryans’ life.
She continued to travel, now largely around Australia, and from this time concentrated on landscape paintings. She returned to favourite spots along Darebin Creek, while the Australian outback, and the coast near Mallacoota, were other favoured locations.
Always engaged in the artistic community, Bryans was a member of a number of localrganisations. She was an early patron of the ‘Meanjin’ writing group, which remains one of Melbourne’s most important literary outlets, and a friend and mentor to many aspiring young artists.
Her paintings are held in the permanent collections of the NGV, and the National Gallery in Canberra.
Lina Bryans died of old age at her home, in September 2000.
I am walking through the NGV when I see it for the first time. I am there to see a different show, but this other painting immediately grabs my attention.
It is a portrait of a woman in a light coloured coat, wearing a stylish red hat. She has her hands on her hips and a sly look; confident, self-possessed, sophisticated.
This is a portrait of Lina Bryans, painted by William Frater in 1937.
I have never heard of Bryans before. Later I will read about her life, and many of her friends will remark on the impact she made on their first meeting; charismatic and magnetic, she drew your attention to her.
You can really feel this, in Frater’s painting.
A painting by Bryans herself is alongside. This is a portrait of her friend Rosa Ribush, from 1940. The technique is not as deft, but this one has as much impact; brightly coloured, it gives a sense of affectionate admiration, and a lively personality.
At the same time, Rosa’s stare goes beyond you, to something you cannot see.
The Pink Hotel still stands alongside Darebin Creek. Since Bryans sold it, it has had a number of different custodians, including an electronics company, and a box manufacturer.
On the day I visit it stands empty, a ‘For Lease’ sign out front.