Colin and Elizabeth Laverty: Down the rabbit hole - Art Collector

Issue 62, October - December 2012

Colin and Elizabeth Laverty have been committed collectors for decades. Jane O’Sullivan visits their home in Sydney and finds a couple whose intense curiosity and passion for art has led them to many surprising places.

The day I visit the Colin and Elizabeth Laverty the house is all a-rumpus. Discarded bubblewrap lies all over the place and artist Robert Hirschmann, who has been helping the couple ever since they bought a painting of his and asked him to hang it, is striding around with an electric drill. Major loans that had gone out, including to the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht, have just returned and the collecting couple is in the process of deciding what to put back up, and where everything should go.

The topic of discussion is whether an ominous Peter Booth from the artist’s
black doorway series should go next to the new Michael Taylor. Which one should go on the right? The larger Taylor? Or the darker Booth? You get the feeling these kinds of conversations are common in the Laverty household and nothing stays in the same place for too long. “The trouble is, there are too many good paintings,” Colin says.

By the time I leave, a large Ildiko Kovacs has been replaced with a striking yellow-toned Regina Wilson in the upstairs study and a firm (for now) decision has been made about the Booth and Taylor.

While the Lavertys aren’t comprehensive collectors – Colin says he’s “not very disciplined” when it comes to collecting and has never felt the urge to go back and “fill in the gaps” – there are clearly favourites. Ildiko Kovacs and Aida Tomescu are much loved, a sizeable cluster of Peter Booths hangs over the stairs and there are also several Ken Whissons on display. But it’s the Aboriginal art that the Lavertys are perhaps most well known for.

They fell down this rabbit hole in the late 1980s after seeing an exhibition of Papunya Tula paintings. Impressed, they then leapt at the chance to visit Aboriginal art centres in Australia’s remote interior. Colin and Elizabeth both talk with fondness of the artists and work they met on these trips. Today, there are barks and ochres in the collection, including pieces by John Mawurndjul, Timothy Cook and Samuel Namundja, but it’s the grand, bold and colourful that takes pride of place in the Lavertys’ home. The wall behind the dining table is dominated by a large Tommy Watson and several canvases from Balgo in the APY Lands, whose artists are known for working with bright acrylics. There is also a Jan Billycan on show, and the storage racks built into the corner of the room hold several Sally Gaboris and Makinti Napanangkas. (Even in Aboriginal art, Colin’s taste veers towards the abstract. “It’s much more of a challenge to do a good abstract work,” he explains, hinting at the value he places in technical skill.)

There are surprises in the collection too. As you enter their house – a surprisingly modest brick home in Sydney’s inner west with somewhat less modest harbour views – the first thing you encounter is equestrian art. There are also marine paintings from the turn of the century and works by Australian favourites like Grace Cossington Smith, E Phillips Fox and Herbert Badham. The Lavertys are, quite simply, collectors who go wherever their curiosity takes them.

Colin enjoys talking about his collection and the tour I take through their home is clearly one he has led many times before. He is also the first collector I’ve ever met to hand me his art CV at the end of an interview. It’s a necessary indulgence perhaps, given the unofficial campaign he has been waging to see Australian Aboriginal art recognised on the world stage as contemporary art (as opposed to ethnographic or folk art which has less of a cachet in art criticism circles).

This campaign is the reason the Lavertys have been so active in lending works to international institutions. According to Colin’s handy art CV, the couple has now loaned work by 52 different Indigenous artists to public institutions in 15 countries.

Local institutions haven’t been neglected. Over the years the Lavertys have loaned over 450 works by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to institutions all over the country and gifted a further 131.

These figures also give some idea as to the scale of the collection – though a firm number won’t be coming anytime soon. Upstairs in the study, when Colin and his long-serving assistant are showing me the sophisticated computer program they use to log the artworks in the collection, I’m prompted to ask a question to put the system to the test. “Okay,” I venture, thinking I’ll start off with an easy one, “how many works are in the collection?” Colin waves a hand and grimaces. “Oh no, it’s ridiculous,” he says. I’m still not sure whether he means the question or the collection.

You can read more about the Laverty’s Aboriginal art collection in
Beyond Sacred: Australian Aboriginal Art, Edition II, published by the couple through Kleimeyer Industries, Melbourne.

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