Carmel O’Connor became aware of emeritus professor Bernard Smith, a highly regarded art historian, through his writing. She was looking through a second-hand bookshop last year when she came across Smith’s The antipodean manifesto, first published in 1976. “He’s still alive, you know,” the bookseller told her (Smith is 85), “and he lives in Fitzroy.”
“From his writing I felt that this man really loved art,” says O’Connor. “He writes so well and it’s from the heart. It was reading his writing that gave me the courage to write to him.”
So O’Connor sent him a letter asking if she could paint his portrait and Smith said no. “I wrote again and quoted a stanza from Coleridge’s The rime of the ancient mariner: ‘Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.’ And I said that by keeping to his house, they were the boards shrinking and we were out here wanting him to come out. It appealed to him and he said I could come around and draw him with or without his clothes on. It’s not normally what I would do but I have painted nudes and done a lot of life drawing. So I visited him and showed him the pose of the Barberini faun [a Greek sculpture]. It’s a provocative pose and I thought he would say, ‘Paint me with a suit on’ but no. He came to my studio and said, ‘Here I am, put me in the pose.’”
Every Friday for five weeks from March, Smith posed, and for a full three days and nights each week O’Connor worked on two portraits of him (acrylic on linen), taking half-hour catnaps on the studio floor. She knew it would be a tight schedule to reach the Archibald deadline so went into training beforehand. “I went running every morning because it was quite a rigorous discipline to do the work. It was hard work but I love that. Working on the two portraits at once was a wonderful experience because one kept raising the work on the other. It was frantic and exciting.”
Born in Melbourne in 1955, O’Connor has painted all her life. She has a Graduate Diploma in Education and a Bachelor of Arts from Monash University, Caulfield.