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Since 1992, the Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Art Scholarships have supported the careers of more than 130 Australian artists. The extensively illustrated book, The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest, edited by Ross Wolfe, is an in-depth look at these two American artists and their legacy.

Anne and Gordon Samstag lived in Australia from 1961 to 1977. They made their biggest impression in Adelaide, where Gordon worked at the South Australian School of Art, but they also lived in Melbourne and Cairns. In the extract from The Samstag Legacy reproduced in full below, Ross Wolfe provides some background on their momentous decision to leave America for a new life on the other side of the world.

Prelude To A Journey

When Anne and Gordon Samstag arrived in Melbourne, Australia, as professional immigrants in June 1961, they had come about as far as was possible to travel from their comfortable American home in Mamaroneck, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Manhattan. Their old friend Howard P. Barker, who’d known Gordon since 1948 when he was enrolled in Gordon’s summer landscape painting class at the Art Students League, described the Samstag condominium there at 111 Fenimore Road as having ‘a lovely view’ overlooking Harbor Island and being near the boats on Long Island Sound, Westchester County, New York State. One of the boats was Gordon’s. A keen sailor, he owned a 16-foot Cape Cod Bullseye Class yacht, the Admiral Anne, which he loved to race.(1)

The Samstags had come to Australia for professional work, travelling first to Sydney on May 31 from Auckland on a Tasman Empire Airways flight. They’d secured a three-year business visa in March.(2) The year before leaving America, Gordon had negotiated with a leading Australian art school, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (now RMIT University), to teach ‘Illustration, Figure and Portrait Drawing’, although only temporarily, part-time.(3)

Why travel so far for so modest and tenuous a position, particularly at Gordon’s age? He would within a month turn fifty-five; Anne was fifty-two. Married in New York City in November 1933, they had no children. What was it about Australia – antipodean home to strange animals, eucalyptus trees and vast, arid landscapes – that had captured their interest? Had they been here before?(4) There was surely more to it than need of money or even professional status, given they were subsequently revealed to be rich?

238_Gordon Samstag passport photo
Anne and Gordon Samstag’s Australian visa application photos. D4878, AMERICAN SAMSTAG, A. and D4878, AMERICAN SAMSTAG, G. Courtesy National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Perhaps the Samstags simply were tired of their lives in America and seeking fresh beginnings? Elizabeth Doyle, a neighbour of the Samstags when they later moved to Adelaide, thought that to be the case. As a young adult growing up next door to them in suburban St Georges in the 1960s, Elizabeth knew the Samstags as intimately as most and had observed them shrewdly, though with affection. ‘Anne,’ she said, was ‘tall and slim, with straight grey hair cut close to her head’, while Gordon was ‘of medium height and build, with a very neatly trimmed goatee beard’. And if Gordon ‘spoke slowly’, then ‘Anne’s words came at a snail’s pace in a drawling accent which defied description’ (though as Elizabeth gleaned later, it showed the influence of Anne’s childhood homeschooling by tutors and governesses, ‘some of whom were Irish’).(5)

Never once suspecting that the Samstags might be seriously rich, the entire Doyle family had relished the ‘delightfully eccentric’ couple as neighbours, especially enjoying Gordon’s ‘child-like’ enthusiasm as a backyard gardener, an activity which he clearly loved but for which, amusingly, he appeared to lack competence (though Elizabeth suspected it was an act), showing as much pleasure in the soursob weeds, which he presented proudly to her mother as ‘flowers’, as for his tomatoes, which suffered from his reluctance to kill the snails. The Doyles were given to understand that the Samstags ‘had all their lives both lived in the city, and were totally ignorant when it came to nature and practical matters’. Indeed, Elizabeth observed, both Gordon and Anne lacked any knowledge in the simple things of life, such as fitting a light bulb, changing a washer or replacing a fuse. A slug in the lettuce was ‘a major drama’. Elizabeth’s mother too, soon realised that Anne appeared to have had very little domestic experience prior to coming to Australia – for example in cooking – as she frequently called for help with the most ordinary kitchen appliances, professing ‘amazed admiration’ when given assistance.

And although Anne was a qualified dog trainer who conducted obedience classes in Adelaide, her own ‘bulldog-like pet’, a pug called Donna, ignored all her commands and on the Samstags’ glacially slow evening walks around the neighbourhood (during which they ‘inspected gardens and nature with surprise and delight’) Donna would have to be carried most of the way. It seemed not to matter.

Sometimes in the morning Gordon would offer to drive Elizabeth and her brother to university in the city, a privilege they did their best to avoid since it meant being late. Elizabeth thought that Gordon seemed to have ‘no experience of driving a car’, as he drove more slowly than the bus, ‘keeping close to the gutter all the way’, his inaudibly soft-voiced conversation adding to the tension of the trip. She thought he was provoking and testing her.

237_Anne Samstag passport photo
Anne and Gordon Samstag’s Australian visa application photos. D4878, AMERICAN SAMSTAG, A. and D4878, AMERICAN SAMSTAG, G. Courtesy National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

It had nevertheless been a happy experience for them all. Reflecting on the Samstags many years afterwards, Elizabeth Doyle mused that they had come to Australia ‘at a time when life in a fast-paced city was no longer congenial to them’ and that in Australia ‘they discovered a whole new lifestyle – far slower, more to their liking – that they came to love’.(6)

But could something else, other than a simple desire for a sea change have lain behind the move to Australia, and the significant upheaval it involved? After all, Gordon’s artistic career had lost momentum long before; the realist art and classical values for which he was so comprehensively trained, and at which he excelled, swept aside by the unstoppable changes in contemporary art. There certainly appeared little critical currency remaining in the ‘American Scene’ genre to which he fundamentally belonged and where his reputation had been forged, all of it now overwhelmed by New York– led Abstract Expressionism and what was following in rapid order, not least Pop Art. There were many artists of his ilk who’d lost their way, or given up.

Gordon hadn’t given up, of course. Despite his apparently reduced opportunities after World War II, he’d stayed in the game. He had runs on the board and, above all, class. As well as his authentic success as an artist before the war, he had from 1947 directed, in partnership with his good friend Henry Maurer, the private Manhattan-based American Art School. Even during the global conflict he had continued to work as an artist, contributing to the war effort by working with the Jordanoff Aviation Corporation on the preparation of educational handbooks and manuals for the armed forces. Afterwards he’d turned his skills to freelance work as an illustrator for popular magazines; he was good at it. (For full details of Samstag’s art career, see Part 1, Samstag the Artist.)

Anne, meanwhile, had continued to pursue her long-time passion as a dog obedience trainer. Her particular love was poodles, which from the 1930s had become the focus of an emerging ‘sport’ of dog obedience in the United States: Anne was associated with the Poodle Obedience Training Club of Greater New York, and was a member of the American Kennel Club. In 1960, just before they came to Australia, the Samstags had two standard poodles, Rene C.D.X. and Guy, who presumably remained in America.(7) But Anne also took care to develop her profile as an illustrator and textile designer, achieving quiet success designing high-quality, rolled-edge and embroidered linen handkerchiefs for the prestige retail market, commissioned by M.H. Kimball and Company for speciality department-store chains, such as the Manhattan-based Lord and Taylor.(8) Anne’s handkerchiefs – sought after today as vintage treasures of their kind – embodied imaginative designs with diverse motifs such as roosters, weathervanes and leaves (see page 178). The best of them, though, featured standard poodles: coiffured aristocrats in a variety of colours. They were graphically adept, with a charming touch of humour. While there couldn’t have been much money in it, Kimball’s recurrent commissions would have dignified Anne’s identity as a professional artist and no doubt strengthened her collaborative relationship with Gordon.

The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest is available from the Samstag Museum of Art and good book stores. 

NOTES

1. Howard P. Barker, Sarasota, Florida, letter to author, November 12, 1993. Samstag had on one occasion invited Barker to ‘crew’ with him in a race, although Barker was inexperienced at sailing: they came in second. Barker thought Gordon had been ‘very patient with me’.

2. The Samstags arrived first in Sydney, Australia, on 31 May, 1961, most likely flying on a Lockheed Electra airliner, having secured a three-year business visa in March that year. See Australian National Archives, entry D4878.

3. ‘After some correspondence in 1960 between GS and Mr Victor Greenhalgh (Head, School of Art, RMIT), Gordon was invited to teach approximately twenty hours per week on subjects which included illustration, figure and portrait drawing. He accepted the offer and commenced a temporary appointment as Instructor in Art on June 5, 1961. There is no record of Anne Samstag working at RMIT.’ Tracey Paterson, Senior Employee Adviser, People Services, RMIT, email to Daniel Thomas, January 17, 2005. The author thanks Daniel Thomas for generously sharing his research notes, gathered between December 2004 and January 2005 for his article ‘Meet the Samstags’, which was published in June 2005 in Art & Australia.

4. Ray Spilman and his wife, Mary, knew the Samstags when they lived in adjoining apartment buildings in Fleetwood, Bronxville, during World War II. Ray believed that Gordon had previously been to Australia, although he ‘couldn’t say for sure’ (Ray and Mary Spilman, interview with author, Darien, Connecticut, May, 1996). Ray Spilman (1911- 2000) was an American industrial designer and President of the American Society of Industrial Designers; see Syracuse University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center.

5. Elizabeth M. Doyle, Burnside, Adelaide, letter to author, November 27, 1998. The Samstags lived at 25 Sunnyside Road, St Georges, Adelaide, from 1962 to 1967, before buying land at 14 Bayview Crescent, Beaumont, and building their own, architect-designed house. Doyle described the Samstags’ Sunnyside Road property as an ‘English cottage on a deep, sloping block, with magnificent views over the city of Adelaide, and down to the beaches.’

6. Ibid.

7. See Anne Samstag, letter to Angus Cameron, Editor, Alfred A. Knopf, May 2, 1961, in the Samstag correspondence, Alfred A. Knopf archive, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Dog obedience was especially popular among the rich in Manhattan, where competitions would often be held at the Rockefeller Center. The ‘sport’ had its start in America in the 1930s, largely through a collaboration between Helene Whitehouse Walker (charter member of the Poodle Club of America) and the legendary dog trainer Blanche Saunders, who together travelled across the United States with their poodles in 1937, promoting and giving dog obedience demonstrations. See Catherine C. Reiley, ‘Poodles in obedience’, in Mackey J. Irick, The New Poodle, Howell Book House, 1986, Chapter 52.

8. Manufacturers like Kimball advertised a ‘handkerchief of the month’ in Voguemagazine. See the Handkerchief Heroes website: http://handkerchiefheroes.com/home/

Book Extracts