The conversation about donating began with former Bendigo gallery director Karen Quinlan some years ago. “I said I didn’t want to depart this planet and there be an auction, and paintings sold at half price,” he says. Curators have already made their selection – “I said just take what you want” – and about 120 are in an exhibition opening next week, The Paul Guest Collection. Those works will be returned to Guest when the show closes. “But when I go to God they’ll come back and get them. That’s the deal; it’s a good deal – I lose them for a few months.”
The former Family Court judge and well-known philanthropist shines with wit, anecdotes and a generosity of spirit: while you wouldn’t want to cross his sharp intellect in court or in a debate about Sidney Nolan works, artists welcome his perceptive interest in their work. Many of those whose art he has bought have become friends.
His conversation is riddled with praise: “He’s a top bloke”; “she’s a wonderful artist, why hasn’t she been given a big survey?”; “he’s been a really dear friend to me”. Some of the older artists in the collection have died or are ill: repeatedly he tells me so-and-so is very unwell, that one died, or another is in hospital. Guest, though, remains robust amid this sadness, talking of his life and collection with ardour.
He graduated in law from the University of Melbourne in 1963, having first tried medicine. Since school, he had been a serious rower and he achieved Olympic selection at three Games (Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City). In 2013 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for services to the community and the sport of rowing.
Guest was equally successful in the law, entering the bar in 1969 to specialise in family and criminal law and being appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1983. In 1998 he was made a Judge of the Family Court of Australia, retiring in 2008. Biographer John Harry writes that Guest was “known as a skilled, tough and uncompromising advocate” who got results, a man who was “much trusted and loved by his peers at the bar for his dedication, collegiality, humanity and sense of fairness”.
Guest says that while he loved rowing and the law – “I took the competitive aspect of rowing into being a barrister” – art has remained central. “I think I always had an inherent passion for art. A lot of these paintings have been on the walls for decades and that’s the value you get. You come home, they’re like part of the family.”
His collecting led him, in 2010, to institute the biennial Paul Guest Prize for contemporary drawing practice in Australia, providing funds to sustain it well into the future.
The collecting began in the 1960s when he took on artist Andrew Sibley as a client. He bought Sibley’s The Mirror in 1969 and the artist introduced him to other artists who were immediately drawn to his enthusiasm. Guest would quiz them. “What’s it all about, I’d say to them. And the paintings would come alive.”
Guest also represented other artist friends. “I became their barrister. I did all their shitty cases as a junior. Driving under the influence, .05s, offensive behaviour. We were all ragtag kids and I was a young barrister.”
One of his best friends was Les Kossatz, the lauded sculptor; Guest points out several of his works in the dining room. Looking back over their 30-year friendship, which ended when Kossatz died in 2011, Guest is moved to tears. “We used to go up to the Rathdowne Tavern and have three schooners of Hoegaarden and a plate of chips. I’d eat the chips, he wouldn’t eat a thing. And then it became a game between us: I’d count the cigarette butts. Three beers and 13 or 14 or 15 roll-your-own cigarette butts.”‘
Then, one day, when Guest arrived and asked “How you going mate?”, Kossatz’s lip trembled. “I said ‘what’s the trouble Les?’ He said ‘I’ve got three months to live’. The lung cancer. I was with him the hour before he died. I still get upset … he squeezed my hand. He was a terrific friend, a mighty, powerful friend.”
Bendigo Art Gallery director Jessica Bridgfoot says Guest’s passion for art and artists is “palpable, unwavering and uncompromising” and his benefaction shows the transformative possibilities for philanthropy: Guest’s donation is the largest and most significant gift of artworks to the gallery since the BS Andrew Bequest in 1982. “Naturally we are thrilled to be welcoming this substantial collection of modern and contemporary Australian painting and artworks that have been collected with such passion,” Bridgfoot says.
Guest is ever on the hunt and gets regular alerts for potential auction items, including one he has just received about a favourite work. “It’s a big one,” he says excitedly; then frowns gently. “And people run around after a Ned Kelly helmet, can you believe it?”
Guest champions lesser-known artists he believes deserve more exposure. He plans to work on a second volume of the catalogue for The Paul Guest Collection. “To rewrite the story of Australian art, the forgotten painters that we love.”
With this generous and endlessly inquisitive man, there is a lot of love.
The Paul Guest Collection is at Bendigo Art Gallery, 7 December 7 to March 1, 2020. www.bendigoregion.com.au/bendigo-art-gallery