22-10-1922 - 21-7-2013
Most of us hedge our bets with our talents, and develop a few of them to get through life as safely as we can. Max Middleton only ever felt confident of one of his talents - painting and drawing. He followed this talent with a determination and a joy that very few of us have about our careers.
He was gentle, but he was a driven artist. He had a compulsion to paint. His vision of the world was of the wonder of nature, and he painted landscapes, the working life of the farm, still life and the human form in works that reflected his personality and his value for the sublime harmony of nature.
He acknowledged his shy personality: "I'm certainly not a social mixer." He was the youngest child of a bankrupted grocer, and invalid mother, and had no family support once his father died when Max was 18. Painting was his only effective means of having a dialogue with the world. And people did connect with Max Middleton across 66 years of his life as a professional painter. They came and purchased at his 68 exhibitions, between 1946 and 2012. Max greatly enjoyed meeting his clients and admirers at each of his exhibitions - always wearing his Fletcher Jones trousers and shirt, jacket and tie. Flamboyant in neither dress nor lifestyle, he quietly and comfortably supported a wife and three children with none of the extravagances expected of many of our celebrity artists - no drug-taking, alcohol or liberated relationships to limber up the artistic juices. He just stuck to what he was good at - producing fine works of art - and managing the business of making a living from it. He didn't say much. He said what he wanted to in his paintings.
Max loved harmony in the natural world and cared passionately for the global environment and world peace. He also loved his vegetable garden. While not an activist by nature, World War II forced him to make a painful decision when he was called up at 18 years of age for national service. Like his older brother Ken, he had a conscientious objection to violence on an international level as well as a personal level. The two brothers defended their own cases of appeal against being conscripted for military service, and appeared at the Civil and County courts on several occasions. They were judged to be genuine and ordered to work in essential services. Max worked on an asparagus farm, and then served delivering milk by horse and cart until the end of the war.
Max Middleton knew he wanted to be an artist from the age of 12. At 16 he started lessons in drawing at the National Gallery Art School. He practised his oil painting technique on Sundays when his father took him on drives to the country to paint plein-air. Max studied privately with Septimus Power from 1940. Power greatly influenced his early paintings with use of broad brushstrokes and patterns of light and shade.
In 1950, Max travelled to Europe to see the major museums and train at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London, and in Florence at the Accademia di Belle Arti. In Europe his key influences were JMW Turner and Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who, like Max, were plein-air painters of light. Max returned to Australia in 1953, excited to once again be painting landscape in the unique Australian light. He felt liberated by his altered perspectives and adapted his technique and to a style influenced by the European Masters.
In the 1960s, he formed an ongoing interest in painting in forests. From his home in the Dandenong Ranges, he painted Sherbrooke Forest on misty winter mornings. In the damp chill and drizzle of the forest, he tramped in with a 2.5-metre water-proof umbrella to shelter his 1.5-metre canvas, his paint box and palette, and himself. These times alone in the forest were among his happiest memories, and produced some of his finest paintings.
In 1975, he returned to Europe, once again to study Turner's work, particularly the sparkling light of sunrise, and to paint plein-air oil landscape sketches of England and Scotland. In 1979, he bought a large area of hilly land at Eildon, where he built a cottage for painting trips. He was inspired by the luminous effects of light on the landscape, and painted extensively in that area for more than 20 years.
In the year before his death, Max said: "I got as good as I am through my passion for painting. Painting frosty mornings at minus-degrees temperatures every morning is difficult, not pleasant. No one knows what I put up with trying to paint. I've been in mud, rain and freezing-cold all day in forests in winter. I am emotionally driven to paint. I was determined - I tried never to let anything stop me or get in the way of my painting."
Max considered music an essential part of the painting process. When in his studio, he always worked to sound of music that he considered sublime - classical composers such as Schubert, Beethoven, Handel, Hayden, Mendelssohn and Dvorjak.
Independent art critic Andrew Mackenzie, who opened Max's tribute exhibition at the Castlemaine Galleries in 2012, noted that McCubbin, like Middleton, was influenced by JMW Turner's work. Mackenzie considered that McCubbin could as easily been talking of Middleton when he wrote to Tom Roberts in June 1904 that "Turner has covered the whole field of landscape and sea. He floats everything into atmosphere and sky." Similarly, Max Middleton's Creation of a New Day, painted at Strath Creek in 1977, captures the sublime transformative combustion of earth, light and dew-drenched atmosphere.
His paintings hang in Brisbane State Gallery, Bendigo, Benalla and Castlemaine galleries, in the Dunlop collection, and in countless homes, particularly in Victoria and South Australia, where he exhibited regularly in Adelaide. He stopped painting in 2010 due to ill health.
Max is survived by his wife Elsa, whom he married in 1959, and who was his greatest support personally and professionally for over 50 years. They had a family of three - Ruth, Anne and John - and two grandchildren, Otto and Victor.