Years ago when I was muddling my way through Art School, I came upon a photo of my grandfather in a pile of recycled black cards. These cards were part of a library that was housed in the News Department of ABC Television. They were flip cards used to accompany the nightly news broadcasts and were dragged out when someone famous had done something famous.
I took it home and asked my mother if he was famous? And apparently, in his day, he was.
William Queale was one of South Australia’s leading Industrialists in the 30s and 40s – a period of great growth in South Australia. And what I had discovered was simply one of a series of ‘official’ portraits he had taken over the years. It is a carefully lit study of a human face taken in the days when portraiture was a fine art.
The thing I like about portraits from this era is the beautiful selective focus. The only thing that is in sharp focus is the pupil of one eye.
To me, he has always looked old. Even though this portrait was taken in his mid 50s, he seems much older than that to me. Not greyer, but wiser, stronger and more aloof than an image of someone in his position today. Today it’s about feigning sincerity, trust and honesty. Then, strength was the only trait portrayed. The lighting served only to add to this. It is fairly typical of the day dark background with a glow that rises up from behind.
But of course his face tells so much more.
Sir Robert Menzies claimed Bill Queale’s motto was ‘There is nothing you can’t do, if you put your mind to it.’ Perhaps that should read ‘ if you put your jaw to it’, as his jaw seems to be set fairly against failure. I’ve often seen the same expression in his children, my mother, aunts and uncles. They all seem to have inherited this defiant brace against anything that gets in their way. Sometimes good, sometimes petty.
His mouth is strong and gives the impression that he is a fighter with words. It would have been impossible to intimidate this man.
But it is his eyes that say much, much more. Although he is looking at the camera, he has a far away look, as though he is focused on something over the horizon. His gaze seems gently fixed on something as distant as the future. Yet, for that long focal point, he seems to be studying his thoughts in great detail. He’s not a dreamer. He’s analysing a vision. Perhaps, in the late 30s, he could see the smoke of war rising in Europe and the Pacific and the changes to world and social order that would bring. It is true he structured his businesses to cope with the turmoil and isolation that that would bring. Rather than import, he bought the licence to manufacture goods. He did not want to rely on shipping for success.
While he could see the big picture, he had a vast capacity to focus on the individual. In this photo the compassion in his eyes is palpable. He encouraged his employees to travel and study to improve their positions. As an industry leader he accepted the responsibility of training, even if those he trained left for other companies. He believed a healthy industry would lead to prosperity for everyone.
His eyes also show a gentleness, kindness and understanding. I’ve seen some of the letters he wrote to his children while overseas. (I know of 9 occasions when he travelled to America and Europe between 1932 and 1949.) Each letter, written to each child personally, showed the tender ability to relate at their level. He often engaged them by asking for small tasks to be performed. He asked their advice and for their opinions.
What the portrait cannot reveal was his ability to navigate his way through the sales hype of genuine ‘big’ business and thereby see the facts for what they were. This was largely due to the fact that my grandfather was, for all intents and purposes, deaf.
Free from distraction, silence gave him time to see.