Yesterday afternoon Penny and I were walking the dog when we met Arthur coming the other way. Arthur lives three doors down from us. He’s in his early 90s and dealing with encroaching dementia and increasing frailty, but regularly walks to the park and back. When you encounter him on one of these walks he will make conversation from a small supply of stock phrases — about the weather, how lovely the park is, and not a lot else. Yesterday, his mode of progress along the footpath made me fear for his safety: he was tottering, as if the only thing that stopped him from falling forward with each step was act of putting out a foot for the next step. We stopped to say hello, and he put both hands on Penny’s shoulders, leaning in close to her. She asked if he needed help to get home, but he pooh-poohed the idea, even while prolonging the contact for the purpose, it seemed to me, of catching his breath and keeping his balance. After a little while, he asked, ‘Do I know you?’ As on other occasions when he’s asked that, Penny explained where we lived, referring to one of the households that separates our houses. ‘Oh,’ he said, clearly unable to make any sense of the names she’d given him — one of whom regularly cooks meals for him and generally performs mitzvahs around him.
In his late 70s and 80s, Arthur sweated for years over an overgrown rockface beside the street near what is now the light rail stop. Without permission, vested interest, or recompense, he transformed an eyesore into an attractive patch of lawn and garden. There’s now a small plaque acknowledging his contribution to the community.
But his contribution to the broader community is more significant than that. I think the first conversation I had with him was roughly 20 years ago, when he asked if one of my sons would pose for him: he was doing a painting of nineteenth century Sydney that was to feature a young boy in knickerbockers, and he needed a model to pose with trousers tucked into socks. We agreed, though the model himself was just a bit reluctant about it: knickerbockers are not cool. That’s the only time I’ve been inside Arthur’s house: he had a number of his own paintings on the walls, and the style was oddly, comfortably familiar. It turned out that he had been, in the 1950s and 60s, the main illustrator for The Australian Women’s Weekly: in those years, the AWW published short stories and historical features, and as often as not it was Arthur who provided the pictorial elements. He also illustrated a number of children’s books then and into the 90s. I googled him — “Arthur Boothroyd” minus everything that brings up a British audiologist of the same name — and discovered only a handful of references: the most common is to the booklet published to mark the opening of the Sydney Opera House, which he illustrated.
It’s not that Arthur is forgotten, or that he is without honour among the confraternity of illustrators. I mentioned him to a children’s illustrator the other day, just his first name, and she said, ‘Do you mean Arthur Boothroyd? I admired his work so much when I was starting out. He was what I wanted to be!’ He is known and loved by long-term Annandale dwellers. More than one person in our block cooks meals for him. But of all the people, both children and adults, whose visual imagining of Australian landscapes and histories were profoundly influenced by his Women’s Weekly work and his children’s books, how many have even heard of him? A select few artists become household names and get headlines when a work is sold for a million dollars. The great majority fade away, and their work too fades. I think the least we can do is let them lean on us in the street to keep their balance and regain their breath.