Australian Thoroughbred, by Noel McKenna, 2020

Having noticed that the wonderful Noel McKenna is having a new exhibition (The night is doubtful, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, 25 July to 22 August, 2020), I thought I would dig into my archive and pull out my 2016 interview with Noel about the exhibition he was about to have back then. In that show, Noel was to exhibit his “August 1 series” of annual horse paintings. For non-horsey readers, August 1 is traditionally the horses’ birthday. Noel knows that, because he adores horses. Every August 1, Noel paints another picture of a horse and thus adds to the series he has been doing for many years.

I thought it would be appropriate to interview Noel among the equines at Randwick Racecourse. So, with the help of my friend Ray Thomas, the Daily Telegraph’s chief racing writer, Ron Quinton agreed to have Noel, me and photographer Chris Pavlich at his stables one morning after track work. Again, for the non-horsey, I must explain that Ron is a legend of the Australian racing game and recognised everywhere as a delightful man.

The day of the interview dawned, and on arrival at Randwick Racecourse the first thing I did was fall flat on my face on a grassy hill just behind Ron’s stables. Chris Pavlich picked up the pieces and dusted me off before we made our appearance.

Here is a link to the story, with Chris’s beautiful pictures, that ran in the paper a few days later.

Now Noel has told me that, much as he loves horses, he is actually a bit nervous of being too close to them. But Ron Quinton’s horses were calm and friendly, and Noel started having a good time. He even went with Ron into the stable of Boss Lane, and did a drawing of the horse. (Noel explained to me that he was only drawing the horse for Chris’s photos. He doesn’t usually sketch outside. He usually takes photos, and works his pictures up at home.)

It was a memorable morning, and here is an edited transcript of my interview with Noel, as we sat over coffee at UNSW over the road from the track.

Small Table with Horses, by Noel McKenna, 2020

The August 1 series dates back to 1992. How did it start?

Well I’ve always had an interest in the horse racing industry mainly I grew up in Brisbane and my father used to like to go to the races all the time. I had an uncle who used to be a bookmaker. I think I was dragged down when I was about eight or nine with my father. It’s one of the few things we used to do together. We used to go to the races every Saturday. My other brothers weren’t as interested in it. I think the first day I went I backed a few winners, so I got hooked ever since.

I just thought it was a good concept or idea, for a series to hang together. I do love the horses. Just looking. Whenever I go to the races I go down to the stalls and have a look at them close up. I do just like looking at the horse. I like the whole atmosphere. And racing, when I first started going in the 60s in Brisbane, the atmosphere’s not quite the same now. You’d see a lot of old ladies dressed up in their hats in the tea rooms. It was very easy to start a conversation with older people down the races. Usually about ‘who do you like the in the next?’, stuff like that. But nowadays it tends to be more younger people go and they tend to just get drunk all day. So it’s not the same atmosphere so I don’t really like it as much. I was in Dublin a few years ago. It was the racing season and I went out to the Curragh (a racecourse). It’s been racing there since the mid 1700s, they say. It was a bit like you were in Brisbane in the 60s. It’s not a big track but everybody got dressed up and there was lots of kids and older people. It was a similar thing, you’d sit down and it would be very easy to start to talk to someone next to you. You’d see little boys about eight having a bet.

I saw one of their most famous trainers called Aidan O’Brien, he’s come to Australia few times to try and win the Melbourne Cup. He’s never won it.  He’s the main trainer for Coolmore, an Irish operation. But this was a big day. Thousand Guineas day, which is a group one race. And he saddled up every horse which he had racing. Which is unusual. Every horse, before it went out, he combed the mane in the front of the head, I don’t know if it was a superstitious thing, but he was brushing every mane of the horse. The horses were just turned out beautifully. I like that little touch.

A Worker Digging Grave for Harper Lee February 2016 Monroeville Alabama, by Noel McKenna, 2020

Any ideas for which horse you’ll paint this August 1?

I haven’t got anything in mind, but I’ve got hundreds of photos of horses, so I’ll just go through them and sort of pick out one and it will sort of come to me on the day.

It has to be done on August 1?

Yeah, I like remain ethical like that. The purity of it, so to speak.

You took pix at Ron Quinton’s stables today?

Yeah, I took a lot of shots today.

You got Boss Lane.

Yep, and Magical Stance. There was a good one called Collage too, which I thought was a good name, being an artist. Collage was a beautiful horse, too, up close.

You don’t work from life?

I like to be in the quiet of the studio and the photographs sort of change reality a bit, too. You can work at a more laid back pace in the studio. You’re able to relax and concentrate.

I’ve known your work for years, first through the Big Things and the maps of Australia that you did.

The first map I did was actually the racetracks of Australia. That was hung in the Wynne Prize quite a while ago. That was just, you know, you just list every town that has a racetrack. Because I think Australia has more racetracks per capita than anywhere in the world.

Quite a lot of your work has a catalogue quality.

Yeah, I started doing those maps because I read somewhere where people go round galleries they spend about 30 seconds looking at a painting, no more than that. (But) every time I put those paintings up, people go up and they gravitate, and they spend a lot of time looking because you’re forced to look. So that’s sort of a device that I like doing because it makes people look at the work. And it works. It sort of has an accessibility thing to it. People identify with it.

Do you enjoy doing them?

You do learn things as you do them, so it’s quite good. The thing about doing them, you’re not making the same sort of aesthetic decisions when you do a normal painting. You put a word where it is because it’s where it is, you’re dictated to, it’s like a documentary. So you’re not making aesthetic decisions like other paintings. The map’s there so you’ve got to put the thing where it is.

You’re in this year’s Dobell Drawing Biennale at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Installing that next week. There’s one big work, remembering all the animals I’ve known in my life. I think the first animals I ever really got to know were stray cats. I grew up in West End in Brisbane. There was a lot of wild cats and I used to feed them and gradually tamed them all. I used to use all my money to buy pet food.

What did your mates say about that?

I don’t know if I told many. My parents didn’t like it.

Does that work look like a timeline?

Yeah. It’s in chronological order and it just kind of grew. I just started at one end. It’s a good thing to do, to remember your life. You do have to strain your mind sometimes. Some were pets. The first horse I saw was just at my school in West End. There used to be a big open paddock behind the school. They guy who owned the paddock used to keep this old grey horse on a really long rope tied to a tree. After school we used to go down and pat the horse. It was a very friendly horse. I’ve done a drawing of that from memory.

Is your greyhound Melman in the work about all the pets you’ve ever had?

I’d done all the work before Melman came along. But Max, the first greyhound, is in it. And Rosie. My first dog Stumpy is in it. He was a real character, part corgi Jack Russell. I think having pets teaches you things about life. You’ve got to devote some time to the pet. You’re not just thinking about yourself. They’re good company.

Elizabeth Fortescue, July 24, 2020