Tag Archives: Max Meldrum

A Scandal in Bohemia

In 1930 a young woman walking home late at night was killed in an laneway in Elwood. The death of Mollie Dean is an unsolved, murder mystery with artistic connections in Melbourne’s literary, music and visual arts.

Although the crime has all the elements of a lurid true crime story, the murder of a young woman with a violently possessive mother and salacious artistic companions. Haigh’s book is much more than that, focusing on the life and career of Dean rather than her brutal death.

Haigh is well known for his books on cricket and his skill in describing one of the world’s most boring sports lends itself well to explaining Melbourne’s cultural scene in 1920s. Especially when he writes about the self-obsessed group of painters known as the Meldrumites including the founder of the artist colony of Montsalvat, Justus Jorgensen. Although Mollie Dean’s lover was the painter, Colin Colahan was never considered a suspect the artists thought the murder was all about them and their reputations.

Haigh doesn’t have any new conclusions or evidence about the crime his research in finding and putting together the details of a young woman’s life is amazing. The difficult search for her few published stories and poems in small Australian publications is heroic.

It is these sidetracks in the story, the background of Melbourne’s history that make for a great true crime story. I was disappointed that there was nothing more on the lead detective Percy Lambell who investigated Melbourne’s first art theft a few years earlier; as there is probably a book yet to be written about him.

Unfortunately there are so many fictional versions of the crime at the end of the book that the true crime is overshadowed. The fictional versions of the murder of Mollie Dean distort the facts with fiction. One of the fact that this type of crime is all too common for women to be killed as they walk home. Although Haigh does look at the difference in opportunities and reputations between the sexes in Melbourne at the time but male violence against women remains unexamined.

Gideon Haigh A Scandal in Bohemia, the life and death of Mollie Dean (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)



Who cares about this pseudo-medieval influenced folly and what significance does it have to Melbourne’s culture? I have been to Montsalvat on a couple of occasions to see a concert or just to look around at the faux medieval architecture.

The idea of William Morris and the arts and crafts movement was that a return to traditional work practices would end the alienation of the worker by a creative anachronistic medievalism. Although the arts and crafts movement did produce some beautiful art it did not fulfil its utopian dreams and neither has Montsalvat. It is unique, an unsuccessful mutant that wasn’t viable, couldn’t adapt and didn’t reproduce any offspring.

Unlike Heide, the former house of art patrons John and Sunday Reed, Montsalvat is not significant in Australian art history. It has produced no significant artists as a look at their permanent exhibition of the resident’s paintings demonstrates. And unlike Heide, Montsalvat has been unable to adapt to the changing world because of its anachronistic ideal. While Heide can add a new gallery and sculptures; Montsalvat has become a quaint attractive setting for up market wedding receptions.

Another problem with Montsalvat’s cultural vision is that it is a bucolic rural vision and if there is a future for culture then it must be an urban vision. Suggesting that the solution to our cultural problems is to retreat from the urban environment is short-sighted and environmentally destructive however superficially attractive it might appear.

So who cares about Montsalvat and its financial problems? Nobody commented about my blog entry about Montsalvat’s financial problems but when I came to mention Betty Roland’s book about Montsalvat there were comments. As one correspondent wrote: “Montsalvat still stirs passions just as art does. Mention Meldrum or Jorgensen in certain circles and you will be shunned as some sort of leper.”

If one person can make a difference then Justus Jorgensen’s (1893-1975) contribution to Melbourne’s culture has to be negative. Melbourne’s artist colony at Montsalvat in Eltham by Betty Roland, The Eye of the Beholder, (Hale & Iremonger, 1986).

It is the history of a group of minor Melbourne artist, writers and hangers on, first centred on the painter, Max Meldrum but then the bullying personality of Justus Jorgensen takes over. Justus Jorgensen appears oblivious not just to the rest of the world, to history, to anyone who he does not dominate. “Jorg (Jorgensen) has a radio and listens to the news but does not discuss it. He is more interested in the love-life of his pupils than the fall of France.” (p.181)

Jorgensen, a student of Meldrum, copies both Meldrum’s personality cult and his artistic technique. Both Max Meldrum and Justus Jorgensen are conservative painters hanging on to 19th century tonal techniques. Jorgensen’s vision of an artist’s colony at Montsalvat is equally conservative as is his architecture. The extent that he and his followers archived letters and other documents, sure of their place in history, is unnerving and reminiscent of a cult. And Jorgensen’s ego is recorded in numerous self-portraits.

Montsalvat pseudo-medieval buildings were built with donated labour and money. Jorgensen appears to be a master at toadying to wealthy donors and exploiting his disciples. He appears to be more interested in controlling people than painting. His followers thought him a genius but he avoided contact with anyone who might damage this delusion. I felt no pity for those that he did manipulate, seduce or bully because they wanted it, they wanted someone to order them and give their lives meaning. If Jorgensen hadn’t controlled his or her lives somebody else would have.

Betty Roland is not a historian but one of the small circle that lived at Montsalvat. Her book is full of details of the infidelities and other love affairs of the group but becomes dull with all the details. It also suffers from being both an autobiography and a biography of Justus Jorgensen confusing the narrative. Ultimately the book it isn’t that interesting due to the group’s insularity and conservative artistic vision. It is hard to describe how boring, conservative and parochial this group of would be bohemians were; they were off to the pub at 5pm like everyone else in Melbourne.

(This blog entry is an edited version of two entries published in my old blog, Culture Critic @ Melbourne. My old blog has since been taken down for reasons beyond my control but I thought that this entry was worth republishing.)

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