When I grow up I want to be Peter De Waal. I’ve said that a few times to a few different friends over the past few months and it’s very true… although I have no immediate plans to actually grow up.
Earlier this year I was really lucky to be offered a job as ‘artist in residence’ at The Pride in Place conference at Sydney University. It was a conference marking and celebrating the 40th anniversary of the very first Mardi Gras. I was required to sketch some of the original 78ers (and other people of note) who would be present or speaking at the event. It was a dream job and one I instantly accepted. Although to say I was a tad nervous was an understatement, all of these watercolour and pencil sketches were to be executed ‘live,’ as it were. I would be sitting front and centre, just a few feet away from the speakers as they spoke from their podiums, with my sketches clearly visible to the audience behind me. Now, let me tell you, while I like to think of myself as a confident sketcher and certainly not one to buckle under pressure, I am also certainly not fearless or foolhardy enough to avoid accepting that this could all go horribly, horribly wrong.
I asked the organisers if I could maybe meet one or two of the speakers before the conference, to get a couple of the sketches out of the way. This was also so I could settle on a particular style and colour palette (yes, I can sketch in a few different styles, it all depends on mood, state of mind and time allowances. Cocky, me? Hell yeah!). I was given two numbers to call, one for someone called (rather intriguingly) Gay Egg (more about that gorgeously inspirational individual another time) and a second called Peter De Waal. Peter’s name was vaguely familiar, I was sure I’d read or seen something about him at some point. I spoke with him a few times and shortly after he invited me to his home, Chequerboard, which lead to me knocking on his door with a grubby tote bag of paints and pencils, not really fully understanding what the hell I was doing or what I’d really got myself into.
Peter de Waal is an absolute and utter bloody legend, literally, figuratively and really quite accurately. He has been a human rights activist from before I was born. He was one of the founding members of Australia’s Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP) and Phone-a-friend in the late sixties and seventies. In 1966 he met Peter Bonsall-Boone (aka Bon) who became his partner for the following 50 years, until Bon’s passing last year. Scandalously, in 1972 the two Peters shared the first gay kiss ever aired on Australian TV on the ABC’s Chequerboard program. Last year he was awarded the Order of Australia for services to the LGBTQI community (as was Bonsall-Boone, although sadly the medal came too late for it to be seen by him).
I knew all of this when I turned up at Peter’s door all those months ago, after Googling his familiar name, but I’d actually stopped researching after a few brief minutes when I realised how intimidating his achievements were.
You know that feeling when you meet somebody and they greet you and you feel that instant, wonderful, warm, easy feeling of ‘we could be friends; I like you’? Well, that is my overriding memory of what happened when I first met Peter. He is such a naturally warm and lovely man. He has deep-set, sparkly eyes and a very easy smile. That someone could be so accomplished, respected and loved yet be so down to earth, practical and unpretentious is a wonder of the modern world. He is socially very kind and encouraging; he is a great listener and someone who rarely interrupts (I love people who don’t interrupt, because, when I’m really babbling on about nonsense, I really don’t want to be stopped).
It is often quite difficult to sketch someone you’ve only just met and get a very strong likeness. Capturing someone’s likeness is also about capturing that person’s character. We all guard ourselves socially and often present as someone whom we are not to people we don’t know. However, with Peter I found him so easy to sketch. So much of what he is about is being unguarded and open.
I did four sketches that day. I was actually quite happy with the first one, but I didn’t want to leave that quickly. So we sat and chatted, and I sketched, for probably a bit longer than we needed. In hindsight, I do remember him saying he was quite exhausted when I was leaving. I feel quite proud to say, Peter now has one of those sketches framed in his hallway.
I’ve seen Peter countless times over the past few months at different social events such as rallies. He even invited me, Gay Egg (it really is the best ever name) and a few of my mates over to his house for a private showing of the documentary Riot. The film documents the events surrounding the first Sydney Mardi Gras. That was a pretty special evening, watching 1978 with a couple of the real 78ers, and hearing all their drama and gossip from ‘behind the scenes’.
I really wanted my partner Ryan to meet Peter. A few months ago I took him to see Chequerboard. I sat and sketched the outside of the house that had seen so much in the last 50 years as Ryan and Peter sat on the front balcony, obviously having a good old gossip about, well, only they know what. I, across the road and unfortunately out of earshot, fended off the neighbours who offered up their houses for a sketch. I’ll be honest: that special day was slightly marred by my own grumpy jealousy of Ryan’s quality time with my new friend!
I like to think Peter De Waal wants to be my friend almost as much as I want to be his and although I do still get a bit intimidated by all his amazing achievements, I just don’t allow myself to think about them. And then the intimidation disappears. What really impresses me about him though is that after all his years (he just turned 80) he is never in any way bitter or jaded, but in the face of everything he has seen and done, he is so genuinely humble and lovely. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When I grow up I want to be Peter de Waal!
My only regret is that I missed out on meeting Bon. A few weeks ago I asked Peter if I could use the various sketches I have of him as the basis for a more studied painting. Luckily he agreed; I’ve been working on the piece since. It is a study not just of Peter, but of the painful and unnecessarily drawn out marriage equality postal vote, along with its process and outcome. It is a piece meant to be melancholic and bitter-sweet with an ever-so-gentle jab to the heart.
Bon passed away only a few months before marriage equality passed into law in Australia. This meant this particular couple, who had tirelessly devoted their lives to campaigning for equality and same-sex marriage, were denied that union by timing (and by cancer too I suppose).
I’m calling this painting ‘Life’.
Guy James Whitworth has been labelled ‘one of the most promising and collectible artists’ by the ABC. He was Bent Street’s first cover artist for the 2017 volume and the 2018 ‘artist in residence’ at Sydney University’s Pride in Place conference. He hails from the North East of England and now lives in Sydney’s Surry Hills, working primarily as a portrait artist. He has backgrounds in various professions: illustration, poetry, costume design, performance and modelling. His solo exhibitions are popular with critics, collectors and the general public, and you can learn more about them at: www.guyjameswhitworth.com