Broome Odyssey, 5’3″h x 11’w (1.6m x 3.35m) acrylic painting on canvas by artist James Baines, 1989-2012.
The Broome Odyssey is a painting which depicts the history of Broome, Western Australia, the pearling capital of Australia, over the decades since Dampier’s voyage in 1699 through its turbulent times as a pearling port after the first luggers came to Roebuck Bay in the 1880s, to Lord Macalpine’s interest in Broome in 1989. It also reflects a good portion of Baines’ own life odyssey, a biography and an artist statement of sorts, so reading the history of this painting is a great way to learn about the artist.
The Broome Odyssey followed another large format piece called “River of Gold,” a historical depiction of the Palmer River, located on the other side of the Australian continent where the main body of north Queensland becomes Cape York. Historical murals such as these are the foundation of Baines’ reputation in Australia as a serious and incredibly talented painter. The research that goes into a work like this requires many months and additional input from both respected authorities and in-the-know locals. James painted this piece in the Roebuck Bay Hotel (est. 1890), where he not only entertained publicans and pub-goers alike as he worked, but gained information and contacts from whom he learned more about Broome’s rich history and the significant people and events that made the pearling center of Australia what it is today.
The history of the painting begins with its predecessor, River of Gold, the history of the Palmer River gold fields in Far North Queensland (the opposite side of the Australian continent). James was working on the painting in the Palmer River Roadhouse when Alfons Reid, who had become very successful in real estate in Broome, and his son Dockie came in. When Alfons asked James if he would be interested in participating in the Shinju Matsuri (Festival of the Pearl) in Broome, the artist told him that he had become fascinated with everything about Broome when he was in art school. James agreed to go, not knowing whether to expect anything further or not. When he received a call from the festival organizers seeking to confirm his interest, James’ wife Lea answered the phone. James told her to tell them he was not interested unless there was $20,000 in it for him. They assured him this would not be a problem, so James traveled to Broome for the 1989 festival.
Shown above is the initial charcoal sketch on canvas that provided the foundational concept and layout for the piece. Drawn up in the Roebuck Bay Hotel beer garden after 6 weeks of research on the pearling history of Broome, the Broome Odyssey was intended to be one big painting in which people could see the major events in each decade of Broome’s history. James had received no input from historians to this point, so the layout was based on his personal research alone. Prior to this, Broome had been a “get rich and get out of town” sort of place, and no one really cared that, although people were making it rich there from mining and from pearls, no one was documenting the activity that was happening. It was only after Baines began the painting that historians became involved, and then people started to get interested in the history of Broome.
After completing the charcoal underpinnings, James moved into the Pearlers Bar to entertain the patrons as he finished the painting for the Shinju Matsuri Festival and auction in August 1989. A bid of $50,000, which fell short of his $60,000 reserve price, left him at the Pearlers Bar with Alphons and Dockie Reid offering him a hundred thousand cash over the bar, which he knocked back with the reply, “It’s not finished.” It wasn’t.
I was lamenting the fact that I had knocked back $100,000 as I was too far into the painting to realize the fact that I was broke and owing money, whereupon I needed to pray. Seeing myself in a helpless situation, living in another man’s house, owing $20,000 back home plus a pub bill of $11,000, I started to rejoice in the fact that God is in the business of helping the helpless (not those who can help themselves – that’s the devil’s line). Unless God opened the door I had no way of getting out of the situation I was in…and God did just that.
That was a Sunday. On the following Tuesday Shinju Festival president Allan Griffiths turned up to tell me that John Braithwaite, the builder of a large resort at that time, wanted to see me. I and my wife Lea went up to the resort where we discussed the sale of the painting with him, and he bought the Broome Odyssey for $120,000…$60,000 for the painting and $60,000 for the copyright.
He gave me a $12,000 non-refundable deposit and another $28,000 within 21 days, giving me the $40,000 I needed to cover my bills. Lea and I bought a Holden panel van and drove back to Cairns, where we eagerly awaited the $80,000 which was to come by 13th of December 1989. It never did…
Upon his return to Cairns, James met Dale Chapman, who said, “You haven’t got it right, you know.” James said, “I know!” and Dale went on to tell him the missing elements. With that knowledge the artist went home, packed up, and drove back to Broome, arriving after the wet in time for Shinju Matsuri in August 1990. There he commenced painting Mr. Keith Dureau (key line No. 62), Dale Chapman (key line No. 63) Lyndon Brown No. 66, etc. at Dawns Art Gallery in Broome. Loz, James’ cousin, had come across the top from Malanda to Broome with him just for the ride. Lawrence camped in a room at the back of the gallery and James camped in his Toyota Landcruiser. They had to retrieve the painting from Lord Alistair McAlpine’s (No. 26 of the key line) warehouse where it had been stored for the previous year while awaiting final payment.
Why were these additions so important?
Keith Dureau was one of the pioneers in the first pearling company in Australia. He formed a syndicate with American businessman Alan Gerdau, Sam Male (key line No. 60) and Japanese pearl culture expert T. Kuribayashi of Nippon Pearls Company. Dureau was responsible for instigating trials and the use of skindivers in the pearling industry. In May 1962 the harvest of cultured pearls was estimated to be worth $400,000 AUD. The best pearls fetched $880-1000 AUD each. These pearls were mostly sold in Japan and to the markets in the US and Europe. In 1989 the top price paid for one cultured pearl was $125,000 AUD and the average price was $5000 AUD.
Dale Chapman, affectionately known as “Chapo” by his friends, signed on Allan Badger (key line No. 64) at the Broome Pearling Office on April 16th, 1971. He has been actively involved in nearly every diving/money making venture in Broome and in charge of diving operations for Pearls Pty., Ltd. at Broome and Thursday Island.
Lyndon Brown bought a lugger with his father Dean for $1000, then went crocodile hunting for eighteen months to raise the rest of the finance and a stake to begin pearl farming. They lived hard and rough for a few years as Lyndon worked out his own techniques for seeding oysters. He succeeded in producing his first cultured pearls in January 1961. Half pearls were not so difficult, but it took years to successfully produce his first round pearl, which was one of the great moments of his life.
James met Dave Neave, who made arrangements for Baines to paint and use the warehouse at the back of the printing works as a studio, a great place near the beach where he finished the bottom corner of the Odyssey. They allowed him to stay rent free as long as he could put on the postcards “Broome Printing Company” because the postcards were printed in Perth. It was a good deal. They were very generous until the circus turned up and James and his cousin were asked to leave! At that time the Broome Odyssey went on display at the Tourist Bureau in Broome, then at the Mangrove Hotel Restaurant. The hotel owner offered James $20,000 for the painting, knowing that he had already received $40,000 from John Braithwaite, which he knocked back. There was no mention of copyright.
John Harding and Allen Garten retrieved the painting from the Mangrove Hotel, popped it off the stretcher and put it into a plastic container, and John Harding brought it back to Malanda, where James restretched it and hung it in his home gallery.
For many years, as Baines waited for John and Linda to get on their feet, nothing happened until 2012 when Di Chapman, a graphic artist from Broome whom James had met there in 1989, got in touch with him. In the meantime, the painting had created a lot of interest about Broome among people on the East coast, who eventually went to visit Broome on the West coast.
“James has captured the spirit of Broome in a way we wouldn’t have thought possible.”
~ Shinju Festival president Allan Griffiths.
The Broome Odyssey, now completed with the addition of two final portraits in 2012, is located in James’ studio gallery in Far North Queensland, Australia. The painting is available to interested parties who would like to invest in a serious historical work such as this.
Send your comments, questions and serious inquiries into the purchase of this magnificent historical painting here.