Vic O’Connor – notes on his life

Victor George O’Connor was born on 21 December 1918, at Carlisle Street, Preston to Ada Alice (nee Clear) and Bertie Edward O’Connor, the fourth of their five children.


When Vic was about six, his father (who worked for the Melbourne Harbour Trust) became very ill and remained an invalid for a number of years. To support the family his mother Ada started a small slipper factory behind the house. According to Vic’s sister, Rhoda: ‘When Father went to hospital Mother had threepence in her purse. When he came back she had a factory with four girls working in it’. Ada also used to paint pictures at night to sell. Vic often recounted how as a boy aged from nine to thirteen he worked after school, and on Friday nights and Saturdays with his parents selling slippers at the Victoria Market and how the images of the market and the inner suburbs impressed themselves upon him.


Mt Evelyn c1927.  Vic with his family (seated front right)

In the Depression of the early 1930s Ada lost the factory and their house. Vic and his young brother Norm moved with their parents to live on a block of land at Mount Evelyn. They grew vegetables and kept a cow as well as a horse and dray. Vic attended school in Lilydale. At Mount Evelyn he began developing an enthusiasm for art, starting to draw, paint and make woodcuts, as well as reading widely. He remembered as a boy his mother taking him to the National Gallery and being impressed by Rembrandt’s self portrait and Daumier’s 'Don Quixote reading'.

In about 1936 the family moved to Hutton Street, Northcote where Bertie and Ada lived until their deaths in the early 1950s. On returning to Melbourne, Vic did his Leaving Certificate at Melbourne High School. He continued to have some weekends at Mount Evelyn and played cricket there. He also painted, having found his mother’s old paints there. On leaving school Vic worked for his oldest brother, Alf, a solicitor. By this stage his father was also working for Alf. Vic enrolled to study law as an articled clerk at Melbourne University. He worked with Alf during the week and studied at night, and his art was restricted to late evening and weekends. He also browsed in bookshops in the city and by eighteen described himself as having read widely in a sophisticated way.

In 1939, at the suggestion of the artist David Strachan, he started attending George Bell’s art classes on Saturdays. He joined the newly formed Contemporary Art Society and entered two pictures in its first exhibition. It was at the George Bell classes that he first met his future wife Ailsa Donaldson. He was soon involved in the politics of both the art world and the wider world. Vic was aged twenty when the Second World War broke out in September 1939.


Vic and Ailsa c1942

Vic continued painting and exhibiting through the War years. In the Contemporary Art Society exhibition of 1941 he shared first prize with Donald Friend, winning £50. At this time he met Noel Counihan and Yosl Bergner and they become close friends and exhibited together, becoming known as the social realist painters. Also at about this time he joined the Communist Party. Through Noel he became friends with Judah Waten, Alan Marshall and other writers and artists who frequented the Swantson Family Hotel in the city. Friends also included artist Jim Wigley.

The USSR entered the War in June 1941, Japan in December. At the end of 1941, aged twenty-three Vic completed his law degree and went into the army. In January 1942 he and Ailsa, aged nearly twenty-one, married (with the CAS prize money). He spent the next couple of years in the army, based first in Tocumwal and Brunswick. In the army he worked on a new accounting system for ordnance. He continued to be active in art and art politics, exhibiting in the 1942 Anti-Fascist Exhibition and writing articles about fascism and art. By the end of the war Vic was working in the Department of Post-war Reconstruction.

After the war, in 1946 Vic, Yosl and Noel held their first major exhibition, as ‘Three Realist Artists’. This exhibition attracted considerable notice and approval. Vic developed friendships with members of Melbourne’s Jewish community. In the same year Vic also started Dolphin Publications with Judah Waten.


In 1951 Vic, Ailsa and their two children, Sean and Megan, moved from Kensington to live in Vic’s parents’ house in Thornbury. Vic worked as a solicitor in Sydney Road, Coburg. He continued painting and exhibiting both in one-man shows and in group shows with other realist artists through the 1950s. During the 1950s he developed a relationship with Vera Stanley, also an artist and a former member of the Communist Party.


In 1960 paintings by Vic and Noel Counihan were exhibited in Moscow. By this time Vic had ‘drifted away’ from the Communist Party. In 1960 Vic and Ailsa and their children moved to Miller Grove, Kew and Vic moved his office to Faraday Street, Carlton. In about 1961 Vera and their daughter Sue moved to Sydney where Vic joined them. Ailsa’s divorce from Vic was finalised in 1966. Vic and Vera married in Sydney in 1968 and they lived in North Sydney for some twenty years. Vera taught accountancy and Vic became a full-time artist, with frequent exhibitions of his work, including at the Australian Galleries and the Victorian Artists Society.


In 1973 and 1974 Vic, Vera and Sue lived in England, mostly in Polperro, Cornwall and in Scotland and then travelled in Holland, France and Greece. The European sojourn provide a wealth of subject matter for Vic’s painting. Noel Counihan visited them in Cornwall. Vic and Vera returned to Australia via Israel where they visited Yosl Bergner.


Vic and Vera at Woodside

In the early 1980s Vic and Vera moved back to Victoria and bought the house ‘Woodside’, McArthur Street, Dromana in 1983. Vic here lived until mid 2010, some twenty-seven years. Vic was aged sixty-four when they moved into Woodside where he set up his studio and continued painting prolifically as well as doing major work on his garden. In the late 1980s he also rented a studio in Greeves Street, Fitzroy which he visited from Dromana and he again painted Melbourne’s inner suburbs. In 1988 his work was exhibited in London (Hayward Gallery) as part of the exhibition ‘Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s’.


In 1990 Vic and Vera travelled to Mauritius and in 1994 to Vanuatu, both places becoming subjects for his paintings. In 1990 he had the first of many exhibitions at Bridget McDonnell’s Gallery, Carlton. Bridget subsequently became his main dealer. The Dromana home was a favourite place for Vic’s children and grandchildren to visit. Vic and Vera subdivided a part of their Dromana land in 1999 retaining the house and garden (their address becoming 3 Stawell Street).

Vic in his studio at Dromana


As Vera’s health failed, Vic became her full-time and devoted carer. Vera died in October 2004. Vic continued to live at Dromana on his own, further developing his garden with a plantation of citrus trees and roses as well as a flourishing vegetable garden. He continued to be full of ideas about images he wanted to paint and draw, but with arthritis in his hands and worsening eyesight they remained unrealised. After two falls and two months in hospitals Vic left Dromana in July 2010 to move into Sumner House in Fitzroy. He died there peacefully on 8 September 2010.