15 February 2018, Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, Australia
My First strong memories of Errol are him landscaping the garden in our home in Summerhill Road, Glen Iris. The first notion I had of this was the day a man came and cut down a giant Poplar at the back of the property. Errol was always amazed at the tree feller’s precision stating exactly where this tree would fall and pointing at the house, which he missed as the tree fell just short. For a while Errol arranged the slabs of the tree around the garden, but then the works began. Big holes in the ground, giant retaining walls, a pond the size of a lake, rocks and thousands of wooden Tramway Bricks. All this Errol did by hand, with the help of friends to my utter admiration. As a place to play, this construction site was heaven. One morning Sacha and I made experimental sculptures with the concrete. Another time friends came and we built our own BBQ out of the wooden tramway bricks and lit it. Even though the concrete had another intended purpose and the BBQ was lit on a Total Fire Ban Day, Errol didn’t seem to mind too much and encouraged our creativity. This Garden was a special place, our family’s paradise, and it became a special sanctuary in my mind over the years, the only time our family was all together including Daniel who was born at this time. It is no coincidence I became a Landscape Architect.
Errol had always wanted to be better educated, having been forced to leave school at 14 or 15 to start a printing apprenticeship. Around the time he met my mother Anne around 1967 he was working at Australian Aircraft and putting himself through Art school at Caulfield. At Australian Aircraft, Errol’s strictly 9-5 colleagues would take bets on when Errol would turn up to work. His normal hours were 4pm to 2am in the morning.
He lived in student digs on the first floor of an old Toorak mansion at 8 Carmyle Ave with Marc Tremayne and Margaret Thomas, now Margaret Lay. The parties were large, balconies filled with people and Errol playing loud music all night. Here Errol met Anne through Margaret, and in Hawthorn the Smiths through Gus who had recently married Jenny. Errol was working at Austrian Aircraft with Henry, who Andrea would later marry. All these people became friends and family for life.
It was a free fun-loving time and there are stories galore about parties and the house with Marc and Margaret. Errol’s dreams were coming true, but he had to move back to Moorabbin with his mother Sybil after the lease was not renewed and then he got Drafted.
Errol was interviewed by a reporter for the age at the StKilda road line up, before heading to Puckapunyul and the following excerpt appeared in The Age on January 30 1969 when Errol was 23.
'The recruit who looked like Peter Sellers is unlikely to become an officer, he’s a graphic artist.‘Glad to be going in?’
He flushed ‘I feel strongly against conscription. I’ve been sweating over the right thing to do for months. Should I have refused to do the 2 years in here, and done two years in prison instead? I couldn’t see that was any better’.
After a while he burst out ‘the whole issue is confusing.’
He went to Puckupunyal as a private in D company. All the men were lined up and went in a line receiving their army issue clothing, boots, packs etc. They would run along in a line and the stuff would be thrown into their outstretched arms. I always loved Errol telling the story of when he got to the sergeant issuing the rifles, he didn’t know what he’d do, but as soon as the sergeant threw the rifle at him he knew! He looked him in the eye and threw it straight back and kept going. From this point he refused to have anything to do with combat training or weapons.
The sergeants and corporals tried to break him by making his whole company do drills after the others were dismissed. But luckily, he made many friends and they supported him. Eventually, the Army broke, and worried he’d affect the rest of the company’s morale, they sent him back to Melbourne where he won a court case and was discharged as a contentious objector.
I’ve always been so proud of Errol for facing the Army directly, and have never tired of hearing this story – it grew longer as the years went by and more details emerged. This was the short version.
Anne and Errol were married soon after in July 1969, and following a brief stint as a (not very successful) shopkeeper then a better one as a graphic artist and printer at Melbourne University Student Union, he started his own business.
I was born in 1972, and I have hazy memories of going down stairs to a basement printing place at the edge of the city to what was Errol’s successful printing and graphic design business, Spectrascope. Here Errol established himself as a graphic artist, printer and publisher and made many business contacts and more friends that would last his lifetime. In particular, John Larsen had opened Malika next door and Errol became great friends with him, Graham Brown and of course Douglas Stewart. Our family and theirs were a huge part of our lives.
In the early seventies, Spectrascope moved from the city to Fitzroy. One story I remember from Brunswick Street is about the pool table at the Evelyn Hotel. He and Doug were playing and some heavies, probably Mafia, came up and said ‘It’s our turn’. Errol innocently replied that they still had a few balls on the table, whereupon the heavy heavy replied that no, it was their turn. At this Errol handed him the cue. But they accepted Errol and his friends and Errol said he always felt safe there after that.
By the mid seventies Spectrascope folded despite early success and Errol began publishing from a small studio in the garden at Summerhill Road, where he and Doug started off the Age’s Limited Art Print business. Here he published a book for the Centenary of Ashes cricket test. We were both cricket mad, and loved watching Lille bowl and Marsh catch. He was meeting lots of interesting cricket memorabilia folk for the book. I found all this fascinating. These were great times for me and at the time I remember saying to a class in grade 2 that I wanted to be a graphic Artist like him.
It was good that Errol was always around, picking me up from school and dropping me off. The only problem was he was always late. Most mornings I’d have to wake him up then wait for an eternity while he drained the hot water in the shower. The rare occasions he was already awake when I got up were because he’d been up all night working. We had many parties, family Christmas, and dinner parties. Often they would go late into the night and Errol would have one hand on the stereo volume switch. The neighbours were nice to me but I think they weren’t all that happy with Errol.
Unfortunately the idyllic life was turned upside down. Daniel got very ill and needed to be hospitalised and then cared for and never came home, and Errol and Anne split. Paradise was over.
Errol was never much of a petrol head, but he did love his cars and he went through a good many. They were for a long time old bombs, particularly after the break up, but he did have two criteria that needed to be met. Firstly the car had to have some sort of style, and while this was not always possible, a good stereo made up for everything. I distinctly remember checking out cars with Errol he was looking to buy. He’d have a look over it and then we’d get in and turn on the music, usually loud.
When still at Summerhill road he had a white car, I don’t know what it was, but it had a stereo with one tape. Pink Floyd the Wall. He’d always play it full bore, especially when he picked me up from school Hey teachers Leave Them Kids Alone blaring. I loved it even if it was a bit embarrassing, stopping at shops while he leapt out to buy cigarettes for him and chocolates for me leaving the stereo running. Another car I remember was the Wolsely, in the Peel Street Windsor Days after the split. We’d always have to stop into a garage in Hawthorn for spare parts from a wrecked Wolsely being sold off in pieces. That car had a Linda Ronstandt tape; ‘Your so vain’ was played over and over again. He liked to play the same songs or albums on repeat, and loud
Music was a big part of Errol’s life and he loved all types, from Alfred Deller the Counter Tenor, to the Stones, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Pink Floyd, even the Beatles. We’d often play records together, and if I’d like one he’d say that it was mine.
We were lucky to see many concerts together in recent times, including Roy Ayers whose vocalist spotted Errol Dancing in the front row and pulled him back stage to meet Roy. They discussed Errol’s favourite saying, ‘Do what you’re doing while you’re doing it’, also a line of Roy's most famous song, ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’.
It was while Errol and Mandy were together that this saying of Errol was at it’s peak, and Cybelle, used to ask him to repeat it ‘Say the line Ezza’ to which he’d always cordially reply ‘If you’re doing what you do while you’re doing it, it’s OK’, Ezza’s meaning of life. We had the greatest nights with Mandy and Cybelle in South Melbourne. The soundtrack was The Travelling Wilburys (also known by Errol as The Travelling Blueberries).
At this time he was working at Backyard Press, a printing collaborative that specialised in independent writing, art and music printing and publishing. They also happened to be closely associated with a printer, George who had the biggest plate printing press in Melbourne, possibly Australia. Together, they would print all the Giant billboard posters for the touring rock bands, usually for promoters like Gudinski who Errol had met in the Spectrascope years. I had a room plastered with these iconic posters, and would receive tickets from Errol from time to time for concerts; Pink Floyd, Sting, INXS, Big Day Out.
In the 90’s, Errol took a summer holiday 3 years running at Rye. On the last of these Myf and I came to stay and Errol had found the Forrest Gump Soundtrack CD. We listened to San Francisco on repeat for a week. One night we went to bed while it was playing and woke to hear it still going.
The Saturday before he died, we bought tickets together to see Roger Waters play Pink Floyd. I went with Myf on Tuesday. We felt he was there with us, and loving it.
Art was everything to Errol, and he knew art and art history deeply. He’d always wanted to be an artist, but at Summerhill road one day he burnt his entire folio. Also at this time he was trying to publish a book on Sidney Nolan, his first attempt. One day I answered the phone and it was Sidney, from London. We had a long chat before Errol asked me for the phone, and found out who it was. He always loved that Sidney took the time to talk to me for as long as he did.
After Backyard Press he started his own business, Oxford Street Printworks, then Australian Art Publishing. He worked for Australian Galleries and other prominent galleries, producing invitations, catalogues and folders for many of the most respected artists in the country.
At this time he transitioned from film production to computers, and I helped him. We spent hours in front of the screen, shifting type left right up down, moving layouts, adjusting fonts, kerning, leading, while he learnt the ropes of the new technology. It was an education that I couldn’t have got anywhere else, but I didn’t know it at the time, and never learnt the finer details. I often got exasperated with his endless search for perfection. But that’s what he did. He just knew fonts and typography inside out and he knew colour. He’d understand exactly what make up of colour was required to get the best possible result off the press, from any photograph or scan.
In these days he worked and partied hard (so much so that I was worried for him often). He loved every interaction with everyone from the gallery and every artist who walked in his door. The culmination of this work was the Jeffrey Smart book he did with Jenny when she came back to Melbourne in the late 90’s. When I spoke to Stuart Purves from the Australian Galleries last weekend, he credited Errol with starting his publishing house still running today
Errol was the best Dad ever. Dan and I always had such a great time with him. It may have been because we only saw him every couple of weeks after he and Anne separated and so it was all about being together, but I think it was more than that, he did light up our days. When he lived in Peel Street, we often didn’t do much and there were many mornings that Dan and I would be waiting hours for Errol to wake up. When he did though, there’d be fun, a cooked breakfast and then soon it’d be dinnertime, anything we wanted (well usually spag bol, curry, or we’d go out and get burgers or Italian). Then it was movies, music, chess and a fire in winter, and more fun. The house was so cold we needed a fire in summer some days too.
One morning Dan and I jumped the fence to go to the local park while Errol slept. After we played we jumped back over and watched some TV because Errol was still asleep. The next thing we heard a loud knocking at the door, then thumping footsteps. It was the police responding to a report from someone who had seen people jumping the fence. Errol had a rude awakening that day. We were still laughing about this recently.
When Myf become part of the family, even before we were married, he loved her and treated her like a daughter. Whenever I was not the best partner to Myf, working too hard or stressed and grumpy, Errol would always pull me up and take Myf’s side.
Last year the three of us went to see Van Gogh at the NGV. It was so packed you had to wait to see the pictures. And then people would take photos of the paintings endlessly pushing cameras in between us and the canvas. Errol decided we should take selfies of each other in front of the paintings to clear some space. It was a beautifully fun moment Myf and I had with our Dad.
After the heydays of Australian Art Publishing, he tried again to publish a Sidney Nolan book, and one on Wesley Stacey. During this time Harry was born and he was a happy grandpa, but working hard to achieve his big projects and he wasn’t around much. He finally reached a deal with a prominent publisher, only to find out the Nolan Estate had sold the rights to the images out from under his feet. That was the end of AAP, and Errol moved to Dromana with Andrea and David, who kindly looked after him while he got onto his feet again. He moved out and stayed in Dromana and in this time Akira was born. We didn’t see him that often, but when we bought our Palmer Street house and renovated he helped paint it, putting in many hours, days and weeks and staying with us while in Melbourne. We loved having him around. During this time Kipp was born.
Then he got what he called ‘The Big One’, cancer. Years of drinking and smoking finally caught up with him. The operation and treatment was traumatic and took its toll, and he moved to be near us in Preston. He fought hard though, and soon we had a recovering grandpa nearby. He’d regularly visit us and he loved his grandchildren. He helped us out whenever he could. Child-minding, the occasional school pick up and sports drop off. We were so lucky. And everytime he’d bring his wonderful sense of humour with him, never complaining, at least not much, and always happy to see the Scallywags. The boys loved his jokes and classy puns. Harry told me that one time Errol was watching him play cricket, he came over to them while they were eating rolls at the innings break after they’d taken a couple of quick wickets, and said to Harry ‘looks like you’re on a roll’. That was one of his favourite sayings. Harry told me the whole team burst out laughing.
Apart from being the best Dad, Errol was my friend and supporter, but more than that I knew he loved me and I loved him. We’d have a great time together and had many shared interests, with the only exception being our football teams. We’d even share our friends, over the years, particularly from the time he was with Mandy, but even much earlier. I’d love to be sitting up with whoever he had around with him and joining in their fun conversations and laughs. Likewise he always welcomed my friends, and recently made friends with many here today from the Westgarth community, enjoying record nights with us, and joining in with festivities.
The weekend before last we spent Saturday and Sunday restoring a table from the Summerhill Road days together as a present for Aunty Jenny in my Garden. Not quite the same mythical garden as he created, but still a serene place, and a special place he appreciated visiting. I feel so sad that I’ve lost my friend and father, and I’ll never see him again, but I’m glad that the last memory I have of him was in the garden.
Errol Beau Ellis
13 January 1946- 7 Feburary 2018