Let’s Be Frank

For over fifty years Watters Gallery was known as the most adventuresome and politically engaged gallery in Sydney. It also represented a loyalty and personal integrity of an unusual kind. On the eve of the gallery’s final closing, John McPhee reflects on the life and career of Frank Watters.

By John McPhee

March 28, 2019

I first visited the Watters Gallery in 1974 as a young curator working at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania. It was the first of the commercial galleries I visited that day, the others being the Robin Gibson Gallery, Gallery A, Bonython Gallery, and the Holdsworth Gallery, of which only Robin Gibson Gallery continues to thrive. My visit to Watters was different from the others. It was probably because Frank and the gallery staff have always made a point of greeting a visitor, talking with them if they seemed interested to know about the art on display, or letting them quietly look if that was what they desired. I don’t remember what happened on my first visit but know that for many years to come Frank greeted me, made me feel welcome, and often showed me around whatever exhibition was then showing. The down-to-earth friendliness, some might say the lack of pretension, set Watters apart from many commercial galleries, and ensured my repeated and informative visits over the next five decades.

Frank was certainly one of the reasons I enjoyed visiting the gallery. A thin, sticky man, with a rich, sonorous voice, I think of him in tweedy clothes, handknits, and collarless shirts, never a tie. For smart occasions, a trip to the opera or theatre, there was a very smart black velvet suit. In winter a knitted beanie completed the outfits. He lived above the gallery in a flat built into the mansard roof as part of the original renovation by the architect Don Gazzard, who had turned a hotel-turned-boarding-house into a smart modern gallery. A stairway from the gallery opened onto a small roof garden crowded with begonias and unexpectedly exotic plants, and trees. One summer to the surprise of Frank, and some guests, a diamond python took up residence. It left as quietly as it came and how it got there remained a mystery.

On entering the flat’s living room you were confronted with art – everywhere. The most confronting painting was Richard Larter’s Five in a row show, 1969, which took up an entire wall and must have shocked some of his more conservative visitors. The other walls were covered with paintings, and sculptures were placed around the floor, on window ledges and the tops of furniture. Books, history, biographies, fiction of all kinds, and CDs, some on shelves, but many lying about, helped create a relaxed and stimulating environment. On occasions music, usually favourite operas, added to the atmosphere but only for those who were prepared to listen. It was never background music, and when guests were expected to leave a particularly powerful version of Dove sono sung by Gundula Janovitz from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was the not-so-subtle choice. The sitting room adjoined the kitchen and dining room. They were separated by a screen painted by Richard Larter. A small bedroom completed the accommodation. There were some plants, but paintings and sculptures dominated. A series of dogs, all devoted to Frank, some not as friendly to guests as others, completed the household.

Richard Larter, Frank Watters #2, 2002 
acrylic, gesso and gel on canvas, 40 x 35 cm 

“On entering the flat’s living room you were confronted with art—everywhere.”

Frank’s collection dated well back into the 1970s and came from some of the earliest exhibitions held in the gallery. There were paintings and sculptures by artists who, like Micky Allan and John Armstrong, don’t deserve to be forgotten. Others, like James Gleeson, Lorraine and Bob Jenyns, Pat and Richard Larter, Robert Parr, John Peart, Tony Tuckson, Vicki Varvaressos, and Ken Whisson, had careers which were shaped by their association with the gallery. The great delight of the collection was not so much that paintings and sculptures were moved around, but that more were added to the mix. The work of young aspiring artists such as Paul Bacon, John Bartley, Fiona Fell, Vivienne Ferguson, Rew Hanks, Steve Harrison, Jumaadi, and Derek O’Connor, who began showing at Legge Gallery and ended up at Watters, was mixed in with the work of well-known artists. There were favourites, but Frank was able to enthuse equally about the efforts of the younger artists. He often bought something from an exhibition by a young or emerging artist. It was encouragement, but also a well-chosen work with which he wanted to live. Art was Frank’s life, and his flat was where he immersed himself in art. It was not uncommon to visit and be told that he had spent some time looking at a painting or sculpture, finding more in it than he had previously seen. He looked hard at art and was always rewarded.

Frank Watters was born in Muswellbrook in 1934 at the end of the Depression. He escaped a life in the coal mines in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales when he came to Sydney in his late teens. First employed in various factories, and making some paintings, he eventually found a place as a gallery assistant at Barry Stern Gallery in Paddington. There he met Geoffrey Legge, also born in 1934, who lived next door and who became fascinated by art. The admiration that Geoffrey felt for Frank’s perceptiveness led him to suggest that they open a gallery together. Three days after the gallery opened Geoffrey and Alex Legge were married. The three were the inaugural directors and for the next five decades guided the gallery and its artists with care and understanding through good and bad times. While Frank ran the gallery, Geoffrey worked as an economist whose earnings helped keep the gallery open; Alex was an accountant, whose caution must have often saved the gallery.

John Peart, Untitled (Pink and green geometric)
oil on canvas, 92 x 92 cm


Tony Tuckson, Untitled (Woman)
pencil on paper, 16 x 11 cm






Frank’s friendship was valued by many and he enjoyed introducing artists, curators, collectors and writers. There were lively dinners with hearty food. The mix of guests was always carefully considered. Friendships between collectors, artists and curators were fostered. Patrick White, who was a great friend, saw it as his duty to ensure that paintings and sculpture by some artists he thought were being ignored by curators found its way into the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Works by Micky Allan, David Annesley, Jenny Barwell, Henri Bastin, James Clifford, John Davis, Bob Jenyns, Richard Larter, Frank Littler, Chris O’Doherty, John Peart, David Rankin, Ken Searle, Michael Taylor, Imants Tillers and Ken Whisson were purchased by White and donated to the Gallery. Without any consultation with the director or curatorial staff, White made these gifts to improve the State collection as he saw fit. One can imagine his delight in these unexpected gifts.

While you can take the boy out of the country, you certainly cannot take the country out of the boy. Frank’s devotion to country life was the reason for his acquisition of land at Cassilis and the building over many years of an impressive rammed-earth house, or series of buildings making a complex carefully set in a landscape that he obviously enjoys. In summer, when the gallery was closed for a few weeks, Cassilis was Frank’s retreat, but his love of company and entertaining ensured many visitors. Guests were expected to weed, chop wood and help with cooking, but what fun it was. The combination of guests might have been considered surprising, but again they were chosen with care. Frank’s generosity gave many of his guests time out of the city and a chance to relax, and enjoy meeting and spending time with his other guests. It also allowed him to introduce many to the beauty of his favourite landscape, the grassy paddocks, the dry bushland, the stony creek, and the big skies of the country life he missed in the city.

Richard Larter, Screen Assemblage, 1967 
mixed media on board, screens with images on each side, 120 x 181.5 x 120 cm

“He looked hard at art and was always rewarded.”

Closing the gallery in December 2018 was sad. It signalled the end of an era. Gone are the days that excited Frank as a gallery owner. The Saturdays, when collectors, curators, artists, and the interested would do a ‘gallery crawl’ going from gallery to gallery, looking at the latest exhibitions, chatting with gallery owners, and others ‘doing the rounds’. The relaxed visits spent with artists and collectors became less frequent. More purchases were made online. It is not a world that Frank felt comfortable with.

Cassilis will be Frank’s retirement project. He will live with a few favourite works of art made by friends, read, listen to music, and enjoy the company of well-chosen guests in the landscape he loves. On a visit to Frank’s flat late last year I missed some paintings chosen by curators to be gifts for the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the University of Technology, where they will make valuable contributions to the existing collections of late twentieth and early twenty-first century art. These had been replaced by others taken out of storage, some not seen for a while. Frank was excited to once again see these works and to re-discover why he had originally acquired them. Many of the paintings, sculptures, prints and ceramics that remained in the flat were to be offered for sale by Shapiro. This ‘shedding’ is obviously painful, but Frank thinks of it as a natural process which offers others the opportunity to discover art which he has long enjoyed.

SH160 – Paintings Sculpture Drawings From The Collection of Frank Watters

Frank Watters, photograph courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales Archive