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Ken Done: The Iconic Artist Talks Life, Loss – And His Love For Mosman

Published On: May 9, 2018

His ubiquitous technicolour images of Sydney Harbour put Australia firmly on the world stage bank in the 1980s, making acclaimed artist Ken Done a multi-millionaire in the process. Now aged 81, and with some tough years behind him, the iconic painter is at the peak of his career – with a new exhibition and book featuring mostly unseen works. Showing no signs of slowing down, Ken recently invited Anna Usher to his spectacular home, where the pair talked about life, loss – and Ken’s enduring love for Mosman.

When he answers the door of his secluded Mosman home, wearing a pair of white linen pants, a black t-shirt and barefoot – Ken Done is all smiles. And despite the early hour, this iconic artist’s morning is already well underway.

It might only be 7:30am, but the 81-year-old has been busy in his studio since first light, casting a fresh eye over some works in progress and tinkering with a few colours that he says, “are not quite right”.

“If you listen to a really good musician, you’ll notice that they are always playing around with a few notes or a few bars – and that’s what good painters should do too,” Ken says.

“I’m constantly changing and tweaking my pictures until I’m absolutely happy with them.”

The dawn dabble in the studio is the first thing Ken does each day, even before his habitual swim with wife Judy.

The pair meander from their main home, down a glorious pathway and through pristine landscaping, to reach their beloved beach house, called “The Cabin”, that sits right on the water’s edge at Chinamans Beach.

“Rain, hail or shine – we are in the water 365 days a year,” he tells me. “Unless of course we’re travelling somewhere, and then we’re dreaming of taking a dip at Chinamans,” Ken says.

“We feed the beautiful lorikeets, the magpies and if the tide is right, even a family of bream.

“I don’t fish anymore,” he says. “And even if I did I’d throw them back. When people come across to have a look at the beach house, sometimes I drop a line into the water just to make it look like I’m trying to catch something, but I’m not,” he laughs.

“I just want to look after the bream.”

In real life, Ken Done is wonderfully charismatic; with a pair of dark, dancing eyes and that trademark moustache, framing an infectious smile.

He is as vibrant as the vivid, technicolour paintings that have made him world famous, a loveable larrikin with an almost boyish charm, who could walk into any country pub and easily hold court with a titillating tale.

But there have been some dark clouds visit Ken’s almost perpetually blue sky. In 2007, he lost a reported $20 million at the hands of a rogue accountant, followed by a prostate cancer diagnosis four years later.

“Even though we lost a hell of a lot of money, we didn’t lose each other and we didn’t lose our house,” Ken says.

“As for the cancer diagnosis, well let’s say that was less than ideal – and as is always the case, the timing was pretty rotten.

Ken Done on the front lawn of his beach house “The Cabin”, at Chinamans Beach.

“But we got through it. It was July 2011 when I got the news and within a few weeks I was in hospital.

“I had the operation (to remove his prostate) on the Friday. I was home on Sunday. And by the following Wednesday I was painting again.”

Ken’s cancer recovery has led to a more sexualised world view and he talks openly about the “side issues” and “changes” he continues to deal with.

“Look, when you have prostate cancer, you have to come to terms with a few things,” he says. “I was talking to Billy Connolly of all people about this the other day – now don’t ask me why I’m telling you this; but if you have 24 hours-notice, a hypnotist, three Tahitian girls and the Luton Girls’ Choir – then yes, sex is possible!” he laughs.

The Done residence is a vast estate, set on a steep site and containing three separate structures, spread across three adjacent blocks of land.

The main house, closest to local civilisation, is where Ken and Judy reside. With its sweeping harbour views and spectacular gardens, it’s easy to understand why Ken calls it “the best house in Sydney”. Then, there is his spectacular studio, awash with light and overlooking the pristine waters of Chinamans Beach. And, closest to the water is “The Cabin”, a Heritage listed cottage that’s now used for friends and family as a weekender.

The front access to Ken and Judy Done’s secluded Mosman home.

Behind this luxury compound, is another property, designed by Glenn Murcutt, where the Done’s lived for a number of years.

“We certainly don’t take anything for granted,” he says.

“Yes, our family is incredibly lucky, but it has taken me a long time and a lot of work to get all of this.

“Without a doubt, we live in the best house in Sydney – but nothing comes for free.”

Ken’s history with Mosman began in 1954, when his father built a house in The Grove – and while now a prestigious local address, back then it was nothing more than a dirt road.

Barefoot and carefree. Mosman’s most famous resident, Ken Done.

“Incredibly, the house is still there,” Ken tells us.

“I went to Mosman High but left when I was 14 to go to art school. To say my father was not happy is an understatement.

“He ran an engineering business and there were no artists in our family so it was a true leap of faith,” he says. “Thank goodness it all worked out!”

Ken Done in his Mosman studio. This is where many of his most famous works have come to life.

Ken’s safe place is very much his beloved studio, which is filled with trinkets and treasures that are stacked on shelves, stuck on walls or positioned on the paint splattered floor. He has a wide collection of music, preferring to play jazz, or rock and roll, while he works.

“Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, James Morrison and The Rolling Stones are all favourites of mine,” Ken says. “And I play them as loud as possible. Often, I play songs over – and over – and over again, but don’t ask me why, it’s just part of the process.”

On the studio wall, hangs a large number of discarded plastic spades, collected from the beach and now used in Ken’s artworks.

“Everything in this room has a connection to me, whether it’s a place I’ve been – or something given to me by someone important in my life,” he says.

“Often, you will see these little things in my works. Either a shell, or a coffee cup, or an ornament of some kind.

“First and foremost, the works I paint are for me – and me only,” Ken says, gesturing towards the studio door. “I’ve scrawled those exact words as my constant reminder – and in all honesty I am emotionally attached to each and every art work. Quite simply, they are part of me.”

The reverse side of Ken’s studio door is scrawled with the reminder: “Painting for me”.

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