Australia’s best-known obituary writer is dead, so it will be left to lesser known and less capable obituarists to pen tributes to what was an extraordinarily varied and interesting life.

Philip Jones died on Friday, aged 74, of a suspected heart attack. I counted him as a friend but, regrettably, our friendship was only forged in relatively recent times. He was an odd mix — self-effacing and melancholic, funny and mischievous, single-minded and fearless. He managed to upset many prominent figures, including Barry Humphries and the widow of artist Sid Nolan.

Jones and his long-time partner Barrie Reid lived for 25 years with the renowned art patrons John and Sunday Reed at Heide, the farm on the outskirts of Melbourne that had earlier been the gathering point for an extraordinary group of artists, including Sid Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester.

After the deaths of John and Sunday in 1981, the relationship between Jones and Barrie Reid fell apart, with Jones agreeing to leave old Heide farm house. Under the terms of the Reeds’ will, the house was to go to whoever lived the longest out of Reid and Jones, but after Reid died in 1995, Jones was blocked from regaining possession of the house, something that remained a cause of bitterness and sadness until he died.

Nevertheless Reid’s death proved to be the catalyst for Jones to make a career change in his autumn years. He wrote a controversial warts-and-all obituary of his ex-lover, and the notoriety he gained from it launched him into a whole new career chronicling the lives of the recently departed. He had previously worked as an actor and bookseller.

As well as obits, Jones also wrote occasional features and op-ed pieces, his most recent appearing in The Age only the weekend before last. It was an angry tirade on the state of contemporary culture, with Jones declaring that art — instead of being a revolutionary activity — had become “an aspect of lifestyle”. He said too much art was being made today and he dismissed most of it as “clapped-out copies of the modern movement that expired a quarter of century ago”.

Coming from someone who’d spent the best part of his life celebrating Australian culture, it was a very angry polemic, with Jones clearly believing that less is more. “A plethora of activity denigrates any human activity, be it food, s-x, art or even sport. In short, the quality of any human activity is mitigated by satiety.”

I spoke to him the day after the op-ed piece was published to congratulate him on being so forthright. In his inimitably self-deprecating yet chuffed-with-himself way, he said he might have gone a bit too far but was bored with everyone being in thunderous agreement about everything and wanted to stir things up a bit. That was our last conversation.

Jones had been battling debilitating depression for many months. He suffered a major setback late last year when a publishing deal to write the definitive biography on Sidney Nolan fell through after Nolan’s widow refused to cooperate. Penguin had given him a substantial advance, most of which he spent on two research trips to the UK before Lady (Mary) Nolan denied him access to her late husband’s papers. Penguin didn’t ask for the money back but that didn’t assuage Jones’s guilt at failing to deliver. He’d been severely critical of Nolan, whom he described as a psychopath, and other expatriates, including Barry Humphries, in his memoir Art & Life, published two years ago.

He’ll be missed. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey