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Béchervaise, John Mayston (1910–1998)

by Philip Jones

John Mayston Bechervaise, OAM, MBE. Explorer, teacher, writer and artist. Born Melbourne, May 11, 1910. Died Geelong, July 14, aged 88.

Mr Bushyface, the students called him at Geelong College, where a bearded man was considered exotic in the mid-1940s. Perhaps John Bechervaise was preparing for future leadership of Antarctic expeditions.

At Geelong, Bechervaise had instituted a unique program entitled The House of Guilds. Not only did he escort the boys on rigorous bushwalking excursions, he also taught them manual skills required for the creation of essential equipment such as tents and rucksacks.

The students responded to Bechervaise's infectious cheerfulness and revered his outstanding qualities of leadership, but few were aware of his astonishing range of accomplishments. With minimal previous experience, he had scaled the highest peaks in Britain with the most formidable mountaineers; but what most boys did not know was that "Bushyface" was also an artist, author and poet.

Bechervaise spent his childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Murrumbeena, the second child of a family of five. He attended Melbourne Teachers College, where he was an outstanding student. Early on in life, he was nicknamed "Johnny Vagabond" because of his roving spirit and thirst for travel and adventure.

He was fortunate in finding at college an intellectual peer in Lorna Fearn Wannan, who subsequently became his wife. They married in 1934 and it was characteristic of this free-spirited couple that the ceremony took place at the crack of dawn.

His first teaching assignment was at a one-man school at Mt Eccles in far western Victoria. News of the rare qualities of this young teacher travelled fast on the bush telegraph and it was not long before Bechervaise was recruited by the headmaster of Geelong College, the Reverend Frank Rolland. By 1937, the Bechervaises were restless for travel and set sail for Europe. When the money ran out, Bechervaise accepted a post of art teacher at St George's, a progressive co-educational school north of London.

Classics master Kenneth Peake-Jones recalled that Bechervaise had extraordinary energy and stamina: "He could cram more into 24 hours than anyone I have ever known. And his talents were so varied; he could sketch or paint the finest detail; he could land mighty axe blows in the exact spot where he aimed them; he could ride a horse, walk any of us off our legs, surmount unclimbable rocks."

He did indeed accomplish much. While teaching, he studied art at the Courtauld Institute in London. As always, he made a deep impression — this time on the renowned art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, who opened his exhibition in London and with whom he maintained a lifelong correspondence. His first child, Elizabeth, was born in England in 1938 and his wife and baby returned to Australia on a short visit, but when Britain declared war they were forced to remain in Australia and Bechervaise in England.

In 1945, the couple were reunited in Geelong and Bechervaise briefly rejoined the college. Three more children were born, Judy, William and Anne. But Bechervaise was restless; he resigned from teaching and took a job in Melbourne as co-editor of the magazine Walkabout. The work allowed him to travel and, with two ex-army trucks, he escorted groups of adventurers into central Australia, as well as the rugged territory of East Gippsland and the alpine country. He led the first ascent of Federation Peak in south-west Tasmania and the hitherto insurmountable vertical-cliffed Rodondo Island in Bass Strait.

In 1953, Dr Philip Law, head of the Antarctic Division of the then Department of Foreign Affairs, commissioned Bechervaise to lead an expedition to a base on Heard Island. The weather there is extremely unpredictable and, the climb of Big Ben, a mountain twice as high as Kosciuszko, almost ended in tragedy when the party of three was buried by a blizzard. After tunnelling their way out and with their tent destroyed, they built an igloo in which they survived for a few days before heading to base camp. Their marking poles were buried and their only guide through the gloom was a compass. On the way down, Bechervaise and another climber fell into a crevasse. They were rescued, miraculously, by the redoubtable mountaineer and artist Fred Elliott, both men suffering temporarily from asphyxia.

Bechervaise went to Mawson in 1955, where he successfully led a party 800km into the Prince Charles mountain range. Fours years later was the year of "blizzard and fire", when the party lost first its power station (and survived on one small generator) and then the scientific hut. The blizzard crumpled their RAAF aircraft and blew them away like kites.

Bechervaise possessed a genius for maintaining good spirits and colleagues report that the usual personal tensions afflicting men (and these days women) living for long periods in isolation were largely absent under his leadership. Like many men driven by creative ambition, he was sometimes derelict of paternal responsibility. He had nevertheless a great gift for friendships. He was a marvellous host and enjoyed a drink or three. He was a man of mercurial temperament who climbed the spire of St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, to photograph Flinders Street Station.

He was a man of refined sensibility who would sit for hours photographing individual snowflakes, who would lovingly trace the intricate form of a flower or a child's face.

His publications include Australia World of Difference and his Antarctic diary, Blizzard and Fire. His honours include the OAM, the MBE, the Queen's Polar Medal and an honorary doctorate from Deakin University.

He is survived by his wife, Lorna, three daughters and one son.

*Philip Jones is a Melbourne journalist and novelist.

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Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Béchervaise, John Mayston (1910–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bechervaise-john-mayston-31937/text39874, accessed 27 September 2022.

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