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Tucker, Barbara Anne (1934–2015)

by Justin O'Brien

When Barbara Anne Bilcock met artist Albert Tucker in 1961 she was sitting on the floor of a boat cleaning fish. It was a vessel owned by the Boyd family, soon after Tucker returned to Australia. He had departed 14 years earlier as a "refugee from Australian culture". Bilcock was immediately drawn to Tucker and eventually left her work as a proof reader at Melbourne University Press to marry him in a simple registry office ceremony in 1964. Once described by English writer Colin Wilson as a "remarkable Australian mystic", Barbara was perfectly suited to accompany a determined adventurer of the psyche such as Tucker. Her interests and personality were accurately described by art historian Gavin Fry as "complementary rather than parallel" to Albert.

Barbara Tucker, who has died at 80 in a Melbourne nursing home, was the third of David and Jean Bilcock's five children. David was a pioneer Australian filmmaker and the family in the 1940s lived opposite the Croydon market in Melbourne.

Barbara's first job was as a receptionist with Myer's real estate agency in the main street of Croydon. She was instrumental in the sale of Edna Walling's property and this success stayed with Barbara as she bought and sold property, houses and land, for much of her life.

Not long into their relationship, Barbara and Bert purchased a home at Haley's Gully Road in Hurstbridge, where Tucker established a studio and Barbara an extensive garden. Here she, among other pursuits, maintained her own honey bees. Barbara's warmth and wit naturally drew people to Hurstbridge. She comfortably accommodated all guests including Tucker's artistic associates, many of whom formed lifelong friendships with Barbara in her own right, including Arthur Boyd, Richard Crichton, Sidney Nolan and their families.

Barbara bought a house at Blairgowrie and spent much time there swimming at the back beach, meandering through rock pools and even trying her hand at wind surfing. Blairgowrie became her personal retreat, where she could recharge, inspired by the ocean and the sky.

From the early 1960s, with Barbara by his side, Tucker had a permanent sense of stability for the first time in his life. During this period he consolidated and further developed familiar themes in his painting as well as establishing new interests, inspired by living in the bush and through outings with Barbara, Richard Crichton, and Barbara's brother-in-law Ian Jones. Crucially, Barbara provided Tucker with the emotional stability from which he could more fully develop as an artist. As Gavin Fry wrote, "Barbara became a strong support on whom Tucker could lean while he concentrated his energies on his art".

In 1967 the Tuckers travelled extensively overseas, staying in New York and living in the Chelsea Hotel where Bert established a studio. The infamous Chelsea was at the time also home to fellow Australian artists Brett Whitely and his wife Wendy and Richard and Flo Crichton. Barbara secured employment with the Australian Consulate General in New York, in charge of the film and picture library and working for the Australian Information Service. In London, Barbara and Tucker owned half a house with Clifton and Judith Pugh, which saw Judith and Barbara develop a lasting friendship.

In the early 1970s Barbara and Bert purchased pristine ancient rainforest land in Springbrook in the Queensland hinterland simply to preserve it. In later years Barbara's motivation in purchasing a property was increasingly for purposes of preservation. Barbara enjoyed enduring friendships arising from academic support work she undertook in the La Trobe University bookstore. After moving from Hurstbridge to St Kilda she followed a dream and established her own bookshop, the Terrace Bookshop in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. The Terrace grew from strength to strength under Barbara's guidance and was ultimately a highly successive business. It was a comfortable extension of her hospitable nature, allowing her to relish both human company (there were many cups of tea by the open fire for patrons) and literature.

Always a deep lover of classical music, Barbara once described how listening to a Beethoven quartet had entirely transported her consciousness to a profound sense of universal connectedness. Colin Wilson explored this and other mystical experiences of Barbara's in several of his works. A theme throughout was connectedness, what Thich Nhat Hanh has described as the "interbeing" of all things.

During one experience at a party, described by Wilson, Barbara, "suddenly saw all the connections between people – how they all interconnected, how all this show that was going on was not, in fact, idle chatter. It was all interconnecting into their relationships with one another in the most extraordinary way."

Those who knew Barbara understand that this was no mere intellectual experience, but an entirely physical, indeed psychical, event.

A lover of form, of light and life, Barbara Tucker was a unique combination of virulent excitement and advanced philosophical fruitfulness. Her openness to the life of the spirit was manifest in a devotion to Hindu spiritualism, particularly the philosophy and practice of Sathya Sai Baba, which saw her travel often to India and to Sai Baba's ashram.

Barbara's remarkably straightforward spiritual strength both sustained her and allowed her to live devoted to her husband while not being subsumed by either his forceful character or her role as 'artist's wife'. "Bert and I," she once said, "have one of the closest relationships of any couple I know because we acknowledge each other's independence". It was that simple.

In his last years Tucker again found Barbara an invaluable support during and after the trial arising from the theft of artworks by his framer, Max Joffe.

The experience left both Barbara and Bert exhausted and disappointed.

In typical, pragmatic style, Barbara decided they should leave St Kilda and move to the bush in the Yarra Valley, where Tucker passed away in October 1999. After his death Barbara returned to Melbourne, finally settling in Toorak, where a new set of friends developed. Here she pursued her philanthropic interests, as patron of Cabrini Hospital and other philanthropic endeavours.

Australian art and culture has much to thank Barbara for. She was not only instrumental in sustaining one of our leading modernist painters but generous in bequeathing much of his and other artists' work to public ownership. In 1999 Barbara and Albert Tucker endowed Heide Museum of Modern Art with more than two hundred works totalling $15 million.

* Justin O'Brien is Barbara Tucker's godson.

Original publication

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Justin O'Brien, 'Tucker, Barbara Anne (1934–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/tucker-barbara-anne-32743/text40711, accessed 26 November 2022.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2022

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bilcock, Barbara Anne
Birth

23 November, 1934

Death

16 May, 2015 (aged 80)

Religious Influence
Occupation
Legacies
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