Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2017

Trial by Tandem (1950), by Alan McCulloch

The moment when I stood awestruck in front of Trajan’s Column in the V&A in London remains etched in my memory forever.  It wasn’t even the real thing, it was a copy that had been made for students of the arts and the classics – and because of the vast size of the original in Rome, the part that stopped me in my tracks was only one of two halves of it.  (See here). But for me, fresh from the Antipodes on my first trip home to my birthplace after decades away, the sight of something I had studied in detail at university but only ever seen in books, was stunning.  For any Australian who’s interested in art, there is always an unforgettable moment somewhere in Europe where the sight of the artwork known only from books is neatly summed up in the foreword* to Alan McCulloch’s Trial by Tandem:

To him, the impact of the Old World, which he previously only knew vicariously, is terrific: for the first time in his life he becomes aware of a living past; the old masters are to him the new masters, and their values suddenly become eternal and universal instead of merely local.

Alan McLeod McCulloch (1907-1992) went on to become a Very Big Deal in the world of art and wrote the magisterial Encyclopaedia of Australian Art to prove it. But in the days before he became the associate editor for Meanjin (1951-1963) and then the highly influential art critic for the Melbourne Herald (1952-1982), he had found it prudent to decamp to the US.   Back in 1946 he had made more enemies than a football umpire at the Argus, because he had championed radical modernist artists like Albert Tucker.  His career as an art critic which was to have released him from the drudgery of banking seemed to be over when management discovered that in the person of its art critic it had inadvertently clutched a viper to its bosom.

But fate intervened.  He skipped town, found an Australian bride while he was in the US, and then departed for Europe on a tight budget, the result of which is this book.  Trial by Tandem is not great literature, it is not in the inimitable style of H.V. Morton, but the book – as Sian Prior told us at a workshop where I spied on the processes of travel writing the other day – has the requisite unique ‘angle’: McCulloch and his bride Ellen traversed post-war France and Italy by tandem, and this gave him the opportunity to write with wit and humour about many things…

Here he is writing about the traffic in Paris:

It is true that the tourist, on first viewing the traffic of Paris, goes up on his toes with a hissing intake of breath.  Death, it seems to him, dances impatiently on every crossroads.  He sees wax-moustached chaffeurs in their taxicabs, rushing at each other at full speed, autobuses parting the lesser traffic as the prow of a battleship parts the waves, motorcycles crackling nastily to and fro, and a shoal of glittering bicycles darting about like minnows in a turbulent stream.  (p.16)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, n’est-ce pas?

Moret-sur-Loing by Alfred Sisley (1888) **

In amongst the traveller’s observations of the places he visits and the comic anecdotes about the tandem, he records his dismay about his own ability as an artist.  McCulloch has three works at the NGV so he was perhaps being too hard on himself when he came to the village of Moret which had inspired the impressionist painter Alfred Sisley.

Farm carts, painted a brilliant ultramarine blue, rumbled past carrying peasant drivers sitting on loads of hay.  Straw hats, shaped like scoops, crowned the heads of other peasants coming into town for provisions.  The bridge, the river, the boats, the fishermen, the women at their washing, and a thousand other accents danced provokingly against the background of Sisley’s Moret, until the colours on my paper had become a hopeless muddle of gouache, and all hope of organisation had dissolved into the atmosphere.

His gloom is diverted by the antics of local children who thought his gouache was a glamorised species of mud pie but he concludes, mulling over a glass of vin rouge:

‘Itinerant, doodling, painter that I was.  How could I hope to make more than superficial notes of a subject which I knew only superficially?

I sallied forth and made a few pen notes in the small pocket sketch-book that I always carried.  They were my only compensation for the morning’s work.  (p.32)

Perhaps it was this mood that made him realise eventually that he could not be the great painter that he wanted to be, but could be a great art critic instead?

But I think it’s a good thing he devoted his pen to art criticism and not travel writing.  Most of this travel memoir is enjoyable, entertaining reading, but some of it seems a bit dubious to contemporary eyes…

The Europe McCulloch is writing about is post-war Europe, rebuilding its cities and dealing with the emotional and social scars of war.  Born in 1907, he was 32 and working in the bank when World War II broke out, but from what I can gather from the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), McCulloch seems not to have taken the chance to escape a dispiriting job by enlisting, not then, and not when Australia’s focus shifted to the Pacific after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941.  I say this not to judge, but to observe that McCulloch’s war would have been experienced only remotely and this shows by contrast with the great travel writer H.V. Morton in I Saw Two Englands (1942), where we see Morton walk the streets of post-war London in trepidation, fearing that turning a corner would reveal yet another well-loved landmark in ruins.  Morton knew the places that had stood on the bomb damage.  He had worshipped in the churches now lost forever.  This contrast is particularly noticeable when McCulloch writes about Italy, where the extensive rubble is undifferentiated and he laments the priorities of post-war reconstruction:

In various Italian cities we had often remarked the penurious state of the modern Italian artist.

Possibly at no other time in her existence had Italy offered the artist so little in the way of material subsistence.

The hand of the artist, which, for centuries, had enriched and immortalised the great cultural centres – had in fact created them – was often bereft of even adequate materials with which to carry on its work.

For the pre-war patrons – the wealthy connoisseurs, the professional men of taste, the decently paid scholars and the other collectors had lost their purchasing power.

The wealth of the country was in transit as it were, in the act of enriching the black marketeers and the opportunists, or transferring itself to a different class of society; and the few decent politicians had their hands full with more obvious sociological problems.  (p. 182)

Either he is glossing over it or he is not aware that those pre-war patrons flourished under the fascist dictator Mussolini.  And as you can see, his opinions are blunt – especially his criticisms of Italy.  He is scathing about everything from hygiene to morals, and not reticent about summing up the Italian middle class as incapable of discipline and having no character.  It’s embarrassing to read these scornful judgements in this day and age, and I can’t imagine any publisher ever reissuing this book.  And yet…

And yet, it seems to me that his judgemental outrage comes from a good place: he is a product of an egalitarian and progressive democracy where (unlike now) begging was rare; where there had been free and compulsory education since the late 19th century; where slums were not a commonplace but an item for reform; where corruption and chaotic politics had no capacity to impact on the ordinary lives of Australian working people; and where social mobility was more than a possibility.  Of course there was poverty and discrimination in the Melbourne that McCullough knew, but his brutal condemnation of Italy seems to me to derive from the shock any traveller experiences when he sees devastating, unrelenting and utterly hopeless poverty for the first time and recognises that there is structural inequality behind the tragedy to which he is an appalled witness.

It’s not a bad thing to compare McCulloch’s experience of Italy with mine, even if some of his judgements seem a bit intemperate now and they give an entirely different impression to those of his contemporary H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Italy (1964).  Overall, they don’t detract from the pleasure of reading what is sometimes a quaint and sometimes a still surprisingly relevant travel memoir of a world that’s long gone.

* This foreword is pasted into our copy of the book: it’s a photocopy of a catalogue page listing 20 paintings and drawings from this trip, and the foreword tells us how when these paintings were shown in a London exhibition, a critic had noted that ‘they gave excitement … as though the artist was viewing his subject for the first time’As indeed he was.  It doesn’t say where this exhibition was, but since the photocopy hasn’t faded, my guess is that it was pasted in comparatively recently.

**Image source: Moret-sur-Loing By Alfred Sisley – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Author: Alan McCulloch
Title: Trial by Tandem
Publisher: F.W. Cheshire P/L, 1950
ISBN: none
Source: The Spouse’s bookshelves

Available: It’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a copy of this book.  It’s long out of print. Try OpShops and secondhand stores


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    I knew Alan McCulloch and was quite fond of him.


  2. Reading your remarks about McCulloch not attempting to enlist, I would be interested to know if in the first 2 or 3 years Australians saw the second WW as any different to the first, after all it was all in Europe and North Africa. I’ll have to see what books were written in those years.


    • Well, I don’t actually know (or say) that he didn’t try. He may have had health issues or some other reason. I believe that some journalists were ruled as being in a protected occupation as well (so that the propaganda effort could continue) … maybe he had other responsibilities at the paper besides being the art critic. He probably did if they were short staffed because of the war.
      But I don’t think it was uncommon to have delayed enlistment till 1941. Don’t forget that the full horror of what they were fighting against in Europe wasn’t known until after the war… and Australians had been led down the garden path before about the reasons for fighting in WW1 (and children still parrot nonsense about how the diggers fought for our freedom when it was nothing of the kind).
      When I was doing the FamHist of The Ex, I was curious about why one family of four sons all waited until 1941 to enlist. Their answer was that although many Australians did sign up in 1939, many also had painful memories of the needless slaughter in WW1 and kept out of it – until Pearl Harbour and the widespread belief that the Japanese were going to invade Australia.


      • PS I should also say that I don’t think there’s an obligation on anyone to fight in a war. Being willing to kill other human beings, and to risk your own life doing it is a grave responsibility that impacts not only on the individual but also on families. And while I think WW2 was a rare example of a just war, and I am immensely grateful to all who fought in it against fascism and Nazism, I don’t think it was a moral failing not to have fought in it.


        • Sorry for the delay, had to push on to start unloading.
          I didn’t mean to impugn McCulloch. My mother’s father was born in 1907 and as a farmer was exempt, though his brother, an engineer, enlisted and was killed. As a student we often discussed this and my opinion and I think the consensus was that we would have fought in WWII but not WWI.
          But really I was just wondering about the popular attitude at that time. On one hand it was on the other side of the world, on the other we were still British.


          • I guess it’s a question for the historians!
            PS Did your back survive the paving?


            • Back fine, surprisingly, legs sore from all that squatting. But back patio looks good in time for a post-Xmas feast


              • Amazing how the body always manages to find some muscle somewhere that isn’t used to doing whatever the task is…


  3. I knew Alan over 45 years ago, so my memory may not be reliable, but I seem to have a faint recollection that Alan might have had a valid medical reason for not enlisting, such as a hearing deficit.


    • Even so, I hope what I’ve written isn’t interpreted as ‘handing out white feathers’. I only raised the point to show that the European war was a faraway event for anyone who’d spent it in Australia, for whatever reason, and that seems to have impacted on his observations.


  4. […] from reading these letters is the value of travel for an artist.  Alan McCulloch wrote about it in Trial by Tandem and Amanda Curtin commented on its importance for the subject of her book about the Australian […]


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