Marginal Notes 6: Remembering Leslie van der Sluys

Marginal Notes 6: Remembering Leslie van der Sluys

Tuesday, Sep 19, 2023


Sometime in the 1990s, we became friends with Melbourne artist Leslie van Der Sluys, which led to us selling his hand-coloured linocuts of Australian flora and fauna in our bookshop.

Leslie named many of his works after friends, and my mother, Muriel, and I were delighted with 'Kay's Lesser Sooty Owl' and 'Muriel’s Barn Owl'.

The most interesting account of Leslie Van der Sluys is given by Barry Humphries in his 2011 introduction to a memorial volume issued after his death by his partner, Christopher Sanders: LESLIE VAN DER SLUYS: PRINTMAKER. Commentary by Barry Humphries. This was a catalogue and overview of the life and work of Leslie van der Sluys (1939-2010).

I had arrived in England in 1959 and after a spell in Notting Hill I was living in a terrace at Parliament Hill Fields at the bottom of Highgate Hill, but as prosperity smiled more generously upon me, I moved into Leonard French's house when he went back to Australia.  Soon after my daughter Tessa was born my wife and I decided to go for a holiday as a respite from the bleak English weather, to Portugal in the yet undiscovered region of the Algarve where, in late February the almond trees were already in abundant blossom.  We were to hire a car in Lisbon, and needing a driver for the journey, I approached a young friend of the Perceval family, an art student with the rather un-Australian name of Leslie van der Sluys.  He was already living as a kind of ‘intern’ with the Perceval family and I was surprised to find that he had a remarkable knowledge of European art history and real ability as a draftsman.  Moreover he was a keen observer of life, with a gift of mimicry and an ear for the colloquial.  Leslie proved to be a perfect companion in Portugal and he remained firm friends with our family from the day we set off on our Lusitanian journey.


Back in London I was commissioned by Peter Cook’s satirical magazine Private Eye to write a comic strip about an Australian in London called Barry MacKenzie.  I decided to plunder our vivid vernacular and if necessary, include slang expressions of my own invention.  In this I was greatly assisted by my young neighbour Leslie who had always been observant and amusing when we discussed Australian colloquialisms.  It was Leslie who described the act of urination as pointing Percy at the porcelain, which, with all its variations, became a famous Barry Mackenzieism.  I was never certain if Leslie invented this or whether it a real euphemism that he had picked up as a student in Australia. 


Many years passed when I saw nothing of my young friend, and my own life underwent a series of dramatic changes, but on returning once more to Melbourne I found he had already established himself as a master of coloured wood engraving and had stayed in touch with my former wife and our daughters.  When we met again I was astonished by the sophistication of his musical knowledge and there were very few people then, as now, who could discuss the operas of Busoni or the toccatas of Galuppi.  He had travelled extensively on what must have been a small budget and finally settled in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy with his companion, the ceramic artist Christopher Sanders.

Les was at his most hilarious when analysing minutely the syntax and etymology of the Melbourne middle classes and he could, for example, mimic precisely the accents and vocabulary of Melbourne school girls living in the area bounded by Toorak Road and High Street Armadale and the Kooyong and Williams Roads.  Before the advent of Gina Riley’s and Jane Turner’s Kath & Kim TV show, he could explain convincingly why “Tru and Prue” talked like that.  Slender gifts, you may say?  Far from it.  Leslie van der Sluys was a bright light in the Melbourne firmament.  Always reticent, his company was one that I wish I had sought more often.  Though lacking a formal education he was one of the most erudite and entertaining of all my acquaintance and I am grateful for his life and a friendship so cruelly cut short. [Barry Humphries 30th March 2011]