Poor Rex Newell … here he was making an honest living painting nostalgic Australiana – the sort of thing depicting old homesteads you see for sale in country town cafes for a few hundred dollars, or on those wall calenders they give away at the local tyre shop – and then he makes the perfectly honest mistake of donating one of his pieces, as a fundraiser, to the Liberals’ 2011 election campaign. Suddenly, Rex is famous for all the wrong reasons and he’s giving evidence at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
With that generous impulse, everything went sideways for the salt-of-the-earth “artist extraordinaire” who counts as one of his fans HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose private collection is described, on the always reliable eBay, as including “at least one” Newell.
And cruellest of all, snide voices in the media are laughing at Rex’s stuff and calling it “indifferent” – pretty much what’s said about Adolph Hitler’s paintings, which were nothing remarkable, but way better than most volk could manage. Painting idealised scenes of Old Vienna for the tourist market was the only real job Adolph ever had before he joined the imperial German Army on the outbreak of World War I and subsequently went off his meds … but I digress.
Maybe, ‘tho, Rex should have been a little less trusting. He gave the painting ‘Perrin’s Boatshed’ to Brien Cornwell, a colourful Newcastle Liberal identity. A few years back Brien was making a name for himself as a property developer. Alas, several of his developments “failed”, leaving him open to attack in federal parliament by Nick Xenophon and Barnaby Joyce who accused him of living in luxury while “10 investors, owed more than $750,000, waited for the money he promised them in an undertaking signed after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission stepped in”. You’ve really fucked up when two such wildly disparate pollies combine to bag you.
The NH account goes on to say “By this stage Mr Cornwell had also lost the right to practice as a solicitor for five years, over what he described as a failure to reconcile a trust account.” Ah, solicitors and trust account – a perennial Australian story.
Which brings us to Brien Cornwell’s son, Andrew, who had a brilliant career ahead of him, if only he’d stayed out of politics. Andrew is a veterinarian, eh.
Vets are, as a rule, an honest and hard-working mob, and Cornwell was a partner in a successful Newcastle practice. He might have gone on, very profitably, to be the public face of a brand of dog food. He certainly has the sort of rock-jawed, Buzz Lightyear face that sells kibble. In fact he’s a dead-ringer for that nice Dr Chris Brown on the Optimum brand packs. And he has the kind of Anglo name regarded by the advertising honchos as publicly trustworthy (It’s an unfortunate reflection of the ethnocentricity of the industry that there are, as far as I can see, no Drs Obeid, Tripodi or Orkopoulos gracing the 10 kilo packs of kibble at Petbarn).
But alas, Andrew Cornwell blew it, because if you admit to leaving an anaesthetised dog on the operating table while you pop out for a while to sit in Mayor McCloy’s Bentley and accept a thick wad of illegal election funding in a paper bag, it’s unlikely that the Purina dog food people are going to give you the frontman gig when Dr Harry Cooper shuffles away to the great off-leash area in the sky.
Anyway, in late 2010, Rex Newell gives the painting ‘Perrin’s Boatshed’ to Brien Cornwell, former developer, so he can sell it to raise funds for his son’s election campaign, but subsequently it gets “gifted” to another developer, Hilton Grugeon, and Hilton decides that he can’t possibly accept so magnificent a painting as a gift and insists on paying Mr and Mrs Andrew Cornwell a bit over ten grand for it, and this seemingly funds Cornwell’s campaign. The disastrous political outcome is best followed in real time on Kate McClymont’s twitter feed.
Hilariously, Mrs Andrew Cornwell (aka Samantha Brookes), remembered the painting as something with a homestead and jacarandas rather than a couple of old rowing boats and a shed. She was probably thinking of a Chris Huber – ‘Jacaranda Cottage’ (“Limited edition of 450, signed by the artist and numbered with certificate”). Chris’s stuff is somewhat like Rex’s.
Macquarie Street scuttlebutt has it that Mike Baird decided not to stand a candidate in Cornwell’s vacated seat of Charlestown because the Premier couldn’t face the thought of the government losing the by-election to a ‘Dogs Against Libs’ candidate.
The counter-intuitive result of all this adverse publicity is that ‘Perrin’s Boatshed’, was last seen on sale on eBay, in aid of Maitland Hospital, where it had reached $8,100, an unheard-of price for a Newell. At ICAC, Hilton Grugeon’s barrister reckoned a previous attempt to sell it for the hospital failed when bidding stopped at $28.
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.