These days, it’s pleasant to stroll through King’s Cross, stopping at the iconic El Alamein fountain or grabbing a coffee at one of Potts Point’s stylish cafes.
But it wasn’t always so.
Back in the 20s, 30s and 40s, the streets were mean and full of razor gangs, infamous madams, petty crims and con men. Potts Point became a mecca for poor artists, writers and musicians, who took advantage of the cheap digs and endless entertainment. Even the once-grand Elizabeth Bay House became an artist squat for a time, housing the likes of Charm School artists Wallace Thornton, Rex Julius, Wolfgang Cardamatis and Donald Friend.
So many creative people have helped shape Potts Point and its surrounds, but here are five who definitely earned their spot in the history books.
William ‘Bill’ Dobell, artist
Three-time Archibald winner William Dobell was a fixture around Potts Point and Kings Cross in the late 30s, and a pal of fellow artist, Donald Friend. He lived on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Roslyn Street in the early 40s, which was an important time in his artistic career.
Dobell found inspiration around the seedy streets of the area and was a regular at Walter and Hedy Magnus’s Claremont Café – where the walls were decorated by artist Elaine Haxton. Walter Magnus reportedly had a habit for swapping paintings for meals and given the starving artists in his midst, he built up quite the collection! Many of Dobell’s works made their way into his collection, including Self-Portrait (1932) and the sketch for The Dead Landlord (1936).
Dame Mary Gilmore, writer
Writer Mary Gilmore was a popular but famously contradictory character, and a fixture of Kings Cross from 1933-1962, when she died at the age of 97.
During her life, Gilmore mixed with like-minded progressives such as journalist William Lane and poet Henry Lawson – and became actively involved in organisations that recognised writers. She fought hard for women’s rights and those of Aboriginal people and children forced to work in factories. She was editor of the women’s pages of the Australian Worker newspaper for 23 years, and she wrote for the communist paper, Tribune.
Gilmore’s Kings Cross neighbour, ‘Bill’ Dobell, painted a portrait of her that hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW. Her face also makes an appearance on the $10 note.
Christopher Brennan, poet and academic
Much loved poet and academic Christopher Brennan lived in Potts Point from the 1870s until his death in 1932 – and could reportedly be found around the traps quoting ‘bawdy passages’ from the classics. He’d talk to you, if you deigned to buy him a schooner of beer – preferably at his favourite watering hole, the Mansions Hotel in Bayswater Road.
Brennan’s alcoholic and adulterous antics saw him ousted from his senior teaching position at Sydney University, but he continued with a part-time teaching position at St Vincent’s College in Potts Point where the nuns are said to have treated him with kindness.
Kenneth Slessor, poet and war correspondent
Journalist, poet and war correspondent Kenneth Slessor lived for a time in a flat above the top of William Street and even wrote a poem titled ‘William Street’ in 1935. It was one of many pieces of writing sharing his love for the area.
In the essay My Kings Cross, Slessor wrote that he had ‘lived in or on the margin of Kings Cross for more than forty years’ and remembered contemplating when looking out of a Woolcott Street window in 1922 as a place ‘a good deal more beautiful than the highly advertised stones and sand of Central Australia’.
Sali Herman, artist
Swiss-born Australian artist Sali Herman also lived in Potts Point from 1941 – and counted William Dobell and historian Bernard Smith as two of his lifelong friends.
He became known for painting the streets, buildings and slums of the inner city and won the 1944 Wynne Prize for his painting of McElhone Stairs, a local landmark connecting Brougham Street to Victoria Street. Herman was also one of Australia’s official war artists for WWII.
Later, he painted Beare Park in Elizabeth Bay, a gorgeous little grassy spot by the water which Herman reportedly often liked to visit with his wife. He also went to the park with fellow artist Wallace Thornton to play chess. It’s a beautiful spot today to visit with a picnic and just to enjoy a sunny afternoon.
These are just five of many artists, writers and creatives who helped shape the area in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and there are many more worth remembering.