Out of cold storage: the miraculous rediscovery of Australian art’s most coveted fridge

<span>Dacre King with the Kelvinator fridge painted by Clifton Pugh, which has been sitting in the art collector’s shed since he bought it in a garage sale about 20 years ago.</span><span>Photograph: Simon Scott Photo/The Guardian</span>
Dacre King with the Kelvinator fridge painted by Clifton Pugh, which has been sitting in the art collector’s shed since he bought it in a garage sale about 20 years ago.Photograph: Simon Scott Photo/The Guardian

Dacre King was reading about the remarkable case of a scandalous Stobie pole painted by the world famous Australian artist Clifton Pugh, which has gone missing. And then he thought about the art in his shed, gathering dust.

The collector went and pulled the hulking thing on to the patio of his home in Armidale, New South Wales – but it wasn’t the missing Pugh Stobie pole. It was the missing Pugh refrigerator. A Kelvinator Magic Cycle, painted by the artist in 1958.

Eleven of Australia’s great creatives – Arthur Boyd, Paul Beadle, Elaine Haxton and Pugh among them – were commissioned by Kelvinator Australia, through the Australian Women’s Weekly, to paint a fridge each. The plan was to auction them to raise money for Legacy.

Judith Pugh is an art expert and author whose PhD was on commonwealth arts funding. She wrote Unstill Life: Art, politics and living with Clifton Pugh, from her time with him in the 1970s.

She says fridges were a “great temptation” for painters.

“Particularly when painters were starting out, without much money, and were likely to be eating in the kitchen, and confronted by a big blank white space.”

But the auction was a flop. The fridges were passed in, then distributed to various Legacy branches and raffled. Until now, Boyd’s was the only one whose whereabouts was known.

“I’m a bit of a notorious scrounger,” King says. “I was reading some adverts, looking at garage sales, and I saw this old Kelvinator fridge for sale. And it said ‘decorated by Clifton Pugh’.

“I loaded it on the back of a friend’s Subaru Brumby, took it home, and it’s been sitting in my shed ever since.”

That was about 20 years ago.

A regular canvas ‘except with a protruding handle’

Back in 1958, the Australian Women’s Weekly ran a three-page spread showing the artists posing with their work. There’s Boyd, an arm across the top of his fridge, which boasts a play on the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. Haxton, cigarette in hand, sits next to another Greek-themed piece. And Pugh looks over his abstract, sharp-edged piece, with its blues and greens, and black slashes.

The fridge exhibition – Art in Everyday Life – toured Australia at the end of 1958. The plan echoed a similar one in Paris, the AWW reported at the time.

Pugh’s theme was The Battle of Spring.

“He lives in a rambling house which he built himself from mud bricks,” the AWW reported.

“Pugh’s own ideas on home planning are so unconventional that he had to make a few inquiries before he found out what were the most popular modern colour schemes for kitchens.”

Related: Nudes, prudes and a love triangle: the hunt for Adelaide’s most scandalous Stobie pole

Judith Pugh says Pugh painted fridges as though the space were his “usual canvas, except with a protruding handle”.

“Those I saw Cliff paint tended to reflect the mood he was in,” she says.

“This original one seems a bit as if he had to overcome some reluctance to deal with the task – for him, the urge was always to communicate, not to decorate.

“I think Haxton and Beadle’s efforts seem more effective and more memorable.

“Interesting that only one woman was in the show. Proportionally there were fewer female artists then (and fewer lawyers and doctors and jockeys and bank managers of course) but I wonder how the artists were chosen.”

According to the Bendigo Art Gallery, Boyd’s fridge depicts Leda, the Greek goddess, “dressed as a barefoot bride”. She had borne two children to the King of Sparta when Zeus came to her in the form of a black swan.

“This union resulted in two more children who were immortal,” the curator’s notes say.

“The imagery evokes such issues as seduction and temptation (also quite satirical for use on a fridge), and hints at a form of Passion play about tribulations associated with the quest for love.”

“Refrigerators are often given as wedding presents,” Boyd said, according to the AWW.

“So I thought a bridal theme would be appropriate.”

Boyd’s fridge sold for a reported $110,000 to the stockbroker Rene Rivkin at another auction in 1989. According to McCulloch’s Australian Art Diary, it was passed in at auction in 1995 in a sale of Rivkin’s assets. In 1996, the Bendigo Art Gallery negotiated to buy it.

In 1989, the Australian Financial Review reported that the Hal Missingham fridge had turned up in a garage in the Blue Mountains. It’s not clear what happened to it after that.

In 2011, The Australian reported that the Boyd fridge was “the only one still in existence”.

‘A little compartment marked cheese’

King describes himself as a lifelong art collector with “champagne tastes on a beer budget”, who is still involved in the arts community. He also has Pugh paintings on canvas.

He describes the outside of the Pugh fridge: “It’s rather abstract but can be interpreted to be a feral animal (likely a cat) and a frenzied attack on some native birds, probably magpies, amongst some bush undergrowth.

“The birds with their wings and feathers outstretched appear almost to be in movement as they scuttle and scurry in any which way they can to desperately avoid the onslaught of the feral cat.

“[He] had a keen eye for nature. While he is perhaps best known for his people portraits, Clifton often sought out subject matter from the countryside around his farm at Cottles Bridge [in Victoria]. Wombats, wrens, apostlebirds, magpies, owls and native bush all featured heavily in his works.”

And the inside?

“It’s a classic old fridge. There’s a little compartment marked cheese. It’s even got a compartment for bacon. Bottles, snacks, a crisper.

“I originally thought to buy this as a beer fridge.”