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To The Manners Born

The Sunday Age

Sunday October 3, 2004

Michael Shmith

She is a widow, philanthropist and arts lover. But who is the private Primrose Potter? Michael Shmith attempts to find out.

We walk through the Ian Potter Foundation Children's Garden on a lovely-weather-for-ducks Friday afternoon. "I like to keep an eye on things. It's so interesting to watch it as it goes - there's always something on the way," says the tall, imposing woman who negotiates the Ruin Garden, Meeting Place, Wetland, Bamboo Forest, Black Stump and eventually the Kitchen Garden. She talks - curiously enough - about chooks, crows and compost: "I make so much compost, I never know what to do with it. I come from a long line of gardeners."

It is hard to keep up with Primrose Potter, in conversation or in life. The widow of the financier and philanthropist Sir Ian Potter, who died in 1994, she is the life governor of the foundation that he started in 1964, and which puts millions of dollars into the arts, education, environment, social welfare and medical research. Melbourne has two art institutions with Potter in their title: at Federation Square, the NGV's Ian Potter Centre, and at Melbourne University, the smaller Potter Gallery. "People say they get muddled with two Potters, and I say, 'Look, there are five Tates'," says Lady P, as if that seals the end of the argument.

There is a good deal of sense and sensibility about Primrose Potter. She first seems fairly fearsome, like a particularly strict headmistress. But this is to reckon without her quick-witted humour and down-to-earth approach to life that can manifest itself in something as momentarily trivial as compost, making it seem far more fascinating than it actually is. But she can talk about ballet, music, opera and art, and has strong opinions not only on the artforms but what companies could and should be doing to perform them. She is a force behind the Melbourne Opera Company and is also instrumental in the Melba Foundation, which recently received $5 million from the Federal Government to produce Australian-made CDs for Melba Recordings.

Of Melbourne Opera, she says, "If this new company doesn't survive, there won't be another Victorian company for another 20 years. I have to say we're not being well looked after from Sydney."

The Ian Potter Foundation has donated $1 million towards the children's garden, which is between the herbarium and observatory on the south-eastern side of the Royal Botanic Gardens. It is still a work-in-progress: much is planted, but the concrete is being laid for the root-barrier in the bamboo forest, the pond is still fish-less, although a solitary mallard has taken up residence at its edge, and there is an absence of anyone remotely underage. Even so, the garden is delightful - especially when one crouches to child-height, when all the plants suddenly grow, fences disappear, and the wonderment increases.

Andrew Laidlaw, the Royal Botanic gardens' landscape architect, shows us round with glee. "We wanted to create a garden that was a language for children," he says. "The Botanic Gardens are wonderful, too, but have lots of keep-off areas. Here, they can pick flowers, get their hands dirty, get wet: this is a garden for them to play in." Indeed, it promises to be a place of mists and mystery, with a network of overgrown plant-tunnels, enabling children to hide from their parents, though not, one hopes, for too long.

The site also has a large vegetable garden, complete with scarecrow. "Not really efficient," says Laidlaw. "It's good for about a week, then all the crows go and sit on it. Here, children will be able to plant and pick vegetables. This is a different space - more about organic gardening, worming, composting; kids will have ownership over the plants. Parents and children will be able to come in here, but will probably have to pay."

"You've got to pay to dig," says Lady Potter.

Later, we sit in the Observatory Cafe with tea and cake, talking about Sir Ian Potter. It is hard to reconcile black stumps and ti-tree tunnels with the somewhat austere image of the white-haired financier who gazes sternly out of his official photographs.

"I know Ian would have been very pleased with the garden," Lady Potter says. "He always said the wealth of the nation is its next generation: the young. They need help at a particular time, and if you don't give them that help when they need it, it's too late. That's why we started the cultural-trust and education programs. That's when they need $5000 to go off and study; they need it then, not five or six years later."

In fact, she says, Sir Ian got his start in similar fashion. "He won a scholarship for education; his godmother died and left him something quite small - ##100 or so - and that enabled him to go to university and do economics."

I say it is hard to think of the late Sir Ian as anything other than a grey eminence; an obelisk in a suit. Lady Potter, who was married to him for 25 years, saw him as something else. "He was a private sort of person, but with a lovely sense of humour. He was very good company. To those he loved."

Primrose Dunlop (she was married previously, to a Sydney GP, by whom she has a daughter also named Primrose) met Ian Potter one night in Sydney's Bellevue Hill in the late '60s. "I was the spare lady at a dinner party that Bill and Sonia McMahon were having . . . We sat opposite, across a very long table. I was down the Mickey Mouse end, having lots of fun laughing and chatting, and there was this very good-looking man up the other end."

Eventually, they were married. "As well as loving someone, you've got to like them," she says. "We enjoyed each other's company - that was the thing.

"One might have thought he must have always had his nose in finances, but he didn't at all. He was very interesting, well-read, and liked medieval English, which he could read. He quoted Chaucer very easily. Interesting, isn't it? He loved to go fishing, liked to eat well. He liked to go to galleries. I had to drag him off to the opera, and he enjoyed it once I got him there."

His stepdaughter, Primrose Krasicki, says of Sir Ian: "He would tell you what he wanted you to know. We never, ever discussed money. He would tell you what he was doing. Woe betide you if you asked him a question." Her first impression was Sir Ian's extra-thick white hair. "There's a story I love," she says. "He was in a bar in New York and a man kept coming up to him, asking about his hair and what he used . . . Then Mum came in and said, 'Do you realise who you were talking to?' It was Frank Sinatra."

Primrose Potter had what she called a lucky childhood. She was born and grew up in Sydney's exclusive Darling Point. "My father was a doctor; my mother was a granddaughter of the manse, which is where a lot of the philanthropic feeling came from," she says. "I have a brother, four years older. My family were reasonably well-to-do . . . We were brought up trying to put something back in. My mother was very busy with a mothercraft society and the Red Cross, while my father was involved with the Royal Blind Society. You grew up expecting these things to be part of your life.

"Mother was very cultured. She felt that music and opera and ballet were very important. Anything that came to Sydney, we were taken to. Concerts as quite a small girl and going to the first opera - it was my sixth or seventh birthday . . . It sets your love for this sort of thing, when you're young."

Animals were a constant in young Primrose's life, and remain so. Her daughter recalls "animals falling out of everywhere".

After secondary school, Primrose was sent for the obligatory year overseas - London and being presented at court, then round the continent and home through America. " 'I think it's time you got a job,' said my father. 'What would you like me to do?' 'You're starting at St Vincent's Hospital on Monday'. I was a dogsbody. Then I got married. I was 21. Then along came Primrose. Life was mapped out in those days."

She became a GP's wife. "It was like being a minister's wife: on call all the time." In addition to the menagerie, her daughter recalls her mother haunting local junk shops and bringing home bargain furniture and paintings. "Mum was always off doing her own thing. She has enormous curiosity and great enthusiasm. She's amazing."

Her marriage to Sir Ian meant changing from doctor's wife to corporate wife. Was it much of a challenge? "Not really; one just did it. I'm adaptable, and I was always fairly social, I suppose. I'm good at remembering names and recognising people. But I can't always remember which belongs to which."

In recent times, Lady Potter has combated cancer ("My CAT scans have been OK. You must be positive. If you fall in a heap, you never get up again"), but still manages to make two or three overseas trips a year. "I'm happy to be at home. I don't like leaving my garden, cats, daughter, grand-daughter." She lives between her apartment in Spring Street and her property on the Mornington Peninsula.

If there is one way to describe Primrose Potter, let it be well-mannered. Even when I suggest she must feel let down when people don't turn out as they should have been, she says simply, "I'm probably far too trusting, as I'm always prepared to like them . . . But there are so many nice people around."

The Ian Potter Foundation Children's Garden will be opened by Deputy Premier John Thwaites on Saturday, October 23.

CV

BORN Sydney, April 23, 1931.

MARRIED 1952 Roger Dunlop; 1975 Sir William Potter.

RECREATIONS gardening, wildlife, conservation, opera, ballet music.

CAREER includes director and Victorian chairman Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (1989-91); director Bell Shakespeare Company (1990-91); Trustee American Friends Australian National Gallery since 1989; national president of Australian Ballet special events committee (1993); member at large Howard Florey Institute, member Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, director Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne University, since 1999; life governor Ian Potter Foundation.

© 2004 The Sunday Age

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