Fred and Elinor Wrobel have been avid art fossickers for over forty years. Along the way, they’ve fed starving artists, uncovered at least one lost masterpiece, and turned a former pub into a museum for fine Australian art. Annemarie Lopez pays them a visit.
Oscar Wilde once commented that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. By this definition, Fred and Elinor Wrobel are the antithesis of cynics. Passionate collectors, the Wrobels have amassed a remarkable collection of over a thousand works of Australian art from the 1840s to the present day. But while they seem dismissive about the financial worth of their collection, they speak about each painting with the sort of affection others might lavish on children.
Fred Wrobel, a WWII Polish refugee, sailor and yacht builder, began collecting marine art before wife Elinor, a nurse who had once dreamed of studying painting, suggested they look at Australian art. A skilled draughtsman himself, Fred had never taken much interested in painting in Poland, but began to study Australian painters with enthusiasm.
In the 1960s, Fred and Elinor were not wealthy investors, but rather skilled and committed foragers. They rummaged in old wares shops, visited young artists in their studios and attended auctions, buying odds and ends that no one else was interested in.
They point to a painting in their sitting room, a small nude, and explain how they came across it in an auction house covered with dirt. The Wrobels had a feeling about the piece and bought it for next to nothing. Fred, who undertakes the restoration of most of the pieces, cleaned up the painting and Elinor realised it was a work by George W. Lambert, probably of fellow artist, Thea Proctor.
Anxious to confirm their finding, they contacted a friend at the Art Gallery of NSW, who suggested they contact the painter John Passmore, an old friend of Lambert’s. Passmore was notoriously prickly and withdrawn, and despite their efforts to contact him, the Wrobels were pessimistic about ever hearing from him. Then, one day, a thin man in a beret appeared at the door of their house in Woollahra. It was John Passmore. He confirmed their deductions about the painting and the Wrobels were delighted, not knowing that this meeting was to prove momentous for an entirely different reason.
Passmore was to become a regular visitor to the Wrobels’ house, where he loved to sit in their lush garden for inspiration. The Wrobels had gone from collecting art, to collecting an artist.
When Passmore died he left Fred and Elinor Wrobel his estate of 270 paintings. With typical devotion, they decided to open a museum celebrating his life and work. After difficulties dealing with the short-sighted Woollahra council, the Wrobels decided to sell their home of over 30 years and purchased the Merryfield Hotel at Woolloomooloo, just behind the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
They converted the bottom floor of the hotel into a museum featuring Passmores work along with a recreation of his last studio. They now live in the two upper floors with the rest of their collection. Their house is a living gallery, its walls given over to the paintings of Dobell and
Drysdale, Nancy Borlase and Grace Cossington Smith, Norman Lindsay, Ian Fairweather, Boyd and Whiteley.
The works in this collection have toured every state in Australia since 1978, lent freely by the Wrobels whose passion for sharing equals their passion for collecting.