Back in 1948, a budding Melbourne artist named Dudley Drew was trying to eke out an existence in his adopted profession when, on the advice of his dear mother, he resolved to paint somebody famous.

Dudley’s Mum volunteered the name of Carlton centre half-back the late great Bert Deacon. After all, Deacon had just come off a stellar season, having taken out the 1947 Brownlow Medal, represented Carlton in its eighth premiership and earned Victorian and All-Australian selection.
How well Dudley remembers the moment. “My mother was blind, and when Bert won the Brownlow I was sitting with Mum in the bedroom talking to her one night and she said, ‘You should paint a portrait of Bert Deacon’,” Dudley explained.

“I said ‘Do you think it’s a good idea?’ and she said ‘I think it will be wonderful for you’. I then said ‘How do I do this?’ and she said ‘Go and see him’.”

Dudley made his way to 2 Hawker Avenue, Preston, where Bert and Jean then lived. “When I got there this particular night, around about seven o’clock, Bert was already in bed because he was injured - he’d injured his leg playing football, but he and Jean just welcomed me so much. It was great and I felt so proud,” Dudley said.

“I then asked Bert if he would pose for the big portrait and he said ‘I’d be very happy to do that’. He sat for the portrait about eight times and I remember in one sitting he began to smile, exposing this toothless gap. He was painted sporting grey trousers and navy blue blazer with the white V on the pocket and included in the painting is a trophy Bert also won for best afield for Victoria.

“Towards the end Bert said, ‘You know I really love this painting and I’m going to tell everybody about the greatest artist in the world’, and he did. He sent many people to me to have their portraits painted. He was just great. No wonder I cried when he went to heaven.

Though Bert and his wife Jean were thrilled with Dudley’s gift, they had nowhere in their small home to hang the sizeable canvas. For a brief period the portrait found a wall in the city sports store of the former Collingwood footballer Ron Todd, but at some point in 1948 it was returned to Dudley’s home and stored in a shed – which is where the work unfortunately came to grief.

As the artist explained, the painting toppled on to a steel table which pierced the canvas beyond repair.
The story might have ended then and there, were it not for this reporter’s chance viewing of a photograph of the original portrait in a scrapbook in Jean’s keep. Jean revealed that Dudley, now in his 80s, was the artist responsible and was alive and well in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

The question then begged. Sixty years on, would Dudley be up for the job of repainting the portrait from the photograph of the original? Remarkably, Dudley explained that the very thought had recently crossed his mind and that yes, he would commit to the task of recreating the image of Deacon, who died suddenly while serving Carlton as club secretary back in 1974.

And so it was that the new version of the old Bert Deacon was this week unveiled by Dudley in the presence of Bert’s widow, Jean and son Robert. The portrait is basically true to the original, but boasts one slight embellishment - Dudley has painted in Bert’s ’47 Brownlow, which can be seen dangling from the trophy.

“To think that 60 years on I’ve brought that painting back to life,” Dudley said. “Isn’t that a great story?”

Dudley has also just completed a work of Deacon completing a high mark over Richmond’s Roy Smeaton at Punt Road, based on a press photograph Bert handed him years before.

“Bert had given me a copy of this photograph, which carried a handwritten message in the top left hand corner – ‘To my friend Dud - regards, Bert Deacon’,” Drew said.

Regrettably the photograph was later stolen and all was thought lost . . . until early last year when Jean again came to the rescue.

“I went out to Jean’s house and sat down with her, during which time she showed me the family photo album . . . that’s where I came across another copy of this photograph,” Dudley said.

“I said to her, ‘Jean, you must let me borrow this. I want to paint this picture’. That happened about a year and a half ago’.”

For the past nine months, Drew, now in his early 80s, has put brush to canvas to recreate the Deacon image. The paint was still drying when he recently unveiled the canvas.

“Bert actually told me that the Richmond fellow in front of the marking contest is George Smeaton and Jack Wrout is sandwiched between them,” Drew said.

Ron Savage is the Carlton player watching on, but I’m not sure of the identity of the other Richmond player.”

It’s not surprising that Drew is somewhat circumspect when asked what will become of the Bert Deacon artworks. Perhaps a Carlton-friendly benefactor might see fit to purchase the paintings and make them available on permanent loan to the Club.

“Nobody knows the life of a painting,” said the man who has also painted the portraits of such luminaries as Archbishop Daniel Mannix, King O’Malley and “Weary” Dunlop.

But there can be no doubting the strength of the lifelong bond Dudley and Bert forged from the moment they met at the house in Hawker Avenue back in ’48.

“I had a friendship with and a great admiration for this fellow, and his wife Jean,” Dudley said.

“Bert and I became great friends and I could tell you many stories about him. He was a wonderful man. The day he died I remember picking up a paper. It was all over the front page and I just cried.

“One night we met in the city and we were on our way to my parents place in Albert Park for dinner. We caught the tram here as he didn’t have a car then, nor did I. And I remember saying to him, I should have been as tall as you Bert, and he said to me ‘Dud, diamonds were never made as big as bricks’. So that made me feel good and every time I see someone bigger than me I think of the diamond.”