ONE night in April 1952 near Darwin, a strange, shy man, 60 years old, with a cultured voice and intense pale blue eyes, climbed aboard a raft he had constructed from aircraft drop tanks, and shoved off into the Timor Sea. He carried a sack of dried bread to last 10 days and a compass. Within minutes the waves slapped up between the planks. A week or so later, after search planes gave him up for dead, the obituary of Ian Fairweather appeared in newspapers in Britain and Australia. To Australians at least, his story is as familiar as a slouch hat. He was British, the youngest son of a distinguished surgeon-general in the Indian army, and had grown up on Jersey in a large house with a butler. A prize-winning student at the Slade, he had known Augustus John, Somerset Maugham and Antarctic explorer Robert Scott, whose brother was engaged to his sister Queenie. He had shared a successful exhibition with Walter Sickert in London and one of his paintings was hung in the Tate. Until the moment of his disappearance, he was living in Gauguinesque squalor in the stern half of a derelict patrol boat. Locals in Darwin referred to him, not without derision, as “Rear Admiral”. “If he had died on that raft, as he nearly did,” says Murray Bail, whose updated edition of Fairweather (Murdoch Books, 280pp, $125) is the fruit of almost four decades of sleuthing, “he’d be a pleasant sort of minor footnote; a post-impressionist, with a Chinese flavour, of what he called his tourist pictures.” But Fairweather did not die.

more from Nicholas Shakespeare at The Australian here.