Category Archives: biographies of writers, artists & musicians

A note about Humphrey McQueen’s Tom Roberts

The great Australian artist Tom Roberts volunteered to serve in a London military hospital during the Great War. He ended up serving as an unofficial batman to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, who was being treated for war wounds. I picked up Humphrey McQueen’s comprehensive 1996 biography of Roberts and found a lively account of their friendship. Another biography I wish I had the time to read. Each chapter has the name of a literary work from “Such is Life” to “The Good Soldier”. I love this acknowledgement at the back:

Paul Kelly for offering me a column in the Weekend Australian. The $585 I earned each week for two days work during the almost three years was the equivalent of a literary fellowship, without which this book would still not be completed. Rupert Murdoch let us get away with it until the week before the first draft went to the publishers.

One must always look for creative ways to fund the writing of a book.

Another note: McQueen’s great account of Roberts and Throssell is quoted or paraphrased at length in John Hamilton’s biography of Throssell Price of Valour without referencing. Mcqueen’s book does appear in the bibliography, but I don’t think that’s enough. Even “popular” biographies owe it to other writers and to the readers to acknowledge their sources fully.

Angela Carter: Far from the fairytale | Books | The Guardian

The otherworldly figure conjured after her death in 1992 doesn’t do Angela Carter justice. Her biographer Edmund Gordon attempts a more accurate portrayal of a complex, sensual and highly intellectual woman

Source: Angela Carter: Far from the fairytale | Books | The Guardian

This is a great article in the Guardian from Angela Carter’s biographer, Edmund Gordon. He does a splendid job of creating a capsule biography of her in the article, giving a sense of her whole life in a few thousand words, while making it interesting to read and illuminated with revealing moments. This must be so hard to do after coming to know her life so well in its details and agonising over any summary, given any summary will tend to distort by simplification or omission.

He describes the mythology she has been reduced to and sketches something of how he reinterprets Carter. It takes insight and courage to successfully and fairly reinterpret a life. And there’s a pressure on biographers to do so – because if you’re not offering a new interpretation, why are you writing? (In this case, though, it is the first biography of her.) Another point of interest for me: how will he be received as a man writing about a woman?

An Unsentimental Bloke wins the National Biography Award


Congratulations to Philip Butterss, whose biography of CJ Dennis, An Unsentimental Bloke, won the National Biography Award of Australia on Monday. A battered old copy of CJ Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke sat on my family’s shelf when I was a child, and my unsuccessful efforts to read it immunised me against him, perhaps rather unfairly. Continue reading

True North by Brenda Niall – some notes on biographical method


The metal bust of Mary Durack used to greet me each day at the entry to the Battye Collection during my year working at the State Library of WA in 2007. I saw it again yesterday, a couple of days after finishing Brenda Niall’s True North: The Story of Elizabeth and Mary Durack (Text, 2012). Busts make the people of the past seem so distant, but one of the achievements of this biography to make the Duracks feel quite alive again for a time. Continue reading

Acute Misfortune: a review of Erik Jensen’s biography of Adam Cullen


Adam Cullen (1965-2012) was a controversial Australian artist who destroyed himself with alcohol and drugs. Six years ago, Cullen asked nineteen year-old journalist Erik Jensen to live with him for a year to write his biography. Last year, the book appeared – Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, a story in which life and death do seem to have equal weight. Continue reading