Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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Elizabeth, this time that you and Mary had together, as young girls, up on Ivanhoe station, and relating very closely to the black community around you, it was a time of great creativity for you, wasn't it, where you collaborated on books and you did paintings and so on? Can I ask you, at that time, what were you noticing, what were you seeing in the Aboriginal people and the life on that land there?

I suppose my reactions were mainly sharply visual. The work hadn't got into the ... into the more profound or mystical areas that were to take over, perhaps, in preceding [?] decades, Robin. But it's ... it's a little hard to answer that. What I was seeing, I suppose, is evidenced in what remains of pieces that I have from that period which after all, is sixty years ago. And I was seeing the Aboriginals as personalities in their own right, with their own foibles and as ... as people, really, particularly the women folk then. It was later that I was with the older men.

And so you were trying to capture that individuality in the drawings that you were doing at the time.

Yes, yes. I did actual portraits ... actual portraits of the women and some of the men, yes.

And what about the land itself? Was that absorbing your attention as well?

I didn't do many conventional landscape paintings. It was always the human form that was dominant in any of those older works of mine. You see the people more than the landscape with the tree and the hill in the back. I don't think ... they were always just backgrounds. If they came into the compositions, they were as backgrounds to people, yes.

And the people were drawing you and absorbing you. How long did that go on, that you were up there in the north, before you left?

Well, in a sense I've never left because although ... if you're referring now to the actual time when my sister and I took ... took off for England, which was great fun. We went over in a meat boat from Wyndham.

Now, can I ask you how that happened. What happened to bring this period that you were up north and enjoying yourself so much ... what happened to bring that period to an end?

We were aiming towards the idea of the time we would be going away. Yes, it didn't come to a sharp end. We ... we planned that, on certain time, certain year, we'd go ... we'd be doing that, yes.

And so what ... how ... where did you go and what did you do?

Well, we caught a meat boat from Wyndham, carrying chilled meat to ports of the ... it was the time of ... still the time of Empire Preference so any ports that we called at were British ports. We called at Colombo. And ... although the first port going over was, I think, Port Said? I think it was. No, there was another one, further down.

Colombo, Bombay?

No, no. Anyway, I just can't recall the map at the moment. There were ... we went across ... we went through the Suez Canal. What's at the bottom of the Suez Canal?


That's it. That's it. Yes. Aden. That was perhaps the first port of call. And that was very exciting, too - in another world entirely. Did a lot of drawings at that time, too.

And what were you doing in England.

Well, we got a little flat in Chelsea, not far from the Chelsea Pensioners: Ormond ... Ormond Street, I think it was called. I'm sure it's still there. And I went to art school there but to get back to an earlier comment that you made about ... perhaps I wasn't in love with the art classes at the convent, I was even less in love with the art classes at the Chelsea Polytechnic. I didn't like it at all. But I'd ... I'd sort of thought it was a great thing: the idea of going to an art school. It seemed marvellous from Wyndham. I just ... I just didn't relate to it. It was too dull, too cold, too ... I wasn't in touch with anyone there at all. We'd sit around with little easels around a nude figure, drawing life positions. And I can remember I'd change my position about five times, and do the model from different positions and then I'd just walk out of the art class, and walk up and down the road until it was lunch time, when I'd get back to the flat. I didn't want Mary to know I wasn't going to the art school. I just didn't like it. It was so ... so fixed. And I've some of the drawings that I did from the life ... life class in Chelsea.

Did you learn anything from it?

Except that I didn't like the ... didn't like it. It was too big a contrast to being out in the golden sunshine, walking along with people that I was relating ... related to, you know, and then to be in the bleakness of a formal, old, classical art school. Pity perhaps I didn't ... didn't go at the age of fifteen or ten. I might have fitted into it. But that ... that ... I didn't like the art school at all. But I stayed there quite a while. I stayed there.

And is that the only formal art training you've ever had?

Yes, yes. The other was all from just trial and error and practice and observation.

From the technical point of view, was it useful to you?

Not enormously. I think we worked in charcoal on ... on paper. I'm not decrying the fact that ... it's a very good idea for people to go to an art school, and there've been marvellous results from doing so but it just wasn't for me, that's all. No ... no, I didn't learn a lot.

And how long were you away from Australia?

Oh, we were away under two years, yes.

And what brought you back?

Well, that it had sort of run to its close and then we went travelling on the continent a good deal, and North Africa. We went to North Africa. And it was just the way we'd worked it out I think. And ... and also I think Mary was being pretty much pulled back to Australia, with her ... with her relationship with Horrie Miller. I think that was a pull for her to come back.

And so you came back with Mary. During this time that you were living with Mary up in the north, and then travelling with her overseas, she was obviously a very dominant figure in your life. How did you get on with her?

Very well. We were always very, very good companions, yes.

Did you ever fight or argue?

I suppose you do a little bit with sister, but nothing - no, we didn't fight at all. We seemed to get on very harmoniously. Mary often took the lead, you know, in things.

Did you mind that?

No, no. No, I didn't ... I didn't mind that.

Did it seem just quite natural to you?

Yes, yes.

In retrospect, looking back, do you think that it meant that perhaps her wishes and her career and her work dominated a little at a time when maybe you could have had a bit more encouragement from some limelight?

I don't think so. No, I don't think that came into it. In fact, Mary was very encouraging about me going to the art school, because for a start, she was playing more of a domestic role there. Although we went out a lot and stayed with everything ... stayed with people a lot and everything.

So it was your art that was really the serious purpose of the thing.

If it had a purpose ...


... apart from the wonders of sightseeing in a new world.

When you came back to Australia, what happened then?

Mary got a job in Perth at the West Australian and I went north again. Yes.

And so where were you staying, when you went north?

Oh, I suppose I was at Ivanhoe. No, Argyle. You know, there was an option of places to stay.

And what was that period of your life like then, as a slightly older person?

I still was going on drawing. We did produce another book together. I think I was getting restless, though. You know: 'How can you keep them down on the farm, now that they've seen Paris?' I was restless. And then from ... from there, I remember, I was nursing for a while in Darwin. I remember getting in touch with Darwin, and I got a job in Darwin.

As a nurse?

Yes. It was a pretty marvellous education in itself, the old Darwin Hospital at Myilly Point. You wouldn't know the ... you wouldn't ... it's only just a point there. I often go and picture it when I go up to Darwin. But ... but it was quite amazing experience, again, because in the small hospital, as it was there, I think within the first four or five weeks you saw everything from suicides and dreadful things, to childbirth, you know. So that it was a bit of a 'in at the deep end'. It wasn't any gradations of ... you were in the ward and you were in the whole hospital. It was pretty interesting. And there would be ... and the Aboriginal sections and everything there.

Did you actually train as a nurse?


Did you actually train as a nurse?

Yes, but I didn't go through with it. Then I got another job, a nice job, in Darwin, and that was in charge of the library there. This was during the time that Aubrey Abbott, Aubrey and Hilda Abbott, were the administrators. That's going back a long time. I've kept in touch with ... with their daughter, Marion, too, over the years.

And so you were in Darwin. And where were you when the war broke out?

Oh well, I was moving around and travelling around. It's a little hard to recap unless I really got down to the detail of it. It's such a long time ago. I was moving around Australia. I'd already ... I'd already met the man that I was going to marry and then I was back in the north. Pardon, what was your question?

Well, I suppose I'd like to ask it slightly differently. How did you meet your husband?

I met him in a very complicated way. It's almost too complicated to go into, Robin, but he was a Sydney journalist, and we did meet first casually. And then he ... he followed it up when I was back in the north. Although we do come to a rather amusing point here. As ... as the sort of relationship at long distance began to develop, in those days on the stations, there were the pedal radios. It was the first ... They were the first communication, before which there was none. And they ... these impassioned wires were coming through from Sydney to Argyle. And of course, Frank had not the slightest idea that it was open to thousands of square kilometres of the entire listening population of the north. Years afterwards I heard ... I was talking to Canny Rose, who was on Mt. Anderson station and he said, 'My word, I heard those. I used to write them down every day', he said. 'They were just classics. They were too good to miss'. It was a terrible thing because I could answer Frank's wires discretely but he had no discretion whatsoever, you see. [Laughs]

So you had ... you had a very public courtship?

Yes, that's right. It was a very public courtship. Still talked of. [Laughs]

And so he had really decided that he wanted to marry you.


Who was he?

Frank Clancy. They were a very old Australian family. Wonderful family. Came out not terribly early. Frank used to say that they came out in chains, because he was terribly anti-British. He would have been right at the top of the list for the republican world at the present time, except that he died many years ago. And ... they came out as a family about the 1860, as my daughter [found out] when she researched it. And then it was post the big gold rush in Victoria - but all that time across there. And there's still a big family of Clancys down there: Clancys and Kanes, yes. That I haven't kept in touch with, but I often think of them.

What kind of a journalist was he?

General journalism, and he also wrote a book, too, called They Built A Nation. It was a good book, too, published in the late thirties, I think.

What were his politics?

His politics were radically anti-British. He'd never forgotten it, you know. And I think he had it from his mother. He used ... although he was ... he was a very sophisticated man. He was more cynical than ... you know, he was somewhat cynical over it all. But he used to say that his mother, also being so anti-British, during the Boer War, she'd get on a ... she had an old South African friend, or Boer friend, you see. She'd get on a tram somewhere, and be going, and she'd lean over and say - if something was going very bad for the British in the Boer War - 'We're winning'. [Laughs] Frank told that as a funny story about his mother. But ... but he'd inherited a lot of that, too. But it was a wonderful eye-opener to expand [the] contracted social knowledge that I had, being in that world. I also came to Sydney at a time ... it must have been the last of bohemian Sydney, you see. And he, Frank Clancy, was in the midst of it, you know ... midst of it. It was quite fascinating. And a lot of artist friends. He had a lot of artist friends; also one's linked somewhat with the print media like George Finey. Do you know him as a name? And the names don't come readily ...

People also ... people generally of the left, people with rather radical ideas.

Oh, very much so, very much so. Well, it was very refreshing to me for a while. Very refreshing, you know. Another point of view.

Well, coming from a fundamentally conservative pastoralist family, it must have been a bit startling for you?

Yes, yeah, but very exciting, yes.

And so, did you embrace some of these ideas at the time?

I don't know whether I embraced them. I sort of was wide-eyed. [Laughs]

And when did you get married?

I married in ... just before the war. Just a week or two before the war, 1939, yes.

And was Frank at home for the war or did he go away?

No, he was ... as a journalist he was dragooned into the public relations work for the ... for the Allied Works Council, that were building all the big construction roads between Adelaide and Darwin and around Queensland and that. Yes.

Was he older than you?

A lot older than me, yes.

And so that also ...

Yes, yes, that also was part of the attraction and another way of looking at things, so that it was a great experience. And he was a very, very important factor. For instance, he was one of those people who really had read everything. You know, he really had read everything. He was an intellectual which was pretty exciting, because the range of the intellectual world is not very high on the average station. In fact, the most interesting part is always the Aboriginal people. So ... so that all these influences were coming and impinging on me in different ways.

What did your parents think of the marriage?

Well, they sort of went along with it. You know, they didn't try to stop us. And ... and Frank was ... I said, 'You better write to Mum and Dad about all this', and so he dutifully did and wrote two beautiful letters, one to mother and one to dad. I think I've got them somewhere. In which ... he then phoned me and said, 'Calling on the spirit of Jane Austen, I've just written to your parents', and I think mother and dad were quite charmed with these letters. And then it went ahead. I was staying at Admiralty House at that time, in Sydney.

Why were you staying at Admiralty House?

Well not long, some time before, on a really pioneering undertaking, the Governor-General and Lady Gowrie, had decided to see the real Australia: the outback and on their itinerary was Argyle station and that was a tremendous undertaking. My brother Kim and I put that through. My brother Kim was with us by that time. And so we sort of had to work out the vice-regal visit to Argyle. I've never quite recovered from it. Although no one could have been more sweet and charming than Lady Gowrie was. And she said, 'Well, you must come down and stay with me in Sydney', and later it all ... sort of ... that's how that worked out.

And so you were married from, or at Admiralty House?

Yes. Then we did. We did get married, yes, quite quickly. Yes.

And when were your children born?

After we married, we went to live at a beautiful little place up the coast a bit at Avalon, in a little house on the road. It's still standing - the little house, little rented house. And then, I don't know, I think we were north before ... no, Frank never went to Kimberley. We didn't get that far. We went up to Queensland or somewhere. And then Perpetua was born a year or two later, my first daughter. Then later on, two or three years later, my son was born.

And your son is called?

Michael Francis.

And was the marriage happy?

In a way it was. But I think the ... oh, terribly hard question to answer that. I was happy, but I ... I just ... the pull of the west was enormously strong on me. And by this time I was extremely interested in the activities of my brother, Kim, who was really the pioneer of agricultural on the Ord, and he set up the first agricultural research station, in conjunction with government arrangements and everything, at Carlton Reach, which is right at the very place where the present town of Kununurra is. And I spent some time with him there, up ... that's when I went through going up to my brother, Reg, who was at Auvergne, and my brother Kim, who was on this research station, that was when ... early forties ... in the early forties and it was very hard getting through to further north at that time and we got ... Perpetua and I got stuck in Alice Springs. And it was then that I went from there out to Hermannsburg, who were taking sort of paying guests. It looked as though that before they'd passed us to go through to the north, it might be a few weeks and so we went out there, and that's when I first met Albert Namatjira, which was an unforgettable event too.

How did you meet him?

Because I was at Hermannsburg, and he was ... was working out from Hermannsburg. He was already very well known as an artist because Pastor Albrecht had been promoting his work, and encouraging him in every way. And he was a lovely gentle sort of Aboriginal. I'd love to have a picture of him holding my daughter, my little daughter. And we talked about painting.

Were you working there ...

I did a bit. I did a few bits. It's hard to work when you're travelling with an infant, but I have got a few pieces.

So did you and Albert Namatjira talk to each other, sort of artist to artist?

Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because I did have some paints with me, in a ... in a little case or whatever it was. And I remember him saying that I had more paints than he had. And he did have a very small paint set up, but of course, he performed miracles with it, didn't he?

And what did he think of your painting?

I don't think he saw them. I don't think he saw them, no. But he knew that I'd been painting. Oh, he might have. Now that I say that. They might have had the books out there. I can't quite remember that. Yes. Yes, we did talk as artist to artist. I can remember that, yes. And then he went off on a camel. I remember he might have been going with someone to Jay Creek or somewhere adjacent. And I did do quite a big painting of that later and I called it ... It was a rear view of Albert on a camel, and I called it Albert Namatjira rides out to ... to claim his own. I've still got a photo of that somewhere. I don't know where the original is.

And you were feeling this pull coming from what your brother was doing, and in any case from that land that you were so bonded to ...


... that was over there in the north-west.

Yes, very strong, very strong.

How did that affect your ability to go on with your marriage with Frank in Sydney?

I don't think it helped it. I don't think it helped it. No, it was a short marriage, but a merry one.

How long did it last?

About five years.

And then you took your two children and went ...

Then I came west, I came west. West and north. I was with my brothers quite a lot then. So when you say when did you leave, or when did you go, it's been a continual traffic between the ... the north and south.

How did the children get on, leaving their father and coming with you?

It did seem a traumatic thing to do, but here again, my sister Mary plays a big part in it, because she had settled down not far from here, and had a stable home and a big family. And the children were very, very friendly and companionable and went to school together and it sort of was ... they lived between the two households, if you know what I mean. There were members of the family here ... a great deal. You know, it wasn't just a harsh cut off. And they kept in touch with their father, and they'd go over for Christmas holidays sometimes, yes.

So the marriage ended without acrimony.

No acrimony, but I never divorced.

You didn't ever divorce?


Why not?

Oh, I didn't want to. And perhaps I couldn't get one.

And was he okay about the end of the marriage? I mean was he very upset?

It's a little bit intimate to go into. We mightn't put all this on our reel, Robin. But he ... he ... this is not very fair to him but he was very, very ... he did drink a lot.

Oh, that was very common among those journalists of that time. It would almost have been exceptional if he hadn't.

Yes, drink was a real problem. And he ... he became quite sick. But then again, in the old Irish way, there was the support from his family, and his sister, Pat, who he was very fond of. Auntie Pat and he made a household together then, you see and she more or less looked after him 'til he died, in 1965. Before that I tried two or three times to go abroad, but at that time you couldn't go abroad without your husband's consent. Did you know that?

Before 1965?

Mm. I think ... I don't know whether that was the date, but I remember thinking oh, I'll go abroad. I had a chance of going abroad.

So it wasn't that you couldn't take the children without your husband's consent, you couldn't go without your husband's consent.

No, no, that was just accepted in those days.

Could he go without your consent?

Yes, I think so. I don't know. I don't know.

And so from ... and he wouldn't give you consent to go away?


Did you want to?

I did, but when it was ... that was it. I just settled down, and I've often thought it was the time. Perhaps the time too, when a lot of Australians were going to London - certainly a lot of Australian artists. And I've always thought that, well, blocked in the outward going area, I went in further and I don't suppose anyone's explored Western Australia quite as much as I have. Or holidays often with the children. We'd ... we'd just go to - not only to the north - we went into the eastern gold fields and further north, and to the remote mission stations, Warburton. I've been to Warburton many times, and all that area there, which is pretty fascinating.

And during this period too, you were spending a lot of time on the family properties ...

Not so much. Not so much during the fifties, no, when the children were at school. But earlier I was. I was there in the ... from the mid-forties on. That's when I had my studio on the banks of the river. That's when I did big paintings, like the one behind me there. Very big paintings. They were all done about 1947. And that was the time when I came in to very close relationship with the older Aboriginal men, that had known me a decade earlier well, but hadn't been as close but they were then old men, old Jubul and old Roger. They were living in the bush camp, and I had my studio on the bank of the Ord and a lot of links went on there - very serious links.

When you say very serious links, what do you mean?

Well, they did talk of their old life, and they did show me a lot of the old renewal practices and river magic, and all ... all sorts of areas that I just somehow was let into.

These were things that we would normally think of as being very sacred, possibly secret matters.


It was a huge compliment to you, to have ...

It was, it was. And people have said, 'Why did they speak to you as a woman?' and I don't know quite how to answer that but they knew that I felt very compassionate for them, because the old life was completely over, and they were at the end of their tether. And it was the time also, in the centre, when all the churingas were coming back to the Strehlow family, you see. You know, they were drawing the ... the line under their old life and coming in to a new one. It's all too complicated to put together in a few sentences, Robin, really. But that was a very, very important and crucial time for my relationship with the Aboriginals.

What happened after your marriage ended?

Well, it didn't ... didn't end like that. [CLAPS HER HANDS] You know, it trickled around a bit. But then ... we were living in Melbourne, and I was very restless though. I was very restless. I was living in Melbourne and there was ... I got ... Simultaneously our old English nurse left me a small legacy, and my brother-in-law, Horrie, got a house in Broome. Bought it for a song, just after the war, in war-wrecked Broome. He wrote to me and said ... he wrote to me and said, 'Come up, bring the children'. I think he really wanted someone looking after it, you know, because he was away, backwards and forwards, between Perth and Broome. And I said, 'Well, I'm going'. I just went with the two children up to Broome. Perpetua had her fifth birthday in Broome.

[end of tape]

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