. . . .


‘Olive Cotton at Spring Forest’ (ABR, July-August, No.353, 2013), by Helen Ennis is a long essay that not only allows us insights into the life of one of Australia’s major 20th-century photographers but also reveals details of the author’s often frustrating search for the reasons why Olive Cotton disappeared from public view for almost twenty years following her marriage to Ross McInerney in the mid 1940s. Ennis gives a compelling portrait of a woman juggling the eternal triangle of marriage, children and a career.


Ennis introduces her essay with a description of a visit to the house in which Olive Cotton lived for most of her long life. Ennis returns to some of the puzzling aspects of that dwelling in her concluding paragraphs. Rather than the end of her exploration of Olive’s milieu resulting in the ‘full circle’ kind of understanding that T S Eliot evoked so eloquently in his poetry, Ennis admits she never really came to understand either the place or its occupant. This raises one of the fundamental problems in writing biography, namely whether we can ever truly ‘know’ another human being, understand fully what makes someone ‘tick’. Modern biography in the English-speaking world might date from the 18th century, but there are still important questions to address that resist definitive answers: the nature of fame (or notoriety), considerations of gender and otherness and a subject’s deliberate positioning of her/him-self in society – or perhaps outside it. Also of significance is the question of who has the right to speak for the subject who is the object of a biography.

This article by Helen Ennis is just one of many kinds of biographical writing. Before discussing the work further I would like to proffer some reflections on the forms that contemporary biography now takes as well as on some of the technical issues inherent in the writing of it.[i]

In their paper ‘Mythbusting Publishing: Questioning the “Runaway Popularity” of Published Biography and Other Life Writing’, Susan Currie and Donna Lee Brien explore Nigel Hamilton’s assertion that ‘Biography – that is to say, our creative and non-fictional output devoted to recording and interpreting real lives – has enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in recent years’.[ii] Their conclusions make interesting reading. Contrary to expectations (and popular impression) the percentage of biographies in bestseller lists has not substantially changed over the past decades. So where does Hamilton’s perception come from? Perhaps it is founded in the proliferation of other forms of life writing (autobiography, memoir and family history), and the increasingly diverse range of publishing options now available. Biographies can be read as e-books, authors often providing both paper and electronic versions in the interests of attracting a wider readership. The new genre of multi-media books created especially for digital dissemination, and which incorporate sound and animation as well as image and print, opens up new possibilities for biography.

There are many informal ways to present biography, particularly in the arena of family history and its recording. Photographs, sketches, autograph books, notes in the margins of family bibles, home movies and videos, all constitute forms of biography. One historian has suggested making a collage of superfluous copies of family photographs, accompanied by documentation of names, dates and places where possible. Material can be copied onto CDs and circulated without necessarily creating a formal biography or memoir.

In Australia, as in the USA and the UK, reality and other biographically based television shows are extremely successful both in terms of the numbers of shows produced and the viewers these shows attract. The ABC’s Australian Story – a ‘personal approach’ to biographical storytelling – not only enjoys healthy viewer ratings but also a degree of critical acclaim. Currie and Brien also call attention to the growing readerships for personal websites and blogs, and networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. In the Australian press obituary columns are mini biographies in their own right.

During the 20th century cinema established itself as society’s preferred form of storytelling. Biography also moved onto the big screen with ‘bio pics’ – films that look at the lives of the rich, famous and notorious, with varying degrees of success. One worthwhile example is the film In Search of Mozart (2006), an attempt to look dispassionately at the life and work of the composer. The director wanted to present his subject as a man of his time without turning him into either a saint or a sinner – in Mozart’s case neither sublime genius nor talented but vulgar brat.

A second tier exposure for biography occurs in academic literary journals that now accept articles on biography and autobiography whereas previously these were shunned by university departments and left to the popular press. As Brenda Niall pointed out in the 2005 Inaugural Seymour Lecture in Biography, until late in the 20th century ‘no one was interested in biography. If biography belonged anywhere, it would have been consigned to history’.[iii] Yet this lumping in with history remains an uneasy liaison and biography is more often seen as a hybrid discipline hovering somewhere between history and fiction.

One solution to the portrayal of a life is to move squarely into fiction, as Julian Barnes does in Flaubert’s Parrot and John Banville in The Untouchable, based on the Anthony Blunt ‘story’, or Iain Pears’ novel The Portrait that examines a love-hate relationship between a prominent artist and his chief critic. Virginia Woolf adds an interesting dimension to her novel Orlando with its subtitle The Biography.


Why does a biographer choose to write about one particular life and not another? Richard Holmes talks of ‘the illogical feeling that your subjects somehow choose you’, something he describes as empathy – ‘the most deceptive, of all biographical emotions’.[iv] Empathy – in terms of public admiration and recognition – is no longer the preserve of successful men and the proliferation of biographies across a broad range of human achievement attests to the opening up of long entrenched (Eurocentric and masculinist) definitions as to which individuals merit biographical attention. The influence of feminism, the improving profile of women in politics, business and the arts, the rise of multiculturalism, the increasing globalisation of culture, and terrorism, and the potential offered by electronic publishing have opened up new possibilities for biography – and new contradictions. As Ian Donaldson writes: ‘It is ironical that theorists should have been busy dissolving the notion of the authorial self at the very time when groups and individuals hitherto ‘silenced’ have been attempting to constitute themselves both as authors and as biographical subjects.’[v]

Until the late 18th century, biographies were mainly tales of ‘battle and victory’ with few details of the personal lives of their subjects. In his groundbreaking biography of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell showed that a life consists of personality as well as action and that men of letters were as important as soldiers and statesmen.[vi] At the end of World War I Lytton Strachey aimed to demolish the 19th-century great-man-not-a-breath-of-scandal approach embodied in the idea of the biographer as family retainer ‘whose job it was to ensure that nothing went wrong with the literary funeral arrangements’.

However the professionalism that has increasingly made contemporary biographies works of scholarship rather than of the imagination, and the biographer’s changing relationship with the subject’s family, have modified the model pioneered by Strachey.[vii] Scholarly emphasis on original sources generally includes the subject’s private papers that are controlled by those who have them in their possession, permission to quote from them being granted in return for tact and discretion in their use.

Balanced judgement is essential for authors taking a psychobiographical approach to avoid reducing all events, actions and achievements to a psychoanalytical framework. William Runyan argues that by overemphasising the influence of childhood conflicts rather than studying formative influences throughout the subject’s life span, ‘psychobiographies’ risk ‘impos[ing] unnatural order, shape and direction to the often rather amorphous nature and fitful course of a human life, even that of a great man [sic]’.[viii] That ‘great man’ seldom lived alone and biography can show the cost of greatness to the people surrounding the hero or heroine.[ix] Jean Strouse discovered that Alice James, daughter of Henry James, was actually a more interesting person in her own right than the person she is usually considered to have been.[x]

Books such as Richard Holmes’ Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer are modelled on physical and emotional journeys – challenging intellectual adventures in which the biographer is very much present in the narrative. Linking events contemporaneous with Holmes’s life (the May 1968 riots in Paris for example) with the upheavals of the late 18th-century French Revolution creates an ingenious entrée to the literary figures who are the subjects of the biography. Another effective way of bringing the past into the present is by making the teller part of the tale. In Malinche’s Conquest Australian author Anna Lanyon overcame the problem of scarce primary material by including her self-as-researcher in the narrative to create a fascinating snapshot of modern-day Mexico and the 16th-century world of Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors.

AWWC is committed to reviewing books by Australian women writers. While some of the world’s best biographers in the English language are women – Antonia Fraser, Victoria Glendinning, Claire Tomlin, Virginia Woolf, Hilary Spurling, Hermione Lee,  Miranda Carter and Meryle Secrest for example – women biographers also do well in the Australian context: Brenda Niall; Hazel Rowley; Jill Roe and Helen Trinca. In the area of writing about the writing of biography Brenda Niall is hard to beat.

My particular interest is in the sub-genre of art-historian biographies. I have recently written a biography of Australian art and architectural historian Joan Kerr (1938-2004) who was the author of ground-breaking art histories that included the work of women, Aboriginal artists and minor genres, consistent with her democratic approach to Australia’s visual culture. A rigorous academic, she was also a larrikin intellectual who relished a good argument. There were many of them and the telling of her life in A Most Generous Scholar: Joan Kerr, Art and Architectural Historian, was a rich and rewarding experience.


Back to the shadowy figure of Olive Cotton

Ennis’s essay centres around a particular place – the property Spring Forest – and a particular issue – Olive Cotton’s ‘invisibility’ during the years she spent there, years that ‘frustrate and confound the biographical process’. One particularly frustrating enigma was the discovery that Olive and Ross McInerney had left the names of previous occupants on the doors of their house. ‘Why wouldn’t you erase the signs of those who lived there before you?’ Ennis asks. Why keep them in your most personal intimate, space, your home? What does it mean to live like this?

Between 1935 when Cotton produced the iconic photograph Teacup ballet, and 1945 when she concluded her three-year management of the Max Dupain Studio (while Dupain was in PNG in a camouflage unit), she was recognised as one of Australia’s leading modernist photographers, part of a community of whose stories and achievements are on the public record. But once Olive moved to the country ‘[h]er biographical shape becomes curiously insubstantial, shadowy at best’. Her photographic activities were understandably curtailed due to personal circumstances: marriage (during the postwar period when women were supposed to leave the public sphere to men), motherhood, physical and social isolation in the country, and lack of money but this does not fully satisfy Ennis.

Olive’s material living conditions at Spring Forest were particularly difficult: firstly living in a tent on the family property near Cowra; then in a small rented house in the foothills; then a two-room weatherboard cottage and subsequently in two demountable buildings – the ‘new house’ – with no electricity, running water or ‘mod cons’ for twenty-five years. Acess was by gravel roads and there was no phone line until the 1950s. It was an impossible place for a serious commitment to photography.

In addition to the close reading of private papers and public documents, visiting the home or homes of biographical subjects is an accepted part of the biographer’s toolkit. Yet ‘Spring Forest’ proved problematic in several ways. Ennis found the house and grounds just as its occupants had left it: clothes in bedrooms; books on shelves, jars of preserved fruit in the pantry – no sign of the ritual sorting out and cleaning up that usually follow someone’s death (Olive died in 2003, Ross in 2010) – but no diaries, personal papers or letters to speak of. Ennis was ‘struggling with apparently contradictory states, with both an excess and a lack’. It would seem that the ordinary clutter of lives is not necessarily arranged to suit a biographer!

How, Ennis asks, did Olive, whose photographs are distinguished by their highly refined aesthetic, ‘inhabit’ this crowded, seemingly chaotic environment? How did she keep her creativity alive? How did she make sense of her city and country lives? Ennis does not ask if Olive herself needed to make sense of it. If I have one criticism of Ennis’s thoughtful essay, it is that the academic-biographer is perhaps seeking too much direction in Olive Cotton’s life. Life is messy, often seemingly without purpose, acted out in response to external influences. Surely there is only so much one can demand in the way of order (a personal teleology?) in an actual, lived, life with all the social, financial and physical factors that swirl around it. Ennis has set out to write the story of Olive’s life; Olive Cotton was simply living it.

Ennis was not so much anxious about finding too few pointers to Olive’s interior life but afraid she might discover that Olive’s ‘reserve and patience weren’t the virtues others praised but impediments that prevented her photography from thriving’. Perhaps it is all and none of these – something much simpler and at the same time more complex. The McInerney marriage, like most, weathered stormy times. Ennis admits that marriage is a complicated dynamic and concludes:

As I have come to see it, Olive’s early life at Spring Forest was shaped by a series of complex adjustments, to an unfamiliar natural environment, the land and weather, the after-effects of war, which those around her dealt with in very different ways, marriage and motherhood, as well as a materially difficult domestic life.

Yet Ennis continues to probe into that marriage. With children and grandchildren still alive, does the biographer have the right to pry into the privacy of a married couple and their family? The title of Brenda Niall’s Seymour Lecture, Walking on Ashes (from Samuel Johnson), suggests the dangerous terrain biographers enter when writing about someone’s life; there may yet be ‘flammable material in the embers’.

Olive met Ross McInerney in 1942, the year after her divorce from photographer Max Dupain. It was a wartime marriage and at the end of Olive’s tenure at the Max Dupain Studio, she decided they would move to the bush. It was at this time that an account of Olive’s life and work loses its substance, so far as biography goes. ‘As a biographer these are the years that worry [Ennis] most’ and she wants answers. I find this a somewhat voracious demand. Why should society require an artist to work without breaks and at a consistently high level for their entire adult life? Even academics take sabbaticals. There are many stories of women artists whose career paths do not proceed unproblematically up the ladder of success. Judith Zinsser maintains that feminists have been justifiably harsh in their criticisms of traditional history (and by extension, biography) for its lack of awareness of the significance of gender in the shaping of human experiences. Biographers, she says, ‘have been even more wedded to what the feminist theorist, Liz Stanley, calls “a realist fallacy”…creat[ing] seamless, uncritical narratives, linear progressions from birth to death’.[xi]

In 1964 Olive opened a photographic studio in Cowra. For the next few years she made a reasonable income through portraiture and school and wedding photography. More importantly, for Ennis and her narrative, the studio meant that at last Olive could resume her art photography. It was in the 1980s that Olive, a woman in her seventies, returned to public view, due in large part to the pioneering research of feminist curators and art historians who mounted exhibitions of Cotton’s work and published books about her. Teacup ballet was selected for a postage stamp issued in 1991 to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of photography in Australia, the same year that Kathryn Millard’s documentary on Cotton’s life and work, Light Years, appeared.

Ennis deals poignantly with the end of Olive’s life – accident, disability and having to leave her familiar surroundings for a nursing home – before describing her own last visit to the now derelict McInerney house and the ‘particular and peculiar environment that Spring Forest became, with its accretions over time’. She doubts she ‘will visit Spring Forest again. There’s no need to, for there is no sign of Olive now. Her photographs are safely stored elsewhere, and everything she left behind has been given up to time, nature, and the elements’.

Over several years when I was researching my biography of Joan Kerr, I spent many hours delving into her papers in the same rooms in which she wrote them in her home in Sydney. Jim Kerr still lives there. It is a man’s place now, yet Joan’s memory lingers in every room. Hermione Lee said she felt like ‘a biographer, a tourist and an intruder’ when she was standing in the garden of Talland House (Virginia Woolf’s home in St Ives, Cornwall).[xii] Sitting at the table in the back room of the Kerrs’ home surrounded by archive boxes and gazing out at the back garden that was once Joan Kerr’s pride and joy, I too felt something of an intruder, with the same mix of emotions and sadness for a life cut short. Unlike Ennis who had the whole of Olive Cotton’s long life, however fragmented and undocumented, to work with my frustration stemmed from the fact I would never know what Joan might have achieved had she lived longer.

There are many women writers, artists and musicians who are still missing in action. Perhaps some of the reviewers in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge could not only review biographies by women writers but also turn their own (writing) hands to the genre of biography.

[i] See Susan Steggall, Joan Kerr in Context: a Biography, PhD Thesis in Creative Writing, School of English, Media and Performing Arts, UNSW, 2009 for discussion on the writing of biography; Susan Steggall, A Most Generous Scholar: Joan Kerr, Art and Architectural Historian, LhR Press, 2012.

[ii] Susan Currie & Donna Lee Brien, M/C Journal, Vol.11, No.4, 2008

[iii] Brenda Niall, Walking upon Ashes: the Footsteps of a Modern Biographer, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 2006

[iv] Richard Holmes, ‘A Romantic Premonition: Introduction’, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005, p.4

[v] Ian Donaldson, ‘Introduction’ in Ian Donaldson, Peter Read & James Walter eds, Shaping Lives: Reflections on Biography, Humanities Research Centre, Monograph Series, No.6, Australian National University, Canberra, 1992,

[vi] Virginia Woolf, ‘The new biography’, originally published 30 October 1927, New York Herald Tribune, reproduced in Collected Essays IV, The Hogarth Press, London, 1967, p.230

[vii] Robert Skidelsky, ‘Only connect: biography and truth’, in Eric Homberger & John Charmley eds, The Troubled Face of Biography, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1988, pp 6-10

[viii] William Runyan, ‘Alternatives to psychoanalytic psychobiography’, in William Runyan ed, Psychology and Historical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988, pp 224-225

[ix] Hugh Brogan, ‘The biographer’s chains’, in Eric Homberger & John Charmley eds, The Troubled Face of Biography, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988, pp 110-112

[x] Jean Strouse, ‘Alice James: a family romance’, in William Runyan ed, Psychology and Historical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988, p.92

[xi] Judith Zinsser, ‘Afterword’, in Robert Rosenberg & Alun Munslow, Experiments in Rethinking History, Routledge, London & New York, 2004, p.204

[xii] Hermione Lee, ‘Biographer’, Virginia Woolf, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996, pp 771-772

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