Book of the Week: True North by Brenda Niall

True North by Brenda Niall is our new Book of the Week


Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s foremost biographers, perhaps best known for her comprehensive history of the Boyd family and, in her latest work, she’s turned her eye to pioneering sisters Elizabeth and Mary Durack.

The duo are perhaps best known for their ventures in Australia’s art world. Mary was a writer (and author of Kings in Grass Castles), while her younger sibling Elizabeth was a painter. Towards the end of her life, the latter controversially released a spate of Indigenous-inspired artwork during the 1990s, under the pseudonym Eddie Burrup, whose work was critically praised and shown in several leading galleries before Elizabeth decided to reveal the truth. She was heavily criticised for the move, especially given her family’s history as pastoralists (the Durack family owned cattle stations and land in the Kimberley).

In her biography, Niall has said that she sought not so much to take sides, but to understand the complexities of the sisters’ lives and their relationship with art and culture, which she pieced together from unlimited access to their diaries, letters and papers. While Mary and Elizabeth both grew up in Perth, their time in the Kimberley (the ‘True North’ of the title) clearly left a significant impact on their psyches.

Kara Nicholson commented in her review for this month’s Readings Monthly:

‘[Elizabth and Mary’s] time in the Kimberley brought them in close contact with the Aboriginal workers on the stations and from firsthand accounts found in their letters and diaries it is clear that their attitudes were incredibly progressive for the time. They were uneasy about the situation of Aboriginal people and witnessed with their own eyes the destruction that white settlement was bringing to the area and its original inhabitants.

Elizabeth’s controversial decision to briefly paint under the pseudonym Eddie Burrup… is seen in a new light after her complex relationship with Aboriginal painters is explored.

…*True North* is meticulously researched and highly readable. Niall has considerable empathy for these women who have contributed much to the Australian literary and artistic culture.’

True North is out now in paperback ($32.95).