True North: The Story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack by Brenda Niall

Prize-winning biographer Brenda Niall continues her interest in Australian artists with this latest work about the Durack sisters. Her study of the Boyd family and, more recently, her account of the intriguing life of painter Judy Cassab, have received critical acclaim. True North is another commendable achievement, thoughtfully compiled from hundreds of private letters, diaries and family papers.

The title speaks to the Kimberley region where Mary and Elizabeth’s father ran a pastoral company that had several land holdings in the area. Although both sisters grew up in Perth they also spent time in various homesteads and the landscape left a strong impression that was to heavily influence both Mary’s work as a writer and Elizabeth’s as a painter.

Their 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, a fictional Aboriginal character, is seen in a new light after her complex relationship with Aboriginal painters is explored. Both women also had to contend with the difficulty of being a mother (in Mary’s case of six children) and finding time to write or paint, and also the impenetrability of the male-dominated art world of the 50s.

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.

Kara Nicholson is from Readings Carlton