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Meg Stewart author of Autobiography of My Mother

Margaret Coen’s close relationship with Norman Lindsay…

There is a new final chapter in Autobiography of My Mother which talks about Margaret Coen’s affair with Norman Lindsay. Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) was one of Australia’s greatest artists, equally proficient in a variety of media, including pen, etching, watercolour, oils, sculpture and bronze, as well as being a novelist and editorial cartoonist. He is probably best known for his etchings, watercolours and oils of sumptuous nudes – one of which, a 1933 watercolour called The Party, features a semi-nude woman who bears a close resemblance to Margaret Coen at that time.

The affair between Margaret Coen and Norman Lindsay came to light in Joanna Mendelssohn’s Letters and Liars: Norman Lindsay and the Lindsay Family, published in 1996.
Meg Stewart’s original edition of Autobiography of My Mother was published in 1983, so the new edition addresses the subject of the affair.

There is a new final chapter of Autobiography of My Mother, about the affair, written in Meg Stewart’s voice. “The last chapter, which actually deals with her relationship with Norman, is written in my voice because what I felt I couldn’t do was say ‘I met Norman Lindsay on X day and fell in love with him’. Nobody knows that. If you were writing a factional [story], or if you were writing a feature film about it, you might take the liberty to invent that story but I felt I couldn’t, in this particular book, put in details of her relationship with Norman that I had no real proof about.”

“I felt that would have been disloyal to her memory, that it would have made her unhappy, and that it wouldn’t be accurate.”
Margaret Coen met Norman Lindsay when she was taken by train to visit him at his home in Springwood, outside Sydney.This was the start of a close relationship with Norman Lindsay that lasted until Lindsay’s death in 1969. On a second visit to Springwood, Norman Lindsay gave her a copy of his then-controversial novel Redheap (1930), about life in a country town.

Then in Sydney in 1933, after an interval of three years, Margaret Coen met up with Norman Lindsay again, on the street outside the Wentworth Hotel where Norman Lindsay always stayed when visiting Sydney. He told her he was looking for a studio in Sydney. On Wednesday nights, when she had no classes at the Royal Art Society, Margaret Coen had often attended a sketch club at 12 Bridge Street where her artist friends Alison Rehfisch and George Duncan had their studio. When first George and then Alison went overseas, Margaret Coen told Norman Lindsay the studio at 12 Bridge Street was available for rent. So it became Norman Lindsay’s studio.
Margaret Coen painted there, too, getting advice from Norman Lindsay for her water colours, and observing his working methods. She also met many of Lindsay’s models, and her stories about the artist’s models are some of the most interesting in Autobiography of My Mother.

Margaret Coen stayed on at the studio when Norman Lindsay moved back to his house in Springwood in 1940, when World War Two broke out, but he would visit the studio on occasion and she would travel to Springwood to see him.
They kept up a correspondence which Meg Stewart used in her research for Autobiography of My Mother.
“After their love affair had sort of finished, he went back to the mountains and to Rose [Norman Lindsay’s second wife], and my mother went on with her life and married my father [Douglas Stewart] eventually. And Norman and my mother remained really good friends and what they did was they wrote to each other. Well, in this day they may not have; they may have sent emails. They may not have kept the emails.

“I was just knocked out when I read all their letters. My father and Norman were writing at the same time so there was this four-way thing, but my mother just wrote to Norman about everything: when she got the telephone on; she wrote to him on her honeymoon… So I think it’s fascinating to be reminded of this world that isn’t anymore.”

There are three decades of correspondence between Margaret Coen and Norman Lindsay, which can be viewed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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