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Meg Stewart, author of Autobiography of My Mother

Readersvoice.com aims to give people a few good reading tips. For this issue I interviewed Meg Stewart, author of Autobiography of My Mother. It's a biography of artist Margaret Coen, best known for her watercolours of flowers and landscapes. Meg Stewart is the daughter of Margaret Coen and poet and playwright Douglas Stewart. She has an extensive knowledge of Australian art history, and wrote a biography of artist Margaret Olley, Far From a Still Life. Autobiography of My Mother gives a great insight into the bohemian art scene of Sydney in the late 1920s and '30s. And there is a lot of detail about artist Norman Lindsay, with whom Margaret Coen had a close relationship over several decades. Autobiography of My Mother is a vivid, tightly written biography, full of fascinating anecdotes about Australian art and life in the twentieth century.

Today, the area around Circular Quay is full of high-rise buildings struggling for views of Sydney Harbour. But in the 1920s and 30s, the area between Martin Place and Circular Quay was a “rabbit warren” of artists’ flats and studios.

Meg Stewart said that everyone knew each other in the art scene in Sydney back then; the population of Sydney was much smaller, and the art scene was concentrated around the one area: Circular Quay. Painter Margaret Coen (1909-93) lived in that now-vanished world of bohemians and artists. And
Autobiography of My Mother has a lot of anecdotes about the artists Margaret Coen met, including the flamboyant Signor Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo who taught her drawing, and students from sketch clubs and the Royal Art Society.

Also, Margaret Coen met and started a close relationship with Norman Lindsay – a relationship that lasted for several decades. The book talks a lot about Norman Lindsay and life in his studio, with many stories about his models.
What comes across most in the book is Margaret Coen’s dedication to art – a dedication inherited by her daughter Meg Stewart, who has a prodigious knowledge of 20th century Australian art history. Margaret Coen lived for creating art. She supported herself through times like the Depression by working as a commercial artist, but created her own paintings all the while. Her passion for art makes for inspiring reading.

But while Autobiography of My Mother has plenty of stories for art-lovers, there are interesting anecdotes about other aspects of Margaret Coen’s life. You get a good understanding of daily life in a New South Wales country town in the early 1900s, from the chapters on her early years in Yass. And there are stories about her school life at Elizabeth Bay in Sydney, where her interest in art started to bloom. Plus you read about her later years, married to playwright and poet Douglas Stewart who brought the literary scene of Sydney into her life. The book is a great tour of the vanished world of early and mid-20th century Australia.

I interviewed Meg Stewart at the Sofitel in Brisbane on Wednesday, 16 May. She and her Random House publicist had flown to Brisbane from Sydney that morning. After the interview, they were due to have a quick lunch before heading off to a couple of booksellers in Milton, and then returning to Sydney the following day.

Meg Stewart has been a filmmaker, journalist, and fiction author. Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Modern Men Don’t Shift Fridges, was published in 1999. It’s a tightly written book, like a diary, and is made up of linked stories. These include the story of a young woman who visits an unravelling older man known as the admiral – who lives in a house with Kamasutra wallpaper, on Sydney’s northern beaches; and there is Cressida’s story, about a slightly jaded woman who has an affair with a chicken-store manager. There are other realistically drawn characters, like a self-centred video artist (who won’t help shift a fridge for the narrator). And other stories deal with themes like the death of parents, and childlessness. Meg Stewart said these stories were cul-de-sacs the reader travelled down before turning around and rejoining the main narrative of the novel.

Meg Stewart’s 2001 novel, The Dream Life of Harry Moon, is a fantasy about Miranda, an author with writer’s block, who is visited by a door-to-door seller of dreams. Meg Stewart said it was inspired by a man who came to her door one day selling brooms. She had fun writing the story, and it came easily with little rewriting or editing required. The book has been optioned for a film.

And her 2005 biography of Margaret Olley, Far From a Still Life, is a vivid portrait of one of Australia’s best figurative painters. Born in Lismore in 1923, Margaret Olley has painted many landscapes and portraits of Australian locations and people. She is also a painter of lush and colorful arrangements of flowers set in the interior of her house.
While Meg Stewart’s interviews with Margaret Olley produced a lot of personal detail about Margaret Olley, they also yielded a lot of personal insights into the lives of artists like Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend whom Margaret Olley knew well.

Far From a Still Life is a thorough biography, and Meg Stewart traveled to many of the scenes of Margaret Olley’s life for the book, like the cane fields of Tully and the Tweed River Valley. The book would make a good companion to Autobiography of My Mother if someone wanted a good grasp of the history of 20th century Australian art, with personal insights into the lives of major Australian artists. They both make good social histories of Australian life, too.

Autobiography of My Mother is narrated in a kind of reconstructed voice of Margaret Coen. The biography was originally written in 1983, and based on tape recorded interviews Meg Stewart conducted with her mother in 1982. But in this new edition, other sources have been used as well, like the letters between Margaret Coen and Norman Lindsay. More facts about Margaret Coen’s career have also been dug up for the biography.

Meg Stewart is up-front about her working methods. “The primary sources were interviews that I did with her,” Meg Stewart said. “The interviews are mostly rewritten. When you’re dealing with someone like your mother, to me it was quite easy to lapse into her voice, and so to extend the oral history, not invent stuff, but to really really re-write it. And that’s the premise that I used, which is not a premise you would adopt, necessarily, with all oral history. I also fed into it things, in this edition particularly, things that she hadn’t [said in interviews]… anecdotes from her letters, rewritten but keeping the flavour of her letters…I have never included anything for which there was not a factual reference or that I felt she would have been unhappy about.”

The final chapter is written in Meg Stewart’s own voice, because it deals with a situation that her mother never talked to Meg Stewart about: an affair with Norman Lindsay.

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