Cynthia and Sidney Nolan, 1965. Image: Sir Keith Shann / National Archives of Australia

Cynthia and Sidney Nolan, 1965. Image: Sir Keith Shann / National Archives of Australia

I had only ever heard of Cynthia Nolan as (reductively) the second wife of Modernist artist Sidney Nolan and brother of arts patron John Reed, who came into public attention in 1976 when she died after overdosing on barbiturates in a hotel room. But in writing Cynthia Nolan: A Biography (Melbourne Books), M.E. McGuire shines light on one of Australian literature’s more enigmatic, most misunderstood figures, and in doing so, does a great service to Australian art history. I had read of her before, fleetingly, in Patrick White’s autobiography Flaws in the Glass:

In the Nolan partnership Cynthia was steel to Sid’s elastic. She had to guard a husband and an artist against the predators and the masseuses. If it had not been for Cynthia I doubt Nolan would have reached the heights he did… He would have drowned much sooner in the sea of flattery…

This brief sketch serves to illuminate the way Cynthia was seen: A wowser and disciplinarian to her husband, Modernist artist Sidney Nolan. This was, as referenced by White, due to her role in ensuring her artist husband remained prolific, even neglecting her own career as an author to support her husband. She published seven books but only two novels, A Bride for St. Thomas and Daddy Sowed a Wind!, which were warmly received by critics, but neither sold particularly well. White’s assessment is rare in that it is a sympathetic one, a point made clear in the blurb: ‘Her unpopularity in the sixties is accounted for and the stereotypes of the envious sister-in-law, the mad artist’s wife and the nihilistic suicide dismantled.’ Despite the sacrifices she made in ensuring her husband’s success, she was viewed as strict and something of a killjoy: ‘Both John Olsen and Geoffrey Dutton, in their later memoirs, give voice to their hostility towards the artist’s wife in variations of “the watchdog wife”,’ McGuire notes.

While deeply satisfying to read, the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of ‘dismantling’ stereotypes. McGuire takes a neutral tone throughout, largely using Cynthia’s letters to chronicle her varied and much-travelled life, with minimal commentary once Nolan’s childhood is out of the way. The effect is that the reader is largely left to make their own conclusions – I do have to wonder if my previous knowledge of Australian artists in the 1940s was what allowed me to understood the importance of this book as I read.

For it is very rarely that McGuire expounds on much of the contextual details of Nolan’s life. Here, for instance, is one of the few mentions of the social context that shaped her public image: ‘The stereotypes of Cynthia Nolan, the envious sister-in-law between the wars and as the artist’s wife in the post-war years when female creativity was publicly rated at a discount by a masculinist, often misogynistic art world, persevered.’ So, the stereotypes are addressed, but not quite directly challenged. Perhaps a comparison to some of the other working female artists of the time, or some further discussion of the political movements Nolan worked around would’ve allayed my slight dissatisfaction on finishing this sleek volume.

To me, it should be said, the book has a special meaning as one that shines light on one of the periphery figures of the loose constellation of avant-garde artists who worked in the 1930s and 40s in Australia. My interest lies in the way that these decades contained not only World War II, but also numerous significant moments in Australian art history. For instance, Sidney Nolan created his iconic Ned Kelly paintings at John and Sunday Reed’s artist retreat Heide; the first few works of Australia’s only Nobel Prize for Literature winner, the modernist Patrick White, were published; and Australia’s greatest literary hoax erupted when the fictional Ern Malley’s poems were published in Angry Penguins.

Nolan was, after all, a gifted writer, and McGuire in her curation has an eye for her most affecting letters.

Even if a reader were to pick this book up with little interest or background information of the subject matter, they would likely still be entertained by Nolan’s complex and varied life, as they witness, through the accumulated skill of her writing, her transformation from lonely child to wayward traveller, gallery owner, failed actor and nurse to the wife, mother, memoirist, and novelist she would be remembered as. Nolan was, after all, a gifted writer, and McGuire in her curation has an eye for her most affecting letters. ‘We are complicated creatures and there are certain spots so raw and sensitive that I cannot go touching them or I leap in very acute pain that is so terrific it would have lead me to one place only,’ she quotes, in a passage from one of Cynthia’s letters to her brother, John Reed. The carefully selected excerpts from Nolan’s novels, memoirs, and letters made this biography a deeply satisfying read.

I was wary of the epilogue, in which McGuire details Nolan’s suicide. It seemed like if the biography were to falter in its consistent academic strength, it would be here. But McGuire demonstrates a deft touch for the tragic while evading the temptation of cliche:

Her suicide confirmed the fears of those who loved her. Patrick White had written to a friend in the last year of Cynthia’s life that she looked like ‘the kind of skeleton my sister was when she died.’ In his obituary, he wrote that Cynthia had been ‘repeatedly wounded by the blows dealt out to those who put too implicit a trust in human beings.’ He grieved that she had died alone in a room where there was nothing dear or familiar.

Here, McGuire distances herself as narrator from the affecting subject matter, but also manages to express a certain degree of sympathy.

Despite not quite living up to its ambition, Cynthia Nolan: A Biography presents a detailed and entertaining account of the life of its subject. It makes for an intriguing and affecting read, and it is certainly required reading for anyone who is specifically interested in Modernism in Australia. Once I’d processed the tragedy of the ending, I was struck with two emotions: One of wonderment, that it has taken this long for somebody to write the biography of Cynthia Nolan, and gladness that it is M.E. McGuire who has finally done so.

Cynthia Nolan: A Biography is available now at Readings.