Category Archives: Kathleen O’Connor of Paris

A window into grief on Anzac Day…

Kathleen O’Connor lived through two world wars, and war profoundly affected her life and her career as an artist. There were also close family losses in both wars—two nephews in the Second World War and a brother in the First.

Kate’s younger brother Corporal Roderick O’Connor was killed in action, aged 36, on 15 April 1917. In peacetime a civil engineer, like his father C.Y. O’Connor, he enlisted in March 1915 and served in the 17th Battalion, C Company, in Egypt and Gallipoli and at the Western Front. Three campaign medals—the 1914–15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal—honoured his service.

A private who had served with Corporal O’Connor wrote to the family:

He was liked by all and the best pal I had through this dreadful conflict which has broken so many homes throughout the world, still I feel certain the sacrifice will not have been in vain and peace will shortly be with us combined with complete victory over this beastly tyrant.

The letter left me wondering about the conflicting emotions that might have been felt by families bereaved during what H.G. Wells predicted, erroneously, would be ‘the war to end war’. Grief, of course, but did patriotism provide comfort? Did pride hold despair at bay? Was there bitterness towards the military machine that turned young men into wooden crosses and names on rolls of honour?

Kate was in Paris, far from the rest of her family, when she received the news of the death of her one-time tennis partner, Rod. With no surviving letters from that time, I had to look further for clues to her response to his death, and to the war:

A poem dedicated to Roderick, dated the year of his death, survives among Kate’s papers—less an emotional response to the loss of a beloved brother than a romantic tribute to ‘Australia’s Men’. Kate was no poet, but she worked on the lines, and it’s difficult now to determine which is the final version of her several drafts…

I examine each line of the spidery scrawl, and the words speak to me in spite of their awkwardness, their self-conscious striving for rhyme and meter, their emotional lack. Here they are, the traces of Kate’s experience of the war in its fourth year, as casualties climbed and families mourned and she absorbed the blow of loss. Telling is the poem’s glorification of the Australian soldier’s ‘beauty’ and ‘grace’ and ‘light’, the spirit perceived in the ‘hat’s recline’, at the expense of patriotic notions of bravery and militaristic might and the senseless sacrifice that lies behind the Anzac legend. It is people she wants to honour—individuals, men—not the dehumanising forces that marshal them for war. And the men she exalts are victims, not victors. It is the closest she comes to allowing us a window into her grief at the waste of her brother’s life.

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris

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There is no known grave for Corporal Roderick O’Connor, but his name is recorded on the roll of honour at the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial in Picardie, France, as well as on a brass plaque in St George’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia.

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Seagulls, stories and sunflowers…

Every year on 10 March, descendants of C.Y. O’Connor, along with friends and sundry stragglers like me, gather at the beach named after him to honour the memory of Western Australia’s Engineer-in-Chief, whose visionary schemes helped to transform the colony.

On this day in 1902, The Chief—overworked and exhausted, harassed and reviled by the press, trapped in a volatile political environment—rode his horse along this beach one last time.

But today’s early-morning gathering is no sombre affair. There are conversations and stories. Laughter. Lolloping dogs. Children and irreverent seagulls. Buckets of flower petals to be strewn on the waves and carried out by swimmers to the bronze memorial statue, by sculptor Tony Jones, a hundred metres offshore.

I have brought sunflowers, for Kate—large as dinner-plates and the brilliant cadmium yellow she loved—and as I fly one like a frisbee into the Indian Ocean I hope it will travel far…

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Researching an artist: a few favourite resources

Research played a major role in the creation of Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, and I learned a lot in the process. I had to. Narrative non-fiction is a new genre for me, and I knew I would need to be working from a strong foundation.

I also had a subject whose long life was lived in many places, and whose career would have to be examined from different perspectives.

Here are some of the resources I found particularly valuable.

Specialist art libraries
During the course of my research, I had the opportunity to visit the library of the Art Gallery of Western Australia; the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery Library and the Courtauld Institute Library in London; and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The collections of these wonderful institutions include materials such as exhibition catalogues, collections of press cuttings, obscure recordings and publications, regional registers, dictionaries of artists—and probably many other things, but these are the ones I accessed.

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Online archives
What would researchers in Australia do without Trove, the National Library of Australia’s searchable digital collection of Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1955? Thanks to Trove, along with the propensity of local nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century newspapers to report in great detail on just about every event that happened in the colony, I was able to get a sense of Kate’s adolescent years in Perth and Fremantle. Gallica, the online library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, was another source I used for locating press articles and reviews, although it is not a comprehensive collection of the national library’s resources.

Pay-for-view databases
I found it a sound investment to pay for a month’s subscription to ancestry.com in order to track genealogical resources relating to Kate and others. Similarly, a month’s subscription to an art auction database gave me access to several decades of auction sales, and to works of Kate’s I had not seen anywhere else.

‘Can you help?’
I placed a paragraph in this weekly column in the West Australian newspaper, asking for information from anyone who had known Kate or held her artwork. Although responses were few, each one of them was a gem—some wonderful anecdotes from a (then) young man who used to deliver art supplies to Kate; an artwork whose whereabouts I had not known of; a photograph of Kate that made me smile; contact from a family member; some details about the buying and selling of a much-loved painting.

Artworks
I’ve saved the best for last. I made a point of viewing as many of Kate’s artworks as I could locate during the course of researching her life, and the experience of seeing them up close was nothing short of thrilling. And I discovered something I had not known before: that the back of a painting—or at least of Kate’s paintings—has its own story to tell, in the form of inscriptions; old labels recording dates, prices, addresses, titles; exhibition history; sketches; even other works. The privilege of viewing these works in galleries, offices, store-rooms, vaults and private homes will stay with me as one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life.

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Skygazing, Paris…

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(More of these on Instagram #kathleenoconnorofparis—but this one is my favourite!)

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Publication day has arrived…

…for this bright and shiny package that represents, for me, a decades-long fascination that developed, in the last few years, into an obsession. A big thank-you to Fremantle Press for making the package so beautiful (and for much else besides).

Welcome to the world again, Kate.

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For those based in Perth, there are a few events coming up over the coming two weeks:

3 November: Literary Afternoon Tea at State Buildings, Perth City, 1–3pm. Tickets (still a few left) from $60, bookings here.

6 November: In Conversation at Beaufort Street Books, Beaufort Street, Mt Lawley, 6.15pm for a 6.30 start. Tickets $10, including cheese and wine tasting, bookings here.

8 November: Author talk, A.H. Bracks Library, corner Canning Highway and Stock Road, Melville, 6–8pm. Free event but bookings essential here.

15 November: Great Big Book Club Read, Fremantle Arts Centre, 1 Finnerty Street, Fremantle, 6pm. (The winner of the T.A.G. Hungerford Award will also be announced on the same night.) Free event but RSVPs essential here.

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Kate’s Paris: Chemin du Montparnasse

During my research trip to Paris, I stumbled on Chemin du Montparnasse while looking for 21 avenue du Maine. I quickly realised that they were one and the same. The name is a modern one that Kathleen O’Connor would not have recognised, as this narrow little lane lined with artists’ studios was referred to in her time only by its street address. 

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An arts centre, Villa Vassilieff, today occupies the site of the studio of a former inhabitant of the laneway, the Russian artist Marie Vassilieff. Vassilieff ran an academy from her upstairs studio, and Kate occasionally attended her evening sketch classes with British artist Nina Hamnett. 

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It was a Sunday when I walked through Chemin du Montparnasse, peering into atelier windows and gazing up, imagining Kate at work with her charcoal and sketchbook. Although it was quiet, deserted, I fancied I could hear laughter and the clomp-clomp of feet trudging upstairs to class, the creak of easels, the patient, weary sighs of artists’ models holding a pose.

It was a delight to find this remnant of Kate’s Paris in today’s Montparnasse.

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris will be available from 1 November

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Kate’s Paris: Luxembourg Gardens

I love the Luxembourg Gardens, the centrepiece of Paris’s 6th arrondissement. Kathleen O’Connor’s earliest works in Paris were painted here, en plein air—oil sketches of individual figures and groups captured opportunistically. Women in long Edwardian dresses and elaborate hats, nursemaids with infants in prams, family picnics, couples conversing, women knitting, sewing, sketching…

On my last visit, I sat near the lake, the Grand Bassin, watching walkers and runners, men and women pushing strollers, people reading newspapers or scrolling on their phones, groups of friends chatting. My sister was beside me with sketchbook and pencil, absorbed, while I watched the life of the gardens through the lens of my camera.

Just as they had been in Kate’s Paris, the gardens were still a place for quiet reflection, leisurely pursuits, human connection. And the artist’s eye.

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Kathleen O’Connor of Paris coming soon from Fremantle Press

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