Miss Marple of Australian Art

By Seamus Bradley, Literary Editor, Melbourne Age, 12 January 2001


Susanna de Vries has spent much of her life searching for the truth about her parents. In her latest book she focuses the magnifying glass on pioneering Australian women.


WHEN she was a child, two bombshells exploded into the life of Queensland writer and art historian Susanna de Vries. The first, a device dropped by the Germans during the London Blitz, destroyed her home and killed her little playmate next door. The second bombshell brought with it a distress that still reverberates.

What de Vries remembers most about the night of the German bombing is her father carrying her to a shelter, soothingly telling the five-year-old child not to worry, saying that the anti-aircraft fire, searchlights and explosions were only fireworks. “But I knew they weren’t,” she says.

And so began lonely years of shifting around England with her mother who was nervy and suffering from the stress of losing her home. They sent from relative to relative and hotel to hotel while Susanna’s much-loved father remained in London working at the Admiralty. There were no children to play with and Susanna found the war-weary adults she came in contact with “boring” and turned to books for company, she reading everything she could lay her hands on.

In 1944, about a year before the end of World War II, adults lobbed the second bombshell into her young life. De Vries, then aged nine, was told she was adopted. At the time she was told only that her birth mother was all Irish school teacher “so I didn’t have any of those fears that she might have been the maid or been a prostitute or something. But I had no idea of the identity of my father, only that he was a journalist who also wrote books.”

De Vries took to being unruly at school, climbing trees and roofs and tying ribbons on the flagpole. “That was the height of naughtiness at the time,” she says. After the initial shock had subsided she realised the whole of her world had changed, seemed much more insecure. Her idea of life had changed totally. More than 55 years on, de Vries is still coming to terms with the facts of her adoption, which finds echoes in her writing. She is interested in the fate of illegitimate children in the past, wrote about Georgiana McCrea, illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Gordon who emigrated to colonial Melbourne with a great deal of empathy.

After the Second World war ended, de Vries studied literature, art history, French civilisation and French history at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to London to study at the Spanish Institute and, on a Spanish government grant, travelled to Spain to further her studies there.

In 1975, Susanna, then married to a professor of psychiatry, arrived in Sydney in the hold of the Moreton Bay, a cargo vessel, having commuted her first-class university wife’s passage into a passage to accompany her German shepherd.

Her husband, Dr Larry Evans had been appointed professor of the Medical School at the University of Queensland but newly introduced Australian visa regulations had made it hard for the shipping line to find dog handlers, so de Vries volunteered for the job to ensure the safety of her own pet.

“Going through the Bay of Biscay thought I’d die. I was mucking out dogs and throwing up at the same time, I thought life can’t get worse than this.”

But it did get worse: her husband’s father died, he had a middle life crisis and her 16-year marriage came to an end. “I don’t think (marriage breakdown) is terribly easy when you’re in your late 40s [and goes off with a younger woman who works for him, Susanna’s words] “You really don’t think Mr Right is around the corner. When Dr Right has just turned into Dr Wrong, it’s even harder.”

In the end, Susanna’s German shepherd welcomed the new Mr Right into her life. She had met Dutch-born architect and architectural photographer Jake de Vries at a book launch at the Queensland Art Gallery and he invited her out to dinner.

When they returned to the Art Gallery, the car park was locked. Offered a lift home, Susanna told Jake she couldn’t ask him in because she had a very fierce dog. “And then that very fierce dog came bounding over, turned over and wanted his tummy rubbed ... we always laugh about it,” she says. Even after years of marriage.

In 1985, de Vries had more bad news. Two years after the death of her mother, her father was diagnosed with cancer. She flew to London to nurse him. After his death site found documents identifying her real father as journalist Edward Ward, who would later inherit the title of 7th Viscount Bangor of Northern Ireland.

A regular “Don Juan ... who women fell for enthusiastically ... I think the title helped”, Susanna traced her birth father thought Debretts Peerage and discovered he had married four times and written eight books. After she had nursed her beloved adopted father who was dying very slowly of cancer she phoned Ward, [unaware he did not have long to live]. “Alas, I can’t say he was terribly interested in me; he kept talking about his own career and Australian journalists and cameramen he had known in Shanghai where he had worked for Reuters in the 1930s.’’

She discovered that her half-sister, Lalla Ward, who played Dr Who’s seductive sidekick in the cult BBC science fiction series had married Tom Baker, who played the doctor. However Lalla is now married to Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and other best-selling books.Through the Ward connection, Susanna discovered she was heir to a “dynasty of writers and booklovers”.

But it was Susanna’s birth mother’s story that most interested her. She contacted the adoption agency before flying home to Australia to deliver a series of art lectures and was told her mother was Emma Barton, a former National School (state primary- school), principal at Monaghan, a small country town in the republic of Ireland, near the border with the North.

“I had presumed Emma Barton was a single girl. But it turned out she was married and she had thrown her husband out (for infidelity) and they had a daughter already.”

DeVries decided to phone Monaghan police in an attempt to make contact. “That policeman actually knew my mother. He said ‘oh, she was a wonderful woman’, and said ‘but there’s been a funeral… two weeks ago’.

The policeman went around to the family home, found out who the lawyer was and I rang her mother’s lawyer. There was a shocked intake of breath and the lawyer told Susanna ‘Emma died without making a will’.

“Everybody thought I was in for the kill and so I was not exactly flavour of the month. I sent a letter saying ‘I renounce any claim whatsoever’ saying ‘What I want is information’.”

That was nearly 16 years ago and Susanna is still seeking information. She didn’t travel to Ireland in the intervening years because her Irish half-sister was concerned for her mother’s reputation.

“It is very threatening for her. I wanted to try to do things gently.”

Susanna has met Lalla Ward, her talented half-sister in London and they are exchanging letters and Christmas cards. “It’s over fifteen years since Emma Barton died.... I’m not doing (my mother’s) reputation any harm. Ireland has changed completely. There are a lot of adoptees returning who were illegitimate, some of them the children of Bishops, it’s no longer such a scandal as it was.”

De Vries will be visiting Ireland on a six-week Fellowship from the Australia Council to work at the Tyrone Guthric Centre near Monaghan. She hopes to use the opportunity to get a clearer picture of who her mother was; talk to those who knew her or old pupils who were taught by her. Susanna believes now that her mother had the kind of pluck that set apart many of the women she has written about in Great Australian Women. “School mistresses weren’t paid very much. Emma had another child to bring up alone and it would have wrecked her reputation ... I admire her for what she did.”

In 1996, de Vries was awarded the Order of Australia for services to Australian art and literature, she was dubbed the Miss Marple of Australian art by The Sydney Morning Herald for her work in exposing art forgeries (“they’re such a nasty bunch I decided not to do a book about it. I preferred to keep my kneecaps”). Her biography of Joice NanKivell Loch, Blue Ribbons, Bitter Bread has been nominated for a literary awards.Her book Great Australian Women, which chronicles the lives of 15 women, took five years of research and writing.

For it, de Vries chose a cross section of women, including our first female lawyers, politicians, judges and doctors. So where did the urge to write about women’s lives come from? “I don’t know,” she admits. I found writing about women was much easier than writing on men. You relate to the milestones in their lives much more... growing up, falling in love, love lost, marriage break-up, despair, depression — things that one keeps coming across in women’s lives over and over again.

For de Vries the probing of other women’s lives in the search for clues to her own has been a preparation for her Irish homecoming. “Instead of coming back as my mother’s disgrace, an illegitimate child, I’m coming back having achieved something in the world of writing. It helps.