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Ian Britain

Ian Britain

Ian Britain is a historian, biographer and former editor of Meanjin. His latest book, The Making of Donald Friend: Life & Art was published in August this year by Yarra and Hunter Arts Press.  

Ian Britain reviews 'Son of the Brush: A memoir' by Tim Olsen

January–February 2021, no. 428 16 December 2020
‘A voyage round my father’, to quote the title of John Mortimer’s autobiographical play of 1963, has been a popular form of personal memoir in Britain from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to Michael Parkinson’s just-published Like Father, Like Son. The same form produced some of the best Australian writing in the twentieth century, with two assured classics in the case of Germaine G ... (read more)

La Trobe University Essay | 'The Talented Mr Conrad' by Ian Britain

April 2001, no. 229 01 April 2001
As mouths go, it must be one of the most fabled of the century past. The lips, as widely parted as they could be, suggest the contours of a distended heart. There is an upper gallery of teeth, slightly imperfect, and glazed by spittle mingling with the crystal darts and droplets of a powerful jet of water issuing relentlessly from above the face. A mottled tongue is barricaded in by the lower gall ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'Fairweather' by Murray Bail

June 2009, no. 312 01 June 2009
‘A large part of the beauty of a picture,’ Matisse famously decreed, ‘arises from the struggle which an artist wages with his limited medium.’ Struggle is the dominant motif in Murray Bail’s study of Scottish-born painter Ian Fairweather, first essayed in 1981, now refashioned, updated, and handsomely repackaged. In the chapter on Fairweather’s work of the late 1950s and early 1960s ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'Not Quite Straight: A memoir' by Jeffrey Smart

June 2008, no. 302 01 June 2008
It is an eerie measure of a movie’s power when you come out at the end of it and sense, however fleetingly, that you’re still a part of its world, or that its world is all but indistinguishable from the everyday one you’ve just re-entered. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was grand master of this trick. His compatriot Pina Bausch achieves a comparable sorcery with dance. Her audience ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'Dashing for the Post: The letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor' edited by Adam Sisman

Online Exclusives 30 November 2017
‘Absolutely charming – slim, handsome, nice speaking voice and manner, a super-gent’: it might be a line from an old-fashioned dalliance column, but it is from one of the letters published in this volume, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing to one of his most regular and lustrous correspondents, Debo Devonshire, youngest of the Mitford clan, is not advertising himself – well, not quite – b ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'Worlds Apart' by David Plante

January-February 2016, no. 378 22 December 2015
How has David Plante managed to become as prolific a novelist as he has when so much of his time has been spent in flitting between gallery openings in New York, dinner parties and book launches in London, idyllic holidays in Italy and Greece, and teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma? And those are just a few of the 'worlds apart' recounted in this so-called memoir – the book is really just a succession ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'Bill: The life of William Dobell' by Scott Bevan

March 2015, no. 369 02 March 2015
‘He was a great bloke, a gentleman and a scholar,’ one of Scott Bevan’s interviewees says of his subject, the fêted and (at one stage) ill-fated painter, William Dobell. Like many others in the book, this interviewee got to know Dobell at Wangi Wangi, the little coastal township just south of Newcastle in New South Wales where the painter retreated for the last third of his life, following ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'Walter Spies: A life in art' by John Stowell and 'Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding performance in the Asias' by Eng-Beng Lim

October 2014, no. 365 01 October 2014
‘Spellbinding’ is an apt word to sum up the effects created by Russian-born German artist Walter Spies in his phantasmagoric, darkly glowing landscapes and figure paintings, particularly those that he fashioned when living in Java and Bali between 1923 and 1941. Tropical luxuriance has other superlative renderers in art – Gauguin, ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau, Donald Friend – but none of the ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate daughters, absent fathers' by Michael Holroyd

June 2011, no. 332 24 May 2011
In a review on quite another subject for ABR’s recent summer issue (‘Barry by Edna’, December 2010–January 2011), I had occasion to invoke the career of Michael Holroyd, ‘reigning, if ailing, king of English biographers’, as I dubbed him. On the basis of his well-publicised illness, I sadly but confidently declared that Holroyd’s joint biographical study of the Irving and Terry theat ... (read more)

Ian Britain reviews 'One Man Show: The stages of Barry Humphries' by Anne Pender

December 2010–January 2011, no. 327 07 December 2010
On those twin Titans of the twentieth-century English stage, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, fellow-actor Simon Callow recently reflected: ‘We tell stories about them … because they filtered life through the medium of their souls to create new and rich variations on the human condition: they lived their art to the fullest extent possible. Of whom shall we be telling stories now?’ There i ... (read more)
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