Patrick McCaughey reviews 'John Olsen' by Darleen Bungey

Eight years ago Darleen Bungey published a revelatory biography of Arthur Boyd. She cast shadows across the ‘idyllic’ Open Country years where the extended Boyd family lived in suburban Murrumbeena and unflinchingly detailed his declining, alcoholic years at Bundanon. Bungey’s compelling new biography of John Olsen has its share of revelations. Olsen’s weak and inadequate father wound up destitute on the streets of Sydney, largely sustained by handouts from his son. Boyd was an intensely private man, friendly but reclusive. Olsen has been a public figure for most of his long career, reaching back to the early 1950s when he emerged from the Julian Ashton school as the star student of the difficult and demanding John Passmore. Boyd was dead before Bungey published her biography. John Olsen, happily, remains a boisterous octogenarian, going strong in art and life. A living subject is not always to the biographer’s advantage. Bungey can sound like a cheerleader: ‘Like Jay Gatsby, John was a man from an impoverished childhood with a mind for enquiry, a hunger for romance and a need for invention.’

Read the rest of this article by purchasing a subscription to ABR Online, or subscribe to the print edition to receive access to ABR Online free of charge.

If you are a single issue subscriber you will need to upgrade your subscription to view back issues.

If you are already subscribed, click here to log in.

Published in March 2015, no. 369

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.