One of Australia’s great biographers is a New Zealander. Long a resident of Australia, Martin Edmond’s new book, The Expatriates, is about four New Zealanders who made their mark in Europe. Before that, he tackled the most Australian of subjects in his 2014 dual biography on two great Northern Territory painters, Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira.

The other book of Edmond’s I’ve read is Walking with McCahon, as he retraces the steps of the painter Colin McCahon on an odyssey through Sydney; it’s an interweaving of biography, memoir, and history, and serves as an existential reflection on life and art. Battarbee is a far more conventional biography as it traces the separate origins and early lives of the two artists, their meeting at the Hermannsburg Mission, and their careers as the white man Battarbee mentors the Aboriginal man Namatjira and Namatjira goes on to fame and ruin. Yet beneath the conventional, chronological narrative is an existential current like in McCahon, a probing and wondering. It turns out there is an accompanying work, an edited diary and exegesis submitted with the original biography as a doctor of creative arts thesis at the University of Western Sydney. In it, Edmond writes of the origin of his book:

I soon learned that there is no standard work of reference on Battarbee; indeed only one book about him and that incoherent; while his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography raises more questions than it answers. It was, for me, a familiar situation: I needed a piece of information, I believed that, somewhere, it existed and so went looking; only to find blanks, gaps, absences, each of which functioned as a provocation. Rex Battarbee, it turned out, was a forgotten man; there were perhaps half a dozen facts about him that were recycled endlessly through the texts that dealt with Namatjira; and that was all. Meanwhile those texts, read together, suggested that Namatjira himself, while not forgotten, had turned into something he was not.

If Battarbee was a cipher Namatjira, to use that much misused word in another sense, had become an icon: that is, those who wrote about him wanted him to mean not be. Neither existed in the annals, as they once did in the world, as real people acting in real situations. They were both, rather than themselves, representative of notions espoused by others. Soon, a casual inquiry morphed into something more like a mission: I wanted to restore Rex Battarbee to a place in the history of his times and ours; and to retell the story of Albert Namatjira so that it could be understood, not as polemic or example or parable, but as a lived life. (318-319)

It’s a case for the significance of biography, of how at its best it resists the reductions of people’s lives to ciphers or icons or biomyths which occur in cultural memory. In this book he succeeds in his aim and tells a moving story of the development of two artists in their full cultural contexts, a white man finding his way after being wounded in World War One and an Aboriginal man who was himself wounded, fatally, by his collision with the white world.

One of the biographical challenges Edmond faces is the lack of sources for the inner lives of either man. Like most of his generation, Battarbee is guarded  and even his diary gives little away. Namatjira is rarely found speaking in his own voice in the archives. Edmond uses what he does have to great effect and is content to leave his subjects inscrutable in those many areas where they must be. He spends many pages painting a picture of the traditional life of the Arrernte people and their encounter with white people; it’s a picture we need to understand Namatjira’s life. (I was shocked to read that for the Arrernte people, ‘Death was considered unnatural and usually the result of sorcery, which obliged revenge; thus every death meant the killing of at least one other individual.’ [9] It is a brutal aspect of their traditional life.) Edmond is also excellent at describing and analysing art without losing an outsider like me. One senses his frustration when he mentions the ‘intransigence’ of the copyright holder which has meant the book had to be published without any reproductions of Namatjira’s art.

I love Martin Edmond’s work for its lack of academic pretension. He writes and feels deeply and although researching widely, he retains an earnest, vulnerable, authentic voice. Perhaps, then, I should not begrudge him his lack of referencing in this book; idiosyncratically, he gives, instead, a fascinating series of notes on sources at the end. But I do, of course, begrudge him it a little, because I can just imagine wanting to use his research in my own and wanting to know where exactly a particular claim or quote came from.

This is biography from a deep well, from a biographer who believes in the genre and practices it artfully.

Martin Edmond, Battarbee and Namatjira, Giramando, 2014, 330p.

I recommend Lisa Hill’s review, which includes a summary of their lives and a consideration of the issues about Aboriginal-white relations raised by the book.