Barbara Hanrahan, printmaker, artist and writer, was born in Adelaide, South Australia. She lived there until her death in 1991 apart from a few years in England.
Barbara explored the relationships between men, women, and society, drawing on her acute observations of the people surrounding her as she grew up in the suburbs of Adelaide. In particular, the influence of her all-female household – the closeness she felt to her mother and grandmother – coloured her experiences and her artwork.
She fought for equal rights and opportunities for men and women, yet her writing and art was personal, romantic and expressive.
Barbara was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1939. Her father died from tuberculosis when she was only a year old. So she lived with her mother, her grandmother and her great aunt. Her mother was a commercial artist and her family background was the foundation on which the young Barbara built her life. She herself described this “the backbone upon which I build all my fiction . . . as I build all my life”.
In her writing, she captured the essence of the people of her working-class environment in which she grew up. She especially concentrated on the lives of the women. Her writing and her art are very personal and unique to her.
She gained a diploma in art teaching from Adelaide Teachers’ College and Barbara studied at the South Australia School of Art for three years. In 1963, at the age of 24, she left Adelaide to study in London at the Royal College of Art in London. And so, she sailed from ‘a little city and the certainties of a neat brick house’ to study at, as did her heroine Kate, in Sea-green (1974). She also taught in both in Australia and later in England between 1966-70 at the Falmouth College of Art, Cornwall and Portsmouth College of Art.
She said that “I wanted to try my life at something bigger. I wanted to get away from safety and walking with little steps.”
Early works – lino prints
Hanrahan first achieved success as a printmaker. She worked with her German lecturer and print master, Udo Sellbach. She experimented with various sorts of printing such as etching, relief printing and screen printing, (woodblock and lino cuttings). She would often try out different styles and colours for the same print like a “Wedding Night”, which has three variations. Yet, she made over 400 different prints.
She won the Cornell Prize for painting in 1961 and the following year, she was president of the South Australian Graphic Art Society.
She was getting a name for herself quite early on in her career, and The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of South Australia bought her works from 1965.
Later events in Barbara’s life
Barbara gave more than 30 solo exhibitions and took part in many group events. She exhibited her artwork internationally. She exhibited in London, the United States and Canada, Sweden, Scotland, Italy and Japan, as well as in many Australian venues.
Until 1978, she lived in London with her partner, Jo Steele, who was a sculptor. But she did take occasional trips home. And it was to home in Adelaide that she came to organise her solo exhibitions and to teach at the South Australian School of Art from time to time, finally returning to live in Adelaide in the early 1980s.
She became a member of the Australian Women’s Art Movement and the Australian Women’s Art Register. These societies wanted increased exposure and equal pay for female artists.
Barbara published 14 novels and collected short stories. She was very close to her grandmother who had helped to bring her up and it was the death of her grandmother that gave her the impetus to record her memories of her childhood – and this was to be a theme for many of her novels. She wanted a record of their lives and aspirations, their feelings and their experiences so that all these lives were not totally forgotten. Her novels tend to be autobiographical, and it is this that gives them their unique and personal nature together with acute observation of the people surrounding her as she grew up.
Hanrahan’s books were like her prints, had a universal message as well as a highly personalised style. They explored the relationship between men and women of her time and the expectations of society. The main character in her novels was often herself, thinly disguised.
Yet, when her diaries were published in 1998, her private face was surprising to many people.
In 1994, Jo Steele, her partner, established the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for South Australian writers in her memory. There is a street in Thebarton named after her and also a building in the University of South Australia’s City West campus is named in her memory.
Where are her works now?
- The National Gallery of Australia holds some 453 of her drawings and prints.
- The Art Gallery of South Australia also holds over 200 of her prints.
- QAGOMA holds 20.
- Art Gallery of New South Wales holds 17.
- The National Gallery of Victoria holds 6.
To just look at a great selection of images of Barbara’s prints, you could just head over to Pinterest. But the Auction Houses are keeping quiet about prices and eBay only has her books.
Her early death from cancer
Shortly before she died, she wrote, “Michael and Me and the Sun”, her final book. Written in the hospital, she felt she had to record her first time in London at the Central School of art (1963-4).
When she became terminally ill, she comforted herself by the thought that soon she would be meeting the father she never knew. She said, “He stalks through my mind, I feel I’m speaking to him, writing for him”. She also saw him as a link to the Catholic Church.
She died of cancer at the age of 52, but her works remain for us to enjoy and ponder over.
Almost ten years after her death, members of the award-winning Barbara Hanrahan Community Tapestry project began creating striking woven images based on her prints. This seems to be an elegant memorial for a fine artist.