Looking back on the life and times of Australian author Colleen McCullough

By Efrosini Costa

Looking back on the life and times of Australian author Colleen McCullough
As news of literary giant Colleen McCullough's passing made headlines, we talked to the last artist to have captured the Australian author on canvas.

We were saddened to hear of the passing of one of Australia’s greatest writers, the internationally acclaimed author Colleen McCullough, in hospital on her native Norfolk Island aged 77.

But the Kiwis can also lay claim to the famous writer. Born in Wellington, McCullough’s mother Laurie was of Maori ancestry and her father was an Irish immigrant who worked as a can cutter. It was in New Zealand aged three that she taught herself to read.

She originally had her sights set on science and even studied medicine at The University of Sydney before discovering an allergy to soap that would end her dreams of becoming a doctor.

Having worked for a brief period as a neuroscientist at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, she took on a researcher role at Yale Medical School for a decade. It was there at Yale that she would write her first novel, Tim, in 1974.

A tale of the relationship between an older woman and a much younger, disabled man, Tim was dramatised for the screen and even helped propel Mel Gibson, one of the film’s actors, into the cinema spotlight.

The popular novelist went on to write the famous family drama The Thorn Birds – which also became a hit television series.

She sold 30 million copies worldwide before selling the rights to the miniseries for an, at the time, record-breaking price of $1.9 million.

Starring Richard chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Barbara Stanwyck, The Thorn Birds was one of the most watched TV series of all time.

But it was only one of many great books that McCullough wrote in her 40 year career.

It was perhaps the historical genre of novel that won her the most literary acclaim, with her seven book series Masters of Rome – for which she won praises from politicians like Henry Kissinger and Bob Carr.

Her final novel Bittersweet was published just two years ago, in 2013, and it was believed the author was working on the sequel before she died.

The Author and the Artist

We gained a greater insight into the woman behind the internationally acclaimed novels in a recent interview with artist Joanna Braithwaite for our launch issue of MiNDFOOD STYLE.

The New-Zealand bred artist, who is known for her whimsical and often humorous portrayal of animals in a human-like setting, was the last artist to capture McCullough on canvas.

Braithwaite’s portrait of the notable Australian was even among the top contenders for the prestigious Archibald Prize portraiture award in 2014.

Of the experience, the artist described to MiNDFOOD Style that the whole journey from start to finish was a: “pretty wild excursion.”

“It was a challenge to meet Colleen, a huge challenge to paint her portrait…I wanted it to reflect her strong character and her intellect and, of course, her long dedication to writing. I painted her surrounded by her piles of books, wearing a wry smile and enjoying a much-loved cigarette,” Braithwaite said of the Norfolk Island-based writer.

Braithwaite was particularly keen to add elements of the novelists life in the painting, if you look closely you can see McCullough’s much loved cat and a statue of a great philosopher – appealing to her interest in history and culture.

Australian Publisher Tweeted that her contribution to Australian writing and to readers around the world had been “immense”.

“She was one of the first Australian writers to succeed on the world stage,” HarperCollins Australia publishing director Shona Martyn said.

“Ever quick-witted and direct, we looked forward to her visits from Norfolk Island and to the arrival of each new manuscript delivered in hard copy in custom-made maroon manuscript boxes inscribed with her name.

“We will miss her dearly.”


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