Barbara Blackman: 'Nice' is a word that masks over things

Ahead of the release of a documentary about her life, the doyenne of the Australian arts reflects on going blind and life with artist Charles Blackman

In the film Seeing from Within, the life of its subject, Barbara Blackman – writer, patron of the arts and one-time wife of Australian painter Charles Blackman – is presented in chronological order, told in her own words. With almost anyone else, this singular focus and absence of other voices could become tiresome, but the life and times of Barbara Blackman is epic.

Blackman, 88, has lived multiple lives, and for this documentary, made by John Swindells, she unpacks them all like Russian dolls. Her 30-year marriage to Charles Blackman, for which she is perhaps most well-known, was only the first act.

One of Blackman’s traits is telling it how it is. “I was always called a ‘blunt young woman’ and Charles was called brash,” she tells Guardian Australia. “[Australian artist] Doris Boyd used to call me “that nice blunt girl” – and I liked that.” She stops and reconsiders. “Although ‘nice’ is word that masks over things.”

Born in Queensland, Blackman’s beloved father died when she was three, so Barbara and her mother went and lived in a private hotel in Brisbane – the only woman and child among single men. Blackman (or Barbara Patterson as she was then known) relished the experience.

“The people were interesting – they treated us women as goddesses,” she says. As a little girl, one of her jobs was to go into one man’s room and turn the radio off as he fell asleep to it each night. On really hot nights, the residents dragged their mattresses outside to the large lawn to sleep under the stars.

When she was very young, Blackman spent time in hospital as doctors tried to diagnose the cause of her wonky eyes. “I enjoyed hospital very much. I loved being with other kids. But sometimes the nurses would treat the babies and they’d all start to cry and I’d say, ‘Stop hurting them!’”

When Blackman was told that those babies “had suffered bad, bad burns”, she appreciated the nurses telling her the facts.

Young Barbara Blackman
A young Barbara Blackman (formerly Patterson). Photograph: Seeing from Within

“The idea of emotional honesty, propounded by philosopher Jack McKinney, Judith Wright’s husband, focused my life,” says Blackman. “One can live with sorrow but not with shame, and it’s shameful to tell things as they are not.”

Blackman believes that happiness is a decision – and she chooses to be happy – but this determination was tested when, while she was at university, she was told she was going blind.

“I was told I was going blind quite quickly – I had left the church and I felt that I didn’t know where to turn.”

She was in love at the time – with “a card-carrying communist. It was a good honest relationship” – but decided not to marry him, even though she has kept in touch since. (Now, she says, “we both live alone with our dogs”.)

In her despair at going blind, she clung to the thought that change would inevitably happen. “Sometimes crisis is the crossroads between danger and opportunity. You have to separate out the danger and the opportunity, and see what the opportunity is that you are being offered.”

Fate did eventually intervene: in 1949, she met painter Charles Blackman at a party. The pair went on to spend decades together, including time in Melbourne, London, Paris and Sydney, and they raised three children.

Charles and Barbara Blackman
Barbara Blackman with her first husband, renowned artist Charles Blackman, around the time of their wedding. Photograph: Seeing from Within

“Encouragement is the greatest form that love can take,” Barbara says of her dynamic with Charles. “People give one another courage.” He would read aloud to her, and she was his model.

Charles Blackman painted some of his most acclaimed work, the Schoolgirls and Alice in Wonderland series, in the 1950s, during the early years of their marriage. The couple then became part of the wave of expatriate painters, writers and actors who set off for London in the early 1960s. But while the parties were good, and Barbara found the London theatre scene invigorating, money was scarce.

“We arrived right at the beginning of 61 and we left early in 66,” says Blackman. “I’ve said that we were poor but we were good at being poor. What do you think people over the centuries have done – not dining out, but cooking for one another. I was a child of the 1930s and we grew our dinners in the veggie garden and kept chooks.”

But it was not a healthy lifestyle for the pair. “Over our five years in London, Charles went grey, my monthly cycle went to six weeks – it was an unnatural climate for us. And the beaches were pebbly. Charles and I were healthy seafront kids and this interfered with our health – we wanted to walk on the beach again.”

Back in Sydney, the Blackmans’ marriage started to come under strain. “He got to going out with other women in a silly sort of way. He was going out with a woman who was an equal friend and I thought, ‘this is last time’. I put the letter of resignation on his breakfast tray. The letter went something like: ‘The sighted and the non-sighted can no longer be of help to each other. [But] at 30 years, it was one of the great marriages.’”

Charles Blackman went on to have two more marriages. He is currently living in Sydney and has dementia.

Charles and Barbara Blackman
Charles and Barbara Blackman in later years of their marriage. Charles is now living in Sydney and has dementia. Photograph: Seeing from Within

Barbara met her second husband, Frenchman Marcel Veldhoven, at a Jung retreat and together they created a spiritual centre on the south coast of New South Wales. In later years, Blackman, who was raised Christian, has increasingly been drawn to Sufism.

After her marriage to Veldhoven ended, she moved to Canberra where her third act began: as a patron of the arts. She has also written books and columns, helped set up Radio for the Print Handicapped, and was a significant contributor to the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, for which she travelled around the country and interviewed artists and thinkers of note.

For the documentary about her life, Blackman herself wrote scripts, which were then selected by Swindells to film. She narrates her stories from her Canberra home, while other scenes are illustrated by animation, archival footage and photographs.

She says of her current stage of life: “What I suffer from is three things: did the people I love know how much I loved them? Then there’s the loneliness of the long-distance runner – the people who have been part of my life are dropping off at a great old rate. And then there’s arm holes – every garment should have two but when I’m dressing they seem to have one or three.”

But age has not dampened her enthusiasm for society and the world: “At 88, I still have parties at my house. I am ever curious about people – I like being asked questions, too.”

Looking back on her remarkably full life, Blackman is philosophical: “I don’t think I’m superior or inferior to anyone. We are all here – we are all part of life. I have had a really fortunate life.”

Seeing from Within: The Life of Barbara Blackman is showing in cinemas across Australia from 14 August


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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