SUMMER 23/24

‘She is art world royalty’ – Ben Quilty CHRISTINE FRANCE of Kulnura
‘Christine is not only my friend and mentor, she is art world royalty. There is nothing she doesn't know about the way characters, relationships and schools of thought have formed the creative world we live in today. She was also Margaret Olley's closest friend and confidante.’ Ben Quilty.

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‘The scissors were blunt. People were watching. Will I ever be able to cut the ruddy ribbon? I hacked away and eventually got through it,’ recalls Christine France. ‘Finally, the Margaret Olley was launched. I sighed with relief and off we all sailed.’
Familiar faces at the launch of the Margaret Olley ferry.

Christine, now in her early eighties, still spends days in Sydney but her home is in Kulnura, on just over 10 hectares. The beautiful country house is a welcoming space where high-ceilinged rooms feature an eclectic display of paintings in ink and oils, and sculpted pieces in wood and stone settle comfortably on the timber floors. It is light and airy and there are mountains of books. Art is everywhere.

Her family lived in the eastern suburbs and Christine went to Sydney University – on two different occasions.

‘I mucked around during my first time there. Then I was a reporter on The Daily Mirror’s social rounds. I wanted to study fine art but had to wait until the ‘60s when a generous bequest from Dr John Power was instrumental in setting up a proper art history course.’

She returned to Sydney Uni as part of its first intake into these courses. Christine was finally doing what she loved.

‘I studied with Catherine De Lorenzo, who became an eminent historian; Joan Kerr, who was to write the first dictionary of Australian art; Neil Moore, a splendid draughtsman and cartoonist now living in Italy, and many other students who were to make significant contributions to this country’s contemporary art scene.’

Throughout the coming decades, Christine, as a curator and historian, was to meet thousands of creative men and women from around the world, and she has witnessed the rise and decline of painting styles and methods.

‘I’ve seen work go from figurative to abstraction (dominant in the ‘70s), back to figurative, and watched Australia’s artists go to one country or another in search of inspiration.’

Christine tutored in contemporary art at the University of NSW, lived for a year in London undertaking a course at the National Gallery, married businessman Stephen France at 22 (they were together until he died last year), and had a baby named Harriet.

The France family has always had ‘escapes’ in the country. One of those ‘escapes’ was Baerami in the Upper Hunter Valley, surrounded by Wollemi National Park.

‘It was a lovely Georgian-type sandstone house on hundreds of acres where we agisted thoroughbred mares and foals,’ said Christine. ‘Then Stephen got the damned Parkinson’s and we had to move closer to a hospital.

‘Harriet found our Kulnura property on Springs Road. It has an enormous number of privet hedges, and just one of their white flowers can set you off sneezing for ages! I don’t like them very much, and they continually have to be trimmed.’

Unlike privet, Christine and her daughter both love horses.

‘One I would ride, who recently died, and I used to have a pony and trap, and would take out visiting artists. [Celebrated artist] Jeffrey Smart would always come over when he was home from Italy. He just loved it.’

Christine’s journey as a writer began in the mid-’80s when she wrote Justin O’Brien – Image and Icon, which covered his youth, war experiences and expatriate years in Rome. In 1994, Form and Clay,about ceramicist Marea Gazzard, was published, and the Olley biography in 2002.

Much she wrote in longhand, ‘like David Malouf, who was a great friend of O’Brien’s and Smart’s’. 

‘I can’t think on a typewriter,’ she said. ‘I use a pen and I conduct interviews on an old-fashioned little tape recorder; I don’t trust digital things. And I do heaps of initial research.’

Christine didn’t know Margaret Olley well at first. ‘I’d just see her at parties, but we developed a close friendship when I started writing the book and I became aware of the artist’s philanthropy, and her special affection for Newcastle.

‘She lived there in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, and still owned a house in that city until her death at 88. She donated more than 48 works to the Newcastle Art Gallery, many of them by well-known internationals, as well as younger emerging artists she deemed worthy of recognition.’

As co-executor of the painter’s will, it was Christine’s role to assist in creating a replica of Olley’s studio after she died in 2011. She started working with the Tweed River Art Gallery & Museum cataloguing the artist’s Paddington home, the subject of so many of her paintings.

‘The replica looks like a great big mess but it’s actually very organised. Margaret would set up a still life and she might leave it there for years,’ explained Christine. ‘She never liked dusting and when a bunch of flowers died, she’d leave its dead leaves on the floor.’

The 75,000 items taken from her terrace house in Duxford Street were laid out to scale, guided by thousands of photos and hours of video. Included were countless ashtrays, complete with butts.

Since finishing the re-creation, Christine has not been idle. She has curated other exhibitions, is working on her Kulnura property, and is also keen to arrange a show about the late Heather Dorrough who made innovative pieces in fabric, as well as creating paintings and sculptures. 

‘There are some significant artists very close to home,’ she added, evidenced by the stunning Trevor Weekes horse picture on the wall of her living room.

‘This area is bristling with talent.’

WORDS SUZY JARRATT

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