Printmaker, artist and writer, Barbara Hanrahan, was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1939. Throughout her artistic career, she explored the relationships between men, women, and society, drawing on her acute observations of the people surrounding her. In particular, the influence of her all-female household and her closeness to her mother and grandmother.
Hanrahan’s father died from tuberculosis when she was only a year old, so growing up, she lived with her mother, grandmother, and great aunt. Her family background was the foundation on which the young Barbara built her life. Her mother being a commercial artist, no doubt had its influence. She described this as “the backbone upon which I build all my fiction . . . as I build all my life”.
In her writing, she captured the essence of the working-class people she grew up around. She primarily concentrated on the lives of women.
After obtaining a Diploma in Art Teaching from the Adelaide Teachers’ College and studying for three years at the South Australia School of Art, Barbara left Adelaide to study at the Royal College of Art in London. Like her heroine, Kate, in Sea-green (1974), she sailed from ‘a little city and the certainties of a neat brick house.’ Later, she taught at the Falmouth College of Art and the Portsmouth College of Art.
“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 while working with her German lecturer and print master, Udo Sellbach. She experimented with various sorts of printing such as etching, relief, and screen printing. She would often try out different styles and colours for the same print. For example, there are three variations of “Wedding Night.” Throughout her life, she made over 400 different prints.
She was getting a name for herself quite early on in her career, winning the Cornell Prize for painting in 1961 and becoming the South Australian Graphic Art Society president the following year. Additionally, from 1965, The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery of South Australia bought her work.
Later events in Barbara’s life
Hanrahan gave more than 30 solo exhibitions and participated in many group events. She exhibited her artwork internationally, including in London, the United States and Canada, Sweden, Scotland, Italy and Japan, and many Australian venues.
Until 1978, she lived in London with her partner, Jo Steele, a sculptor. Occasionally, she would make trips home to Adelaide, where she would organise her solo exhibitions and teach at the South Australian School of Art. In the 1980s, she returned to Adelaide for good, becoming 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.
The death of Hanrahan’s grandmother gave her the impetus to record memories of her childhood. She wanted a record of their lives, aspirations, feelings, and experiences so that all these lives were not forgotten. Her novels tend to be autobiographical, and it is this, and her acute observation of those she grew up with that gives her work its unique and personal nature.
Like her prints, Hanrahan’s books had a universal message and a highly personalised style. They explored the relationship between men and women of her time and society’s expectations. 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 established the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship for South Australian writers in her memory. There is a street in Thebarton named after her and a building in the University of South Australia’s City West campus.
Her early death from cancer
She died of cancer at the age of 52, but her works remain for us to enjoy and ponder over. When she became terminally ill, Barbara 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”.
Shortly before she died, she wrote: “Michael and Me and the Sun” was her final book, written in hospital shortly before her death. She felt she had to record her first time in London at the Central School of art (1963-4).
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 – an elegant memorial for a fine artist.
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.