BRENDA NIALL'S SPEECH
First I want to thank Edmund Capon for his warm and generous words in launching my biography of Judy Cassab. It’s wonderful that the book could make its first appearance here in Sydney on the occasion of Judy’s 85th birthday’ . The Gallery has been so much part of Judy’s life for more than fifty years, that it’s the perfect place for this double celebration
I thank the Gallery Society, especially Craig Brush, for making this such a special occasion, and my publisher Sue Hines for coming from Melbourne to represent Allen and Unwin, who have given us such a beautifully produced book - as much a work of art as a book about Judy ought to be. My agent Fran Bryson is here too, and I thank her for her support and enthusiasm. The biography will have a second launch in Melbourne next week, so I have a double debt to the members of my family and the friends who came to Sydney for this occasion: all of them, as well as Judy herself, will be welcoming the book twice over.
Just a brief word about the book itself from the writer’s point of view. I used to say very confidently that I would never write the biography of a living person. And in fact, most biographers would agree that it’s too hard. They would say, as I’ve said in the past, that you need a certain distance, and detachment: that the sense of a completed life is essential to any serious biography. There’s also the important matter of being in charge of one’s own work. Very few living subjects will give the freedom of interpretation that the author needs.
So why did I break my own rules to write Judy’s life? I think, really, that the temptation was too strong. It was such a magnificent subject, with the huge achievements of Judy’s art, and the complexities of her life, as well as the intelligence and warmth of personality we all know so well - that I just couldn’t resist it. When we first met, Judy had surprised me by asking if I would sit to her for a non-commissioned portrait. Three years ago I astonished myself as well as Judy by making the impulsive phone call from Melbourne, to ask if she would ‘sit’ to me for a biography. And once she had agreed and I had committed myself, it was an added challenge to make it open-ended, to give the sense of ongoing life and creativity that Judy shows so strongly, and which the conventional biography doesn’t often have..
As for the question of an author’s independence - my own independence in writing - that was never in doubt. This was because, from the beginning Judy saw this biography in the same light as one of her portraits. Just as her sitters acknowledge her way of seeing, so Judy, from the beginning, let me do it in my own way. This is a tremendous thing - it’s most unusual for the biography of a living subject - but then Judy is unusual - indeed she is unique.
She didn’t ask to read my completed text, though of course I sent it to her, and waited anxiously while she read it chapter by chapter, giving me her reactions by email as she went. She made a few corrections of fact, but that was all. She didn’t want me to change a single phrase.
A biography is a huge commitment of time and thought: so the choice of a subject is a very big thing. It means, in effect, living for several years with the subject’s past and present experience, and giving her the first place in your thoughts. Collecting facts is the easy bit. More important for me was the effort to see events and places and relationships as Judy herself might have seen and felt them. Working closely with Judy, through interviews, and through very privileged access to her unpublished private diaries, I came to believe that if the values of distance and detachment can be combined with empathy, then the biography will really come to life.
There are many people here tonight who have known Judy for many more years than I have. We met only nine years ago, when she invited me to sit for a non-commissioned portrait. But in the last three years, while I was doing the research, travel and interviews for her biography, she would have been in my thoughts every day.
I called this book Judy Cassab :a Portrait, not just because of the interchange between us - painter and writer, each one, in effect sitting for the other - but because, unlike the conventional biography, which begins and ends, and covers a whole life span, this one does not end. Portraits are drawn from life - and so is my book.
I know how privileged I am to have been able to enter into Judy’s life in this way, as she has entered into mine; and I offer her my warmest and deepest appreciation. It’s an added gift to be able to join in this celebration, and to offer my book as my birthday present to her tonight, as we all join in wishing her many happy returns, and many, many more years in which she will continue to share her life and her art with us all.