Great collector of art and teller of our tales
By Philip Jones
August 9 2002
Margaret Frances Carnegie
Writer, art collector
1910 – 2002
“Margaret Carnegie,” wrote John Reed in 1962 , “is shooting like a meteor through the art world, buying right and left.” Carnegie herself averred that she bought paintings as if they were hats. That is, until they became more expensive than hats.
Certainly, Margaret was a well-gowned and hatted woman of high social standing, but her claim was too modest. The shoal of shoes belonging to Imelda Marcos might have been a more appropriate comparison for her treasure trove.
The Carnegie collection of Australian art was as remarkable in its quality as its quantity. Its only rival as a comprehensive representation of the Australian modern idiom was the older Reed collection, now housed in Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art at Heide. In 1966 Carnegie’s paintings became the first and only private collection to be exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria.
Certainly it remains a matter for great regret that – unlike the John and Sunday Reed collection – Carnegie’s paintings and sculptures were dispersed as an entity when (for financial reasons) she was forced to sell in 1971. Christie’s auction house took a total of $500,000 for 460 works. In the boom times of the 1980s she might have fetched 20 times that amount.
Needing fresh involvement, Carnegie, then aged 65, took stock of her life and talents and commenced a 20-year career as a writer/historian. “Don’t be a fool,” she told herself, “you’ve done nothing with your own art so get cracking on the research.”
As with her art collection, she was ahead of her time. In Australia today more original history is written without, than within, academia. Carnegie published five books in her own right and worked in collaboration on six more. She also wrote scripts for films and libretti for opera.
Carnegie was a woman of prodigious energy. Raising four remarkable children, playing the role of hostess, and mustering horses on her husband’s cattle property might be viewed as optional extras.
The core of her identity resided in her cultural and intellectual involvements. She bought her first painting – an Arthur Streeton – for 15 guineas the year before she married Douglas Carnegie. By 1950 her collection numbered 100.
Carnegie was born in Melbourne, the daughter of Melbourne trader Henry Allen whose ancestors were of Huguenot and Irish origin. She was educated at Lauriston Girls School, then, at 17, a Swiss finishing school.
She became fluent in French and her interest in art was nurtured by visits to the great art museums of Europe. Cooking was not part of the curriculum although mountaineering was. The intrepid Margaret spent five days climbing a high peak. “I was not afraid,” she once remembered. “We girls were strapped together for safety.”
Margaret Allen returned to Melbourne and to the conventional social life of a wealthy young woman. At a coming-out party at her parents’ house in Toorak she met Douglas Carnegie, scion of a family whose fortune derived from a piano manufacturing company. “It was love at first sight,” she
recalled. Douglas was the same age and both were 20 when they married in 1931.
Two children were born before the war. Douglas pursued business interests and the family, almost inevitably, continued to live in Toorak. Carnegie’s creative instinct was nurtured by a garden designed in conjunction with the highly esteemed Edna Walling. Twenty years later Walling designed a very different – and largely native – landscape garden resting in the rich pastures of the Carnegie property in the southern Riverina.
In 1941 Douglas joined the AIF, was dispatched to the Middle East, and became one of the Rats of Tobruk. His army career was effectively ended when he contracted spinal meningitis and was repatriated to Australia on a hospital ship.
In the meantime Carnegie had studied for and obtained her matriculation. It might have become necessary, she reasoned, for her to earn a living. On his recovery, doctors advised Douglas to live in the country and in 1944 he purchased the 1000-hectare property Kildrummie.
Here he bred poll hereford cattle. Carnegie went along happily enough but warned her husband that she “would not milk a cow or bake a cake”. For all her 40 years on the land she retained the services of a cook. Two daughters were born in the late 1940s.
Carnegie accompanied her husband on frequent trips to Sydney and Melbourne, he to sell cattle, she to research in the Mitchell Library and the State Library of Victoria. “I am a good researcher, but a lousy writer,” she declared. Publishers and the reading public thought otherwise. Her best-known books were Friday Mount (a history of the settlement of the south-west slopes of NSW), Morgan – the Bold Bushranger and (with Frank Shields) In Search of Breaker Morant.
Carnegie was not always blessed with luck. Too late for publication she discovered that the saintly Irishwoman Daisy Bates (who for decades cared for Aborigines at Ooldea, South Australia) was legally married to Morant, rather than the hapless and innocent Mr Bates.
Philippe Mora, a Hollywood-based Australian film producer, writer and director, made a highly successful feature film, Mad Dog Morgan, with a script based on Carnegie’s biography. Dennis Hopper played the bushranger and much of the film was shot at Kildrummie.
In 1979 the Carnegies sold the cattle station and moved to a white, bright and elegant high-rise apartment in Spring Street, Melbourne.
“From the sublime to the ridiculous,” was Carnegie’s comment. She continued her research and published four books over the following 13 years. She was made a fellow of the Victorian Royal Historical Society and a patron of the Friends of the La Trobe Library and received an honorary degree from the Riverina College of Advanced Education.
After Carnegie sold her collection of Australian modernists she invested in Aboriginal art. Before the Bicentenary of 1988 she campaigned for an official treaty between white and black Australians. She was adopted as a full sister of the tribal elder and artist Nelson (Nosepeg) Tjaparula and became Margaret Naparulla of Spring Street, Melbourne.
In 1992, aged 82, Carnegie published the biography of the Edwardian Queensland sugar millionaire William Knox D’Arcy, who led an international consortium for the exploration of oil in Persia. She was distressed at his bad manners, but undeterred when the last shah of Iran failed to respond to her request for information.
Her last book was Pacific Gold – California 1848: Australia 1851, about a group of larrikin gold-diggers who cut up rough in the goldfields adjacent to San Francisco. “There’s actually a place outside San Francisco called Sydney Town. Now, did you know that?” she challenged more conventional historians. She wrote a film synopsis and sent it off to Hollywood via Philippe Mora.
Douglas died in 1998 and Carnegie spent her last years in a nursing home. In 2001 her daughter Jane nominated her for inclusion inPeoplescape, a cavalcade of significant, contemporary Australians, commemorated with cut-out “sculptures”. Carnegie’s portrait was executed by artist Asher Bilu.
Margaret Carnegie is mourned by her children, Roderick, Susan, Jane and Georgina, five grandsons and seven great-grandchildren.