“He was a renaissance man whose love of history, the arts, and of languages, of which he spoke several fluently, shines through his writings and in his conversations. His book-sales ran to around seventy million, and his works were translated into twenty-seven different languages.” Maryanne Confoy, The Sydney Papers
Morris West, (1916 –1999), AO, remains Australia’s most successful internationally selling author. Six of his works have been adapted to the screen. Recently his portrait has been acquired for the Library’s collection. Painted by his friend, Judy Cassab in 1985, this work depicts West five years after his arrival back in Sydney. It was the same year that he was awarded an Order of Australia for services to literature. Seated at his desk with books open and placed around him, we can see a successful and prolific writer with over 30 books, plays and films to his name.
West lived as an expatriate writer in Europe, living in Austria, Italy, England and in the United States, from 1955, finally returning to Australia in 1980. Though West had previously written several novels, his first popular success was Children of the Sun (1957), a nonfiction account of the slum children of Naples. It was The Devil's Advocate (1959) which made West into a best-selling author. This novel was published in New York and London and was subsequently translated into more than two dozen languages. West worked with themes of international interest; his best-known books combine religion and intrigue in what have been called “religious thrillers.” Most of his works deal with the exercise of power.
West wrote and published around 40 titles and articles after his return to Sydney from Europe. He was an art lover who enjoyed painting in his later years. Morris West and his family were friends with artist Judy Cassab and often spent time together at West’s home on Pittwater, north of Sydney.
Judy Cassab (1920-2015), AO, CBE and Holocaust survivor was one of Australia's best known portrait painters. Her portraiture won many awards including the Archibald Prize (1960 and 1968), the Australian Women’s Weekly women’s prize (1955 and 1956) and the Helena Rubinstein Prize (1964 and 1965). Born in Austria to Hungarian parents, Cassab emigrated to Australia with her husband and two children in 1951. In Australia, she quickly gained a reputation for her distinctive expressionist technique and portrait painting abilities, regularly accepting commissions. Cassab was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize twice: first in 1961 with a portrait of Stanislaus Rapotec, and again in 1968 with a portrait of Margo Lewers.
West’s daughter recalls, “Judy would often come up for the day for lunch at the house. I had assumed that Judy did the portrait at the house, but I think in fact Dad may well have gone to her house when she needed him, although I seem to remember her doing a preliminary sketch of him at his desk one day … I seem to remember Judy giving Dad some painting lessons (he was never without his sketch pad and charcoal, and was usually covered in oil paint in his later life).’ Morris West wrote the foreword for Judy Cassab’s diaries which were published in 1995 and which won the Kibble Awards for Literature in 1996.
Although West spent many years overseas, he remained devoted to the writing profession in Australia. He was the foundation vice-president of the Australian Society of Authors and served as president for several years, working towards better pay rates and rights for Australian writers. In 1997 he was recognised as an 'Australian National Living Treasure'.
Maryanne Confoy wrote in The Sydney Papers, “He was a renaissance man whose love of history, the arts, and of languages, of which he spoke several fluently, shines through his writings and in his conversations. His book-sales ran to around seventy million, and his works were translated into twenty-seven different languages. For this type of success and public prominence at first on the international and then the national scene, West had to be more than simply a good story-teller. He was deeply concerned with what was happening to the people in the world around him, and he was equally concerned with what was happening within himself.” Maryanne Confoy, The Sydney Papers, Winter/Spring, 2005.
This portrait was used for the cover of his autobiographical work A View from the Ridge, published by Harper Collins in 1996. It is particularly poignant as West died at his desk in 1999, ‘West’s death was a gentle passing over. There was no evidence of pain, the pen was in his hand as he sat at his desk, apparently asleep.’, Maryanne Confoy, The Sydney Papers, Winter/Spring, 2005.
Related items in the Library’s collection include an oral history recording of Morris West interviewed by Caroline Jones in 1993, reflecting on his life, reading at his desk at home passages she invited him to select from his work in the context of his own search for meaning. [link to catalogue record: Morris West / with Caroline Jones.]
West was working on the draft of his novel, The Last Confession, when he passed away at his desk on 9 October 1999. The novel was published posthumously in 2000.
The Library holds over 300 editions of West’s works, including many that have been translated into other languages.
The portrait has been donated by Morris West’s family and the acquisition coincides with the re-publication of West’s book titles in August 2017.
Biography of Morris West, AUSTLIT database
Barker, Dennis, Morris West Obituary, 11 October, 1999, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/news/1999/oct/11/guardianobituaries1, accessed 4/7/2017
Confoy, Maryanne ‘Remembering Morris West’, The Sydney Papers, Winter/Spring, 2005
Email correspondence with Melanie Bryan, 3 May 2017
Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator, Research and Discovery, State Library of New South Wales, 2017