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Henry Lawson-the voice of the Aussie battler

Do we still have time for Henry Lawson?

Susan Hunt
It is 100 years since the famous writer and chronicler of bush life died.
Death mask of Henry Lawson, ca. 1922

Almost 100 years since his death, Henry Lawson’s name appeared in the opening credits of The Drover’s Wife, the film inspired by one of his most famous short stories. Leah Purcell’s play, novel and 2022 film adaptation offer audiences a powerful reinterpretation of Lawson’s classic story. Purcell, a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland, tells Lawson’s 1892 tale about a woman looking after her four children while her husband is away droving, from an Indigenous perspective. Purcell’s works encourage us to revisit the Lawson legend and the values that underpinned not only the society he wrote about, but those he held himself. This is particularly relevant as this year is the centenary of Lawson’s death.

Lawson’s public image and status as a balladist and short story writer were so great that he was given a state funeral on 4 September 1922. Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who attended, said that the country needed to honour ‘the poet of Australia, the minstrel of the people’. Record crowds, from all stations of life, came to Sydney to show their respects.

Born in Grenfell in 1867, Lawson only lived to the age of 55. Some personal challenges, such as his deafness, the precarity of journalism and his creative decline, were beyond his control; others, such as his dependence on alcohol and his physical abuse of his wife Bertha, were not. Survived by his former wife, son Jim and daughter Bertha Louisa, Lawson was buried at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney. Also buried there were fellow Australian literary figures Henry Kendall and JF Archibald, publisher and editor of The Bulletin magazine and founder of Australia’s famous portrait award, the Archibald Prize.

A long-time supporter of Lawson’s, Archibald had encouraged the ‘deaf, diffident poet of bush mateship’ to write for The Bulletin. His first controversial poem, ‘A Song of
the Republic’ in 1887, delivered exactly what Archibald had hoped for — radicalism. With later poems such as ‘To an Old Mate’, ‘Up the Country’, ‘Faces in the Street’ and the stories of While the Billy Boils, Lawson’s reputation continued to grow. His personal experiences of the bush, and the hardships of drought and poverty, struck a chord with many Australian readers. He brought to life the voices of those on the margins — shearers, goldminers, drovers, boundary riders and, particularly in ‘The Drover’s Wife’, bush women.

For Archibald, Lawson was more than a talented writer and poet. At the critical time of Federation, Archibald saw Lawson as a ‘representative’ Australian, able to define our national identity. Perhaps this is why Archibald commissioned the well-known artist John Longstaff to paint his portrait when Lawson and his family were enroute to London in 1900, a trip assisted by David Scott Mitchell, founder and benefactor of the Mitchell Library. Executed in virtually one sitting, it immortalises his name and place in Australian history. It remains an important record today in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The London experience, while full of promise, was a failure. Lawson returned in 1902 to a broken marriage, emotional instability and ongoing alcoholism, with frequent stints in jail.

Henry Lawson, 1914 / Florence Rodway

Other portraits survive from the many years of hardship and decline leading up to his death: Florence Rodway’s superb pastel from 1914, William Johnson’s iconic photographs from 1915and the haunting death mask made by his friend the bohemian artist Nelson Illingworth (date unknown). The Library holds these, as well as a cutting of Lawson’s hair collected by his friend Dame Mary Gilmore while he was in prison.

When Lawson died in 1922, his daughter, Bertha Louisa, was working as a librarian at the Mitchell Library. She and her mother had already begun safeguarding Lawson’s reputation and others continued to promote his name. In 1927, for example, on the fifth anniversary of the writer’s death, his friend J Le Gay Brereton described Lawson as a ‘representative figure ... for his voice is the voice of a great democracy. He speaks for the many, not the few. City and country alike make themselves heard through him.’

The bronze sculpture erected in the Domain in 1931 continued this veneration of Lawson. Commissioned by the Henry Lawson Literary Society and executed by George Lambert and Arthur Murch, it further cultivated the bush legend by featuring the poet with his dog and a mate having a cup of billy tea. Then premier Sir George Fuller said when he unveiled the sculpture, ‘no poet had ever expressed Australian sentiment or portrayed Australian life and manners in so natural and effective a manner.’

One hundred years on, some might debate that claim. But as The Drover’s Wife on stage and screen shows, and a forthcoming musical event at the 2022 Canberra Writers Festival called ‘Do we still have time for Henry Lawson?’ asks, contemporary writers, musicians and filmmakers continue to draw inspiration from Lawson’s powerful literary classics and social commentary.

Henry Lawson, 1915, photographs by William Johnson

Susan Hunt is Director of the Library Foundation.

This story appears in Openbook spring 2022.

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