Australian Biography

Rosalie Gascoigne - full interview transcript

Tape of 9

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Can I take you right back mentally, to your childhood in New Zealand, and we have a very small child. What do you remember seeing around you?

Michaelmas Daisies. Michaelmas Daisies, flowers. I remember - and a see-saw with my older sister. That's about what I remember most I think.

And what was the setting of the house you grew up in? Where was it?

It was in Auckland, and it had a garden. It had what we called a puka tree, with big leaves. And we had a see-saw out the back. And I remember going up and up through the Michaelmas Daisies, about two feet I suppose. That's about it.

Looking back from this point in your life, do you think that you actually probably were seeing things intensely then too? Do you have strong visual memories?

Oh, I think so. I really think I did. Natural things I think I saw. Flowers.

What about people?

Well I was the middle of three. And I had a busy mother. She had three children in four years or something, something like that. Five years, perhaps. And I think I had a lot of nature. I think I did. Being the middle one is a bit - I had a younger brother, and an older sister who was very much cleverer than I was. You know, she was a scholastic person. And I was the one in the middle.

Was being a scholastic person valued in the household?

Oh, yes it was. Very much so.

Why was that?

Oh, they liked brains in my family. You know, they really did. And I had a very clever grandfather. And I think this was going full circle, you know, and here was another one coming along.

What about your mother? What was her background?

Well, she was the daughter of a clever man. And she was scholastic, too. She ended up being a secondary school teacher. And I was sort of amiable and easy to manage, you know.

And your older sister, what was she like?

Well, she was much more a heavyweight than I was, if you see what I mean. And she was trusted at an early age to do things. Like go to the grocer across the road where you weren't allowed to cross and things like that. And at four she used to say to the man, "I'm not allowed to cross that road. Will you go over to the other shop and get me some something?" And he did. She was very authoritative my sister, even at four or five.

Was she like that with you?

Yes, she was. Yes.

So you had a sense when you were a child that your sister was really the one in charge?

Oh, indeed, indeed, indeed I did. I was a bit silly, you see. I suppose I was more like my father, who had Irish blood in him. And they were - both of them, my brother and my sister - were both more Scottish, British, I think.

And that was valued more by your mother?

Well no, I don't know that it was valued more. But, but, there was no doubt about the scholastic prowess of my sister. She was old for her age, and she was good at it, and she was responsible. And she wasn't sensitive like I was, or all of those things.

Looking back now, with your mature eyes - you know, you've raised children yourself now, and had an opportunity to look at children. Looking at you with your own eyes, rather than say your mother's eyes, what would you describe in that child that you were at that time?

Goodness, that's a very hard question. I suppose I think I was the easy one. I went to sleep and I ate the right food and I did all these things, and my sister hadn't particularly done that when she was the eldest. And I always thought that I'd get on all right. I mean you didn't have to take me too seriously, I think. I would think that probably.

Were you a happy child?

Goodness. I don't know whether I was terribly happy. We had a broken home at about, when I was about five, I think. And this was uneasy, because we lived in a household of a lot of women. My brother was the only male. And my grandmother and an aunt. And people had high standards for you. You had good table manners and you spoke correctly, and you - and you were seen and not heard a lot, because people didn't have time for you, you see, really. And probably it was different for me than it was from the other two, you see. So I think I was the odd man out anyway.

How was that, when you say you were the odd person out?

I was different.

And yet you were a compliant child. You did what was expected of you.

Well no, I found things to amuse me. I used to find - I remember saying once that nobody would talk to me, because they all read books and things all the time. And I remember my mother saying, it's a pity your grandfather isn't alive. He would have talked to you. And they'd put their head back in their books, you see. So you were always on your own a little bit. My sister - I was good at games and my sister didn't want to play hopscotch after school and that sort of thing, you know. And so you were on your own, a lot.

What about friends, other children?

Oh, yes, I had friends. I was the most gregarious one of the three. I think it was the Scotchness in them or something.

So what did you do with yourself when you were left to your own devices, and there was no one to play with? What did you do?

I looked at flowers and leaves. And I showed off to impress my elder sister mightily. Because I could do everything physical better than she could. And I don't think it was very interesting. And I was always surprised when I went to other people's houses, that you got on very well with the adults, where adults were a different world as far as we were concerned, as children. And, my father being absent, I got on well with the men of the family. And I was always rather surprised that they seemed to like me. I didn't know why they liked me but they seemed to.

What happened when you went to school? Did you find yourself compared with your clever older sister?

I suppose I was. And I went to kindergarten, the local kindergarten, very early, like four. And then I went to primary school, which was a horrible shock, when I was seven, you see. And of course I hadn't learnt the things that the other children had learnt. And my sister, of course, swam through it, being frightfully, frightfully clever.

And you found it a bit difficult?

Well I found it difficult knowing the things that they knew, like writing with a pen instead of a pencil, and all that sort of stuff. Because I'd never learnt it.

But you learned quickly, didn't you?

Oh, I suppose I did. I remember looking at a child's - when I was seven, I was in Standard 1, which was the local age when you were in Standard 1. And the teacher said 'Write a composition about an apple.' I thought, what? what? Because I don't know what a composition is. And so I looked at hers, and she said 'An apple is round, an apple is red.' So I thought, oh that's all right. So I could write that. And then she put her hand over hers, because she could see I was watching. And then I remember I wrote on it 'Some apples are brown, and they are called Russet apples.' I remember writing that, because we had Russet apples growing in the garden. And I thought hers was frightfully boring anyway. And so you sort of lived on your wits. I think I'd spent a lot of time living on my wits. And nobody explained to me the ordinary things of life. I didn't really know - my sister knew everything. I didn't know them, you know. But it was...

What did you find you were good at, at school?

What was I good at? I was good at English. And I was - well this is primary school, I suppose - I had enough wits to live on them at primary school. I was terrified of authority. And I was good at games. That's about it.

What happened in the family to make your parents split up? What was the story of that?

Oh, have you got to know? I suppose you've got to know. Well my father - I suppose my mother had higher standards, and my father took to drink, which was bad. And though he was a trained engineer, and clever enough, but he wasted the family fortune. And in the end they had to split up. But he came back when I was about 14, I think. So that was it. And my mother went secondary school teaching. Because she had to, you see, to bring up three children on it.

So he went away between - how old were you when he left?

I was about six, seven...

Did he leave, or did your mother leave him?

Oh well, she had to leave him. And...

Do you remember that?

Well I do. I said to my sister a few years ago - and I remember Uncle George coming and picking us out of our beds, and taking us down to grandmother's house, which was two blocks away. She said "That wasn't, that wasn't Uncle George. He was terrified of your father," she said. "That was the taxi driver. Don't you remember?" And I said I didn't. But she was just that year older and cleverer than me of course. And she remembered who it was. And we were moved. There was a nasty altercation, which I needn't go into, and he left the house again, drunk I think he was. And mother got us in a taxi and took us down to grandmother, and we never left. We stayed there. And he went away. He had a business which had to be declared bankrupt. He drank it all. He was making a lot of money. And then he went, he went down to Thames I think, got a job down there. And when my grandmother died, he came back. But he used to come back in intervals in between.

And when you were 14, he came back permanently?

He came back, and mother let him stay, and he stayed... My grandmother and my aunt were both dead by then.

Were you able then, at 14, to have a relationship with him? Did you relate...

Well, you tried to, but you didn't, you know, in a sort of a way. I, I think - he was - my sister went away to agricultural college when she was about - when she finished secondary school, at the Massey. And she was the first woman graduate there, and she did really well. And I stayed home and went to - eventually to university there. And my father didn't give up his ways. And so we had royal battles, you know, as you would.

So from that point of view, what was on offer in the household?

Nothing. University, university. And mother being away teaching all the time, you see. And you used to go down to the butcher and get meat, you see. A pound and a half of gravy beef. I still remember it. Every night. No wonder I've got no palate now. And you know - but everybody was low in New Zealand at that time. It was very bad times. And you were lucky that you could go on having an education and going to university, because other people didn't, they worked in factories and things. You know, things were very low, and you had these processions of men coming around to the door with hats on - all New Zealand men wore hats - and cut the lawn. They were exhausted. So you were told to give them as much bread and butter and tea as they could drink. And cut the lawn, give them two bob. And that was about what you did, for years. So life was pretty, pretty grim really. And there were people who didn't have things.

So you actually were at university during the Depression, or was it at high school during the Depression?

Wait a moment. Oh, I was at high school during the Depression.


And it was bad. When the decree came that everybody wore a different school hat, because the incoming headmistress didn't think the hats were suitable, I had an old style school hat, and mother determinedly made me wear it, you see. And so you were out of - but people didn't worry because nobody had anything then. You know, and you'd see things in shop windows and you knew you wouldn't get them.

So you were really part of the sort of genteel poor, in the sense that your mother had standards, but no money.

Yes. She had standards, and she had been rich, and my uncles went away to the war, and another uncle in law managed the estate and lost the lot more or less. And so she had come down in status really. But she always liked to keep up appearances. Like the drawing room, you know, and that sort of stuff. And what the common people did and you didn't do it, you see.

Now, when you left primary school, what was decided about where you would go for...?

I went to the school my mother taught at, which was a bad thing, too.

Why was that?

Well you don't want - you don't want to be identified with a staff member. And of course, anything you did got relegated back to the staff room. And you had an older sister who was different, so it wasn't really good. You felt you were overlooked all the time. But then, who was better? You see, not many people were better off. And then you go through the school, and you get a bursary and you go to university, you see. And that was sort of the pattern.

And it was essential for you to get a bursary.

Well it wasn't, but it was a help.

And with your older sister being seen as being so clever, did it worry you that you wouldn't do well enough?

I was good at sport. No. And I always knew she was better. And she was better. She was sensible. She was adult.

In contrast to you who were...?

Well I don't know, I was sensitive and I shouldn't have been. And I was full of bravado I think, as a child. Showing my siblings that I could do things. I always took the physical risks and things. But then I was bigger. I was the biggest one of the family which is strange. Both my mother and father were short.

And you were spending a lot of time going around looking at things, even when you were at high school?

Yes, I suppose I was. I think that I always noticed the shadows on the wall of the classroom and things like that, and say to... [inaudible]... She'd be amazed. She said when she pointed that sort of thing out to other people they thought she was very queer. And so I did. And I was always good company for other children, you know. I used to get asked away on holidays and things. And both my brother and sister were fairly solitary, I think.

What about your art? What was happening with that? Were you - did you do any sort of artwork?

Absolutely zilch. None. None. Art wasn't really - well if I say allowable I suppose it's a hard word. But if you could paint and if you can draw, okay, well you were artistic you see. And I used to arrange flowers. And I used to, oh make things. I always wanted to make something. And none of the family did, except the aunt.

What sort of things did you make?

Oh, what sort of - oh dear. I would - I just used to wander round saying I want to make something. And there didn't seem to be anything to make. And really, you need someone to do it with when you're a child, I think. You know, that thing people say about messing around with boats. So children are brought up knowing. They know things. But if you didn't - and this aunt used to paint the flowerpots and the hydrangeas. She painted them green and she used to let me paint sometimes. And that sort of thing that they did. My sister was always rather too serious minded for that. But I was glad of anybody and she let me make a little flower garden and what not.

In those days though, there were a lot of domestic arts that women were asked to practise, like sewing and all of that.

My family didn't do them.


No, no. My mother didn't, she was busy. And she was doing secondary school teaching, and she was very much one for books and things. She used to be a very good tennis player too. She was a very successful woman really. I think I was caught in between, and I think that people didn't have time for children, really. I can't remember much being read to or any of that sort of stuff. A bit, when we went on holidays.

You said you had started arranging flowers then, while you were still quite young.

Yeah, I did.

Did you ever do anything with that? Did that...?

Oh, I did a bit. I did - I remember winning a prize at school, and you had to decorate a table like this. And my aunt said, "Why don't you do it in buttercups and brass?" she said. And I thought, "A bit ordinary, bit ordinary". Being a frightful little snob. And so anyway, I asked the teacher at school, did she think that'd be too common, I thought. And no, she thought that would be lovely. That was okay, I was armed then. And I went along and I won the prize, the first prize you see. And this impressed the family a little, a little bit, I think. And then later, when I came to Canberra, and they started up an ikebana class here, and the man came up from Sydney. And he wouldn't have it, he wouldn't run the class and come up unless he got 20 pupils. And I was roped in to be one of them. And I turned out to be - it was the first time I realised I was good at anything. And I was rather better, and when I was chosen to show in Sydney, I was rather better there too, you see. And this was the first inkling that I had that I could do anything. I could always write a bit, you know, and that sort of thing. But nothing solidified. And with this, I learnt ikebana for seven years I think. And it helped me with my art. It helped me with form and things, which you start looking at. I think the English school of art, especially people who are brought up in the English tradition, Constance Spry and all that, colour, colour. It was always colour. But with ikebana you can't win unless you get good form. So I started looking sculpturally at things.

Back there in your childhood, when you did a piece that won the prize, what were the characteristics of that piece looking back? What did you do just instinctively there that made it win?

Made it yellow and bright, I think. We were aged about 12 or 11 or something. But that's what it was. It wasn't... it wasn't earth-shaking. But one aunt of mine came in, she went "Oh, it was obvious that one was the one to choose." It had yellow ribbon and brass, and goodness knows what.

Was this important to your confidence at the time?

Well, it was I think. I think it was a sort of a boost. Actually that's one thing I never had any of, is self confidence. I never had it. And even now my husband says to me, "I won't believe it", you see. People - men, men, never believe things unless it's in their own history. If it was yours, and he said, "Well you ought to feel confident with things you've achieved since". But you don't. You just know you're not any good at anything. I suppose deep in your bone marrow, I think - which after all is what forms you. And as the Jesuits said, I believe, "Give me a boy 'til he is seven and I will form - give you the man", you see. And I don't think I had it. I towed along, as you would. What else was there?

So the profound message of your childhood was that you weren't quite up to scratch.

Yes, oh quite, quite. And I had to disguise things.

But there was a glimmer, because you did win a prize for flower arranging.

Yeah, but it was only a bit of a glimmer.

Looking back now, do you think that if your older sister hadn't been so intellectually gifted, it would have been recognised more clearly that you yourself were pretty bright?

No, no, oh no. I don't think so. I don't think so at all. I think if I had probably different parents, and different surroundings, I might have been. Because other people's parents used to take to me, you see, and I used to wonder why they did. Because I knew - well it comes from being sort of sensitive as well I suppose. And the fact that it was a very busy household. And the fact was that my mother had arrived on my grandmother, who had lost a son in the war, and, you know, and she had the unmarried daughter who looked after her. And there's mother with three children arriving. It was pretty tough. We were lucky we had somewhere to go, because we didn't.

And so, also your mother was at that stage, the soul breadwinner, was she?

Well, well there was money in the family. I mean they had money before the uncle lost a lot of it. But there was enough. But there wasn't enough to bring up five, four extra people, you see. Well I suppose, you could have - my grandmother lived quite well. And I remember mother saying "I've got to go back and teach. Don't tell Douglas or he'll cry." He was the littlest one.

How did you decide what you were going to do when you left school?

I only knew I was going to get married, that was all. And I had to have children, I knew I had to have children. I always have had that.

Why was that?

I just needed them. You do what you need. It was unthinkable for me not to have children.

And so what you did at university, what was the purpose of going to university then?

Earn a living, dear. I became a secondary school teacher. I forgot everything I ever knew, because I have got a very bad memory and have had since I was 16. And I could teach anything, just anything I can teach it. I'm a very good teacher. Don't know the subject, it's very difficult... I didn't feel terribly much a success there, and I wasn't either.

So at university, what did you study? How did you decide what to do?

I didn't decide what to do, I did what I did at the Epsom Girls' Grammar School, which was a good secondary school for girls. And I did English, French, Latin and Maths. And - none of which I know much about now. English, French, Latin, Maths and Greek. Greek. And I got my B. A. and that was it, and then I went teaching.

And you went teaching. And that was - were there any options to that canvas... ?

Absolutely none. Absolutely none. I had to earn my living, and that was the only thing I...

The other thing women did - I felt the only other thing open to women at that stage - was nursing or something...

... Couldn't stand that. No. Nursing or - yes, that's right. And you didn't freelance. And you certainly didn't take up a meagre talent that wasn't specific, and dignified by exams. You can do it because you got the qualifications, you see. I had a B. A., I could teach. Couldn't though. So there you are.

So how long did your teaching career last?

Oh, only about three years, two years or something.

Did you enjoy it?

When I knew the subject I did, yes. I was good with children, but I don't know. And I - oh, I don't know. I wasn't very good. And I taught - they gave you subjects to teach because they couldn't get teachers. And I could teach the Latin and the English and things, but when it came to History and Geography, I was hopeless. Just hopeless.

But you had studied it at university... ?

I hadn't studied History and Geography... You had to do the things you hadn't studied, you see.

I see, right.

And even the things I studied, I got absent-minded about, I think. Except English I didn't. And Latin I didn't.

Your heart wasn't really in it.

Well it was. I don't know where else it was if it wasn't in that. You did it from a state of necessity I think. You had to earn your living. And you got paid for it.

When you were at university, and you - I mean the academic side wasn't really drawing you in, were there any other things going on at the university that interested you?

Boys, men! Of course. What else? Yes. A lot of failed relationships, I think I must have had. And I played tennis. And you were with a lot of people. You don't realise at the time of course you're with a lot of people. But you've still got your inhibitions with you I think.

What sort of things were you doing with other people at that time? What - were there activities around the university that you were involved with?

Oh a bit. A bit. I don't know. University probably is different - well it is different these days. But we, mainly we enjoyed ourselves. We didn't take too much of the lectures you had to go to. And you took notes and did enough to pass the exams. And then you went to Field Clubs and things.

What were Field Clubs?

Field Clubs were things that the graduates of the science faculties used to go to, the zoology people, and they'd say, this is greywacke, that rock you see. You didn't care whether it was greywacke or not, you were having a nice time, and you walked for miles, and you had meals in huts and things. It was nice. And we - a friend of mine and I were about the only two non-scientific - I think one of the boys asked us along for light relief. As though the scientific women were pretty earnest, you know. And we used to go along and have a nice time.

Was the attraction there the boys, or was it also nature?

Oh no, it was the boys. And it was a nice way of life. I liked this. But I didn't want to know the name of everything. They all wanted to know the scientific name of everything. I didn't want that. But it was a sort of way of life in the back to nature, and the old hut and that sort of stuff that I liked.

You've talked since you've started to work as an artist, about an emotional connection that you have with the landscape. And with the landscape that you work with. Back there when you were out on field trips, or when you were walking around in New Zealand, did that landscape resonate with you in that emotional way, in the way that the Monaro and this area around Canberra has done later?

Well the Monaro was very different, because I had to make a friend in a strange country, you see. And I had to discard the New Zealand landscape, which I was passionately fond of. And make friends with this one. Which takes some years if you're not a tree, not a something, no harbour, no Rangitoto, no nothing. All the things that were built into you had disappeared you see. And you've - somebody had a book once on Stromlo, she was an American woman - and they had titles of - and you could place yourself in a category. And I remember the director's wife signed her name under the category that said 'I know my rights'. She did too. And I thought what on earth am I going to. So I looked through, and I came to 'But then there's always nature.' And I thought that's for me, you see. And I was quite old by then. By that time I'd had three young children, and the mechanics of living take up a lot of time, you know, if you're not a born housewife, as goodness knows I wasn't, and you've got a fuel stove and a Dux heater, a small heater - nothing, nothing, you see in a very cold house. And you're not really good at housework and you've got all these little people, well it takes the best of your time and the best of your energy. And the husbands, of course, all went up to the observatory, and they had a life up there that was forbidden to women on the mountain, who were mainly housewives. And this awful copper, and this up the hill to put the clothes on the line. And you have a lot of clothes when you've got three young children. So I spent a lot of time doing the mechanics of work.

Again, I suppose I'm asking in retrospect, was the beginning of that kind of very special emotional connection with nature, there when you were still in New Zealand, or did it come later?

I didn't need it as much in New Zealand, because I had friends, you see, and when you're in a scientific community you don't have friends of your own choosing. See, if you're a university person, you naturally can choose your friends, you see. You don't know this one, you don't know that one... and you're very free. But when you're plunged down into a place where people are from different countries, different standards of education, different everything, and you've got to try very hard, and you've got the men going up to the observatory, where they have morning tea - luxuries like that. And they know people, and they walk along corridors and they say good morning to them. There's nothing in the house, you see, absolutely nothing except a small baby who cries, you know, you know what babies do. And so you look round desperately, I think, and I think I was fairly desperate for something that I could associate with. And well, nature was my friend. In fact that's what...

It came to be.

It came to that... And you looked hard for that.

Whereas back there as an undergraduate you had a lot of friends, and nature was the context in which you enjoyed their company.

Yes, that's right. But you came to rely on it. And so I built a big garden in the end, and I did that. And I used to walk in the paddocks a lot.

So while you were an undergraduate, and you were seeing lots of boys, was there one in particular that emerged eventually?

Oh, there were several, yes. I'm not going to go into that... It was a long time ago.

I was actually asking you about meeting your husband.

No, no, no. He went to the same school as I did. The Remuera Primary School.

Oh right. So how did you meet Ben Gascoigne?

Well, over the bridge table mostly, because we played bridge and I knew a family who knew him. And he was once, he once came in to make up a fourth because we didn't have a fourth, you see. And so that was how it - so we've had the same sort of conditioning, except that he's intellectual.

And was recognised as such by his family.

Had to be, had to be. In those days, if you didn't get a scholarship you dropped your education and went into a factory or something. So that was it. And he got a lot of scholarships. He was always clever at it.

So how was it that Ben was the one, out of the various boys that you went out with, that emerged as the one that you eventually married?

Life, dear, I suppose. Life.

But was there something about him that particularly appealed to you?

He was clever. And of course, I wasn't I suppose. I don't know. It's really, it's too formless and shapeless and I'm not going to go into it anyway. That's for sure.

But I suppose really, how did it happen? Like could you...

Custom, custom dear.

Tell me the sort of story of meeting Ben and how...

He went to university when I did. He was a good oarsman, he was up for a Rhodes Scholarship. Didn't get it because of his stammer. And went to Bristol for two years as a - because he got - he was up for the Science scholarship, and he put in Maths as his subject. And his old headmaster said, "But Maths is an Arts subject". And all his work, all his years, just went. Because he'd put in for a Science scholarship, because he's a Science graduate, and not an Arts. Why would he put an arts thing in? And he missed it, and all those years of living on two bob and what not, went. He went to Bristol and he did optics, which turned out to be a very good thing for him. And he got into astronomy because of it. So that was good. But it was a very cruel thing. And this day and age you'd fight it out in the law courts, you know. But he was up for everything. He just got so many scholarships when it came to the capping. And they used to put comments on the graduates. "What, again?" they'd say, "Gascoigne"...

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