The Sunday Business Post, 15 July 2001


Susanna de Vries, the writer whose services to art and literature won her the title of ‘Miss Marple of Australian Art’, is coming to Ireland to investigate another mystery — her lost family. 

Later this month, de Vries arrives in Ireland where she’ll be asking people for their memories of Emma Barton, who was a national school principal in Monaghan. Emma Barton was the mother of Susanna de Vries who never knew her, having been adopted at birth and taken to England. Emma died in 1985, two weeks before de Vries finally tracked her down.

De Vries has forged her career around the piecing together of lost lives. In 1988 she was asked to write a book on pioneer men for the Australian bicentennial. After reading through many old diaries and documents she decided to write not about the men but about the women who lived with them, sharing the work­load and frequently the misery. “They were haunting stories.”

Susanna’s books include Great Australian Women, which chronicles the lives of 15 Australian women, all of them remarkable in some way. Earlier this year, she published Blue Ribbons Bitter Bread, a biography of the feisty courageous Joice Loch, part of which is set in Dublin during The Troubles. The front cover proclaims Loch “Australia’s most decorated woman” but most Australians had never heard of her before Susanna’s book appeared in print. Joice’s decorations came from wartime Romania and Britain and from Poland and Greece, where, with her husband Sydney Loch worked with famine victims and refugees. During World War II she was an agent for the Allies in eastern Europe and escorted hundreds of Jews and Poles via Constantinople to Palestine and to safety

Sydney and Joice Loch were writers like de Vries. Soon after they married, left Australia. First they went to London and then, in 1920, to a war‑torn Dublin to research a book which was called Ireland in Travail by Two Impartial Observers.

“But they had trouble being impartial observers,” says de Vries. “They were living in a safe house for the IRA.” Joice and Sydney Loch moved in literary circles, socialising with George Russell, meeting Douglas Hyde, Arthur Griffith, Yeats and Constance Markiewicz. They were optimists with an adventurous spirit, plunging themselves, often quite naively, into the middle of the troubles. At the same time Sydney, suspected of being a member of the IRA, was arrested and Joice sold articles to Fleet Street, including one about the burning of the Customs House, to pay the lawyer who got her husband out of prison.

De Vries’s search for Ernma Barton is a journey of a more personal kind. Like many of those who were adopted as children, de Vries has spent a lot of her life looking for information, trying to piece together scrappy facts, to find links most people take for granted. When she was younger, she learned Spanish because she had reason to believe her father was in Spain. She thought he was fighting Franco.

When, earlier this year, she met a retired diplomat, an ex‑pupil of her birth mother in Melbourne, she was intrigued when he told her how much she resembled her Irish mother. “She taught him French. She obviously loved French and I love French. The passion for writing comes from my father who wrote at least eight books. One was called I Lived Like a Lord but he never lived like a lord — Castleward, his Georgian stately home, was burdened with debt when he inherited and went to the National Trust and my birth father lived like a journalist.”

Following the break up of her marriage Emma Barton had an affair with Edward Ward. Though de Vries never got to speak to her birth mother, she did talk to Ward on the telephone. She was in no mood to be won over. The timing of their conversation, as with other significant events in her life, was strange as her adoptive father had recently died.

“My adoptive father had always been stable, family‑orientated, a wonderful person, who you could rely on completely. My birth father seems to have been mercurial, attractive, charming. I was told he was ‘the man everyone wanted to sit next to at dinner’ but you wouldn’t want to rely on him. I didn’t want to get to know him and be swayed by his charm. ‘I felt angry he had abandoned my mother until I discovered the full story from a half-sister and then I wished that I had known him. “

De Vries lives on a quiet road about 20 minutes from Brisbane city centre. She may be busy with books and deadlines but her home, complete with pool and lush garden, obliging husband and adored dogs, seems calm and or­derly; extremely civilised. It’s thousands of miles away from where she spent her relatively turbulent child­hood.

When she was five, the Germans dropped a bomb on de Vries’s London home, displacing her family. She spent the next few years travel­ling around England, staying with relatives and in hotels. When she was nine, just before she was sent away to boarding school, there was another, more significant bolt from the blue.

Her parents told her she was adopted, that her birth mother was a school teacher from Ireland and her birth father was a famous journalist. She was shattered. She felt utterly deceived, didn’t know what to believe any more. Although now she thinks that ultimately adoption was a “positive experience” for her, makes you try harder, the process of arriving at that realisation has been tough, a hard journey.

“I adored my adoptive father,” she says. “Nobody could have had a more perfect father. I did have problems with my adoptive mother who was a ballet dancer. I think there’s a terrible irony about life. You often get a daughter who’s totally different from the daughter you dreamed of getting.

“My mother, the ballet dancer, wanted a ballet dancer or a model, what she got was a bookish daughter who wanted to go to university. So I was a bit of a disappointment to her — but that’s life. It could have happened if I’d been her biological daughter but you don’t realise this until later.”

De Vries’s father thought she should learn languages and be a translator. She got a place at Oxford but opted to study art history at the Sorbonne in Paris and studied in Spain. Back in London, despite her background and qualifications, she had trouble finding employment in her field. She applied to London’s National Gallery for a job as a curator but was turned down.

“Men got all the curators’ jobs at that time.” She went into art journalism and worked very briefly on the front desk at Christies. An auction house is a university of life,” she says.

She married Larry Evans, a brilliant young professor of psychiatry who got a job at the University of Queensland and, in 1975, they emigrated to Australia. She didn’t mind the upheaval.

“I certainly don’t miss England,” she says. “I look at it and say, ‘what an overcrowded island and what dreadful weather’.”

Since 1975 de Vries’s life has changed significantly, both personally and professionally. After working in the university library, she got a job in the rare books department of another auction house.

“I had the time of my life. Lunch with the forgers. Big on funny stories and expensive restaurants — most forgers I met.”

She began lecturing and writing. Her marriage to the professor ended sadly [He left her for a much younger nurse who worked as his research assistant]. She married Jake, an architect and architectural photographer. Her adoptive parents died. She found out more about Emma Barton and her birth father, journalist Edward Ward, the Viscount of Bangor, in Northern Ireland.

De Vries’s books, all ten of them, are on the living room table. They’re an eclectic bunch: Historic Brisbane and its Early Artists; Historic Sydney: the Founding of Australia; The Lost Impressionists: Great Masterpieces from Private Collections.

“Collecting art doesn’t mean you’re a lovely person,” says de Vries. “That’s why I know so much about the dark dealings of art collections. In 1996, she was awarded the Or­der of Australia for her services to art and literature. The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed her the Miss Marple of Australian Art because of her investigations into art forgery. She is, she says, “interested in the psychology of the forger”.

She won’t be writing a book on the subject though. She’s received some “nasty phone calls and leTters” in her time, which made her decide she’d be safer not to.

De Vries doesn’t know yet whether she’ll be writing about her lost family. Her father, Edward Ward was based for a while in the Reuters bureau in Shanghai. He wrote about China and South America. He was married four times, though never to Emma Barton. “I think he had an eye for the girls,” says de Vries.

De Vries has been in contact with some of Ward’s other children. She’s met the Hon William Ward, the present Viscount Bangor, and actress Lalla Ward (Romana in Dr Who) and is married to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “She’s very attractive and very clever,” says de Vries of her half-sister.

For de Vries it’s been a long, eventful quarter of a century. Most people only have two parents to lose. She’s lost four.