Christabel Blackman (1976) is a dynamic figure in the art world and shares with us her stories from early days at Ascham to global artistic pursuits. Her forthcoming book, Charles and Barbara Blackman: A Decade of Art and Love, is highly anticipated and will be published by Thames and Hudson in 2024.
Christabel, you have spent a lot of time living and studying overseas. Tell us a little more about that journey once you left Ascham.
I went on from Ascham to study at a school for university preparation. I did my Higher School Certificate at 15, with special permission from the Board of Education—as I was underage, had only coursed four and a half years of high school, and hadn’t yet sat for the School Certificate.
I eventually went to Florence and studied Fine Art Conservation in Italian, in particular, easel paintings. Then I moved to Valencia in Spain where I lived for 25 years and did my Master’s Degree in Science for Conservation. I married, had three children and worked for many years at the main art gallery specialising in Gothic and Renaissance painting.
I returned to Australia in 2011 and set up my own business in fine art conservation. I have also had a career as a professional visual artist, and have written and published many articles for magazines, conferences, congresses, etc. in English, Spanish and Valencian. I have written a non-fiction book, which will be published early next year, Charles and Barbara Blackman: A Decade of Art and Love.
How would you describe your many and varied roles?
Being a freelance fine art conservator… means everything from liaising with clients, doing the bookkeeping, and writing up appraisals and reports. I work on different artworks almost every day, assessing their problems, and working towards solving them. This means putting on the smock in the restoration studio, pulling out the scalpel and solvents, or the pigments and varnish. Several days a week I work on the upcoming publication. It is important for me to have flexibility in my work, to fit my lifestyle. My freedom is important to me. Last year I toured the world with my partner’s rock band and took photographs for their socials. So, I want to be able to close my studio if I have other things in life to do. Otherwise, I work diligently, often seven days a week, so that I can take that time off. There’s no income when I don’t work, so I have to balance things out. The book has been labour of love. It was always on my bucket list.
What influence did Ascham have on your life post-School?
Ascham’s greatest influence was thanks to the Dalton Plan, which taught me a methodical way to attend to all my work and get it done on time. It taught me how to be a true professional in that way; not to make excuses. It taught me to take interest in the things that I didn’t have a natural talent for, and not to be rejective.
Mrs Danziger became the headmistress while I was there, and I remember that she gave us a talk on how Ascham girls wore neat hair, a natural glowing face, and a tidy manner of dress, and that was enough to confront the world. She was right for me.
What has been the most memorable project you’ve been involved in?
I love a challenge. The book, Charles and Barbara Blackman: A Decade of Art and Love, has been just that. It has been delving into so many different sources for research, not only for historical information, but also to chase up images. The 1950s, leading up to the Antipodean Manifesto, was an extraordinarily interesting era for art, culture, galleries, exhibitions, literary circles, and even the emergence of cafe society and licensed restaurants. It was a core that has spiralled out into our present-day cultural richness.
What are some hot tips you would impart to budding authors and artists?
First advice is: don’t procrastinate. Just do it. Always put your best idea forward, as more will follow. Be fearless. Don’t underestimate your self-worth. Write about what you know or are familiar with. Take up belly dancing or something physically exciting because you will need to compensate for all those hours that you are sitting at the desk. Look at the horizon for your eyesight, don’t overtire the optic nerve by concentrating on the same visual plane for too long. And learn how to touch type with all 10 fingers, it’s a greater asset than you think.