Sunday, February 6, 2011

The drover's wife: An old-fashioned life with a lesson at the end

Tim Barlass reveals what became of the teenage bride at the heart of an acclaimed 1959 portrait

Ii is one of the great images of rural Australia from another era. The Drover's Wife is on show at the NSW State library in an exhibition of work by Jeff Carter, regarded as one of the most important photographers of the past 60 years.

A review last month in The Sydney Morning Herald said the main subject of the picture was the wife, who looked directly towards Carter's camera. It said: "What is that in her eyes? Resignation? Fortitude? Commitment? Enduring love? What became of their baby? How did she cope with a youth spent constantly on the road?"

The photographer, who always got to know his subjects, had lost contact, saying only that they were living in the Northern Territory. He died in October, before the exhibition had opened.

The Sun-Herald has tracked down the family to remote Borroloola, near the territory's coast. We can reveal what happened in the intervening 52 years and can go some way to answering the question of what the emotion was in her eyes.

The drover's wife is Mavis Kerr, then a 16½-year-old seated next to husband Ron in ragged shirt and holding baby Johnny, who was three weeks old when Carter immortalised the scene.

Johnny was born on May 3, 1959 - four days after the couple were married in the vicar's home in Broken Hill. There is no wedding picture. There are not many other family pictures, either. Many were lost when their home was destroyed by cyclone Kathy in 1984.

They met at a sheep station when Mavis, then 15, accompanied her father, who was having a break from droving to take on the mail round.

Mavis said: "I was too embarrassed and too far gone to wear a white wedding frock and go into church. We knew the vicar and his wife and were married at his house."

Soon after Ron set out with his truck, droving a mob of 3700 merinos from Tibooburra to Coonamble - a distance of almost 1000 kilometres.

Jeff Carter, from the Illawarra, happened to be travelling with him and taking pictures along the way.

"I went out to visit him three weeks after Johnny was born and he had put on a bit of weight. I went in our Holden panel van," Mavis said. "Jeff had been taking pictures of Ron and me for The Walkabout Magazine and after we got married he caught up with us again and took more pictures and travelled with us for a while."

Of Johnny, she added: "He was a good child but he was a lot of mischief. He used to get in amongst the sheep - you would turn around and the sheep would have scattered and there would be Johnny in the middle of them."

Johnny was the first of five children, three boys and two girls. The droving finished in 1963, when Mavis had the last baby. Ron became a head stockman and the children were educated through correspondence courses and at boarding school in Alice Springs.

Johnny is now 51, married and working at one of the country's leading cattle stations - Delta Downs at Karumba, near the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland.

A man of few words and married with two grown-up children of his own, he has worked in the mines and on cattle stations. He said: "I get home every couple of years. I knew about the photo and have one blown up in my lounge; Jeff Carter sent it to me four years ago."

Ron has suffered two strokes and recently came out of hospital and is with his eldest daughter in Darwin - too far away for Mavis to visit from the family home at Borroloola.

Mavis said she had seen a copy of the picture in a book. Carter had promised to send more pictures but she said they had not arrived.

The furthest she has travelled is to Orange and Dubbo. She has never been to Sydney and would not make it to the exhibition, called Beach, Bush and Battlers. She is not aware that a coffee-table book to coincide with the exhibition features The Drover's Wife on the cover.

Carter penned a short message at the front of the book that is as apposite to the Kerr family as to his many other subjects: "My eternal gratitude to the good folk who allowed me into their lives, time and again, over the years. Without their trust and co-operation, few of these images would have been possible."

So what was in the eyes of teenage Mavis as she sat on that footplate? Well, certainly enduring love because the couple are still happily married.

Mavis provides the answer: "I was always happy. When I had babies I didn't know what sort of life it was going to be for them but I got used to it. You just follow your husband around and put up with it. "But I was happy."