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ON DISPLAY

Jill Ker Conway
, 1987

by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson

oil on canvas (frame: 101 x 85 cm)

Jill Ker Conway AC (1934-2018), academic, writer and company director, was born in Hillston in western New South Wales and spent her early years on her father’s sheep station, Coorain, which was so isolated that she was seven years old before she saw another girl. When she was eleven years old, her father died, leaving the running of the 32000-acre property to her mother. The financial difficulties occasioned by a prolonged period of drought at Coorain eventually saw the family relocate to Sydney, Ker Conway completing her school education at Abbotsleigh. It was there, Ker Conway has said, that she first encountered the idea that ‘women could achieve’. She then studied at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1958 with the University Medal for history. Despite her success, she was unhappy with the direction of Australian scholarship, and her own job prospects in this country in the 1950s were minimal. Turned down (on the basis of gender) for a post with the Commonwealth Department of External Affairs, she applied to study at Harvard University, leaving Australia in 1960. She completed her PhD at Harvard in 1969. By then married to Canadian history professor, John Conway, she taught at the University of Toronto for eleven years and in 1975 became the first woman appointed President of Smith College, Massachusetts, the largest women’s college in the United States. She has edited a number of anthologies of women’s life writing; and written several books on the historical experience of American women as well as three volumes of autobiography: The Road From Coorain (1989); True North (1994); and A woman’s education (2001). In July 2013, she was awarded the USA’s National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama, having a month previously been named an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia. Sarah Belchetz-Swenson (b. 1938) grew up in New York, studying there and at Oberlin College in Ohio. She met Jill Ker Conway in 1984, when she was commissioned by Smith College to paint Ker Conway’s official presidential portrait. During the sittings the pair became good friends, prompting the artist to create another portrait capturing the informal aspects of Ker Conway’s personality. Ker Conway has said of her friend’s portraits that ‘they convey the mood and substance of the person and, for this reason, convey the inheritance of institution, or family, from the past’.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of an anonymous donor 2001
Accession number: 2001.5