Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2021

Judy Cassab, a portrait (2005), by Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall is one of my favourite biographers, and when she chooses an artist as her subject, it’s a match made in heaven.

Judy Cassab was born in Vienna in 1920 to Hungarian parents but grew up in Beregszász on the border of Hungary and Czechoslovakia (but now part of Ukraine).  Almost half the biography covers the extraordinary story of her years in Europe—a comfortable and secure childhood until the emergence of Nazism; falling in love with Jancsi Kampfner, an older man who promised that he would always support her desire to be an artist; her art studies in Prague truncated by the German Occupation; her survival through the generosity of her maid who allowed her to use her identity; and Janczi’s return from the slave labour camp in Poland.

Their families almost all perished in the Holocaust, and when Judy’s father died in 1947, she struggled with her identity.  Neither she nor Janczi were observant Jews, and she did not want her sons born in 1945 and 1947 to be Jewish.  For the time being in Hungary, however, it was time to rebuild their lives and with Janczi’s solid support Judy began painting, realising that her strength lay in portraiture.  Although abstract reigned supreme, she felt that for her it needed to happen without prompting. But just as she was determined to forge her own style against the prevailing abstractionism, she was equally indignant when politics invaded the art world and the new orthodoxy demanded socialist realism.  

Politics was also affecting Janczi’s return to the business of brewing beer.  He was an unabashed critic of Communist expropriation of property when in 1948 all businesses with more than 100 workers were nationalised. His ‘indiscretions’ were noted, and before long there were restrictions on his movements and the couple began to plan living in exile.

It was fortunate that when, stateless after the war, they were given a choice of citizenships and had chosen to be Czechoslovak.  Had they chosen to be Hungarian, the Soviets would have refused them passports.  Instead Janczi and Judy had official permission to leave and they emigrated to Sydney in 1951.   With a degree in chemical engineering from Prague, Janczi was a skilled engineer and presumed that he could soon establish himself making craft beers, but language difficulties and the parochial preference for well-known Australian brands meant that was not to be.  A first attempt at running his own clothing shop was a failure, and he ended up as owner-manager of a factory making surgical stockings.  It was never satisfying work, and Judy’s diaries record her enduring dismay that she was highly successful in her career as an artist which he was stuck in soul-destroying work that allowed no outlet for his creativity.

But she was determined to persist.  Niall’s biography records an extraordinary catalogue of achievements, including portraits of the rich and famous, winning the Archibald twice, when no woman had won it before.  She was awarded a CBE and an AO, and her list of other awards and prizes at Wikipedia is long and impressive. She served on prize committees, on boards, and her list of solo exhibitions at WP is even longer.  Her diaries, however, which she kept from 1944 onwards, reveal self-doubt along with rejection of unfair criticism and patronising praise such as calling her work ‘charming’.  She wanted to be taken seriously both as a portraitist and as an abstractionist, (which had come to her in its own good time!)

She also anguished about her sometimes stormy marriage, her absences from the children and their relationship with their father, who was more of a disciplinarian than she was because he was always there when she was not.

These details from the deeply personal diaries are interesting to read, revealing the complexity of a vulnerable woman who kept much of her private thoughts to herself.  But I would have liked to have heard more from friends and perhaps her sons, contributing their opinions or anecdotes to round out the subject more fully.

The Judy Cassab website is a treasure trove of all sorts of links, but the one I urge you to see is the link to an 8 minute segment of the 7.30 Report about her 60th anniversary retrospective when she was 93.  She died in 2015, ten years after this biography was published.

Author: Brenda Niall
Title: Judy Cassab, A Portrait
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2005
ISBN: 9781741144741, hbk., autographed first edition, 308 pages including an Author’s note, a map, 24 plates, some in colour; an Afterword, Appendices I, II & III, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration credits and an Index
Source: Personal library



  1. Gosh what a fascinating life story! I had never heard of her, so thank you for this!


    • Next time you’re in the National Portrait Gallery you can see some of her works, they’ve got 13. (Just search under her name).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Waaaaah! I miss the NPG!!!!


        • It is art I miss more than anything now that we can’t travel. When I think of my European trips, I think of the hours I’ve spent in the galleries. I appreciate that they have done a lot to put the paintings online, but it just isn’t the same. I mean, Michelangelo’s David. You have to stand in front of it to appreciate its monumental qualities. You have to see, open-mouthed in awe, the Ditchley portrait f2f to realise that those yellow flowers are studded with jewels.
          We have a world class art gallery here in Melbourne, which has a fantastic European collection, but even that’s not enough. Especially at the moment because they’re having a Triennial so the galleries are full of rubbishy plastic things *sigh* to attract the children. I don’t understand why they have to be ‘attracted’ like that. In the Museu Gulbenkian in Portugal I’ve seen a class of five-year-olds having a serious conversation about serious artworks. They didn’t seem to need things you could jump on and scream over…


          • I so agree…. I have a particular painting I want to go and see at the National Gallery and goodness knows when that will be. I *need* to see real art in the flesh….


  2. Thanks for this lovely review, Lisa. I completely agree with your admiration for both Cassab and Brenda Niall. I must re-read this wonderful biography of a great woman written by one of Australia’s greatest ever biographical writers. Her book on Georgiana McCrae is also very fine, but the bitter sweet elements of Cassab’s life make this a truly outstanding book. My wife’s late father escaped Hungary in 1939 and lost most of his family in the Holocaust, so Cassab’s story resonates very strongly with us.
    Thanks also for alerting me to the Cassab website, which sounds like a joy in store.
    I must admit to a slight bias towards all Brenda Niall’s work, as I am acquainted with Brenda as a former Monash colleague, and I know her brother Hugh, a fellow medical scientist as a good friend.
    Best wishes


    • HI Chris, my favourite is the book about The Boyds. It was superb,


  3. I must revisit the National Portrait Gallery soon. I am becoming a recluse.


    • Aren’t we all? I’m an incorrigible introvert and while I used to make an effort to get out and about, C_19 has made a virtue out of my unsociability.


  4. Thanks for that review which has whetted my appetite. She is a wonderful biographer and must read this one of a truly great artist and what a life of accomplishment, courage ,and commitment.


    • If you’re going to hunt it out at the library, also have a look and see if they have Judy Cassab, Portraits of Friends and Artists. Unfortunately my local libraries don’t have it.


  5. I’ve had this biography on the (very long) TBR list for ages, but this lovely review has bumped it up to the top. I loved Niall’s The Boyds and Martin Boyd. I also have True North to read. Thanks.


  6. I was not familiar with Niall so will look into her books. I like well written biographies. The 7:30 segment was good but I did not like the journalist reporting who addressed Judy in the 3rd person to her son as though she was not there. I have such a pet peeve against people who do this interviewing older people especially women. A fascinating woman and incredible artist.


    • Yes, I noticed that too. It shows you that we have a long way since then in terms of how we communicate with people who have dementia.


  7. I can’t begin to imagine the losses Jewish people suffered in the Holocaust. But what did we Australians lose by consistently failing to recognize the qualifications of immigrants and by insular attitudes to anything new.
    On a different tack, I like the idea of waiting for Abstraction to feel normal or comfortable. I am of course more familiar with writers, and too many take up new ideas, or fashions, without understanding them.


    • It’s a common complaint amongst migrants. But really, it was naïve to imagine that they could get by without English. They had the opportunity to learn it before they came, and chose not to. Once they got here, she learned it quickly, but he never mastered it.
      Seriously, I might be a terrific teacher, but I would not expect to get a job teaching, even in France which is my best language. Apart from the language difficulty there is a difference in culture, which matters. As a supervising teacher of qualified teachers reluctantly upgrading their quals to get registration here, time and again I would see that they had no idea how to discipline children or, more accurately, teach them appropriate behaviours, when they came from cultures that ruled students with corporal punishment. Their ‘new ideas’ were what we had jettisoned long ago, and they made it obvious that they disapproved of that. As for knowing how to interact with students with disabilities, when they came from countries that consigned such kids to begging or locking them up out of sight, they had no idea how disrespectful and unkind they were, never mind being clueless about how to teach them.
      Migration is difficult, it just is, and while we can always do better, I don’t think it’s always the host country’s fault when things are not as the migrant expects.


  8. […] of Australia’s best-loved actors. But I also really enjoyed Brenda Niall’s biography Judy Cassab, a portrait (2005) which had been on my TBR for far too […]


  9. […] Judy Cassab, a portrait, by Brenda Niall […]


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