Niki Francis is one of six PhD students at the National Centre of Biography. She began her PhD about artist Rosalie Gascoigne at the beginning of this year but has felt a connection with her for much longer, having first seen her work at an exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2004. ‘The immediacy and beauty of her work, the concreteness, the allusiveness took my imagination by surprise’, says Niki. Her feeling of connectedness with Rosalie was strengthened when she learnt that they both had not only grown up in the same area of New Zealand but had gone to the same school, though decades apart. And, when six months later, Niki crossed the Tasman to join her partner in Canberra her thoughts turned again to Rosalie, who had made that journey 62 years earlier to join her husband Ben Gascoigne, an astronomer at Mount Stromlo.
Niki had originally intended to work as a parish minister with the Uniting Church in Canberra but, following a two-year stint in Brussels with her husband, where she took a course in Life Writing, decided upon their return in 2009 that she needed a new challenge. It didn’t take long to decide on a PhD with the NCB. Her original plan was to write a collective biography about the impact of immigration on the identity of women in her maternal grandfather’s family, who had migrated to Brisbane from Germany in the 1880s. But, like most agricultural labourers, they had left few records about their lives. Rosalie Gascoigne then became the obvious choice. Niki already had a strong curiosity about her, Rosalie’s papers are held by the National Library of Australia and her immediate family and friends still live in the area. The Canberra landscape was also the inspiration for Rosalie’s art.
Like most new students, Niki is still grappling with how to approach her thesis. As well as following the normal course of reading widely about what makes a good biography, and the difference between literary and historical biographies, she is sitting in on Life Writing classes to help her grapple with issues about subjectivity and is attending graduate seminars at the art school, including a painting class so she can better understand the art-making process.
Top: in a Rosalie Gascoigne pose on Mt Stromlo (ACT), where Rosalie and her husband lived for many years (2010)
Middle: speaking at a commemorative service at Polygon Wood, a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery on the Western Front in Belgium (2008)
Bottom: on a training exercise at Puckapanyal, Victoria, as an Australian army reserve chaplain (2007)