Janet Keats (1900 –1985) was Convent trained as a pianist and as she matured, she developed her soprano voice. Aged 18 she left her home in Katoomba for Sydney (where she would live with her aunt and grandfather in Chatswood). She contemplated a singing career, at first singing and playing the piano at venues provided for young men sent home from The Front. Thus, she saw the effect of war upon our young men. It was at one of these that she was heard singing by Horace Keats, who having spent a lifetime working with voices good and bad, recognised a fine instrument. Marriage followed and so she learned what professional musical life was about and compared to the comfortable circumstances of her former life it is harsh and unforgiving.
Their marriage was successful, and they developed a joint professional life. When Keats began composing it was Janet more often than not who selected the poetry that he set. They looked beyond the ballads of the bush embracing Kenneth Mackenzie, Hugh McCrae, Christopher Brennan to name only a few.
Upon the outbreak of WWII Janet fought hard to keep her first son Russell from volunteering; after all the plight of those returned from WWI made a vivid impression. She prevailed not and her son joined the RAN but was killed in HMAS Canberra at the infamous Battle of Savo Island during August 1942. She also successfully battled her daughter Barbara from becoming a military nurse setting in place a feud that lasted until her death.
Horace Keats passed away during August 1945 and she was left with her second son Brennan, a home overlooking Balmoral Beach and the end of a musical partnership that had sustained us all until then.
At first Janet attempted to continue the broadcasting and recital career established in years passed. Work with Dorothy White pianist for ABC Orchestra at the time failed because “the spark” had gone. She sought solace in composing, first setting McCrae (they were married albeit briefly) and later two poems of Mackenzie. These poems in particular are poignant, expressing a loss that was deeper than words or music could convey. A cry from one whose life was to become one of domestic drudgery but she did ensure that the legacy of her first husband would live on.
(Painting by Dora Toovey for the Archibald Exhibition in 1945. In the foreground is Barbara Russell, the composer's wife, the composer Horace Keats is at the piano and overlooking them is the Australian poet, Christopher Brennan. Swept across the bottom right-hand corner are the notes from the Brennan Song, I am Shut Out of Mine Own Heart, the last song performed by the composer and his wife.) The portrait now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.
This portrait is part of the prestige Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize. It marks a hundred years of Australia's oldest and most-loved portraiture award. The 100 portraits chosen are traveling the country exhibiting in major galleries throughout 2022-2024. For more information: https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/whats-on/touring-exhibitions/archie-100-tour/