Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Colin Cuthbert Orr Colahan (1897–1987)

by Garry Kinnane

This article was published:

Colin Cuthbert Orr Colahan (1897-1987), painter and sculptor, was born on 12 February 1897 at Woodend, Victoria, fifth of six children of John Joseph Aloysius Colahan (1836-1918), an Irish-born, retired surgeon major general in the British Army, and his wife Eliza Newton, née Orr (1861-1899), who was born in Australia. Colin attended Xavier College, Melbourne, and contributed humorous cartoons to the Xaverian and Bulletin magazines. In 1916 he enrolled in medicine at the University of Melbourne but he left next year to study painting and drawing at the National Gallery schools. He soon moved on to Max Meldrum’s school, adopting his teacher’s practice of tonal realism, and editing Max Meldrum, His Art and Views (c.1919), to promote the latter’s theories. Colahan’s work was first shown publicly as part of an exhibition by `Meldrumites’ at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1919.

On 19 August 1921 in the office of the registrar of marriages, Melbourne, Colahan married Violet Winifred Lester; they were to have a son, David (d.1945), before being divorced in 1931. In 1921-27 the couple lived and travelled in England, France and Spain. Colahan studied the classical masters and developed his technique, showing his work in London and Paris. He returned to Melbourne, where his reputation grew and his work matured. His subjects included landscapes, streetscapes, portraits and nude studies, and his exhibitions generated favourable reviews and good sales. Quick, skilful and full of Irish wit and charm, physically he was small and attractive to women. One of these was Mireille Wilkinson, the French wife of an Australian economist, Launcelot Wilkinson; she and Colahan had two sons. In 1931 Colahan was shaken by the brutal murder of another of his lovers, the model Mary (`Mollie’) Dean, and further distressed by the inquest and publicity that followed.

In 1935 Colahan suddenly departed for England, where he built a reputation as a portrait painter. His more notable subjects included George Bernard Shaw, Charmian Clift and Sir Malcolm Sargent. At the register office, London, on 21 November 1939 he married 23-year-old Ursula Nora Winifred Marx. They had two daughters and lived in the White House, Tite Street, Chelsea, formerly owned by James McNeill Whistler. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, appointed Colahan an official war artist in 1942 and directed him to cover the activities of his country’s armed services, especially the Royal Australian Air Force, in Britain and Europe. This commission (terminated in 1945) resulted in some of his best paintings, such as `Ballet of Wind and Rain’ and `Waterloo Station’; these two and eighty-eight more of his works are held by the AWM. He became the first president of the Australian Artists’ Association, London, in 1952.

Moving to Italy in 1958, Colahan built a house at Mortola Superiore, near Ventimiglia. He continued to paint portraits and landscapes, but much of this work is inferior. He was divorced from Ursula in 1967. On 29 September that year at the British Consulate, Nice, France, he married Monique Eliza Bornoff, née Hazelden, a 52-year-old divorcee. Around this time he turned to sculpture, producing over thirty works, including the `Sirena’ fountain for the Italian town of Bordighera, and a head of Victor Smorgon, bought by the National Gallery of Victoria. His work is represented in the State galleries of Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. Colahan died on 6 June 1987 at Ventimiglia and was buried locally. His wife and four of his five children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Kinnane, Colin Colahan (1996) and for sources
  • file 205/002/030, parts A1, A2 and B, file 89/0857, file 97/0347 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Garry Kinnane, 'Colahan, Colin Cuthbert Orr (1897–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1897
Woodend, Victoria, Australia


6 June, 1987 (aged 90)
Ventimiglia, Italy

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