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van de Wiel, Hanne (1916–2011)

by Valerie Lawson

Hanne van de Wiel was a woman of style. As a beauty in her 20s, she captured the attention of the media proprietor Warwick Fairfax, whom she married.

She befriended such artists as Rupert Bunny, John Coburn and the sculptor Tom Bass and she encouraged and supported Joern Utzon during the construction of the Sydney Opera House.

Beauty and order defined her. Art, design and architecture were paramount in her life. Hanne studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and might have been a professional artist but her parents' travelling, her romantic life and the hardships of war in south-east Asia meant she was constantly on the move at a time when her career might have blossomed.

Resilient in the face of wartime dangers and family sadnesses, Hanne was also efficiency personified. She played her role as a prominent Sydney hostess with the rigour of a maitre d' at a three-hat restaurant. Her energy and attention to detail meant she was in demand as a member of fund-raising committees for the National Gallery Society of NSW (now the Art Gallery Society of NSW), the Sydney Symphony, the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Film Festival.

Hanne Bendixsen was born on March 30, 1916, in Copenhagen, the second of three daughters of Danish parents, Emil Bendixsen and his wife, Elna (nee Moller). As a child, she lived in south-east Asia, where her father was a forester and rubber planter; however, he and his wife often travelled to Europe. When she was 12, Hanne and her sisters, Lisa and Inge, went to a boarding school in England but spent holidays in Paris with their mother, a successful artist, who had moved there to further her study with Fernand Leger, Suzanne Valadon and other French artists.

In her late teens, Hanne and Inge rejoined their parents in Singapore, where they socialised with the expat community. Parties, dinner dances with naval officers and taking part in a charity beauty pageant at Raffles Hotel as Madame de Pompadour were charming pastimes but Hanne had artistic ambitions. A portfolio of fine perspective drawings helped her win a place at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where one of her contemporaries was Utzon.

After three years of study, she was engaged to an Englishman, Donald Anderson, whom she had met at a ball at the British embassy in Singapore and who worked for Shell. Soon after the outbreak of war, in 1939, she sailed to Penang, where the couple married in January 1941. Anderson was transferred to Bangkok, where their son, Alan, was born. With the imminent invasion of Thailand by the Japanese at the end of 1941, Hanne sailed from Singapore to Sydney with Alan. Donald was taken prisoner of war in Thailand.

In Sydney, Hanne befriended the Danish vice-consul, Erik Fischer, and his wife, Helene Kirsova, a Danish ballerina who settled in Australia to form the Kirsova Ballet.

Through her friendship with Kirsova, she met Warwick Fairfax, a balletomane and then separated from his wife, Betty.

In May 1948, Warwick and Hanne — both divorced in the mid-1940s — married at St Paul's Anglican Church in Cobbitty.

The couple lived at Warwick's Bellevue Hill home, Barford, with his children, James and Caroline, and Hanne's son, Alan. Hanne and Warwick's daughter, Annalise, was born a few years later.

Hanne encouraged James's interest in art and urged Warwick to support the artists Francis Lymburner, Bunny, Coburn, Douglas Dundas and Wallace Thornton.

At home, she teased Warwick, encouraging him not to take himself so seriously. Warwick was then as reclusive as she was sociable. She spent much of her time organising contemporary Australian art exhibitions for the Art Gallery of NSW and gala fund-raising events.

Her marriage broke down following Warwick's new romance with Mary Symonds, whose marriage to Cedric Symonds ended in divorce in 1958.

As Hanne later wrote in an unpublished memoir, she returned from a trip to Denmark that year to find that Mary was living at Barford. Hanne moved to nearby Trahlee Road with Alan and Annalise. There, she entertained her guests with her delicious Danish cuisine and continued her arts committee work.

Still known as Mrs Hanne Fairfax after her divorce, she made frequent appearances in the social pages, in particular Ita Buttrose's Social Roundabout column in The Australian Women's Weekly.

In 1968, Hanne married a widower, John van de Wiel, a Dutchman and former sea captain who had settled in Australia with his two daughters, Jeanie and Mary. Their 30-year marriage was a happy one, during which they travelled extensively.

Widowed in the late 1990s, Hanne was lively and engaged in Sydney life until the last 17 months of her life, which she spent at the nursing home Lulworth.

Hanne van de Wiel is survived by her children Alan and Annalise and stepdaughters Jeanie and Mary.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 September 2011

Additional Resources

  • wedding photo, Australian Women's Weekly, 6 November 1968, p 11

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'van de Wiel, Hanne (1916–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/van-de-wiel-hanne-13940/text24833, accessed 19 July 2019.

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