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The Archibald Prize this year was won by Fiona Lowry, for her portrait of architect Penelope Seidler. The Art Gallery of NSW trustees, who are the judges of the Archibald, seemed to avoid controversy this year by awarding the $75 000 prize to an overwhelming favourite.

Fiona first saw Penelope Seidler six years ago at a gallery opening, and was struck by her beauty and presence; she decided then that she would like to paint her. The portrait was begun at Penelope’s home, Killara House, a heritage-listed Sydney icon which she designed with her husband, the famous modernist architect Harry Seidler.

Fiona’s paintings are made with an airbrush and a limited range of soft pastel colours, creating an often unsettling atmosphere seen through a fine mist. I can’t help thinking that Clarice Beckett would give a wry smile … and that once again, Penelope proves a winner!

The name Fiona was created by the 18th century Scottish poet James McPherson, and first used in his famous Ossian poems, which were a great influence on the Romantic movement, and instigator of the Gaelic revival. MacPherson pretended his poems were “translations” of ancient Gaelic poems, but could never produce the originals, and it is now agreed that while he based them on old ballads, many of the stories and characters are from his imagination.

In the Fingal section of the Ossian poems, MacPherson wrote: Let the sons of Fiona rise, on the lone plains of her lovely Ardan. Fiona is a not a person, but a feminine personification, like Erin or Brittania, or Lady Liberty. But a personification of what?

You may recall that the Irish hero Finn McCool’s warriors were called the Fianna. Although that looks as it means “Finn’s men”, fiann means “soldier, warrior, hero” in Old Irish, and fianna is its plural. Fianna can thus be translated as “war band”. Although the Fianna come from mythology, it is believed that such bands did exist in medieval Ireland; young men and women of the nobility who had not yet come into their inheritance and had no lands of their own.

Fiona is James MacPherson’s transcription of Fianna, which he may have written to make it look as if it was derived from Fionn, or Finn, meaning “fair, white”, in order to give his Fingal the status of the great Irish hero Finn McCool. You might see MacPherson’s “Fiona” as a personification of Celtic pride, independence, and fighting spirit.

Baby name books often try to claim Fiona as a feminine form of Finn or Fionn, but in medieval Gaelic, adding an -a to a name did not make it feminine. Instead -nat or –sech were used, so the feminine forms of Finn are Finnat and Finnsech (genuine medieval names). Just to confuse things, Fíona is a modern Irish name meaning “wine”. Although some people take Fiona as an Anglicisation of Fíona, it’s more that an Irish meaning was found for an existing name.

Fiona was used as a pseudonym by the Scottish writer William Sharp. Although already a distinguished poet, biographer, and literary editor, he chose to sometimes write romantic novels and poetry as Fiona McLeod – which he feared would not be accepted if it was known he was the author. William Sharp edited the Ossian poems, which is most likely where he found the name Fiona.

William Sharp had a love affair with a woman named Edith Wingate Rinder, and it was those works inspired by his passion for Edith that he attributed to “Fiona McLeod”. The poetry he wrote under the influence of this inspiration is considered his greatest work, and the Fiona McLeod novels proved so popular that they brought him financial success. You could say that “Fiona” was the name William gave his feminine side, and tapping into it unleashed a wave of creativity.

The secret of William Sharp’s dual identity only became publicly known after his death, when his wife revealed that her husband was the author of all works by Fiona McLeod. It was after Fiona McLeod became a popular novelist that the name Fiona became well known, so while James MacPherson may have created it, it was another Scottish writer who spread its use.

Fiona first charted in Australia in the 1950s, making an impressive début at just outside the Top 100 at #105. The reason for its sudden appearance on the charts is the 1954 film Brigadoon, based on the Broadway musical of the same name. It’s about two American men who are hunting in Scotland when they happen upon a miraculous village which rises out of the mists every hundred years for just one day. One of the men falls in love with a girl from the village named Fiona Campbell (Fiona McLaren in the original musical), played in the film by Cyd Charisse. The magic and romance of the story were clearly a hit with Australian audiences.

By 1960, Fiona was #57, by 1961 it was in the Top 50 at #47, and by 1967 it had just scraped into the Top 20. Fiona reached its peak in 1970 at #14, and was last in the Top 100 in 1986. A famous fictional Fiona during the 1970s was matriarch Fiona Cleary, from Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, although by this time the name was falling in popularity.

If you judge the name Fiona purely as a name nerd, you must admit it has some black marks against it. It’s a “made up” name, and furthermore, not even a name made up for a character – it’s basically the Khaleesi of the 18th century. It was popularised by a man pretending to be a woman, in part to obscure an extra-marital affair. It’s not the most promising name history of all time.

Fiona leapt into the charts out of nowhere due to popular culture – a musical film which was a box office success, but received lukewarm reviews. It was a “trendy” name that climbed in popularity very suddenly, then sank again at almost the same rate. It’s a “dated” name, in that it is dated to a particular era – you can be almost sure that someone named Fiona was born somewhere between Brigadoon and The Thorn Birds 1983 mini-series, and most likely between the late 1960s and mid-1970s (Fiona Lowry was born in 1974).

But isn’t it tiresome to always judge names through the lens of nerdism? Because in spite of all this, I think Fiona remains a pretty, delicate name with a fascinating literary history. It has a romance to it – a name created by a poet who changed the face of literature, made well known by a writer who had a talent he never knew existed until he fell in love, brought to popularity through a miraculous love affair.

I like the fact that such a gentle-sounding name has a war-like meaning; it’s a warrior princess of a name. Despite being dated, Fiona doesn’t sound particularly dated – it even has a fashionable OH sound in the middle. There are tons of Fionas in current popular culture, including Princess Fiona, the feisty green ogress from Shrek.

If you love the name Fiona, take heart – it is no longer plummeting in popularity, but relatively stable around the 300-400s, and can claim modern classic status. Furthermore, in the United States, which is much slower to appreciate British (especially Scottish) names, Fiona only began charting in the 1990s and has been gradually climbing ever since.

I have a family member who is a massive fan of the Shrek movies, and especially of Princess Fiona. Sometimes I think I will be a grandmother to a little Fiona, and the idea doesn’t displease me at all.

POLL RESULTS
Fiona received a very good approval rating of 72%. People saw the name Fiona as strong and feisty (23%), and beautiful or pretty (19%). However, 16% of people considered it too dated to be a baby name. The association with Shrek didn’t seem to be an issue, with twice as many people (10%), thinking it was a cool association than a problematic one (5%). Only one person thought the name Fiona was “too made up”.

(Painting is Penelope Seidler by Fiona Lowry)

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