A glimpse into the Heysen archive

A glimpse into the Heysen archive
A new acquisition expands Hans and Nora Heysen's legacy at the Library
16 June 2017

The Heysen name is now well known within Australia. Artists Hans and Nora Heysen, father and daughter, left an enduring legacy and their works and lives can be richly experienced in the National Library’s expansive archive. A Collection Conversation reveals the depth of the Library’s collection and provides insight into the lives of Hans and Nora.

Watercolour painting of hills

Hans Heysen, Brachina Gorge, 1944, watercolour, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135260090

Both artists, having quickly ascended the heights of the Australian art world, experienced long periods of neglect for different reasons. Hans’ work was seen by many to be conservative and traditional in the face of modernism, which became the prevailing mode of representation and expression in the mid-20th century. Hans became known, by many, as the ‘gum tree painter’ from South Australia. His work was of course much more than this, as Lou Klepac’s valuable new volume reveals.

Nora, though very talented and dedicated to her artistic production, was not hugely confident or an extravert and could take criticism to heart. That she had been acquired by the State Galleries of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia by the age of 20, was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1938, and in 1943 was also Australia’s first female War Artist, are significant achievements that might seem to belie this modesty. 

Oil painting of Dr Robert Black

Nora Heysen, Dr Robert Black, c. 1950, oil on canvas, donated from the Estate of Nora Heysen in 2010, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138026397

As a War Artist in New Guinea, Nora encountered a world that would change both the course of her life and her art. She met her future husband, the eminent tropical medical scientist Dr Robert Black during this period. Nora’s life after the war was one sublimated, to a large extent, to looking after her husband’s needs. She lived a quiet, domestic life in a wonderful 1850s Baltic pine house, The Chalet, in Hunters Hill. Until she was rediscovered in the late 1980s, Nora’s promising artistic career had largely been overlooked or forgotten.

To reawaken public awareness of her art, her place in our collection and to celebrate her 90th birthday in 2001, the National Library developed a memorable retrospective exhibition with curator, art historian and publisher Lou Klepac OAM. Those that viewed the survey would certainly recall the memorable images, including self-portraits, flower pieces, still lifes, drawings, and photographs and correspondence between a doting father and an independent, loving daughter.

The correspondence between Hans and Nora is at the heart of the Library’s representation of their varied but overlapping worlds. Living apart for most of their lives, Nora, Hans and her mother Sallie wrote many letters exchanging stories, critiques of paintings seen or exhibitions visited, or just family gossip. Reading their fascinating correspondence allows us to walk intimately by their sides through the ups and downs of their lives.

Their evocative letters were edited into a memorable volume by Dr Catherine Speck for NLA Publications in 2011. The book Heysen to Heysen was assisted with funding from the generous Library bequest set up by Nora to commemorate her father’s life. This act was typical of Nora, selflessly thinking of her father’s legacy, which was much more assured than her own, rather than seeking to promote her important and overlooked work. 

Portrait of Hans Heysen

Harold Cazneaux, Portrait of Hans Heysen, 1935, chlorobromide, silver gelatin photograph, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-140192122

Numerous works by Nora and Hans Heysen have made their way into the Library’s collection and can be easily found through searching on our catalogue.

Recently, the Library has acquired an important oil painting significantly adding to its representation of Nora’s work. The work entitled Interior (1935, dated 1938) was included in the Library’s retrospective exhibition 16 years ago and came from the collection of Meredith Stokes, daughter of the sitter Everton or ‘Evie’ Stokes, one of Nora’s closest friends. Evie, a sculptor, was also from Adelaide. She and Nora had an intense relationship that continued after Nora travelled to Europe and to London to study.  Evie moved into Nora’s flat and studio in South Kensington, London, a situation that troubled Nora’s parents. Nora was 23 at the time and this youthful moment of independence and self-expression is recorded in Sir Hans Heysen’s papers (MS5073).

The intensity of the relationship was a source of consternation and disapproval for Hans and Sallie, as is clear in the letters in the collection. On Boxing Day 1934, Nora writes excitedly to ‘Dearest Mother and Daddy’ about the Christmas tree she has decorated and of Evie’s arrival to stay with her. On the same day, 12,000 miles away, Hans writes to her from The Cedars, the family property near Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. He encourages her not to take her teacher Meninsky’s criticism of her drawing too seriously. Hans and Sallie are yet to receive Nora’s disturbing news. Weeks pass as their letters cross paths at sea and slowly make their way to their eager recipients.

Nora Heysen seated at desk

Unknown photographer, Nora Heysen seated at desk, studio in Hahndorf, c. 1927, gelatin silver photograph, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-145510050

It is not until 18 February that Hans writes to counsel Nora. Sallie, he points out is unwell, at least partially so because of Nora’s actions.

“There is a very true saying ‘that love is blind’ and may not only apply to when that state exists between man and woman but it is equally true and can happen between two people of the same sex. Your letters sound perfectly happy – almost as if you were under such a spell.”  He continues, “I want you to be candid and open with us – it is the only way that our mutual love and an honest respect for your parents can be kept alive.”

Nora later writes to her parents, hurt at their intense dislike of Evie. “It is not a ‘spell’”, she writes, “It has lasted too long and stood too much to be just that.”

Having each other at hand and not having money for models, Nora and Evie posed for each other on alternate days in their studio. The Library’s recently acquired Interior and another similar work, London breakfast in the National Gallery of Australia collection, arise out of this proximity and their desire to depict one another and to commemorate their time together in London.

Both of Nora’s paintings are homages to the Dutch master painter of interiors, Johannes Vermeer. Significantly, as the Evie situation begins to simmer down, Sallie sends Nora the Vermeer blue dressing gown in which Evie poses for the intimate view of the interior of their Dukes Lane flat. The much prized and recently received watercolour shipped by Hans – Hillside by the river – hangs on the wall behind her. (It hangs in the Heysen home The Cedars today, part of the Nora Heysen Foundation.) The chair on which Evie sits reading is from the time of Cromwell and was one of a pair for which Nora paid £10 – a reckless decision which apparently annoyed Sallie.        

Painting of a woman seated at a table reading

Nora Heysen (1911-2003), Interior, (1935, dated 1938), oil on canvas

The painting of Interior is vividly described in Nora’s letter of 19 November 1935 to her parents.

“I have been working on a small interior, just a foot square, of Evie sitting reading in the blue dressing gown, the soft blue one. It was lovely to paint and I’ve made a good job of it. On the wall behind I have put in daddy’s watercolour of the gum which makes a perfect colour note in the picture.”

The lightened palette Nora used evolved from a meeting with the painter Orivida Pissarro and her artist father Lucien, in London. Orivida visited Nora’s studio in October 1935 and delivered a strenuous critique of her work, saying the paintings were ‘muddy’ and ‘fifty years behind the time,’ but noting that she could draw and had talent. Pissarro said Nora needed to use brighter colours and she immediately set about doing so, going out to purchase new pigments from ‘Blocks,’ who were the only safe makers of cadmiums, she notes. The manufacturer she referred to was actually Jacques Blockx Fils s.a., a Belgian manufacturer of paints and whose colours Lucien Pissarro used and which were no doubt adopted by his daughter also. Hence the useful hint from Orivida, presumably passed on to Nora. (The local art supplies company J. Bryce Smith Ltd, near Euston, sold Blockx paints.) 

The Library’s newly acquired painting is a portrait of sorts. Whilst it treats Evie as a figurative element, her face is not a focus of the work: she is depicted quietly and comfortably reading in their domestic space. Interior captures a moment that was not to last. It is a portrait of a place and of a relationship experienced there. Within months, Evie married her husband Henry and moved out of the flat. However, the paths of Evie and Nora paths were to cross often into the future. Evie and her baby Meredith lived with Nora in Sydney during war as Henry had been posted to Singapore. Nora was Meredith’s godmother and there is a poignancy in the fact that the painting that depicted and stayed with Meredith’s mother during her life has now joined our archive of letters which traverse their life together in London 80 years ago. 

What a lovely family history, the brotherly advice & the independent sister, ever dutiful to her brother & parents. I'm so happy to see recognition come to Nora at last. What a devoted charismatic woman artist, one of the best in our country. I'm glad to have found her again.

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