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Nora Heysen: A Portrait
with Anne-Louise Willoughby and Nat Williams
Talks / Lecture
with Anne-Louise Willoughby and Nat Williams
12 September 2019
Anne-Louise Willoughby worked as a journalist in a career that spanned thirty years in Western Australia, first training as a newspaper cadet in the 1970s before moving to magazine publishing with Australian Consolidated Press. As a freelance journalist, she was a feature writer for Australian newspapers and contributing WA editor to Belle Magazine. Anne-Louise has worked as a lecturer and tutor in creative writing at the University of Western Australia with a particular interest in memoir and biography.
About Nora Heysen: A Portrait
The life of artist Nora Heysen was defined by an all-consuming drive to draw or paint. The first woman to win the Archibald Prize, and Australia’s first female painter to be appointed an official war artist, Heysen’s post-war portraiture and still lifes sustained a lifelong career.
In 1989, aged 78, after years of artistic obscurity, she re-emerged on the Australian art scene, and the nation’s major art institutions restored her position as a significant Australian artist.
Extensively researched, and containing artworks and photographs from the life of Nora Heysen, this story of a driven, optimistic and resilient painter is a celebration of that restoration.
In Conversation Anne Louise Willoughby 9 July
*Speakers: Susannah Helman (S), Anne Louise Willoughby (A), Nat Williams (N)
*Location: National Library of Australia
S: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Susannah Helman, Curatorial Manager in the National Library of Australia’s Exhibitions Branch.
As we begin I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet. I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home.
I’m really delighted that so many of you have joined us today for a conversation about Anne Louise Willoughby’s new book, Nora Heysen: A Portrait. Anne Louise has worked as a journalist in a career that has spanned 30 years in Western Australia first training as a newspaper cadet in the 1970s before moving to magazine publishing with Australian Consolidated Press.
As a freelance journalist she was a feature writer for Australian newspapers and contributing WA editor to Belle magazine. Anne Louise has worked as a lecturer and tutor in creative writing at the University of Western Australia with a particular interest in memoir and biography.
In this recently published biography Anne Louise celebrates Nora Heysen, a driven, optimistic and resilient Australian painter. Heysen was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize and Australia’s first female painter to be appointed an official war artist. Her post-war portraiture and still life painting sustained a long career. In 1989 aged 78 after years of artistic obscurity she re-emerged on the Australian art scene and the nation’s major art institutions restored her position as a significant Australian artist.
Many of you may remember the exhibition about Nora Heysen curated by Lou Klepac held here at the Library between October 2000 and January 2001. You may also have called up boxes from the papers of Nora Heysen or her father, Sir Hans Heysen, in our reading rooms. This evening Anne Louise will speak briefly about her book before being joined on stage by Nat Williams, the National Library of Australia’s Treasures Curator to discuss the life and work of Nora Heysen further.
The Treasures curatorship has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Department of Communication and the Arts’ Catalyst, Australian Arts and Culture Fund. Please join me now in welcoming Anne Louise Willoughby to the stage.
A: Thank you very much and it’s really lovely to be here. Thank you for coming out on a chilly Canberra evening. Coming from Perth your temperatures can be a little disturbing for me but here we are in this beautiful arena.
I’m very happy to be back at our National Library. During the research for my book I made numerous trips to Canberra from Perth and without the staff and the extraordinary resources here at the NLA this book would simply not exist. The Special Collections Reading Room became my home away from home and the staff, the librarians could not have been more helpful. Every one of my queries or requests was met with a professional and engaged assistance and after a while on repeat visits it was nice to be greeted with ‘good to see you back’.
To be here tonight with the finished product was an imagined moment for four years and it feels very good. I’m grateful to all of the staff that keep the collections at the NLA in the best of order and readily accessible. Working in the Heysen archive meant dealing with multiple boxes that needed to be called for often from offsite and when I arrived they were always ready in the special reading room waiting for me. Combing through hundreds and hundreds of documents can be tedious and tiring but there are many eureka moments and I may have disturbed the peace once or twice with a – unrestrained exclamation of joy. But I was always met with a knowing smile from behind the desk and I think I'm not the only researcher to be acknowledged in that kind way.
This is the first biography of Nora Heysen and I have been grateful for the Heysen family support over the last four years as I’ve researched and written this book. In 1967 when I was nine I went on a school excursion to the Museum of Western Australia. We didn’t have an art gallery then and I got lost, I got separated from my class when I was standing on the big jarrah staircase on the first level and I looked up and there was Hans Heysen’s Droving into the Light. At that age of nine I understood what art can do for us, how it can transport us into a different place.
But it was not until the 1990s that I saw a work by Nora Heysen and I was puzzled. The work had strong characteristics of a Hans Heysen but I knew it wasn’t this. When I learned it was by his daughter I was embarrassed that I didn’t know her, I hadn’t heard of Nora. After all she was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize and she was Australia’s first female war artist. But I discovered I wasn’t alone. In art circles Nora was known but in the wider conversation she was out of view. This is my contribution to the ongoing conversation about women in art and their restitution to their rightful place.
A conversation that started with the new wave of feminism in the 1970s and which has progressed particularly in the last 20 years in a most meaningful way across the major institutions in this country. There are now programs across many institutions globally aimed at recognising women artists. Recent initiatives include the National Gallery here with the Know My Name campaign and the Sheila Foundation named for Sheila Cruthers of the Cruthers collection of Australian women’s art with its mission statement that it is a national foundation painting Australian women back into our history and creating a strong future for contemporary women artists. I think Nora would approve.
Nora was born in 1911 and died in 2003 at the age of 92. There are distinct chapters in Nora’s life from her childhood at The Cedars in the Adelaide hills, to her final days in Sydney. Throughout all these stages there was one prevailing element. Nora lived her life propelled by an all-consuming drive to draw or paint and of this compulsion she’s said this is my earliest memory, it will be my last memory, I think, that I must put something on paper.
Of the eight Heysen children it was Nora who showed early signs of natural artistic talent and her father was quick to foster it. The teenage Nora working alongside her father in his studio was seen by her mother as a distraction for Hans and Sally arranged for Nora to have her own space to work. Nora recounts that visitors to her father’s studio would marvel at one of Hans’ latest works, not realising they were boldly and loudly praising the teenage protégé and not the master. She said I don’t think Father felt so much about it but Mother did. She arranged for me to work outside of Father’s studio.
Sally Heysen was the woman behind the family enterprise that was The Cedars. She was fierce in her protection and promotion of her husband, everything was managed around providing Heysen with the best work environment. Carefully staged social events were frequent at the Heysen home. Socially illustrious visitors from a broad spectrum of the international and Australian community were welcomed to an open house on Sundays involving a plentiful supply of German brown cakes and coffee. Sunday afternoon at the Heysens was quite the event. As much genuine hospitality as commercial strategy this performance brought in money through commissions and sales.
Nora described her mother as a skilled and professional hostess and the entertainment she says of the guests was left entirely to her. Nora said this sells pictures, money for living. With eight children money was involved and very necessary. Mother knew the right people. She was such an asset to him. She would have been a writer or a diplomat. She was not a warm mother. Her greatest weapon was her tongue. She could lay you on the floor with her tongue.
Sally’s decision to move Nora into her own studio might have been to protect Hans but it was beneficial for Nora, that her aspirations were taken seriously at a young age. In Eggs 1927 when she was only 16 Nora demonstrates her understanding of composition and her affiliation with the everyday objects of domestic life at The Cedars. But her still lives were often at risk. The purloined objects she was painting could be a requisition for the making of afternoon tea. She faced similar disruptions later in her own The Chalet at Hunter’s Hill in Sydney when well meaning assistants with tidying up meant a still life she’d set up was inadvertently demolished or cooked and friends quickly learned to leave any arrangement remotely resembling a tableau well alone.
During my research it quickly became clear that Nora was aligned with her father. Her mother supported her aspirations to be an artist but Sally’s conservative views proved to a point of conflict between her daughters who were growing up in a period of enormous social change. There were responses to events by Sally that would have lasting ramifications. The loss of a daughter’s life and the decisions that Nora would make moving forward as the result of a loved sister.
As a biographer it is the tracing and understanding of significant events that informs your subject’s decision-making processes. Her mother’s decisions based on social convention and the need to avoid scandal in order to protect the enterprise of The Cedars I believe left Nora with a belief that people should not be judged. Nora was a strong-willed young woman, quiet but determined. Her approach, it appeared, was to move with stealth and commitment without making a lot of noise.
By 14 Nora was clear she wanted to leave school and go to art school. Her parents were not sure about this idea and set up what they thought was a major obstacle. Nora was not a great student because she didn’t like school. Her parents said if she passed the intermediate exams they would agree to her request, never believing that she would pass. They didn’t have much faith, said Nora, in my scholastic ability so they didn’t think I had a hope of getting the intermediate but they didn’t really know me because I studied like mad, I sat up all night and studied and I did get through.
She made it to the North Adelaide School of Fine Arts under Frederick Millward Grey. She described the stultifying effects of drawing from plaster casts for three years at the School of Fine Arts saying they were enough to kill an artist stone dead. I survived it because I was very persistent and I knew what I wanted. I think that might sum Nora up, actually. She said Millward Grey was a knowledgeable and conscientious academic painter, reliable and safe, fresh from England, very tight. He wasn’t an inspiration, you learned the solid way.
In those first few years before she graduated to live classes her time working with her father provided the inspiration and Lou Klepac who in 1989 was responsible for bringing Nora back into view noted that she was able to compensate for the dull and unimaginative routine of the school by drawing with her father. Nora supported this observation, saying that she benefited returning daily from school to an artistic house. She said we lived art, talked art, drank art and all the visitors were artists. So that was my diet when I was young. On the weekends I could do what I liked, paint in my father’s studio or go out and paint gum trees like Father. That was my saving. Art school could be rather killingly deadly.
There is no doubt of the benefit Nora enjoyed working alongside her father but there were also challenging times. Having meticulously set up a still life of onions to work on in her spare time she returned to it to start after her week at art school had ended. She was irritated to see that her father had set up his easel and had already painted them. Hans Heysen was also prone to touches of insensitivity in his enthusiasm to guide his daughter. Nora was generous in her memory of her father despite finding charcoal corrections covering a freshly finished work. She said he genuinely tried not to influence me so I could try to develop my own style.
Sometimes he couldn’t resist, of course. I remember one day I left a painting of a basket of eggs in the studio, which I thought was pretty good, but when I came back I found Father had drawn squares all over it showing where my draughtsmanship was wrong. I was furious. Of course he was right but it took me a long time to see it.
When she was 22 Nora held a highly successful solo exhibition raising sufficient funds to cover three years of art school in London. Nora had never been away from home and her family so to make her way in London came as quite a shock for the retiring country girl. Her solution was to invite her closest friend, Everton Stokes, a sculpture student to come from Adelaide to London and share her flat and this disturbed her parents. They were concerned by rumours of Evie’s ambivalent sexuality and they believed that Nora’s reputation would be harmed. Nora did not believe the rumours and despite her love and respect for her parents this resulted in perhaps the first openly defiant act by Nora when she refused to succumb to parental pressure and she continued her friendship with Everton, quietly persisting and hoping for acceptance. It would be a lifetime friendship.
London Breakfast, painted in 1934, shows her friend, Evie, at their table and Mary Eagle bought the work from Nora for the National Gallery in 1996 and she commented, Nora Heysen was at her best in the 1930s when she produced a group of remarkable portraits. The intimate reflective London Breakfast, ‘though less immediately gripping than the single portraits, is a fine painting in its own right and will achieve a ready recognition from the public and I think today that has been proven right.
Eagle suggested that this friendship and the security it provided Nora was central to the equilibrium she was able to find and that it showed in her work. She had painted Evie in a Jaeger dressing gown, a luxury brand item that was a special gift to her from her parents. She wrote to her parents on receiving the gift, this is a simply lovely present you’ve given me. I was so excited when it came, it’s a beauty, the most gorgeous dressing gown I’ve ever seen, so soft and warm, good for Canberra. It is the colour I love best, a lightish soft blue-grey with a buff-coloured lining. Did you tell Mr McGregor exactly what I wanted?
I wonder if it irked them when Nora wrote to her parents saying she was painting Evie wearing the gown. She might have been a little provocative in her choice of costume for her sitter in at least two of works that are known, including London Breakfast, and its partner picture, Interior 1935 which is now held here at the NLA. There is a touch of wilfulness in her choice, whether conscious or not and Mary Eagle describes the painting further. The serenity amounting to exaltation of this and other London images was new in Nora’s art and probably owed more to personal circumstances than to the criticism of Central School Art instructor, Bernard Meninsky, who told Nora her drawings lacked any emotional quality.
After her parents left London in ’34 Nora had spent one night apart from her family and was thrown headlong into loneliness and fear, writes Eagle. The trauma that this naïve and reserved young woman experienced through exposure to the sexual advances of a man in the street and the sexual behaviour of one of her neighbours was only relieved when an Australian friend, Evie, arrived in London. The London Breakfast shows how Evie’s presence settled Nora, allowing her to achieve the serenity and absorption in her art that had been disrupted by loneliness and fear. Eagle relates that Nora described Evie as her alter ego and that she was the model for some incandescent images, portraits and interiors like London Breakfast and Interior.
But Nora was not only dealing with disapproval from her parents, she was receiving continual adverse criticism from her male teachers and from her father’s friends that he had sent her for advice. It would all finally take its toll on her buoyant and optimistic approach to hard work. Her teacher at the Central School of Art, Bernard Meninsky, did not make life easy. Nora wrote his work, with a widely acknowledged basis in sound draughtsmanship, was unappealing to me with its impressionistic and unbroken strong lines. Meninsky suggests that I would improve if I were to draw in his mode.
He was fundamentally forcing a modernistic technique on Nora who was still finding where she lay between the two worlds. Nora said he said that I had a good idea of drawing and proportion but unfortunately I had been taught the wrong way but it was likely with a few years of training I might be able to see the way he does and do Meninsky drawings. Quite a conceit.
It was not only teachers who challenged Nora. Like her father Nora was passionate about nature and the transient beauty of flowers and it would be a subject that would sustain her throughout her fluctuating career. She claimed her religion was growing things and sunshine, light and life. Her love of nature was the essence of her flower pieces and still life works that she turned to in her darkest hours. But her path to these more intimate works, dominant in her [erve] 20:16, was influenced by two men recommended to Nora by her father while she studied in London. They would have a disastrous effect on her sense of worth and her artistic ability.
The first stinging criticism came from the Royal Academician, James Bateman. Nora wrote home to her parents in May 1935 that Bateman and his wife had joined Nora for dinner at her studio and he took the opportunity to review her work. She said I got a gruelling criticism from Bateman. He doesn’t like my work, evidently, and hasn’t a good word to say for it. He thinks that it lacks tone, that my technique is mechanical and that I am trying to get light and vibration in the wrong way all of which is very disheartening. But then he’s very biased against women painters. We nearly came to blows discussing women artists and their merits. In wishing to condemn work he said oh just like a woman’s work and that made me furious and I stood up for them and defended them with all I had. Probably his criticism will do me a lot of good. At the moment I feel sore about it and a little resentful.
Despite her bravado Bateman’s thoughts and words on her work would strike another blow during a second visit by him to her studio and she succumbed to Bateman’s follow-up attack that alleged her work was mannered and superficial.
Then there was Sir Charles Holmes, the Director of London’s National Gallery. He dealt her a blow in late 1936 when he reviewed Nora’s work and delivered a very adverse criticism. Nora had studied at Central School since 1934 and while she suffered from Bateman’s criticism she had still managed to push on, realising that although she was not convinced about new approaches the constraints of the conservative academy discipline also had drawbacks. But it was her meeting with Holmes that affected her most and she wrote to her father.
I took my work to Charles Holmes. He – you had made contact and made an arrangement. He advised me as to how I was going. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said figures and landscape. He just laughed at me and it crushed me absolutely. It was a very untimely criticism and well I lost my confidence entirely and I went on painting but my big ideas, Australian landscape and figures, it was very sad and devastating. Devastating.
In fact she made those comments to the documentary-maker, Eugene Schlusser. It was not in a letter to her father. She was sitting on the veranda at The Chalet at her home and she delivers these lines, her head shakes slowly from side to side as she relives the blows delivered by the man who would be dead not long after their meeting. How is Nora, an impressionable young woman, to react to the contempt of a man who was known as a great watercolourist, oil painter, author and critic? A man she’d been sent to for advice by the father she loved and respected and looked to for guidance?
For her 21st birthday in 1932 her father had given her an inscribed copy of C J Holmes’ Old Masters and Modern Art and here she was at his mercy. She was aware that there were many ways to paint, to express one’s creativity and vision of life and nature but the males around her in London were a formidable force.
When she returned from London Nora had been away for over three years and was clear that it was time to separate from her father. There was not enough room for two artists at The Cedars. During her time in London she’d been greatly influenced by artist, Lucien [Vasaro] 24:20 and his daughter, Oriveda. The [Vasaros] suggested dramatic changes to Nora’s palette, higher-keyed, away from the black, brown and ochre base favoured by her father. The works that stand out as representative of this departure from her father’s influence were both painted in the months after her return to The Cedars in early 1938. There’s her self-portrait in 1938 and Corn Cobs, both very important works.
Lou Klepac says these works signal the emergence of an original painter but fine as they are her father found them to be too light a key. She loved and admired him but she knew that she belonged to another world and if she was to make a life for herself in Australia she must move. Nora moved to Sydney and it was late in 1938 that she completed her two entries for the Archibald. Her win was announced in January 1939 just days after her 28th birthday. It was a contentious win with the same artist who later attacked Dobell for his 1943 Archibald win, challenging the Joshua Smith portrait, was it caricature or was it portraiture?
They attacked Nora, one going so far as to tell her to return the money. The other detractor, fellow entrant, Max Meldrum, who would go on the following year to win the prize had quite a lot to say. In the press the next day after the prize had been announced Meldrum was quoted, if I were a woman I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art. Men and women are differently constituted. Women are more closely attached to the physical things of life, they are not to blame. They cannot help it and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy. I’d like him to try and say that today.
The Australian Women’s Weekly managed to reduce her win to a cookery column with the headline, girl painter who won art prize is also good cook. They asked her for her recipes and reproduced duck with olive sauce and Hungarian goulash with a lovely photo accompanying the story of Nora in her kitchen.
Nora’s commission as an official war artist began in 1943 and she produced over 250 works including 62 paintings, 102 drawings and - along with her sketches. The collection shows some of her strongest portrait work and despite the criticisms from C J Holmes she did produce figures in the landscape and they are extraordinary and I discuss them at length in my book. She recorded many poignant moments that encapsulate the great value of war artists while at the same time recognising service to country.
At the end of the war after serving in Australia and Papua New Guinea Nora flew up and down the coastline of northern Queensland as she accompanied the nurses known as the Flying Angels who flew in and out of the Pacific combat zones delivering supplies and evacuating the wounded to base hospitals in Australia. She participated in medical evacuations from Lei and [Mauritai] 27:41 back to Townsville and on two occasions she drew the portraits of two of the flying sisters whose lives were lost.
Sister Beryl Chandler had kept a diary and it’s in the War Memorial and she records the moment when Nora was in the mess and it was just Beryl and another nurse, Marie Craig. Nora had wanted to paint Beryl but Beryl was shy and Marie Craig piped up, you may as well paint me, Nora, because I’m not going to get out of here alive and they may as well know what Maria Craig looked like. Beryl Chandler thought that that was a shocking thing to say and said you don’t have to do this, this is a volunteer flight. No, it’s alright, Chan, the writing’s on the wall, I’m just not going to make it. Nora did that portrait and not long after her plane crashed into the side of a mountain and it was found 25 years in the [Castings] 28:40 Ranges.
The pictures delivered by Nora Heysen as official war artist recording their activities have been instrumental in remembering them, [Perdun] 28:51 Shay, Maria Craig and many others. Remembers them and their sacrifice and underscores the valuable role of the war artist in preserving these memories.
In the course of writing this biography I often asked myself why this extraordinary artist was not better known and I came to the conclusion that Nora Heysen was a woman interrupted. She was interrupted by winning the most prestigious art prize in the country and the expectations that were associated with a win of that kind.
By her country’s declaration of war that redirected her work out of the public eye, by love and the associated heartache of falling for a married man in the 1940s she submitted to the expectations placed on a woman as a homemaker in the 1950s and was devastated by the abandonment by a husband she had waited 10 years to marry for a younger woman in a workplace romance.
The final assault was her grief over the death of her unofficially adopted son, Stephen, from an AIDS-related disease. But through all of this Nora was sustained by her art and hers was a satisfying life expressed through her creativity and her love for nature. She was courageous, she was happy as long as she could paint. Thank you.
S: Anne Louise. To continue the discussion about Nora Heysen further please join me in welcoming the National Library’s Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, to the stage with Anne Louise Willoughby.
N: Thank you, Susannah. It’s nice to be sitting here with you. We first met in the Special Collections Reading Room here at the Library.
A: We did.
N: Anne Louise was trying to decipher something in some papers and I hadn’t met her and she said what do you think this says? I said oh I think – therefore maybe. She said oh that’s what it is. I said whose paper are you looking at? She said Nora Heysen and I said oh wow, I met Nora, I was very lucky to meet her and that struck up this conversation and that led to some information that I could impart. I was very lucky to meet Nora and to be involved in presenting the exhibition here in 2000, 2001 with Lou Klepac. Nora was an extraordinary woman who was – it’s very difficult to encapsulate in one volume in a way and I think you’ve done a beautiful job of bringing her life to – and putting it on record because as you said because she was a woman artist, because of the time in which she lived and circumstances, she wasn’t recognised as widely as she should.
So I think it’s incredible that upstairs there we’ve got all this incredible archive of material and I should say that most of the images that you're seeing on the screen here are from our collection. Obviously some are credited as being from the Art Gallery of South Australia or wherever else but a lot of them are here now so we’ve really built up a density of Heysen family material, pictures material, manuscripts material and we’ll add book and your papers maybe in due course so who knows?
A: Oh thank you.
N: So to kick off I suppose it could be said that to be born into an artistic family is both a privilege and possibly also a detractor. To what extent do you think Nora was overshadowed by the reputation of her much more famous father, Hans?
A: I think she definitely lived in her father’s shadow and I think Nora believed she did too which is a shame because today a lot of the historians and curators and art experts suggest that perhaps she was even better than her father. She was an extraordinary draughtsman but she did live in his shadow. But she did that quite deferentially, she had enormous respect and love for her father and considered him to be all things artistic that she aspired to be. Right up to the end of her life she was still asking the question, am I known in my own right or is it because I’m Hans Heysen’s daughter? The press of the day didn’t help with that either because whenever she did do something wonderful it was always daughter of Hans Heysen, daughter of famous artist. They didn’t let her stand in her own space.
But that said Nora was not a competitive person, she didn’t seek the limelight and in fact I referred to her winning the Archibald Prize and you said this to me in the interview all those years ago, that she didn’t self-promote. That interruption that I referred to about the Archibald was that she didn’t build on that. Anybody who won – Margaret Preston or Ollie, they would have jumped on the press bandwagon and really cemented their careers on the back of that win but she didn’t do that.
N: No and I think for any artist, and perhaps even – particularly a woman artist, I don’t know but there is that incredible tension between having to be a show pony and do the media and promote yourself whereas she really just loved making art, she loved nature, she loved her cats, she loved her dog later in life. For a while she had a husband she loved, unfortunately that didn’t last long enough.
I want to touch on the role of Sally Heysen because it’s complex both in Nora’s development as an artist but also as an adult and so how would you sum up her rela – I think you do a very good job of summing it up in the book but how would you sum up her relationship with her mother? Because it’s interesting, when she writes to her father and mother she refers to Hans as Daddy in the letters that we have here and her mother as Mother. So there’s a kind of – sort of a demarcation there.
A: Well Nora said that her mother never wanted to have children, she had them for Daddy. She had eight of them. But that kind of frames the situation. Sally Heysen was an incredible woman, there’s no getting away from that. She loved Hans Heysen very much, she was his greatest promoter and advocate and she ran the enterprise of The Cedars. Her five daughters were central to the running of that endeavour, they worked very hard. They had a lot of responsibility. Sally was not moving with the times, though. She was very class-conscious whereas Hans wasn’t. Hans had come from a very lowly situation even though his father when he came from Hamburg originally did have money and was here to seek his fortune. He’d come down to running not a very successful piggery at one stage in a very depleted environment.
But to get back to your question the relationship with Sally was fraught. I think there was – Nora even suggests herself that there was regret on Sally’s part because Sally was a very good artist and she gave it up immediately when she married. She never painted after she married and of course once she started to have children there was no going back. Nora suspected that there was some regret and possibly a subconscious unconscious jealousy. She was very close to Hans, very close and I don’t think the two artists working together sat very comfortably for Sally.
N: No, I think you get the feeling that there was only room for one other artist in the family and that was – luckily for Nora it was her even though others might have had the capacity to do it but it wasn’t tolerated.
A: If it had been one of the sons it might have been a bit different.
N: That’s right.
A: They wouldn’t have been called to make the scones when the visitors arrived mid-oil painting. Nora didn’t like that, she said I don’t think they would have been called in to kitchen duty halfway through a painting but I was.
N: It’s interesting because she talks in her oral history here, which we’ve got three and I encourage you, you can listen to them all online. One, she talks about her father a lot, one, she talks about her early life and then the later one with Heather Rusden which is 1994 so they span 30 years of recordings. But she’s talking about lying on their tummies with their dad in the studio so they were tolerated as little kids sort of doing drawings and paintings but then as they got older they were sort of pushed out of the way and that was it.
I wanted to raise the issue as a biographer with you of the notion of sort of an uncomfortable truth. What do you think the role of biographer is in revealing difficult past history? Especially within such a well known family as the Heysens?
A: A biographer has an enormous responsibility. You have a responsibility to your subject, you also have a responsibility to your reader and to the notion of biography and you do find uncomfortable truths and I did find uncomfortable truths for the Heysens and you have a loyalty to your subject, you want to protect your subject. At the end of the day though you have to address them so I had some measuring sticks as to what I would include, how I would include it. But there were certain events that were unavoidable that needed to be dealt with because they informed the decisions that Nora made as she moved on with her life and just the way she wanted to live which gets back to Josephine.
N: The story which people probably don’t know about until they read your book perhaps is that of Josephine, the eldest sister who was a really – sounds like a fun and interesting person –
N: - loved horses and – do you want to bring her into the story because that’s quite a critical moment, I think, in their relationship with the mother?
A: Yes and I lost sleep for a very long time trying to decide how to talk about this and I would like you all to know that I did discuss it with the trustees and with Peter Heysen who’s the family representative before I went ahead. I knew I would have to go ahead but I wanted them to know that I was going to discuss this because it really doesn’t paint Sally Heysen in a very good light.
So Josephine was the eldest daughter, she was an extraordinary horsewoman. She could have been the first woman to race at Flemington except she wasn’t allowed to so she trained all these horses. Her mother was very happy for her to associate with the horse owners but not with the racing fraternity. Yet she had this very strong friendship with Max Williams who was a trainer at Oakbank just not far from where she lived in Hahndorf.
As the years went by Sally tried very hard to separate this relationship. Josephine insisted they were friends but only friends but of course there came the day where it was clearly evident that they were not just friends, she was unmarried and pregnant. She was in the dead of night married in a church ceremony with just her two parents there and whisked away on a train to rural Victoria to potentially return to Adelaide at a later date with a child of indeterminate age. I asked Peter Heysen about this and he said a scandal would have destroyed the Heysen situation and Sally was very clear that that couldn’t happen and she would do anything to protect Hans.
Josephine died, she was dying from malnutrition and pneumonia in poverty. There had been no money even for a wedding ring. She had gone from beautiful environment to a stable of men drinking and smoking with not enough money for fresh food. It was when Heysen and Sally sere in Sydney for the opening of the 1938 David Jones exhibition, they raced to rural – to Mentone and they – the word was that they were operating to take the child but they wouldn’t be able to save the mother and the child did survive. This was a pivotal moment for me – starting to feel a bit emotional.
I was in the special reading collection here and I’d been here numerous times and I discovered a new cache of letters on the catalogue that had not been there and I thought what is this? This is the incredible power of having a collection like you have here, that we have in this country. It was the letters of Josephine Heysen to her confidante, a woman who lived in marginal farming territory north of Adelaide and this was the whole story and I sat there. I had no idea that this had happened, well nobody really did and these letters were only just revealed and just released. It’s a credit to the Heysen family that they were delivered to the public archive. It’s not something they’re hiding. In fact Peter Heysen said this must never be able to happen ever again and a lot of his work as a GP, he worked at Sister Kate’s with the unwedded mothers and it was I think perhaps subconscious act of atonement, I don’t know.
So I found these letters and being a journalist and you get an idea of something that this is powerful and critical and I was able to go to Hawaii because I thought where is this child? Where is the surviving child? She was 78 years old and I met her in Hawaii and she was wonderful and it’s all there in the book.
N: I think you get the picture that the book – that you can Google Nora Heysen and you’ll read a lot of the facts about the Archibald and about being the war artist and about her career and that she paint – people say oh she was a flower painter or she painted self-portraits but when you read the book you get the remarkable texture of her life in terms of the day-to-day narrative of what she was doing as best can be determined. She had that – as Hans did, an ascendant career that took off, both of them very quickly but separated by 25 years, both took off, his continued to go, hers then plateaued and sort of dipped. It really wasn’t until the ‘80s when she was resurrected by exhibitions and people so I think we’re very lucky to have that.
I guess I want to ask a question, what – having related that story about Josephine which is a very affecting one, what effect do you think that had on Nora?
A: I think - Nora wrote to her parents after Josephine’s death which happened when she was preparing her paintings for the Archibald so it was a very difficult time. It was October 1938 when Josephine died, Nora was having to submit in about six weeks’ time, by December and she wrote to her parents and she said I have no words. But she did share with Everton Stokes and Meredith Stokes that she felt that this should never have happened and one of the things that she took from that was that she understood that judging people and the social conventions of the day that could create that situation needed to have – she needed to find some other way of thinking about them and how can that be?
I think it was that point that she decided that live and let live was going to be her motto. I think Nora from what I can understand, and perhaps you can tell me because you knew her, she never judged. She might be diametrically opposed to your opinion but she let you have it. She would have hers, you would have yours and well let’s now have a whisky and a ciggy so yeah.
N: Yet another cigarette. She was a prodigious smoker, that’s for sure. Yeah, I think she was on the record as saying – she was interviewed by somebody and she said I’m not a feminist as though to kind of get it out there, I’m not going to be labelled a feminist and yet everything she did in a way was about being independent and creating sort of these remarkable works of art and being what we would think of as a feminist, really, don’t you think? Even though she didn’t like the label, I think that was the issue and you know –
A: Yeah I think the label of feminist in the ‘70s perhaps - Angela Hesson, a curator at the NGV exhibition that’s on at the moment says perhaps she was – she didn’t want to be confused with misandry because Nora loved men and she – Nora just wanted to be known as an artist. She didn’t like being called female painter, girl painter, she wanted to be an artist and she wanted her work to be judged on the same platform as any other artist. She couldn’t see why that distinction had to be made and what was interesting even at her time when she was in London, she didn’t see any gender bias, she just saw these men that her father recommended her to for advice and for guidance and so she thought well they know a lot, perhaps I just have to put my head down and keep going. It was as shame that she didn’t see what was happening.
I often – I say to people wouldn’t it be interesting if these artists who were guiding here, there’d been a blind viewing like a blind tasting of wine and they didn’t know who had done it. You only have to look at her phenomenally strong war pictures to see the strength of the women and the way she’s able to deliver that strength of character. As Lola Wilkins said to me you would not even think for a second necessarily that that had been painted by a woman. Begs the question.
N: We’ll probably start to wrap up and take questions from you if you’d like to answer them but there is another question that I would like to ask which is I suppose the life of a – the role of a biographer is a complex one and you’ve got to know to put it out there, to do it as objectively as possible. I was lucky enough to meet Nora on a number of occasions and she was a real delight and I wish I’d got to know her better, I suppose. But if you could meet Nora today what would be the one question that you could ask her that you would love to get feedback from her about or –
A: Well this might sound very strange but I’d – we dream together, Nora and I. You spend five years with somebody, getting to know them intimately but the question I would most like to ask Nora is how did she sustain such a patient way of approaching her compulsion and her drive? But if I could just read this little bit at the end of my book that just really speaks to that ‘cause someone asked me what did I learn from Nora and I’m hoping that I learnt something about what having patience means.
[Craig du Berry] 50:13 who looked after Nora in the last 10 years of her life said that Nora remained true to knowing that there would be a time when she would be able to concentrate back onto the things that gave her the most joy. She had enormous patience. When you befriended her part of the process was her showing you about the act of being patient with things. It’s very easy when you are young to be impatient. You just don’t know. But to do something well you need to devote time and not be conscious of that time that you’re using to make that possible. I think that that is something that anybody that was close to her learnt. She would impart the importance of it, the patience that you need to do something of real worth.
N: Well put. We might hand over to you if anybody would like to ask questions. There are two microphones that are roving up and down the aisle there. If you want to ask a question please put up your hand and we’ll attempt to answer them.
Au: Thank you, that was so moving, what a beautiful way to describe her. She really is an amazing artist. I'm just wondering did she work on bodies of work for exhibition or was it more sort of a work in progress as she created her pieces?
A: Great observation to think about that because up until ’38 she had been working on exhibitions and she – and when she was in Sydney after ’38 - she never had a solo exhibition after that time. Lou Klepac said to her I can’t believe you haven’t had an exhibition in Sydney and she said well nobody asked me. Right so the problem was again this idea that she never pushed herself forward so – but she painted continuously her whole life and she lived on commissions, basically, word of mouth. So the friends of her father’s like James McGregor and Sydney Smith, they acted as proxy agents if you like. She never even had an agent which would have been a good idea but they were her proxy agents and you also see her commissions start to drop off – sorry for the pun but as they drop off. They – as they decline, their health declines, they’re less active and they finally pass away, you see this diminishment of her commissions. So no, she wasn’t working on bodies of work.
N: It points to the need for at any time somebody to have a dealer or an advocate. Even if it’s not an agent and a dealer, a formal one, an advocate who would push you and thankfully for her, she was lucky that Lou managed to come along and they managed through a set of circumstances to meet.
A: That was when she was resurrected completely and came – was wonderful.
N: He was a really good friend to her and he got her into the Pens and Pencils group and there was a Pens and Pencils group that used to meet up at the SH Irvin Gallery I think it was every other Thursday or something like that and a whole lot of these artists, some of whom you’ve seen in the photos there, would go and they’d do drawing and they’d talk and it was the social group that allowed expression.
A: I think at one stage there were four Archibald winners in that group.
N: Yeah. So – now this lady here.
Au: That’s sort of going to be my question, was what actually happened to her painting from 1938 onwards and it seems like she did continue to paint. So was she within an art world like did she have a relationship with the art world even through her father or did she bring herself out of it like did she sort of decide she wasn’t part of that world? Because it just seems so extraordinary that somebody who won the Archibald suddenly sort of disappeared and wasn’t even really connected with the artists of the time, the people that were sort of painting. I know certainly in Victoria and – would think would bring Nora along with them but –
A: Well there was a pivotal moment where what happened was when the contemporary artists in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, when the contemporary movement started that was – so Nora was away painting for the War Memorial and unlike the Americans and British war artists whose work were used as propaganda and as morale boosters the Australian artists’ work was held over until after the war. So she was out of view completely, her work wasn’t being seen so there’s – from ’43 to ’46, ’47, she’s completely out of view so we’re nearly 10 years after the Archibald, really, that she’s getting back into her own work.
But at that time you had John and Sunday Reed, you had the Nolans, the whole Angry Penguin group were doing their thing and a lot of the realist artists like Nora were relegated to old-fashioned, boring, out-of-date, not relevant. She wasn’t going to fight them. There was an exhibition that Lloyd Rees was in and there was the headline – they even referred to these works as old-fashioned and out-of-date and not particularly relevant which when we look at it now it’s hard to believe but that’s what she was up against. She was up against Robert Hughes thinking just done and dusted, go – no, that’s not what Australian art is all about.
N: I mean I think there was a sort of perfect storm if you forgive the pun of events that she was a woman, she was born in this famous family which sort of worked against her, she did art that was seen to be not in vogue, was not modernist even though we now appreciate aspects of it that are, and she became a housewife. So basically she had this life where she meets Robert Black who’s married, who’s the doctor – you’ve seen pictures of him there, very handsome, charismatic chap. Totally obsessed with his work and they get married and she – so for a decade they can’t do anything and then they get married and for 20 years she’s his wife looking after his needs and while he travels and eventually he travels so much he runs off with his –
A: Travelled straight out the door.
N: Straight out the door and that’s probably in a way when she goes back into making art more –
A: That’s right, she was free again.
Au: Talking about her reputation the Heysens were a proud German family, I mean they were proud of their German background and there was anti-German sentiment in Australia in the ‘40s and the ‘50s and I wonder if that accounts for something of – about her standing and also her protective attitude towards her father because she would have been aware of that. I mean it was there in that time period and although it’s not spoken about it was perhaps a factor in her standing and even – because his reputation went down somewhat too in the ‘50s and the ‘60s and it wasn’t a good time to be German in any English-speaking country.
A: I think you do have a very good point and in – particularly after world war one Heysen had a terrible time during that period. His loyalty to Australia was questioned. In fact Droving into The Light which had been earmarked by the Melbourne Art Gallery was rejected on the grounds of his unwillingness to sign some sort of oath of allegiance. He said if they cannot see my loyalty to this country in my art nothing I say or no piece of paper I sign is going to add to that testament.
Then to your point, it’s possible that – there were two Heysen sons who were now in the airforce and Nora and her real commitment to recording the work of the people that she was following as a war artist. I don’t know if it was the case but I suspect you’d be pretty comfortable in thinking there was some of that but on a practical level she was very much out of view and on an art historical level it was the modernists who were just kicking people to the kerb. Sorry but that’s –
N: You’ve made that point about Robert Hughes. When Robert Hughes sort of completely dismisses Hans Heysen a being a traditionalist and boring and have no ideas. Well if you’re in his wake in – if she was in his wake as an artist and associated with it then it’s not good for – news for you either, that you can’t be seen as anything because you’re branded with this Heysen name so it was sort of bit of a curse.
A: Yes. Lou Klepac suggests that if she had chosen to exhibit Corn Cobs with the Contemporary Art Society and not with the failed academy that had just been established by Menzies and Heysen and Lionel –
A: It would have been a completely different situation because she would have aligned herself with a modernist. She just kind of – she didn’t even agree with the Royal Academy idea, she said well that’s a bit retrograde but her father signed her up for it without even asking her and she kind of as you say got dragged along in his wake and I think that that was a seminal moment when she didn’t flip the coin and exhibit to somewhere else.
Au: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about Madame Schuurman who was the subject of the prizewinning painting and how Nora came to have that commission?
A: Yes, I can. Madame Elink Schuurman was the sitter for the successful Archibald painting and she was introduced to her by a family – I think a cousin or family friend who hosted a cocktail party, a sherry party and Schuurman was the wife of the Netherlands Consul. She was a socialite, she was 25 years old, very beautiful and Nora said that – and this is how Nora got a lot of her commissions. There would be a sherry party, Sydney Ure Smith or James McGregor or Lionel Lindsay would introduce her to somebody with the wherewithal to pay for a portrait and she would proceed. Schuurman was a very difficult sitter, he was a very, very difficult portrait. Nora just didn’t know where to put herself.
Schuurman had young children, she would not show up for sittings, she’d have to run off and at one point Nora said that she had reduced Madame Schuurman to tears and one of the critics suggests – or Jane Hilton, I think, suggests that fragility and that beauty was actually a result – this poor woman was scared stiff sitting in front of Nora not wanting to move and she had tears rolling down her face. But Nora says that she really was not a suitable choice for the Archibald, she didn’t meet the criteria for – of a famous head. She wasn’t a great military person, a lawyer or scientist and here was this gorgeous Chinese silk embroidered gown and Nora said I just use her as a coat hanger. I thought my portrait of John Mullins might win but not that one. But here she was with £450 in her pocket and that was quite a sum in that time.
N: We’re going to have to wrap it up. I’ll just say in conclusion thank you for your book. I think Nora would be very pleased that she’s receiving the credit that she so richly deserves and I think the thing that was really remarkable about her was the fact that she’d lived a long life and wasn’t bitter about anything, really. She was a very accepting and warm and remarkable woman. She had all these things happen in her life that could have gone better and yet - her art career being one of them and yet she managed to be kind of retiring but funny and a dynamo, really, in many ways. As long as she had a whisky and her cigarettes and the garden which she loved and the pets, the cats and Bosey, the dog and a few friends to come and visit her she was happy and I think there’s a lesson in that for all of us, really, as we get older, thinking oh what do you need in life? Whisky? Not the cigarettes, I won’t advocate the cigarettes.
A: I think that also it’s fitting to acknowledge what the NLA did for her in 2000 and 2001 and you as the curator of that exhibition. It was her moment where she declared I know I’m accepted in my own right as an artist, I know that now and she was a very happy woman there.
N: Well I wasn’t the curator, Lou was the curator but I helped organise it but I do remember, I walked – I met her at the car. She pulled up out the front, she’d driven down from Sydney, walked up the steps and saw this huge banner of – the self-portrait of her and she was just about gobsmacked. I think she was going to fall over and turn around and run away. I think that was the moment when it dawned on her, oh my god, this is all real. Anyway thank you very much, I’ll hand you back to Susannah.
S: Thank you, Anne Louise and Nat, for an absolutely absorbing and entertaining discussion. Unfortunately we’re at the end of our conversation but I do hope you can join us for refreshments upstairs in the foyer. Copies of Nora Heysen: A Portrait are available at the Library’s bookshop this evening with a 10% discount and Anne Louise has kindly agreed to sign copies of her books. I also invite you to visit the Library’s Treasures Gallery which will remain open also until 8pm this evening.
Thank you to all of you for being here this evening and please join me in thanking Anne Louise Willoughby and Nat Williams.
End of recording