Nora Heysen: A Portrait By Anne-Louise Willoughby

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By Wendy Lipke

This academic book by Anne-Louise Willoughby highlights the work of the daughter of well-known Australian artist Hans Heysen. Due to the influence of the men in her life as well as the outbreak of war and the social constraints of the day, her work was sidelined in the art world that was experiencing rapid change. This book sets out to once again bring the work of this pioneer to the foreground.

The author, Anne-Louise Willoughby, a journalist and freelance writer, was granted unrestricted access to the family’s material when writing this book and is the only author to be given permission by the family to write about Nora’s life and work. The Nora Heysen biography was the substantial component of Willoughby’s PhD in creative non-fiction which she is currently completing at the University of Western Australia. The standard of research and writing is necessarily of a high standard as the writer works chronologically through the various stages of the subject’s life. Although Nora Heysen is among the key figures in Australian art, and her work is found in all national and state galleries, little has been previously known about the artist as access to her papers has never before been granted.

This well – researched work is broken into twelve chapters covering Nora’s time at home in South Australia, in England and later in Sydney and Canberra after her return from London and is accompanied by twenty-eight pages of notes, a seven-page index and list of illustrations and works mentioned in the text as well as a scattering of colour and black and white works by the artist and her family. This book features work currently held by the Queensland Art Gallery.

Nora Heysen, born in 1911, was one of eight children who, once their father’s work began selling, grew up at The Cedars, in the heart of thirty-six acres of native bushland and pastures in South Australia. The outdoor life at Cedars fostered robust development and an understanding of the natural world. This had a deep influence on Nora not just in terms of the physical world but also the philosophical aspects of her father’s approach to life. She spent many hours on his studio floor            ‘absorbing by observation and osmosis the nuanced approach of a disciplined draughtsman’ (33), her father, or outdoors on painting excursions with him. In time she was to ‘always align herself with her father, in temperament as well as in deed’ (51). At one stage they came to an agreement that her father would stick to the landscapes and she would do the figures, the portraits and the still-life. The frequent social events at The Cedars, including ‘many socially illustrious folk…from a broad spectrum of the international and Australian community’ (31), however, left her completely non plussed by fame.

Her early upbringing developed an intense passion for art, a strength of character, sharpness in wit and a determination to live life on her own terms. She chose to physically remove herself from the family to pursue life as an independent artist but the notoriety of the Heysen name created doubts for her most of her life. She finally expressed acceptance of her artistic independence at the age of eighty-three. Against these earlier odds she became the first woman to win the Archibald prize for portraiture in 1938, seventeen years after its inauguration, and it would be another twenty-two years before another woman won again. In 1943, at age 32, she became the first woman Official War Artist and was assigned to the Australia-Pacific region, obtaining the rank of Captain and achieving equal pay with the men.

It is during this time that she produced portraits displaying the power and capability of her female subjects. In 1944, these were the first non-medical women’s service personnel to go overseas. Her work at this time highlighted the individual qualities of each of these exceptional women and helped to overcome, in a small way, the lack of history of Australian women in leadership positions in the armed forces. Examples from this time can be seen in her portraits of Matron Annie Sage 1944, Major Josephine Mackerras 1945 and Transport driver (Aircraftwoman Florence Miles) 1945, all oil on canvas. These portraits presented the strength of the women as well as the artist’s determined brush strokes and her clever use of light to bring out the characteristics she wished to highlight.

Perhaps part of the reason for her work being sidelined in the art world rests with her own personality. She had a lack of attachment to the idea of notoriety for herself and rejected her mother’s style of promotional activities that had worked so well for her father’s work. Her choice of artistic allegiances and her unwillingness to compromise left her widely unrecognised for much of her life, despite her extraordinary talent. Her love affair with a married man and subjugating her goals to his needs also played a part. Her loyalty to him was boundless. Her portrait of Robert Black was gifted to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra where it currently hangs next to a Self Portrait of Nora. Black’s gaze, ironically, is angled seeking hers as she looks straight ahead.

In the past few decades there has been a movement to redress the historical biases that have shadowed women’s contributions, in particular to Australian art and this book is part of that movement. Nora Heysen finally received recognition in her 80s and 90s and interest in her body of work continues to build.

‘While she might have been out of the wider public view those in art circles were aware of her consistent output’ (294) and in 1960, after 29 years as a member od the Society of Artists in Sydney, Nora Heysen was voted on to the Selection Committee for the first time, the sole woman, twenty years younger than the five other members.

Catherine Speck, an art historian believes that it is Nora Heysen’s lifelong production of work that sets her apart from many artists and considers Nora’s portrait work as the defining aspect of her oeuvre despite her reputation as a flower painter.

This is an interesting book about a woman who spent her youth in a bountiful environment, submersed in the arts under her father’s guidance and then extricated herself from the family to do her own thing. Her time in London in the art world; her war artist commissions; the numerous obstacles from those who should have been guiding her, due to their discriminatory views of the shifting trends of art and of her gender; her liaison with a married man all helped to produce someone who held a sense of propriety in terms of her subjects and a work ethic that informed the perfectionism evident in her paintings. She lived unconventionally, honestly and openly. Her feelings about art spilled into her philosophy about life.

The book’s publication will coincide with a major retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria entitled Hans and Nora Heysen: two generations of Australian Art and ANZAC Day 2019.

Nora Heysen: A Portrait


By Anne-Louise Willoughby

Freemantle Press



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