Australian artist Nora Heysen was an extraordinary woman.
She was the first female artist ever to win the Archibald Prize, and Australia’s first female official war artist. She was also the daughter of renowned landscape artist Hans Heysen.
And outside of the art world, most of us have never heard of her! Undoubtably the fact that Nora, born in 1911, was female made it harder for her to be taken more seriously by the art world.
WA writer Anne-Louise Willoughby has been doing her best to rectify this wrong, to stunning success.
Since her biography Nora Heysen, A Portrait (Fremantle Press), was released in March, to great acclaim, she’s been called on to share her expertise on Nora Heysen at major art institutions around Australia.
Anne-Louise first began researching the artist – whose work is currently on display at UWA’s Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery – as part of her PHD in Creative Writing, and uncovered plenty of surprises along the way.
She chats to The Starfish:
You really are now seen as quite the authority on Nora Heysen!
I guess so! I spent three years researching her for my PHD and another year and a half writing this biography.
And how did it come about?
My late husband was best friends with Nora’s nephew, Tim. In the early 90s I was introduced to the Heysen family. Back then, I didn’t know of Nora; knew nothing about her. I’d grown up on Hans Heysen’s works though; seeing Droving Into the Light when I was nine years old changed my life!
I went with my Nedlands Primary School class to the Western Australian Museum which incorporated our art gallery back in the 1960s. I remember standing, staring at this picture. I couldn’t move! I couldn’t believe someone could paint something that seemed so real; it was this idea of being transported!
So you then met some of the Heysen family in the 90s.
Yes, and I visited The Cedars in Hahndorf, the original Heysen family home, now the well-known art museum, but back then it was still private. I also visited Tim Heysen’s property in the south-east of South Australia and saw beautiful paintings on the walls, I asked, “whose pictures are these?” And was told, “Oh that’s Aunt Nora.” And those pictures stuck with me; I was so taken with them. But I still knew very little about her.
Then I started noticing Nora’s work in various places. In about 2002, I was at the War Memorial in Canberra and I saw all these incredible pictures by Nora Heysen. I hadn’t known she was a war artist! I thought, why don’t we know anything about her? I still didn’t know she was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize.
Then ten years later, my PhD supervisor asked me what I was interested in researching. I said, “There’s this woman. I’ve been so taken with her work, and I just don’t think we know enough about her.”
So you approached the Heysen family?
Yes, I spoke with Tim Heysen, and it went from there. The family gave me their consent and generously gave me exclusive access to private papers. The Cedars Curator Allan Campbell was a huge support throughout the project.
Nora was only 27 when she won the Archibald?
Yes, it was quite controversial in 1938, because she was a woman, she was so young, and the subject was not a well-known Australian; she was the wife of the Dutch Consul-General(Adine Michele Elink Schuurman). But at the end of the day, the committee awarded it to her because it was the best portrait!
And not everyone was happy?
No. Artist Max Meldrum, who’d missed out, said, “If I were a woman, I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career of 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.” His quote is on page 159 of my book!
Rude fellow! What was Nora’s response?
She said, “Art’s art to me, no matter who does it – men, women or what!” She was so even-handed. Nora was very calm, though opinionated.
Did she ever marry?
Yes, she fell in love with a handsome infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Robert Black, six years her junior. When she met him, he was married with a young child. The love letters they wrote to each other were exquisite.
And were they married for long?
For 20 years. He left Nora for a nurse in 1972.
How did Nora get on with her famous father?
They got on very well, they were very close. Hans was hugely supportive of her and extremely proud. But in the end she left The Cedars and went overseas. She deferred to her father but she had to find her own path. While she loved her father, she wasn’t so close to her mother. She said her mother didn’t want to have children, “she had them for daddy.” She said her mother “was not a warm mother.”
Tell us a bit more about Nora’s personality?
She was calm but opinionated. Very strong. She was phenomenally loyal. Enormously patient, and absolutely committed to her art. Very involved in keeping up to date with painters and the arts. Loved her music. Music was everything; Mozart was what she’d play when getting ready to paint.
No, I wouldn’t say that. She had very close friends; including artist Jeffrey Smart. I interviewed him about Nora at his Italian villa six months before he died. She had a reputation for being perhaps a bit difficult in her old age but, in fact, she just spoke her mind and was very welcoming. She was determined and stubborn.
It wasn’t until the end of her life that she was truly celebrated?
She always wondered if she were successful because of her famous name, always feeling in the shadow of her father. But I think the moment she knew she was really a respected artist in her own right was when she was in her mid-80s, in 1998 when a UK art expert Frances Borzello put her on the cover of her significant book about women artists, Seeing Ourselves.
I understand in doing your research you uncovered a few things about Nora that were quite a surprise?
Yes. When you write a biography, you always find uncomfortable truths. I had to grapple with some things that had happened in the family. Biographers are inherently loyal to their subjects. But there were things I had to address – and I did! But at the same time when writing the book, of course, you have to be respectful to the relatives.
Can you give us a couple of examples?
Well when Nora went to London to study, she was very lonely and had a very close friend that her parents didn’t approve of. Nora’s mother thought the friend was a lesbian and that by associating with her, Nora’s reputation could be ruined. A big question then emerged about Nora’s own sexuality. I think the two women absolutely loved each other but don’t think theirs was a physical relationship. Despite her family’s view, Nora remained close friends with the woman.
What else did you uncover?
Nora’s eldest siste, Josephine, was a wonderful horsewoman; phenomenal. She got to know a horse trainer, Max Williams. They were in love, had a relationship, and she fell pregnant. But the problem was Josephine wasn’t married.
A big no-no back then, of course!
Yes, so arrangements were then made, and in 1938, in the dead of night, the two were secretly married, then whisked away to rural Mentone in Victoria, for Josephine to have the child, well away from her family.
Sallie clearly didn’t want scandal! So did Josephine have the baby in isolation?
They had no money, and Josephine was malnourished, became gravely ill, and died, in isolation from her family.
What a tragedy. What happened to the baby?
Sallie and Hans later adopted the child, named Josephine but nicknamed Jill. They changed her surname from Willams to Heysen. I tracked her down in Hawaii.
Wow. And Josephine’s story wasn’t well-known?
No. It had even been glossed over by Colin Thiele in his 1968 biography on Hans Heysen. He just said Josephine “died of complications.” That approach is consistent with the day when Thiele was writing. He was very loyal to his subject who was still alive as he wrote.
Did this tragedy have much effect on Nora?
Yes, I think it affected everyone, and it explained a lot about Nora’s choices for the rest of her life, how she decided to remain true to herself and be accepting to how others chose to lead their lives. She chose to live and let live.
What kind of a woman was her mother, Sallie?
She was the supreme marketer; a phenomenal networker, the John Singleton of her time! She was the daughter of a former mayor of Adelaide, very beautiful and socially very well connected. She was strong-willed, very good at entertaining, and passionate about art, while fiercely protective of her artist husband. She ran The Cedars, the home they’d bought in 1912, as a great enterprise that supported the perfect work environment for Hans.
So they had plenty of society guests?
Yes, they had an open house on Sundays and all sorts of interesting people would come along. People like Dame Nellie Melba and Robert Menzies would be there. International visitors too: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh visited the property. Nora once said, “Mother knew the right people.”
How had Sallie met Hans?
She’d met him as a young artist; he’d enjoyed great success very early. Before Sallie had even laid eyes on him, she saw one of works, and said, “Whoever painted that, I’m going to marry him.” And she met him, became one of his students at the Heysen Art School he’d opened after returning from Europe. and they married and had eight children!
You know so much about this family now and your book has been so well received. Congratulations. Where can we see works by Nora Heysen?
They’re at every major gallery in Australia and also at the New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale, NSW, that houses the incredible Howard Hinton Collection of Australian art. The National Gallery of Victoria recently had a major retrospective of Hans and Nora Heysen Two Generations of Australian Art, at which I was invited to speak. When I approached Fremantle Press about my book, the timing was right.
And here in WA?
The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery has just opened a new exhibition, Cosmpolitan. Featuring art from the 1930s in the UWA Art Collection and the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art. Nora’s work is displayed and I’m going to be giving a talk later in October this year. The Cruthers family have recently launched the Sheila Foundation which is a great initiative to reposition women back into art history and Nora is a part of that.
It’s wonderful that you’ve helped renew interest in this great Australian artist. It sounds like what started as an academic project has uncovered some fascinating material!
Yes, it could easily be a film or a TV series. I’m thrilled at how the book’s been received and that it’s helped bring more knowledge and attention to this significant figure in the Australian art world.
For more information about Ann-Louise Willoughby’s work visit www.annelouisewilloughby.com