Exhibition: ‘Australian Women Artists Between the Wars’ at Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 3rd March – 30th April 2015

Artists: Clarice Beckett, Dorrit Black, Bessie Davidson, Ethel Carrick Fox, Joy Hester, Nora Heysen, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Margaret Preston, Jane Price, Thea Proctor, Kathleen Sauerbier, Grace Cossington Smith, Clara Southern and others.



Clarice Beckett. 'Winter Morning, Beaumaris' c. 1927-31


Clarice Beckett (Australian, 1887-1935)
Winter Morning, Beaumaris
c. 1927-1931
Oil on canvas
39.3 x 55cm



A delightful exhibition on a subject I freely admit that I knew very little about. An intelligent opening speech from Associate Professor Alison Inglis from The University of Melbourne helped me to be more informed about this fascinating period in Australian art history.

The hero for me in this posting is the work of Clarice Beckett. The atmosphere of her paintings when seen in the flesh is incredible, perfectly capturing the suffused light of the bayside suburbs of Melbourne where she painted. Her impressions are so purposeful and vivid; no extraneous flourish is necessary. Look at the painting The Red Bus for example (below) … the brief almost cartoonish outline of the bus hugs the right hand side of the composition, the red picked up by one of the two people walking in the middle of a road that runs behind the tea-trees that shield the beach from view. Every Australian would understand the symbolic quality of this mythic road.

Shadows are delineated by a few patches of darkness, telegraph poles by four swiftly drawn lines balanced on the left-hand side of the painting by a faint sign post that is almost not there, reinforced spatially by a ghostly white figure further up the painting in the middle of the road. We can almost hear the cicadas song, feel the heat rising from the tarmac, a little breeze rolling in from the sea every now and then. These cultural memories, as annotated by Beckett, will last forever.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to Lauraine Diggins Fine Art for allowing me to publish the text and art work in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the art.



Clarice Beckett. 'Morning Ride' Nd


Clarice Beckett (Australian, 1887-1935)
Morning Ride
Oil on canvas on pulp board
29.5 x 35cm



Clarice Beckett (Australian, 1887-1935)

Clarice Majoribanks Beckett (21 March 1887-7 July 1935) was an Australian painter whose works are featured in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Beckett is recognised as one of Australia’s most important modernist artists. Despite a talent for portraiture and a keen public appreciation for her still lifes, Beckett preferred the solo, outdoor process of painting landscapes. She relentlessly painted sea and beachscapes, rural and suburban scenes, often enveloped in the atmospheric effects of early mornings or evening. Her subjects were often drawn from the Beaumaris area, where she lived for the latter part of her life. She was one of the first of her group to use a painting trolley, or mobile easel to make it easier to paint outdoors in different locations..


Australian Tonalism

Australian Tonalism is characterised by a particular “misty” or atmospheric quality created by the Meldrum painting method of building “tone on tone”. Tonalism developed from Meldrum’s “Scientific theory of Impressions”; claiming that social decadence had given artists an exaggerated interest in colour and, to their detriment, were paying less attention to tone and proportion. Art, he said, should be a pure science based on optical analysis; its sole purpose being to place on the canvas the first ordered tonal impressions that the eye received. All adornments and narrative and literary references should be rejected.

Tonalism opposed Post-Impressionism and Modernism, and is now regarded as a precursor to Minimalism and Conceptualism. The whole movement had been under fierce controversy and they were without doubt the most unpopular group of artists, in the eyes of most other artists, in the history of Australian art. Influential Melbourne artist and teacher George Bell described Australian Tonalism as a “cult which muffles everything in a pall of opaque density”.

While painting the wild sea off Beaumaris during a big storm in 1935, Beckett developed pneumonia and died four days later in a hospital at Sandringham. She was buried in the Cheltenham Memorial Park (Wangara Road) not far from another noted female artist, Mary Vale. She was only 48 when she died, the year after her mother’s death.

Text from the Wikipedia website


Clarice Beckett. 'The Red Bus' Nd


Clarice Beckett (Australian, 1887-1935)
The Red Bus
Oil on canvas on composition board
36.5 x 44cm


Dorrit Black. 'The Parish Hall' 1937


Dorrit Black (Australian, 1891-1951)
The Parish Hall
Coloured linocut
23 x 36cm


Family archive image of Dorrit Black



“It is the artist’s business to reveal to mankind a new outlook on life and the world.”

Dorrit Black, 1946


It should come as no surprise that Dorothea Foster (Dorrit) Black, like other women artists, would be scorned by the sexist, conservative Australian art establishment during her lifetime. When her life was tragically cut short by a car accident in Adelaide in 1951, artist and critic Ivor Francis’s obituary declared Black was that city’s first and, perhaps least understood “modern” artist.

“She has so consistently been artistically cold-shouldered and ignored since her return here about 20 years ago that it is amazing how she maintained the courage to fight on against so much prejudice and misunderstanding,” he wrote. “… It will be many years before her exceptional talent can be properly appreciated in its right perspective, as it most certainly will be.” …

Black was part of a generation of women, alongside Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington-Smith and Grace Cowley, who took risks by travelling overseas, painting in modernist styles and pursuing artistic careers often against the wishes of their family.

“What decided me to throw in my hand altogether the other day was your declaration that I ought to consider my time as belonging to the family first, leaving my painting for my spare time …” Black wrote in a letter to her brother in 1938. “After more than 20 years of struggling to make an artist of myself, I cannot give it all up and settle down to being nothing but a good sister and daughter.”

“She was a very modern woman which meant she belonged to an age when educated women started to break out of Victorian traditions and become independent and self-determined,” Lock-Weir says.

Black travelled to Europe on three occasions, including a two-year stint beginning in from September 1927 when she studied with printmaker Claude Flight at London’s Grosvenor School of Art, and cubists Andre Lhote and Albert Gleizes in Paris. In the summer of 1928, she travelled to the south of France with Crowley and Anne Dangar, where each painted views of the medieval hillside town of Mirmande. Black returned to Adelaide in 1935 to care for her ailing mother, building a studio-house on the city’s edge at Magill where she mainly painted landscapes of the Adelaide Hills and south coast. She also continued to advocate modern art and taught at the South Australian School of Art, influencing a generation of artists led by Jeffrey Smart and Ruth Tuck.

“Plump, dignified, black-haired and well-groomed, she was regarded as a mother-figure by younger artists,” wrote Ian North in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Black’s untimely death in 1951 at the age of 59 left a small legacy of around 130 oil paintings, 159 watercolours, 50 linocuts and a handful of drawings, according to art consultant John Cruthers. “Some painters paint a lot, some paint a little, and then there’s Dorrit.”

Andrew Taylor. “Rescuing the reputation of early Australian modernist Dorrit Black,” on The Sydney Morning Herald website, June 6th 2015 [Online] Cited 24/04/2015


Miriam Moxham. 'Country Morning' c.1940


Miriam Moxham (Australian, 1885-1971)
Country Morning
c. 1940
Oil on composition board
94 x 182cm


Bessie Davidson. 'Autumn Table at Villeneuve' 1935


Bessie Davidson (Australian, 1879-1965)
Autumn Table at Villeneuve
Oil on plywood
44 x 82cm



Bessie Davidson (Australian, 1879-1965)

Bessie Davidson (1879-1965) was an Australian painter known for her impressionist, light-filled landscapes and interiors.

Davidson traveled to Australia to visit family in 1914 and was there when World War I began. She returned to France immediately, where she joined the French Red Cross and served in various military hospitals. During the war, she met the woman who would be her companion for the next two decades, Marguerite Leroy (d. 1938), whose nickname was “Dauphine”.

The postwar period between 1918 and 1920 saw Davidson producing quiet, intimate, loosely impressionistic paintings – mostly interiors, still lives, and portraits – in muted tones. Her style evolved in a more vigorous direction in the 1920s and 1930s, with rich, vibrant, often dramatic colours laid on with a palette knife. In this period her work sold well and was well-received by critics. She traveled around Europe, Russia, and Morocco making outdoor sketches that she used as the basis for paintings later produced in her studio. Her landscapes are notable for their quality of light and sense of atmosphere.

In 1930 Davidson was a founding vice-president of La Société Femmes Artistes Modernes. She was a founding member of the Société Nationale Indépendentes and a member of the Salon d’Automne. In 1931 she was appointed to the French Legion of Honor, in part for her cofounding of the Salon des Tuileries, the only Australian woman to receive that honour up to that time. She exhibited widely with such artists as Mary Cassatt, Tamara de Lempicka, Camille Claudel, and Suzanne Valadon.

Although still a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Davidson decided to stay in France during World War II. She lived with friends in Grenoble, and some sources say that she was a member of the French Resistance. Her paintings from this period are strong, bright, and lively. In 1945, she returned to her old studio in Paris, occasionally spending time at a farm she bought near Rouen. In the postwar period, she painted mostly outdoors on small wood panels. She died at Montparnasse in France in 1965. She was buried in Saint-Saëns, Seine-Maritime.

Text from the Wikipedia website


Bessie Davidson. 'Still Life with Flowers and Pears' Nd


Bessie Davidson (Australian, 1879-1965)
Still Life with Flowers and Pears
Oil on cardboard
61 x 46cm



In the period between the wars, Australian women artists were leading the way by challenging traditions and exploring new ideas in art with a focus on colour, form and design, and subjects such as urban culture.

Role models like Jane Price, Jane Sutherland and Clara Southern had provided women with a basis to seriously pursue art as a profession. Circumstances and opportunity1 saw a flourishing of female artists establish a career through dedicated studies at a growing number of art schools, combined with travel overseas and, quite often, financial independence.

Painting en plein air was continued but rather than romanticised landscapes concerned with effects of light, the rise of the modern woman artist painted the landscape familiar to them with an adventurous attitude towards colour: from the buses and telegraph poles of Beckett’s Melbourne bayside suburbs; to the South Australian landscapes of Sauerbier; urban scenes such as Tempe Manning’s Princes Street and the intimate depictions of home or studio as seen in Gurdon’s Under the Window and as favoured by Cossington Smith.

Whilst there was no overall identifying modernist movement, a common experience of nearly all the women represented in this exhibition was travel and studies overseas, particularly to Paris and London,2 where the exposure to influences such as postimpressionism, modernism, futurism, cubism shaped each individual artist’s subsequent style.

Seemingly traditional and feminine subjects such as still life, flowers, intimate interior and leisure scenes and were invigorated through the work of artists such as Proctor (The Sewing Basket); Preston (Flowers) and Davidson, who maintained her career in France.3 Women artists were also exploring more modern and urban subjects, such as Craig’s HMAS Cerberus and the iconic renditions of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Women artists tackled a wide variety of subjects, including those more accepted in the male domain, and which modern women now inhabited. Rix Nicholas ventured out to capture Australians in remote rural areas as seen in the well-known Fair Musterer (1935, QAG) and as in Boy on a Horse. Nora Heysen was the first woman awarded the Archibald Prize4 and appointed as an official war artist in 1943, as was Sybil Craig in 1945. Printmaking was also a key to the rise of modernism, most effectively by Dorrit Black as seen in The Parish Hall and also by Mabel Pye and Lisette Kohlhagen. Greater commercial and domestic design opportunities were a further important influence, including murals as undertaken by Haxton5 and the frieze-like Country Morning by Moxham.

There is an ever-growing understanding and appreciation of women artists and their influence in shaping Australian art, from ‘lost’ moderns6 to the household names such as Preston and Cossington Smith.

Text from the catalogue to the exhibition



1/ For example, the massive impact of the First World War allowed a shift away from the role of women simply as wife and mother and the economic affluence post-war, prior to the Depression, facilitated the ability to travel and contributed to opportunities for commercial art; the growth of art schools; the rise of domestic decoration.

2/ For example, Black studied in London with Claude Flight 1927 and with Andre Lhote and Albert Gleizes 1927-29 in Paris; Proctor studied in London with George Lambert in 1903; Sauerbier studied at the Central School of Art in London 1925-27; Cossington Smith attended the Winchester School of Art in 1912; Crowley studied in Paris 1926-29; Davidson attended the Academie de la Chaumiere in Paris as did Syme and Rix Nicholas, among other studies in Paris and London; Heysen travelled to England, Paris and Italy; Carrick Fox travelled extensively throughout her life including London, Paris, Spain, Italy, Northern Africa, Australia, Tahiti; Preston travelled to Europe and her work was hung in the Old Salon in 1905.

3/ Davidson was appointed Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for Art and Humanity by the French Government in 1931.

4/ Portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, 1938.

5/ Elaine Haxton was awarded the Sulman Prize (AGNSW) in 1943 for her mural designs.

6/ See Dessmann, J. and Edwards, D., ‘The lost moderns: Tempe Manning, Niel A Gren and Norah Simpson’, Sydney Moderns: Art for a New World, Art Gallery of NSW, 2013.



Sybil Craig. (HMVS Cerberus, Half Moon Bay, Melbourne) Nd


Sybil Craig (Australian, 1901-1989)
HMVS Cerberus, Half Moon Bay, Melbourne
c. 1927-1928
Oil on paper
44.8 x 49.3cm



HMVS Cerberus (Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship) is a breastwork monitor that served in the Victoria Naval Forces, the Commonwealth Naval Forces (CNF), and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) between 1871 and 1924. Built for the colony of Victoria under the supervision of Charles Pasley, Cerberus was completed in 1870, and arrived in Port Phillip in 1871, where she spent the rest of her career. In 1924, the monitor was sold for scrap, and was sunk as a breakwater off Half Moon Bay. The wreck became a popular site for scuba diving and picnics over the years, but there was a structural collapse in 1993. Cerberus was sold to the Melbourne Salvage Company for £409 on 23 April 1924, with the buyer to break her up for scrap. The warship was towed from Corio Bay to Williamstown Naval Dockyard on 14 May for disassembly. After the salvage company removed what they could, she was then sold on to the Sandringham council for £150. The monitor was scuttled on 26 September 1926 at Half Moon Bay to serve as a breakwater for the Black Rock Yacht Club.

Sybil Craig studied privately with John Shirlow before attending art school at the National Gallery of Victoria (1924-1931) with Bernard Hall, William McInnes and Charles Wheeler. She also took private classes with George Bell and held her first solo exhibition in 1932 and as well as painting (in oils, watercolours and pastels) she also undertook more graphic work, including prints.

Craig was a founding member of the New Melbourne Art Club and was appointed an official war artist in 1945 (the third woman to be appointed after Nora Heysen and Stella Bowen) and depicted women workers at the munitions factory at Maribyrnong. Her paintings are particularly characterised by her use of colour and strong design. She is represented in key texts covering modern women artists.


Nora Gurdon. 'Under the Window' 1922


Nora Gurdon (Australian, c. 1881-1974)
Under the Window
Oil on canvas
44.5 x 54.5cm



Nora Gurdon is well known for her late impressionist landscapes and is also associated with the Heidelberg School with Streeton a frequent guest at her country property. In 1914 Gurdon went to England and during the war nursed for two years at the Le Croisic, France. Streeton was also in Europe working as an official war artist often painting hospital scenes. In 1920 Gurdon returned to Australia and from that time added scenes from domestic life to her painting oeuvre (Peers p. 149). However she remained independent, did not marry, and made further trips to Europe in 1927 and 1937.

She was a member of the Australian Art Association and the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, (MESWAPS) joining as early as 1923. From her country property, Gurdon welcomed many fellow painters. For the members of the MESWAPS ‘successful outdoor painting days were held at the studio of Nora Gurdon in Mount Dandenong’.


Nora Heysen. '(Self Portrait)' 1936


Nora Heysen (Australian, 1911-2003)
Self Portrait
Charcoal on paper
35 x 25cm


Thea Proctor. 'The Sewing Basket' c. 1926


Thea Proctor (Australian, 1879-1966)
The Sewing Basket
c. 1926
13.5 x 14cm


May and Mina Moore. 'Thea Proctor' 1912


May Moore (New Zealand, Australia 1881-1931)
Mina Moore (New Zealand, Australia 1882-1957)
Thea Proctor
Gelatin silver photograph, brown tone
18.5 x 10.0cm



“… the portrait of Thea Proctor is brown-toned, although the minimal studio background and the very direct gaze of the subject signals change. Jack Cato wrote of May and Mina that: ‘these enterprising young women were unable to afford the great studio premises filled with light from glass roofs and glass walls that were then the order of the day. By necessity they devised a method of portraiture by using the meagre light from an ordinary window in an ordinary room. It made their work so distinctive.’1 Despite the strong chiaroscuro, Proctor’s face is clear and her gaze direct. Her very upright pose, with her hand on her hip and no props to lean against, is that of a modern woman. Proctor’s dress was made by herself for the going-away party of her relative John Peter Russell in 1912. Other photographs from this shoot were published in The Lone Hand in July 1913 where it was noted that ‘she is singularly free from feminine tremors concerning her own work’.”2


  1. Cato J. (1955), The story of the camera in Australia, Georgian House, Melbourne p. 136
  2. Engledow, S. (2005), ‘The world of Thea Proctor’, The world of Thea Proctor, S. Engledow, A. Sayers and B. Humphries, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra p. 37

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007


Mabel Pye. 'Blue Vase' c. 1936


Mabel Pye (Australian, 1894-1982)
Blue Vase
c. 1936
Coloured linocut
22.7 x 18.7cm



Mabel Pye was a printmaker and painter from Melbourne who studied with Adelaide Perry and Napier Waller under Bernard Hall at the National Gallery School. Mabel introduced the use of linocuts into her work in the early 1930’s with bold colors and lines. Her work encompassed the use of the everyday including landscapes, portraits and still life. Mabel was a member of both the Victorian Art Society from 1918-1941 and also the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptures from 1920-1950.


Ethel Carrick Fox (1872-1952)


Ethel Carrick Fox (Australian, 1872-1952)


Ethel Carrick. (Arabs Walking Down a Street) Nd


Ethel Carrick Fox (Australian, 1872-1952)
Arabs Walking Down a Street
Oil on canvas
45.7 x 37.9cm



Ethel Carrick Fox (Australian, 1872-1952)

Ethel Carrick Fox (1872-1951) was the wife of painter Emanuel Phillips Fox and a major artist in her own right. Carrick studied at the Slade School. She married E. Phillips Fox in 1905 and moved to Paris. She exhibited at the Salon D’Automne, Royal Academy London, Australian Art Association, Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, as well as at solo exhibitions and dual shows with her husband’s work.

She travelled extensively from 1920-1940, and lobbied Australian public gallery directors and curators to buy her husband’s works. During the 1920s she was recommended by the Atelier Grande Chaumiere as a private teacher of still life painting in Paris, and included a number of Australians and Americans in Paris amongst her students. Carrick died in Melbourne in 1951.

Text from the Wikipedia website



Lauraine Diggins Fine Art
Boonwurrung Country
5 Malakoff Street
North Caulfield
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 3161
Phone: (61 3) 9509 9855

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 10am – 6pm

Lauraine Diggins Fine Art website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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