Edwardian painter and adventurer Hilda Rix Nicholas is the fascinating subject of a new exhibition and book, writes Lyndall Crisp
THE first thing Hilda Rix Nicholas did when she arrived on Knockalong, the property she would share with her second husband, Edgar Wright, was to build a studio and cultivate a garden overflowing with roses. Started in 1928, it took two years to complete; 83 years later the garden has gone but the pert little studio still stands, its contents unchanged since the artist died, aged 77, in 1961. Someone simply closed the massive green door with its odd nautical knocker and locked it.
‘‘ It’s not exactly a barn, rather church-like with high ceilings, French provincial furniture, a musicians gallery and stage where Hilda put on plays with friends,’’ says Sarah Engledow, curator of the Paris to Monaro: Pleasures from the Studio of Hilda Rix Nicholas exhibition that opened this week at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery. ‘‘ You feel you are in a French junk shop till you look out the window and see the bleached paddocks of the Monaro.’’
Rix Nicholas fell in love with what she called the heroes of the bush, the men and women who lived in Victoria’s southern Monaro region, and it’s these portraits that are on show along with her earliest works and many of the studio’s contents. The idea for the exhibition, part of Canberra’s centenary celebrations, came to Engledow after she met Rix Nicholas’s granddaughter Bronwyn Wright who, with her brother Rowan, lives on Knockalong and is the studio’s custodian.
In a happy coincidence, Engledow’s grandmother, Sylvia, appears in several of Rix Nicholas’s 1920s paintings, so the two granddaughters were able to swap photos from family albums that the other had never seen.
The portraits (in oil on canvas) and drawings (pencil and crayons) are on loan from the Queensland Art Gallery, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of Western Australia and regional galleries including Bendigo, Bega and Newcastle, as well as private collections.
But what makes this exhibition extraordinary is the objects from the studio that complement the paintings. There is, for example, a full-scale representation of the studio’s huge fireplace made up of photographs and a built structure — much like a trompe l’oeil — surrounded by the artist’s original furniture, gramophone records, costumes and dolls. The Chinese Robe, painted in 1913 in France, is exhibited next to the actual robe. A simple idea but one that’s rarely executed.
It took Engledow about a year and many visits to the studio with designer Tim Moore and photographer Mark Mohell to put the exhibition together. Her two favourite paintings are Phyl Maslin and her Pony, Muffett (1935) and The Bride (1938), which was found rolled up, having never been stretched. The latter, she says, features ‘‘ a glamorous, satinclad bride with creamy green eyeshadow and coal lips, holding a sheath of death lilies, standing in front of a reproduction of a French tapestry which somehow looks like an Australian landscape. The bride was one of Hilda’s son’s governesses. The marriage was a disaster, so the painting was stuffed away. Hilda painted it to warn the bride off the marriage.
‘‘ She wanted to show the best, most noble of Monaro’s farmers. She was a great proponent of the healthy lifestyle they lived. Having lost her sister and mother to typhus and her first husband [Major George Matson Nicholas, who was killed in World War I only six weeks after they married], she had been exposed to horror and grief at a young age.
‘‘ Her pictures are almost like posters, the best ads ever for Australian tourism. She wasn’t a modernist, she didn’t look groovy in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but now it’s the high, almost lurid colour that . . . hits you.’’
The painter’s parents, Elizabeth, also an artist, and Henry Rix, a mathematician and educator, were prominent members of Melbourne society who encouraged their daughters, Hilda and Elsie, to travel. They sailed to England in 1907 and Rix Nicholas didn’t return until 1918. Both girls wrote postcards and letters during their time in London, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, The Netherlands and Morocco, and it’s these that tell the story of the Edwardian sisters’ many adventures.
Melbourne academic Jeanette Hoorn has reproduced snatches of the letters, along with sketches and drawings, in her book Moroccan Idyll, which covers their visits to Tangier in 1912 and 1914. She discovered Rix Nicholas — who studied under Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, and later at the New Art School in London and at Paris’s Academie Delecluse and Grande Chaumiere — while teaching art history at the University of Melbourne.
‘‘ She was inserting women into the bush tradition in a way no other artist had, [in] paintings such as The Fair Musterer, a woman on horseback mustering cattle, painted when she was living in Monaro,’’ Hoorn says. ‘‘ I was interested in her feminist work of inserting stalwarts of country folk into the countryscape. People like [professor] Bernard Smith, who supervised my PhD many years ago, had left her out of history and one of the reasons he didn’t like her work was because he couldn’t ‘ bear the palette’. Bernard wouldn’t have known much about her Moroccan work.
‘‘ Hilda painted a lot of pictures of women enjoying the landscape or having a cup of tea together. Social pictures. And she developed these bright blues and pinks, which I think she did deliberately as a feminist gesture as she developed her own distinctive style.’’
When Hoorn began reading the sisters’ letters — by then in the National Library — she discovered 70 per cent were written by Elsie while Hilda spent much of her time painting and sketching. In fact, Hilda could not have achieved what she did during their visits to Tangier without Elsie, who kept her company, almost guarding her while she worked in the city’s streets and souks.
North Africa was not a popular tourist destination before World War I; cars were a novelty in Tangier and so were the two women, who always attracted a curious crowd when they brought out the easel and brushes. For two months in 1912 they stayed at the Hotel Villa de France at the same time as Henri Matisse, and here they had an advantage over the French artist. The Moorish culture would never have countenanced him roaming around drawing women, and finding a female model was near impossible. Not that Rix Nicholas found it easy — sometimes Elsie had to pose in Moroccan costume — but she was ‘‘ a celebrity in the marketplace; they invariably treat her with respect’’, Elsie wrote to their mother.
Embedded in the domestic lifestyle, her Moroccan paintings and drawings were a rich diary of everyday scenes, of social mores and values but, sadly, most were lost in a fire at Knockalong. ‘‘ Hilda was clearly an early Australian post-impressionist,’’ Hoorn says. ‘‘ Her painting style changed, she became more conservative when she went to the Monaro. For a start, she wouldn’t have been able to sell them. People would have said, ‘ What are these crazy daubs?’ In Tangier, Matisse painted from his hotel room; he was reclusive because he was sick of people laughing at his pictures. If they didn’t understand Matisse, they wouldn’t understand Hilda in the wilds of Monaro.
‘‘ Her work in the Monaro came out of her plein-air work in France, where she painted the rural fishing folk of Etaples. That interest in capturing the essence of peasant folk transferred to [her] work in Monaro, where she painted workers in the bush. She was a very fine portraitist.’’
Although she attained international recognition following her debut solo exhibition in Paris in 1912 and at the Societe des Peintres Orientalistes Francais show a year later, Rix Nicholas had a hard time selling her works back in Australia. ‘‘ She put high prices on all of them,’’ Hoorn says. ‘‘ Her prices were as high as Arthur Streeton’s and Tom Roberts’s because she felt she was as good as they were. She did sell, but she would have sold more if the prices were lower. I admire her for that. Now they’re very valuable.
‘‘ She was incredibly courageous and had to fight against a lot of prejudice in her career. She made the decision to live in a rural community deliberately. She lived in Mosman, in Sydney, for years and had she stayed there things would have been easier. That had to do with the respect she had for rural communities, it was a political decision.’’
Hilda Rix Nicholas about 1910; below left, Phyl Maslin and Her Pony, Muffett
HER MOROCCAN PAINTINGS WERE A RICH DIARY OF EVERYDAY SCENES