The res­ur­rec­tion of a once ad­mired artist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

Con­stance Stokes: Art & Life By Lu­cilla Wy­born d’Abr­era Hill House Pub­lish­ers, 234pp, $95 (HB) Con­stance Stokes slipped from the art world stage af­ter the 1950s. There have been valiant at­tempts to re­sus­ci­tate her by cu­ra­tor Jane Clark, au­thor Anne Sum­mers and now Stokes’s daugh­ter Lu­cilla Wy­born d’Abr­era in this lav­ish, beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated vol­ume.

It was not some con­spir­acy by the male­dom­i­nated art fra­ter­nity that pre­cip­i­tated her decline. Very few fe­male artists had re­ceived as much at­ten­tion and praise as Stokes did in her early years. She was ad­mired and en­cour­aged by then Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria direc­tor Lind­say Bernard Hall and var­i­ous crit­ics, and her works were pur­chased by the NGV and prom­i­nent Vic­to­rian fam­i­lies such as the Carne­gies and the Mur­dochs.

Of Cor­nish an­ces­try and Catholic reli­gion, Con­stance Parkin was the youngest of James Henry Parkin and Mary Jane Martin’s five chil­dren. She was born in 1906 in the Wim­mera dis­trict of west­ern Vic­to­ria, a pros­per­ous wheat and sheep-farm­ing belt. Those re­silient Cor­nish genes would stand her in good stead. She sur­vived whoop­ing cough at three months, diph­the­ria at age nine and puer­peral fever giv­ing birth to her first child. All th­ese dis­eases were re­garded as killers well into the 1950s.

D’Abr­era’s ac­count sug­gests her mother had an idyl­lic child­hood and ado­les­cence and a great deal of free­dom to roam. There were singing lessons, vis­its to con­certs and the opera, pic-

May 23-24, 2015 nics, boat­ing, par­ties and danc­ing — the stan­dard pas­times of the ‘‘landed gen­try’’. The au­thor’s re­search is wide-rang­ing and heart­felt, and her style is pre­cise, although the reader may de­tect a hint of hau­teur in it.

At 19, Con­stance over­came her mother’s hes­i­ta­tion about at­tend­ing art school at the NGV (art schools were then thought to be hot­beds of bo­hemi­an­ism). She blos­somed there. Her dis­cov­er­ies are am­pli­fied by a quote from fel­low stu­dent Ge­orge John­ston, later a nov­el­ist: “the strange pal­isades of the as­sem­bled easels, the scat­ter ev­ery­where of dis­mem­bered frag­ments, sev­ered heads, am­pu­tated hands or feet … and lim­b­less tor­sos, the blank white star­ing of sight­less eye­balls, the star­tling con­trast of the girl stu­dents in their flo­ral smocks mov­ing with in­dif­fer­ence be­tween the un­coloured figleaves of naked gods … ”

Con­stance’s drawing was so as­sured that Hall re­marked she must have been an artist in a pre­vi­ous life. The rig­or­ously aca­demic style of teach­ing, where stu­dents pro­ceeded from sketch­ing in char­coal, conte crayon and pen­cil the plas­ter casts of an­tique sculp­ture, to paint­ing live mod­els, suited Con­stance per­fectly. Look­ing at her ac­com­plished works from this pe­riod, one can only spec­u­late how her path might have been dif­fer­ent in the 50s and be­yond with more rig­or­ous crit­i­cal ad­vice. There is a por­trait from this pe­riod that is so imag­i­na­tive in com­po­si­tion, so un­adorned, that it might have been painted yes­ter­day rather than 1928. Other ad­mirable por­traits from th­ese stu­dent years in­clude one of Eric Stokes, son of an industrial mag­nate, whom she mar­ried in 1933.

Her four years at the gallery school saw her at­tract the pa­tron­age of well-heeled buy­ers, but even then, one critic re­marked that she “al­ready [dis­played] the danger­ous fa­cil­ity of a Royal Aca­demi­cian” — a dou­ble-edged com­pli­ment in­deed. One thing is cer­tain, dur­ing the late 20s and the 30s her por­traits were un­ques­tion­ably bolder, live­lier and more con­fi­dently ab­bre­vi­ated than those of her male coun­ter­parts.

When she won the NGV trav­el­ling schol­ar­ship in 1929, the prize of £450 pro­pelled her to stud­ies at the Royal Academy in Lon­don, and later to Paris to study with cu­bist painter and teacher An­dre Lhote. Through the years sev­eral Aus­tralian fe­male pain­ters passed through his stu­dio, in­clud­ing Dor­rit Black, Grace Crow­ley and Anne Dangar. In later decades Stokes would ig­nore Lhote’s dic­tum: “The poorer the pal­ette the richer the pic­ture.’’

D’Abr­era’s nar­ra­tive is em­bed­ded in world events, so there is men­tion of the suf­fragette move­ment gain­ing mo­men­tum, Fed­er­a­tion, both world wars and the De­pres­sion.

Her good for­tune was to have had a mother who wrote en­gag­ingly about her ex­pe­ri­ences abroad and the book is pep­pered with me­mor- able anec­dotes from her notes, let­ters and di­aries. In her trav­els, Stokes seemed to ar­rive ev­ery­where — Spain, Italy, Ger­many — just be­fore or af­ter calamity un­folded. She and her new hus­band ex­pe­ri­enced the Nazi jug­ger­naut in Ber­lin in 1934. “If you went into a post of­fice … you’d say ‘Heil Hitler’, and you would be struck down if you didn’t do it.”

On her re­turn to Mel­bourne, she set up a stu­dio at 9 Collins Street, but the stress of lead­ing two lives — artist and the wife of a com­pany direc­tor — took its toll. As three chil­dren made their ap­pear­ance she ex­hib­ited only three or four paint­ings a year. One is re­minded here of Au­den’s melan­choly view that “there is no more som­bre en­emy of good art than the pram in the hall”. Nev­er­the­less as the au­thor stresses, th­ese elicited “enor­mous praise from both crit­ics and con­nois­seurs”.

In fact Stokes’s paint­ing style dur­ing and be­yond the war years veers dramatically in sev­eral di­rec­tions, as aca­demic tra­di­tion gave way to flat­ter pic­ture planes, elec­tric colours, ag­i­tated brush­work and ab­bre­vi­ated forms. The gen­er­ous num­ber of re­pro­duc­tions al­low the reader to see the in­flu­ences of Wil­liam Do­bell, Rus­sell Drys­dale, Don­ald Friend, Justin O’Brien, Jean Bel­lette, Henri Matisse — even Odilon Re­don.

And here lies the dilemma: while her draughts­man­ship never fal­tered, her later works are in­tensely sac­cha­rine in mood and pal­ette. This re­viewer finds her­self in agree­ment with the ob­ser­va­tions of art his­to­rian Christo­pher Heath­cote who hints that Stokes’s early suc­cess had much to do with her prom­i­nent and pros­per­ous con­nec­tions.

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