The resurrection of a once admired artist
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.