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Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI

Chapter 9

Australian Lesbian Artists of the Early Twentieth Century

Peter Di Sciascio

Women were virtually invisible in Australian art in the nineteenth century, but went on to become leaders in the Australian Modern Art movement between the wars. Here, we shall look at some of the changing social conditions and events that enabled women, who were mostly from the upper classes and unmarried, to forge successful artistic careers. These women had the ability or inclination to avoid the traditional female role in society and this chapter proposes one method of examination which reveals that lesbians were disproportionately represented in this cohort of successful artists.

Women Artists in the Nineteenth Century

The social conditions for women in nineteenth century Australia led inexorably to their entrapment into the roles of wives, mothers and homemakers. This locked most women into the domestic sphere and prevented the pursuit of any career, let alone one in art. However, for those with a creative bent, and time and money, craft in the domestic environment1 and art, were available as genteel pursuits for young ladies.2 Unlike other areas of public endeavour (politics, university, professions, and trades) there were no institutional or legal barriers to women’s involvement in art.

To demonstrate that women were actively involved in formal art education, Graph 1 shows the male and female enrolments in the National Gallery School’s (NGS) Painting Class between the years 1886 and 1914. The NGS in Melbourne was Australia’s premier art school. The graph shows that women far outnumbered men during this period.

Female and male enrolments 1885 to 1915

Graph 1: National Gallery School Enrolments in the Painting Class3

Further, during Frederick McCubbin’s years as drawing master at the NGS (1886 to 1917) three quarters of his 2000 students were women.4 This pattern was repeated in the Art Schools, Mechanics Institutes and Schools of Mines in towns and regional centres around Australia where art and craft were taught.5

If women were actively engaging in art training did this translate into artistic output and professional careers? In 1906 the Royal Art Society of New South Wales exhibited ‘The Hundred Best Pictures of the Royal Art Society’, 83 were by males, and only 17 were by females.6 Anyone with a basic knowledge of nineteenth century Australian art will have male artists in mind when thinking of the period. While recent research has uncovered the depth and breadth women’s artistic pursuits in the nineteenth century,7 very few women achieved the success and notability of male artists of the time. This was apparent when I visited the Ian Potter Centre at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and surveyed the hang in the nineteenth century Australian art galleries and noted the gender of the artist for each work of art on display. The results of my findings appear in Graph 2. The category of ‘paintings’ includes oils, watercolours and drawings. The category of ‘objects’ includes sculpture, silverware and furniture.

Early 19th century paintings and objects by women and men

Late 19th century paintings and objects by women and men

Graph 2 (A and B): Current Hang at the NGV, Nineteenth Century Australian Art 8

The data reveal that no women are represented in the early nineteenth century gallery,9 and only a small number (six works by Emma Boyd, Jane Sutherland and Clara Southern) appear in the late nineteenth century gallery. What the research suggests is that the training that women were receiving in premier art schools was not translating into artistic output worthy of collection and display in one of Australia’s foremost art galleries.

Events at the Turn of the Century

Events at the turn of the century resulted in some social changes in Australia that benefited women in both the private (reduced marriage and birth rates, for example) and public spheres (Federation prosperity and white women achieved the vote, for example).10

The next major part of the story of Australian women’s art is the Arts and Crafts Movement. This was a decorative arts movement that emanated from Britain in the 1860s, inspired by the teachings of William Morris and John Ruskin. Its hallmarks were the hand-crafting of items, the use of plant and animal motifs and the merging of art, craft, design and architecture. The movement hit Australia in the 1890s and really took off in the first decade of the twentieth century with the formation of a number of Arts and Crafts Societies; Tasmania in 1903, New South Wales in 1906, and Victoria in 1908, to name just three.11 While interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement came from both men and women, a closer look at the histories of these societies shows that women were particularly prominent.12 Arguably this interest stems from the movement’s connection with craft and its applications to the domestic environment, a point that has been made by Anthea Callen.13 Women’s creativity, for years locked away in domestic craft, now had an open, public and legitimate artistic forum. The flood gates had been opened. The Arts and Crafts movement successfully gave women an entré into the art world via craft where they were already well established.

While women continued to participate in mixed Arts Societies with mixed success, specific women’s arts societies formed which provided opportunities for mutual support: Sydney’s Society of Women Painters was formed in 1910, and the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1902.14

Then there was the Women’s Work Exhibition of 1907. Held at the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne, it was the brainchild of the Governor General’s wife Lady Northcote. A quarter of a million people attended the exhibition. The exhibition contained 16,000 works spread across a broad range of categories, both competitive and non-competitive. The largest section was needlework, with 7000 entries. The second largest section was fine and applied arts, with 5000 entries.15

In the same year, William Moore wrote an article for a women’s magazine specifically describing the potential for art as a career for women.16 He provided advice on training, the genres of art where money could be made, and included many examples of successful role models. Moore’s article was the last of a series on ‘Careers for Australasian Girls’ published in The New Idea.17 While a subsequent comprehensive publication about women’s work opportunities in Victoria excluded art or artistic pursuits, with the exception of Black and White Art for fashion and advertisement drawing,18 artist George Taylor, in 1919, called for men to ‘give women equal opportunities and acknowledgement in Art’.19

New art magazines of the period featured women artists and craftswomen. First, Art and Architecture (published from 1905 to 1912), which later became The Salon (1912 to 1916), and then Art in Australia magazine (published from 1916 to 1942) were especially influential. The editor of Art in Australia, Sydney Ure Smith, was a key figure in the art world at the time.20 He somehow managed to straddle the demands of the conservatives and the modernists, both male and female. This journal, as well as another he edited, The Home: The Australian Journal of Quality (published from 1920 to 1942), were great vehicles for exposing the public to women’s art. Margaret Preston was the most featured artist in Art in Australia.21

Women to the Fore between the Wars

By World War I women had started to establish themselves amongst (male) career artists. The tide had turned for women in art. But who was in this wave and what distinguished them? Upper class women were prominent and most of the successful women artists never married. Lesbians were disproportionately represented.22 What these women shared was an ability or inclination to avoid the traditional female role in society; they could devote the time and money needed for a successful career in art.23 For those who could afford it, travel to major capitals such as London and Paris, and elsewhere in Europe and Japan, provided wider exposure to art, culture and worldly experience.24

Women, much more than men embraced modernism and introduced it to Australia.25 Grace Cossington Smith’s 1915 work The Sock Knitter is believed to be the first fully post-impressionist painting to be exhibited in Australia.26 Dorrit Black, Grace Crowley and Anne Dangar were notable amongst the few Australian artists to dabble in cubism. With a small number of exceptions, male art at the time remained vehemently conservative, stuck in the impressionist style typified by the Heidelberg School, or, as Jeanette Hoorn describes it ‘Pastoral Painting’.27 This was reflected in the acquisition patterns of many of the state galleries which did not collect Australian women’s art until well after the 1940s.28

Consumerism exploded with the rise of the middle classes. Art, design and decorative arts were in demand and the buyers were mostly women.29 Approximately three women for every one man frequented art exhibitions.30 Sydney Ure Smith commented in 1937 that women were the principal supporters of the visual arts and ‘if artists had to depend on the men folk, there would not be much art’.31 Mass media burgeoned in the early twentieth century, with women artists producing images and covers for art and women’s magazines,32 which appealed to the stylish, consumer woman who was interested in art and design. Women were also prominent in the resurgence of printmaking that occurred in Australia in the 1920s.33 They pioneered coloured woodblock prints (Violet Teague) and revolutionised coloured linocut printing (Eveline Syme, Ethel Spowers and Dorrit Black). They were not afraid of new techniques and styles.

The 1920s also saw the emergence of the ‘new woman’. This international western phenomenon was characterised by working, independent females; they smoked, were less inclined to marriage and children, were better educated and more likely to use contraception.34 One argument often put to explain women’s artistic success between the wars was the absence or death of a generation of young male artists due to World War I.35 I refer to this as the ‘void theory’, that is, the idea that women filled the artistic void. I do not subscribe to this argument. Not only is this premise too convenient for a later, very patriarchal art world to use, suggesting that second-rate female artists only got up due to the lack of men, but if it was the case then a similar trend should be observable in the years after World War II, which it is not. Also, if women were just filling the void then they could have done it by continuing the traditional impressionist/landscape territory set out by the men. But they did not. Women became innovators and expanded the boundaries of art more than men.

A more feasible argument is that there was a general absence of a generation of men after World War I, which reduced the pressure to marry and that the necessity for women to live and work independently that occurred during the War carried over in part, to the following decades.36 Indeed, Caroline Ambrus suggests that these women were still empowered by the first wave of feminism that occurred at the turn of the century, although it became less resonate with later generations of women at and beyond World War II.37

The answer, I believe, can be found in the presence of the constellation of factors that I have described thus far (some international, some unique to Australia). Together, they provided the right conditions for women’s success, and for once, male action (or inaction) had nothing to do with it.

The Emergence of the Lesbian Artist

Having described the conditions that allowed the emergence of the woman artist, it is now appropriate to examine lesbian artists more specifically and attempt to explain why the time was also ripe for female artists who desired the physical and social company of other women. Travel, especially travel to Paris, forms a significant part of that explanation.

Paris is now regarded as having been a lesbian Mecca during the belle époque (1900–1930s). It was certainly a key destination for artists for several centuries38 and the twentieth century saw the development of a significant lesbian community in Paris.39 Some maintain that the ‘simple’ Australian artists visiting at the time did not engage with such things: ‘few… demonstrated even a mild interest in overstepping the conventional cultural prescriptions of their time’.40 However, I believe that the prevalence of lesbians and their influence in artistic and literary Parisian life would make this assumption naïve. Certainly, more recent writings acknowledge the interaction between Australian artists and the diverse society presented in Paris.41

Bertha Harris provides a colourful description of lesbian society in Paris:

They were American and English and French but mostly American, but with the father’s nationality in effect wiped out by the more profound nationality of their lesbianism. From the turn of the century and into the twenties, they escaped the American Gothic with huge hunks of papa’s fortune stuffed in their pockets.42

Harris saw that community as being vehemently upper class. Shari Benstock challenges this view to some degree, reminding us that female homosexual practice was evident in all levels of society but that women would have experienced it differently according to class.43 She does confirm that by 1900 Paris had an international reputation as the capital of same-sex love among women and was designated ‘Paris-Lesbos’: ‘Same-sex love was part of the “mad gaiety” of belle époque life, where men and women alike sought new and exotic pleasures.’44 In regard to a lesbian community, Benstock goes on to say that ‘it would seem that the commitment to art represented a common bond of experience at least as strong as sexual orientation’.45

Australian women artists were entering a Paris not just full of art, but coincidentally, full of sexual freedom. I believe it is reasonable to suggest that many woman artists in Paris at the time would have encountered the lesbian community, and if they were so inclined or interested, engaged with it.

This chapter is about Australian lesbian artists and so far I have stuck to the word ‘lesbian’, but some space should be devoted to the term itself. Here, Adrienne Rich’s discussion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ is useful.46 The assumption is always that a woman is heterosexual unless there is significant evidence otherwise. In investigating various women artists’ lives, I often encountered the response ‘it’s important not to over-interpret or read too much into these relationships’ and even suggestions that these female artists forwent intimate or sexual relationships for their art; asexuality is clearly the next safest thing to heterosexuality. Given the circumstances of these women’s lives and the systematic silencing of homosexual history, this chapter casts a wide net and errs on ‘our side’ for a change. I believe that relationships with other women, that is, lesbian relationships, were a real possibility for these women. If they had not worked that out in the back blocks of the Western District or the suburbs of Melbourne then the possibilities would have become apparent once they visited Paris. Marriage and childbirth were definitely considered as barriers to an artistic career and these women were young, wealthy and intelligent, with the world at their feet. There is evidence that they experimented with sexuality and ‘unconventional lives’.

Rich also discusses the idea of the ‘lesbian continuum’. She argues that lesbianism can include a range of woman-identified experience, ‘not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman’.47 It can be expanded ‘to embrace many more forms of primary intensity between and among women’, she explains, ‘including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support’.48 It is in this sense that I have used the term ‘lesbian’ in this chapter, not to try and define the term, or draw more women into the term, but to remove or blur the line already drawn by compulsory heterosexuality. It is a question of creating a framework to allow visibility in an art history that has made women (let alone lesbians) invisible. Erica Rand provides interesting discussion on this and, in fact, disagrees with Rich’s view, but she acknowledges that hers is just a different strategy for the examination of art history.49 Late twentieth century feminism has done much to recover and celebrate women’s art history. However, as Elizabeth Ashburn points out ‘[l]esbian artists are not only absent from standard surveys of art history, they are also missing from many accounts of feminist art’.50

Having set such a playing field, I will present six examples of Australian women artists that might be considered in this framework.

Agnes Goodsir (1864–1939)

Agnes Goodsir was born into a wealthy family in Portland, western Victoria. Soon after her birth the family moved to Melbourne, eventually settling in Brunswick at ‘Lyndhurst Hall’ in Albert Street. The Goodsirs had connections with Bendigo and in 1898–1899, Agnes studied art at the Bendigo School of Mines under Arthur T. Woodward. Woodward’s reputation attracted students to the school and the curriculum was based on that of the Parisian art schools. In 1899, with her father’s support and Woodward’s encouragement, Agnes departed for Paris to pursue studies in art. She stayed there until 1905 and then returned to Australia for six months. Agnes then returned to Europe, this time settling in London.51

While in London during the war, Agnes was close friends with Bernard Roelvink and his American wife Rachel. Rachel subsequently divorced Roelvink and her name reverted to Mrs Rachel Dunn, with the nickname ‘Cherry’ used among friends and close associates. Cherry became Agnes’ artist’s model, close companion and the dominant subject of later works.52 Agnes and Cherry settled in Paris. Agnes’ career developed, especially in portraiture. In 1926 she was the third Australian to be elected to the Salon Nationale des Beaux Arts (after Rupert Bunny and Bessie Davidson), an important accolade. In 1927 Agnes returned to Australia for nine months to much fanfare and at the peak of her career.53 She then went back to Paris where she remained for the rest of her life with her beloved Cherry. Agnes died in 1939, Rachel in 1950. They are buried in the same grave outside Paris.

The bulk of Agnes’ work was commissioned portraits, for which she was in demand. Otherwise, she produced still life, and Portraits Intérieur, a style popular at the time where women (often Cherry) were depicted in soft and elegant interiors with gentle poses and beautiful fabrics and furnishings. Agnes also captured the ‘new woman’ or ‘Latin type’54 of the mid-1920s as evident in her 1924 painting, The Parisienne.55 The sitter is dressed in masculine attire with a cigarette in her elongated fingers. The hair is short. The effect, while masculine, is elegant.

Janet Cumbrae Stuart (1883–1960)

Janet Cumbrae Stewart was born in middle-class Brighton, Melbourne, in 1883. As early as the age of 15 she is known to have attended drawing classes. Between 1902 and 1907 Janet studied drawing and painting at the National Gallery School. She was awarded a number of prizes in her time at the School.

Janet established a successful career as a pastellist and figure painter in Melbourne during the years 1909 to 1922 which included being a full member of the Australian Artists Association, something usually conferred on elite male artists. She was the subject of a handsome monograph in 1921.56

In 1922 Janet moved to London where her success continued with exhibitions in London and Paris. Periodically, she sent works to commercial galleries in Australia. After extensive travel throughout Europe between 1923 and 1931, she settled in Alassio, Italy with her companion Miss Argemore Farrington Bellairs (Billy Bellairs). Billy also acted as Janet’s publicist and business manager. She was a distinctive and enterprising woman of independent means who dressed in masculine attire. Janet and Billy travelled to Melbourne to visit family in 1939. The outbreak of war turned the visit into a permanent move. Janet continued her successful art career well into the 1950s. She and Billy divided their time between their homes in Hurstbridge and South Yarra. Janet died in 1960, survived by her partner Billy.57

While Janet’s oeuvre includes some still life, townscapes and ‘straight’ portraits, she is mostly known for her sensitive and evocative female nudes. Drawing the female nude in an intimate and feminine domain was a new and controversial subject for a woman artist.58 In 1921 John Shirlow (artist and soon-to-be NGV trustee) said of Janet: ‘[t]hough telling the secrets of the boudoir, she never descended to the indelicate or vulgar’.59

Margaret Preston (1875–1963)

Margaret Rose McPherson was born in Adelaide in 1875. By 1888 she had decided to study art and had won a prize for china painting at a local show.60 From this point on, her desire to make a career of her art would be untamed. Margaret became one of Australia’s leading artists with her innovative modernism and her use of Aboriginal motifs as inspiration for a distinctly Australian modern art.

Until her marriage in 1919, she was known variously as Margaret or Rose, McPherson, MacPherson or Macpherson.61 Once married in 1919 to Bill Preston, she took the unusual step for a woman artist and changed her name to Margaret Preston. She set up married life in Sydney and appeared to turn her back on her earlier life. This extended to re-signing some of her earlier works.62

What lurked in those earlier years were two significant relationships with women that have been largely ignored in official and conservative biographies. The first relationship was with Bessie Davidson, another artist, and a pupil four years her junior. They travelled and studied extensively together, largely on Davidson’s allowance, between 1904 and 1910. Margaret gave Bessie a late nineteenth century book of poetry.63 The book is scattered with hand drawn images of roses, lovers, butterflies, and other figures – and inscribed ‘[i]t was roses, roses all the way… Love the book and me together’ (Margaret Preston’s middle name was Rose and in her early years that was her preferred first name).64 After their relationship ended, Margaret returned home and set up a studio with Gladys Reynell, who became Margaret’s intimate companion until about 1919 when Margaret married. Bill Preston later recalled that he ‘broke up the twosome’.65

At the time of her marriage Margaret was 44, but recorded her age on the marriage certificate as 36,66 a lie that many believed until her death. The motivation for this is unknown. Was it vanity? Did she want to appear closer to her husband’s age? (He was six years younger than her.) Or was she hiding from her husband the fact that she was probably past child-bearing age? Bill Preston was described by arts writer Leon Gellert as ‘[t]he all-time dream husband of women artists… the handsome and worshipful Bill seemed to regard it as his national duty to keep his beloved Margaret happy and artistically productive’.67 In a discussion of the two relationships with women, Butel puts them on equal footing with the marriage,68 although it was not until 2005 that they were considered as lesbian relationships, albeit confined to footnotes.69 The Age picked up on this and effectively ‘outed’ Margaret in the same year.70

If you are wondering what happened to Bessie Davidson, she returned to France and lived the rest of her life as an artist with her ‘patron’ and ‘beloved companion’ Marguerite Le Roy, also known as Dauphine. They were buried in the same grave. In her book of Davidson’s life, Penelope Little concluded that the friendship was platonic,71 a statement which led to some criticism by reviewers.72 Gladys Reynell married George Osborne, a returned solider and gardener 12 years her junior in 1922. Much of their creative years were spent developing their pottery until George contracted lead poisoning.73

It is useful to reflect upon Preston’s three relationships. Butel says that ‘Preston does seem to have thrived on an intimate, supportive relationship, firstly with her two close women friends and later with her husband’.74 In all three, Margaret was older and relied on the partner for professional, financial as well as personal support. We should not underestimate the value of financial support to single women at the time. Most successful single women came from wealthy families and had allowances (Davidson and Reynell, for example). Margaret relied on those allowances and on the wealth of Bill Preston. Arguably, it is no coincidence that Preston’s marriage came after child-bearing age.

Mary Cockburn Mercer (1882–1963)

Another artist with a fascinating life story is Mary Cockburn Mercer. She came from a wealthy family of pioneer settlers in the Western District of Victoria. In her early teens her mother took her to Florence and London to ‘finish’ her education. At the age of 17 she ran away to join the bohemian life of artists in the Montparnasse district of Paris.75

In the early 1920s she lived in France with her male partner, American artist Alexander Robinson, and together they built an idyllic home on the Mediterranean coast at Cassis near Marseilles. Mary then spent time on the island of Capri, amongst the fashionable lesbian set epitomised in Compton Mackenzie’s 1928 satire Extraordinary Women.76 She then fell in love with a male German photographer and they settled in Spain until the Spanish Civil War and German conscription separated them.

Mary returned to Australia in 1938, with a couple of years in Tahiti along the way. Upon her return to Melbourne, she enrolled for several months at George Bell’s Art School to take advantage of the available life models. Fellow student, Jack Courier, remembered her as ‘an exciting and forceful woman who wore “mannish” tweed suits and talked of Europe’.77 During the war years she exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne, her ‘decadent’ female nudes often hung behind the gallery doors.78 In Melbourne, Mercer had a second affair with Janet Cumbrae Stewart (the first in Paris)79 and cultivated a circle of artist friends including Ian Fairwether, William Frater, Arnold Shore, Lina Bryons (who was a beneficiary of her will) and Colin McCahon. In 1952 Mary returned to her house at Cassis in France. There she remained until severe arthritis forced an end to her art and a move to a nearby apartment. For stimulation she learnt Russian, already being fluent in French and Italian. Mary died in 1963 aged 81.

The NGV holds a beautiful example of her work from c.1940, which depicts two women in relaxed intimacy on a bed.80 It has broad luminous washes of watercolour that reveal a lightness of touch resulting in a suggestive rather than explicit image. The untitled work is referred to as Two Women but the alternate title of this work used by the gallery staff is The Lesbians.81

Grace Crowley (1890–1979)

Grace Crowley, also known as ‘Smudge’, is believed to have been in a relationship with Anne Dangar between about 1915 and 1929. Anne Dangar studied and then taught at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, at the same time as Grace Crowley. The two went to France together in 1926 where they studied painting for several years, including at the influential cubist school Académie Lhote. Dangar returned to Australia in 1928, Crowley in 1930. Dangar travelled back to France in 1930 and settled at Albert Gleize’s Art Colony, Moly-Sabata, in southern France where she immersed herself in pottery, for which she became most famous. She remained there for the rest of her life.

In his review of Dangar’s life, Bruce Adams describes Crowley and Dangar as physically and temperamentally complementing each other. Dangar’s niece, Norah Singleton, recalled their parodies of conventional gender roles both in private conversation and their public appearances. Her observations about their coded behaviour never became an open issue, certainly not in the family circle.82 Dangar’s dependency on Crowley did not diminish after their separation, and a remarkable collection of letters express deep affection and physical longing for her friend’s feminine presence.83

Grace appears to have had short-lived artistic and/or personal relationships in Sydney with Dorrit Black and Rah Fizelle, eventually settling into a lasting relationship with Ralph Balson.84 All of Grace’s relationships were with artists, and the professional aspect was clearly important. Grace had her own income and had no real need for a husband or anyone to support her financially.

Grace’s artistic career is extraordinary. While she is known to have destroyed her works at various times, approximately 50 extant works show a remarkable development from post-impressionist to cubist and then to abstract art. Grace and Balson were leaders in the colour-abstract field in the 1940s. They were then very much ‘on their own’ in Australian art. Her painting, Les Baigneuses of 1928 depicts two naked female bathers, unusually and notably with pubic hair, in the geometricised cubist style she learned from André Lhote.85

Kathleen O’Connor (1876–1968)

Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand in 1876 but grew up largely in Western Australia. She showed early talent as an artist. This, combined with her independent and determined personality, and her upper-class background, set the foundation for a life-long career as an artist, unmarried and childless. Kathleen’s forte was portraiture and still life. She disliked Western Australia and spent a large part of her life, almost 50 years, overseas. She was most at home in Paris.

Reading through Julie Lewis’ biography, what is noticeable is the stark absence of any significant relationships despite a vibrant and eventful life. Life was either very lonely or there are gaps in the biography. Kathleen decided by the age of 24 to never marry despite her popularity and a number of male suitors. She was never tempted to marry for convenience or material security. She was a hoarder of the ephemera of life, so there is a substantial archive of her activities, but nothing to illuminate the inner Kathleen. She kept her inner thoughts to herself. Throughout her long life she seldom gave away any personal information.86

While there were friendships with other female artists such as Frances Hodgkins, and a patron Harriet Stewart Dawson (later Princess Radziwill), and hints at relationships with male artists such as painter Isaac Israels and sculptor José Clara, Kathleen was always very evasive about personal relationships, deflecting questions with responses such as ‘that would be telling’ or ‘wouldn’t you like to know!’87 Janda Gooding concludes that there is little evidence to support relationships with men or women and that either is possible (a refreshing rejection of the compulsory heterosexuality discussed earlier). For Kathleen, lifestyle, and by implication her sexual orientation, was not important to an understanding of her art.88 Again, confined to a footnote we find the most direct comment: ‘O’Connor’s social background and the mores of Australian culture at the time may well have induced her to conceal any sexual relationships she might have had with women’.89 Kathleen is one woman artist that we will never totally understand. Lewis begins her biography with a telling statement: ‘In many ways she remains an enigma. She would have liked that. She enjoyed keeping people guessing’.90


A woman’s art does not always give an insight into her sexuality. Often, femininity can be read in the art but a sense of sexuality is not necessarily apparent. Arguable exceptions to this would be Janet Cumbrae Stewart and Mary Cockburn Mercer whose female nudes crossed into what was conventionally male artists’ territory.91 There was no specific backlash against lesbians during the period under examination here. Rather, there is a pervasive historical ‘silence’ about any actual or possible lesbian presence in society, perhaps helped by the lack of criminal sanctions to lesbianism and a belief that if it was ignored, it will go away.92 In artistic and upper-class circles, female relationships were discretely pursued and largely ignored by others.

A very conservative white male art hierarchy in Australia was very much against Modernism and women in art, rather than lesbians per se. Notable amongst these were Lionel Lindsay (artist, writer, critic), J. S. MacDonald (Director of the NGV) and Robert Menzies (politician). In 1934 in the Bulletin, J. S. MacDonald wrote and argued against modernism and largely blamed it on women. He abandoned any restraint in voicing his prejudice against women artists and while overlooking lesbians as a group, he got stuck into male homosexuals:

This development [modern art] has led to the emergence in numbers of what the Americans call ‘pansies’; and fine allies they make. These beings can trim a hat or tie a bow with any girl. Both can talk Art… though neither think nor express themselves… in anything but insignificant form. They rule the world of art today, and unless real painters speak up for themselves and right art, the women and their near men abettors will ruin both.93

Unfortunately, the tide turned against women artists after World War II. Australian male artists regained their prominence at the cutting edge of art; women seemed to be banished back into their homes and kitchens with the conservatism of the post-war era.94 Lesbian artists of the period remained overseas, married, or settled into quiet lives as couples or spinsters, their sexuality now morbidified by the sexologists and medicine.95

In 1993, Jo Derbyshire noted that ‘many Australian women artists had primary relationships with each other that are now only being taken seriously’.96 Research conducted for this chapter leads me to be more pessimistic. The grand silence and denial still exists and it comes mostly from women and their sense of compulsory heterosexuality. There is a perceived reluctance or danger of reading biography from an image: ‘I’m just interested in The Art’, one (male) Gallery Director told me, complaining about the feminist takeover of Australian women artists; needless to say I did not mention the ‘L’ word. But as Jo Darbyshire explains, ‘[s]ometimes… this becomes a positive strategy, opening possibilities beyond hegemonic heterosexual readings that dominate art history.’97 In 2010, polite art history considers these women as heterosexual at the slightest whiff of a man, or ascribes them an asexual identity; women who (safely) sacrificed their innermost self for their art. At best, more direct conjecture is still relegated to obscure endnotes. Embracing the speculative nature of the material, it is time to accept the often scant evidence when it is there, acknowledge the circumstances where they existed, and where there is no clear answer (as for Kathleen O’Connor), at least acknowledge the possibilities. After all, if women wanted to hide their relationships or sexual liaisons, common sense would tell us that lesbian relationships would be hidden before heterosexual ones, even if they were extra-marital. Hopefully, this chapter is the first of many, that will move this information out of the endnotes and into the text!

It took the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement to allow women and lesbians back into the artistic world, although this time the liberation was not confined to a particular class. We saw the emergence of openly lesbian artists as well as women artists who happened to be lesbian.98 Unfortunately, gender stills plays a part in the success of artists, and the art world is still male dominated.99 To this extent, the development of niche lesbian art or a more general lesbian presence in the art world is hindered. For historians of homosexuality, those with a ‘cultivated sensitivity to a “hidden Agenda”’,100 the early part of the twentieth century provides a rich period for the discovery of the unique individuals who were the Australian lesbian artists of the time.

Endnotes - Chapter 9

1 Andrew Montana, The Art Movement in Australia: Design, Taste and Society 1875–1900, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000, pp. 19–28.

2 Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, in Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker, eds, Art and Sexual Politics, New York: Collier Books, 1973, pp. 27–29.

3 These data come from Helen Topliss, Modernism and Feminism: Australian Women Artists 1900–1940, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996, p. 204.

4 Alan McCulloch et al., The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Fitzroy: AUS Art Editions, 2006, p. 1037.

5 Caroline Miley, The Arts Among the Handicrafts: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Victoria 1889–1929, Banyule, Vic.: St Lawrence Press, 2001, p. 73.

6 Caroline Ambrus, Australian Women Artists: First Fleet to 1945: History, Hearsay and Her Say, Woden, ACT: Irrepressible Press, 1992, p. 98.

7 For the colonial period, see, Caroline Jordan, Picturesque Pursuits: Colonial Women Artists and the Amateur Tradition, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005. For the Heidelberg era, see, Victoria Hammond and Juliet Peers, Completing the Picture: Women Artists and the Heidelberg Era, Melbourne: Artmoves, 1992.

8 Research by the author, August 2009.

9 Although colonial women artists did exist, see, Jordan, Picturesque Pursuits.

10 A perspective on the effect of female suffrage for women artists is briefly given in Topliss, Modernism and Feminism, pp. 44–47.

11 Caroline Miley, Beautiful and Useful: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Tasmania, Launceston, Tas: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 1987, p. 13; Nonie McFarlane and Judy Mackinolty, eds, A History of The Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales 1906–1991, Sydney: The Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales, 1991, pp. 1–3; Miley, The Arts Among the Handicrafts, pp. 87–107. For a New Zealand perspective, see, Ann Calhoun, The Arts and Crafts Movement in New Zealand 1870–1940: Women Making their Mark, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000.

12 See, McFarlane and Mackinolty, A History of The Society of Arts and Crafts, p. xiv. All but one of the presidents between 1906 and 1991 were women. See also, Jennifer Isaacs, The Gentle Arts: 200 Years of Australian Women’s Domestic and Decorative Arts, Sydney: Lansdowne, 1987, pp. 168–171; Eveline W. Syme, ‘Women and Art’, in Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer, eds, Centenary Gift Book, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1934, p. 86.

13 Anthea Callen, Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement 1870–1914, New York: Pantheon Books, 1979, p. 218.

14 Ambrus, Australian Women Artists, pp. 57–60. Also see, Heather Johnson, The Sydney Art Patronage System 1890–1940, Sydney: Bungoona Technologies, 1997, pp. 44–48; Juliet Peers, More than Just Gumtrees: A Personal, Social and Artistic History of the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, Melbourne: Dawn Revival Press, 1993.

15 Portrait of an Exhibition: Centenary Celebration of the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work 1907, exhibition catalogue, Castlemaine: Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, 2007.

16 William Moore, ‘What the Artist’s Life Offers’, The New Idea, 6 December 1907, pp. 848–849. Moore later published the important two volume study, The Story of Art in Australia, in 1934.

17 Other careers in the series were nursing (6 February 1907), p. 173; dentistry (6 April 1907), p. 303; typewriting (6 May 1907), p. 371 and (6 June 1907), p. 508; law (6 August 1907), pp. 562–563; massage (6 September 1907), p. 631; and, millinery (6 October 1907), pp. 697, 743.

18 Henrietta C. McGowan, Woman’s Work, Melbourne: Thomas Lothian, 1913, pp. 142–143.

19 George A. Taylor, Art and the Woman: A Plea for Better Recognition, Sydney: Society of Women Painters of NSW, 1919, p. 3.

20 Michael Bogle, Design in Australia 1880–1970, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1998, pp. 58–66; Anne–Marie Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1993, p. 145; Nancy D. H. Underhill, Making Australian Art 1916–49: Sydney Ure Smith, Patron and Publisher, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1991.

21 Willis, Illusions of Identity, p. 149.

22 For an insightful exploration, see, Janine Burke, Australian Women Artists 1840–1940, Collingwood, Vic.: Greenhouse Publications, 1980, pp. 37–57. Lesbians are discussed in Burke, Australian Women Artists, pp. 58–61; and, Topliss, Modernism and Feminism, p. 25.

23 Ambrus, Australian Women Artists, pp. 61–83.

24 This is most evident in Jane Hylton, South Australian Women Artists: Paintings From the 1890s to the 1940s, Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1994, with its large chapter on ‘The Call of Europe’, pp. 8–29, and much smaller chapter, ‘Those Who Stayed at Home’, pp. 30–34. See also, Topliss, Modernism and Feminism, pp. 34–37, 57–79; Jane Hylton, Modern Australian Women: Paintings and Prints 1925–1945, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2004, ‘Paris and London: The Call of Life and Study Abroad’, pp. 29–43.

25 Topliss, Modernism and Feminism, pp. 15–27.

26 Grace Cossington Smith, The Sock Knitter, 1915, oil on canvas, 61.6 cm x 50.7 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), purchased 1960, accession no. OA18.1960. Also available at, AGNSW website,–1960+the-sock-knitter, date accessed 5 October 2010; and, Burke, Australian Women Artists, p. 43.

27 Jeanette Hoorn, ‘Misogyny and Modernist Painting in Australia: How Male Critics Made Modernism their Own’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 16, no. 32 (1992), p. 7.

28 Jennifer Phipps, Creators and Inventors: Australian Women’s Art in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1993. See also, Pam James, ‘“No Thank You but do you have any Fan Decorations?”: Modernist Women Artists and Gatekeepers of Culture’, in Maryanne Dever, ed., Wallflowers and Witches: Women and Culture in Australia 1910–1945, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1994.

29 For an exploration on the nexus between consumerism and modern art, see, Martin Pumphrey, ‘The Flapper, the Housewife, and the Making of Modernity’, Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 1, no. 2 (1987), pp. 179–194.

30 Ambrus, Australian Women Artists, p. 104.

31 ibid.

32 Robert Holden, Cover Up: The Art of Magazine Covers in Australia, Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995, pp. 78–117.

33 Kirsten McKay, Women Printmakers 1910 to 1940 in the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, exhibition catalogue, Castlemaine: Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, 1995; ‘Woodcuts and Linocuts Mainly of the 20s and 30s’, in Outlines of Australian Printmaking, exhibition catalogue, Ballarat: Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, 1976; Peers, More than Just Gumtrees, pp. 49–56.

34 For an art perspective, see, Pamela Niehoff, ‘The New Woman and the Politics of Identity’, in Jeanette Hoorn, ed., Strange Women: Essays in Art and Gender, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1994, pp. 38–52. For a lesbian perspective of the ‘new woman’, see, Emmanuel Cooper, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 156–182.

35 Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788–1960, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 199.

36 Taylor specifically relates this to art, Taylor, Art and the Woman, p. 16.

37 Caroline Ambrus, The Ladies’ Picture Show: Sources on a Century of Australian Women Artists, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1984, pp. 24–25.

38 While London was also a key destination for Australian artists, it was far less bohemian or tolerant of homosexuality, see, Diana Souhami, Wild Girls, Paris, Sappho and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2004, pp. 144–145.

39 Florence Tamagne, A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919–1939, vol. 1, New York: Algora Publishing, 2004, pp. 20–21.

40 Mary Eagle, ‘Australian Painters in France 1890s to 1920s’, in Anne-Marie Nisbet and Maurice Blackman, eds, The French-Australian Cultural Connection, Sydney: University of New South Wales, 1984, pp. 197–198.

41 Juliette Peers, ‘I Love Paris Every Moment: the Women Artists’, in Karen Quinlan, ed., The Long Weekend: Australian Artists in France 1918–1939, exhibition catalogue, Bendigo: Bendigo Art Gallery, 2007, pp. 46–47.

42 Bertha Harris, ‘The More Profound Nationality of their Lesbianism: Lesbian Society in Paris in the 1920s’, in Phyllis Birkby et al., eds, Amazon Expedition: A Lesbian Feminist Anthology, Washington, NJ: Time Change Press, 1973, p. 79.

43 Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–1940, London: Virago Press, 1987, pp. 47, 174.

44 ibid., p. 47.

45 ibid., p. 175.

46 Adrienne Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, in Ann Snitow et al., eds, Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983, pp. 177–205.

47 ibid., pp. 192–193.

48 ibid.

49 Erica Rand, ‘Women and Other Women: One Feminist Focus for Art History’, Art Journal, vol. 50, no. 2, (1991), pp. 29–31, 34 fn 17.

50 Elizabeth Ashburn, Lesbian Art: An Encounter with Power, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996, p. 13, in the chapter titled Fighting Invisibility.

51 Karen Quinlan, In a Picture Over the Sea: Agnes Goodsir 1864–1939, exhibition catalogue, Bendigo: Bendigo Art Gallery, 1998, pp. 22–29.

52 ibid., p. 33.

53 ibid., pp. 12–16.

54 Referring to the Latin-quarter in Paris.

55 Agnes Goodsir, The Parisienne, c. 1924 (Paris), oil on canvas, 61.0 cm x 50.1 cm, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1993, accession no NGA 93.5, available at,, date accessed 20 October 2010.

56 Janet Cumbrae Stewart, The Pastels of Cumbrae Stewart, Melbourne: Alexander McCubbin, 1921.

57 Janet Cumbrae Stewart: The Perfect Touch, exhibition catalogue, Mornington: Mornington Peninsular Regional Gallery, 2003.

58 Pamela Gerrish Nunn, ‘A View of One’s Own: Female Artists and the Nude’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 1, no. 1 (2000), pp. 66–67.

59 Cumbrae Stewart, The Pastels of Cumbrae Stewart.

60 Roger Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston: A Catalogue Raisonné, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2005, p. 1.

61 ibid., p. 36 fn 3.

62 For an example, see, Summer 1915, in Elizabeth Butel, Margaret Preston: The Art of Constant Rearrangement, Melbourne: Viking in Association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1986, p. 4; Deborah Edwards, Margaret Preston, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005, p. 49.

63 Eric Mackay, Love Letters of a Violinist, and Other Poems, London: Walter Scott, 1893.

64 Edwards, Margaret Preston, p. 288 fn 31.

65 Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, p. 14.

66 Butel, Margaret Preston, pp. 21–22.

67 Janet Hawley, ‘Thoroughly Modern Maggie’, Age (Good Weekend), 4 June 2005, p. 27.

68 Butel, Margaret Preston, p. 12.

69 Butler refers to it as ‘rumour’ and ‘by no means certain’; see, Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston, p. 36 fn 26. Edwards is more positive on the notion of Margaret and Bessie being lovers, see, Edwards, Margaret Preston, p. 288 fn 31.

70 Hawley, ‘Thoroughly Modern Maggie’, pp. 24–29.

71 Penelope Little, A Studio in Montparnasse: Bessie Davidson, An Australian Artist in Paris, Melbourne: Craftsman House, 2003, p. 78.

72 Sarah Thomas, ‘Bessie in Paris’, Australian Book Review, March 2004, p. 16.

73 Joan Kerr, ed., Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book, 500 Works by 500 Australian Women Artists from Colonial Times to 1955, Sydney: Art and Australia, 1995, pp. 435–436.

74 Butel, Margaret Preston, p. 12.

75 Anne McDonald, ‘Mary Cockburn-Mercer: The Epitome of the Modern Australian Woman’, Artonview, vol. 26 (2001), p. 15.

76 Compton Mackenzie, Extraordinary Women: Theme and Variations, London: Martin Secker, 1928. Margaret was said to have lived next door to Compton with a character in the book being modelled on her.

77 McDonald, ‘Mary Cockburn-Mercer’, p. 16.

78 Mary Eagle and Jan Minchin, The George Bell School: Students, Friends, Influences, Melbourne: Deutscher Art Publications, 1981, p. 206.

79 Kerr, ed., Heritage, p. 405.

80 Mary Cockburn Mercer, Two Women, c. 1940, watercolour over pencil on buff paper, 23.8 cm x 27.0 cm, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Joseph Brown Collection, presented through the NGV Foundation by Dr Joseph Brown AO, OBE, Honorary life benefactor, 2004.

81 Unfortunately there is no web image for this painting but it is reproduced in, Kirsty Grant et al., The Joseph Brown Collection at NGV Australia, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, p. 140.

82 Bruce Adams, Rustic Cubism: Anne Dangar and the Art Colony at Moly-Sabata, Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 15.

83 Helen Topliss, ed., Earth, Fire, Water, Air: Anne Dangar’s Letters to Grace Crowley, 1930–1951, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2000.

84 Elena Taylor, Grace Crowley: Being Modern, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2006, pp. 32–53.

85 Grace Crowley, Les Baigneuses, 1928 (Paris), oil on canvas on composition board, 45.2 cm x 64.2 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Gift of the artist 1979, Accession no. NGA 79.1272. The painting is available at,, date accessed 21 October 2010.

86 Julie Lewis, ‘A Biographical Study’, in P. AE. Hutchings and Julie Lewis, eds, Kathleen O’Connor: Artist in Exile, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987, pp. 22, 30, 28, 53.

87 ibid., pp. 42–46, 53–54, 60, 73, 90.

88 Janda Gooding, Chasing Shadows: The Art of Kathleen O’Connor, Perth: Art and Australia in Association with the Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1996, p. 8.

89 ibid., p. 118 fn 2.

90 Lewis, ‘A Biographical Study’, p. 13.

91 For a discussion of the lesbian influence on the nude, see, Nunn, ‘A View of One’s Own’, pp. 71–77.

92 This was exemplified in 1921 when the UK Parliament attempted to criminalise lesbianism. See, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 145 (4 August 1921), pp. 1799, 1808; House of Lords, vol. 43, (15 August 1921), cc 567–577.

93 J. S. MacDonald, ‘Feminism in Art’, The Bulletin, 55, no. 2815, 24 January 1934, p. 5.

94 Cooper, The Sexual Perspective, p. 182; Ambrus, Australian Women Artists, pp. 150–152.

95 Martha Vicinus, ‘Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships’, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 9, no. 4 (1984), pp. 600–601.

96 Jo Darbyshire, ‘Crushes, Kisses and Crossdressers: A Historical Positioning of Lesbian Artists’, Art Reading Material, no. 9 (1993), p. 11.

97 Jo Darbyshire, Lesbian Community in Modernist Discourse, Graduate Diploma of Arts Thesis, Canberra Institute of the Arts, 1990, p. 6.

98 See, ‘Lesbian Art and Artists’, Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, no. 3 (1977), a ground breaking special edition devoted to Lesbian Art and Artists.

99 Melissa Miles, ‘Whose Art Counts’, Art Monthly Australia, no. 224 (October 2009), pp. 5–8.

100 Darbyshire, ‘Lesbian Community in Modernist Discourse’, p. 6.

Cite this chapter as: Di Sciascio, Peter. 2011. ‘Australian Lesbian Artists of the Early Twentieth Century’, in Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI, edited by Smaal, Yorick; Willett, Graham. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 135–155.

Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI

   by Yorick Smaal, Graham Willett