You can see her for yourself – up there in Gallery 9, NGV (National Gallery of Victoria), St Kilda Road. You yourself can see how stunningly beautiful she is, this sun-dappled beauty – this free spirit. She existed, caught in time by the painter, in that golden age – the time before La Belle Epoque was bought to a crunching halt by the darkness of the Great War. I don’t know for sure, but I reckon I have a fair handle on who she might be – this uninhibited maiden captured so tantalisingly at the height of her glory.
But for my viewing she had moved. As I entered that room at the Fed Square NGV, she caught my eye first and drew me towards her. In a room of luminous works of art she exuded a luminosity unmatched by her fellows on those four walls. She was part of the ‘Australian Impressionists in France’ exhibition, held in conjunction with the ‘Monet’s Garden’ show down the road. For me she even outshone the master’s water-lilies! They were both sublime, these two Winter Masterpieces – such showings being a highlight of Yarra City during the chilly months. So, on that wall, despite the best efforts of Condor, Bunny, Streeton et al, she was queen. Nothing they produced during their Continental years held a candle to her. So magical was she that the NGV used her in all the pre-publicity for the show – but nothing matched seeing her in the flesh in her gallery. She owned it!
Of course discovering the creator of such a vision was the easy bit in quenching my desire to discover more about her. E Phillips Fox is not a huge name amongst the pantheon of our great coverers of canvas, but he is starting to come into his own. The E is for Emanuel. He is best recalled for his epic, iconic ‘Landing of Captain Cook’ – to my mind pedestrian dross compared to her. He was also the hubby of one of our foremost female artists of the period, Ethel Carrick. There’s was a great love story. Fox didn’t see out the war, although he was never a participant, dying in Melbourne of lung cancer (the world was full of chain smokers back then too) in 1915. Well before that the couple had split – supposedly because of Ethel’s attachment to Theosophy, the Scientology of the times. She, as well, found it difficult on their return to Oz in 1913 coping with the claustrophobic nature of his antipodean family. She rushed from Sydney to be at his bedside when hearing of his imminent demise, championing his abilities with the brush till her dying breath in 1952. Arguably she was the better practitioner, but to my non-trained eyes nothing she produced measured up to her husband’s depiction of another stunning woman of his close acquaintance.
The marriage of Fox and Carrick was happiest when the couple were ensconced in France – in Montparnasse, the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris at the time. Their abode there possessed a small garden where Fox painted some of his atmospheric images of women, particularly in the act of reading. Women engrossed in a book sold well at the time. We know that his model for many of these was the woman I suspect to be her. Ethel also painted her and she was another Ethel – Ethel Anderson.
She has been recorded as the resident muse for some of his clothed oeuvre – works such as ‘On the Balcony’, ‘The Green Parasol’ and ‘Nasturtiums’. The latter work was recently purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW in remembrance of Margaret Olley. Edmund Capon stated that the late grand dame of Aussie art would have adored the choice – but we’re off track!
A stunningly beautiful auburn haired, green eyed beauty, Anderson was first a pupil of Fox’s – it’s interesting to note that, although men still dominated the world of art back then, women far outnumbered them as pupils. She and Fox later became great mates, it being the artist who introduced her to her future husband, fellow dauber Penleigh Boyd. The surname is a famous one in Australian artistic circles. They later produced a son, Robin, who dominated the architectural landscape of the country in later life, writing the seminal ‘The Great Australian Ugliness’. Arthur Boyd was a nephew. As an artist Penleigh was mainly a landscapist, but it is conceivable that in that millieu Ethel – maybe even both Ethels – would be liberated enough to divest themselves of clothing in the name of art. As to Ethel Boyd, comparing the pictures – there would seem a certain similarity to the model who posed as the voluptuous sun dappled beauty, shading her eyes in the French soleil, with the one in the aforementioned trio of works. It seemed the same model featured in other of Fox’s nudes – some quite intimate. The hair’s the giveaway – although in the days pre-August, 1914 women of that hued hair were favoured as models – so I could be completely askew in my thinking.
Ethel and Penleigh married in 1912, witnessed by Fox and Rupert Bunny – could she have also been the model for the latter’s ‘The Sun Bath’? Ethel was ten years senior to her husband, with their marriage ultimately not being any more successful than that between the other Ethel and Fox. At one stage Penleigh returned to Melbourne, leaving his wife in Old Blighty. Once the marital shackles were off, he promptly proceeded to have an affair with Minna Schuler, the daughter of the editor of the Age! When his family eventually joined him in Oz, there was constant quarrelling, not letting up till the day Penleigh died in 1923, as a result of a motor accident. Like her namesake, Ethel continued on till a ripe old age, not passing until 1961. So, if Ethel is she, this beautiful creature was still alive in my lifetime. By this stage her greatest claim to fame was as a writer of successful radio plays.
I suppose those with the time/money/desire could more forensically examine the sources and deduce whether I am on the right track or otherwise. For now, though, that sun dappled goddess of ‘The Bathers’ is, for me, Ethel Boyd nee Anderson. She was from a time that has now long passed, but I’ll always remember seeing her hung on that wall as if it were yesterday. I do wonder if the two Ethels were friends, or at least remained in contact down through the years – remembering a tiny garden in a Parisian suburb from whence the sun will shine on forever.
Postscript – This morning I travelled into the city to view the ‘Capital and Country’ travelling exhibition at the TMAG – Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. It is on loan from the National Gallery in Canberra until May 11th. It gave an overview of Oz art in the years around Federation and featured works by all the artists I’ve referenced above. I stood before Penleigh’s large, golden canvas of the site near Yass for a future national capital. I pondered on the likelihood that she may also, at some stage, have stood before the same painting, marvelling at her husband’s expertise, just as I stood before another artist’s rendering of her and commenced my own wonderings.
Some examples of works by E Phillips Fox = http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/?artist_id=fox-e-phillips