No Drover's Wife, She

Yes, I know Mr Twenty-first Century Man, I can see how you you might deduce we did her wrong back here in my time. From where you stand, way up there in 2015, we did treat her unfairly; didn’t recognise her true talent. But that was not the case at the start – certainly not. And some may argue she had only herself to blame for what occurred later. But I don’t concur with that notion, Mr Twenty-first Century Man – and I did try. Believe me when I tell you – I really did try. You must bear in mind, good sir, that it is a very different world when I was on the planet last century. People had different attitudes to a woman’s role in the world – but I do grant you – what that country girl did with a paintbrush, few could equal at the time. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Yes, yes, yes, you’re right Mr Twenty-first Century Man – but that was the way it was. And, given my standing, I take some of the blame myself. I can see now I should have tried somewhat harder.

And who am I to judge? I can sense you are dying to ask me that. Perhaps it will help you understand the veracity of what I am saying if I first tell you a little of my own story. Then I will relate to you what I know of her. For you see, in the end, she was no Lawson’s drover’s wife archetype. She was not thrust into the background. She refused to be. She wasn’t trampled down as many others of her gender were back in my era. And perhaps that also counted against her.

My name is Ure Smith. No, Ure is not my Christian name, Mr Twenty-first Century Man, although you may think so as many assumed the same back in my time. You see, my father took my mother’s surname as part of his own, except, like the woman under discussion, without the hyphen. It wasn’t official. It wasn’t on paper, but it wasn’t an unknown occurrence, even then. My full name? Since you asked it’s Sydney George and no, I am not named after the city. I am a Londoner by birth. Truth be known, though, I like Ure better than my documented appellation – and most called me by it in any case. But Sydney certainly was where I have spent the most productive years of my life, immersing myself in its art and literary scene.

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What bought the family out to Australia in the first place, you ask? Well, my father came to the antipodes to manage hotels – first the Menzies in Melbourne and then the Australian in its northern sister city. I went to art school after Sydney Grammar. I’d always been a pretty handy sketcher, my good man, but, although I fiddled around with being an amateur artist all my adult life, I soon became attracted to other associated fields. You see, I had no desire to be some penniless, half-starved artist down in some dingy garret in the Rocks. I wanted to make money – and make it I succeeded in doing. Early on I developed a taste for the good life, for the great wine and food Sydney admittedly came more famous for after I passed-on. In fact, that was perhaps the death of me. I went before my time in 1949. I was only fifty-two. But don’t feel sorry for me. I led life to the full while I was around.

Anyway, that is by the by. By the age of nineteen I was already charting my course for the future, taking Viola as my wife and developing my first commercial enterprise with some mates – an art studio under the moniker of Smith and Julius. Working out the technicalities of how to display a client’s art output to its best advantage soon became my forte. Some of the people we started to employ included the likes of Lloyd Rees and photographer Harold Casneaux. We linked them up with companies, such as Berlei and Dunlop, to formulate advertising campaigns. We were soon leaders in the field. When I tired of that I tried my hand at publishing, also keeping artists in gainful employment. I started a magazine called ‘The Home Monthly’. It became Australia’s version of something like Vanity Fair and it ran for over twenty years. I’m as proud as punch over that.

I admit, most of the artists who worked with me on it and the books I simultaneously put out into the market place were indeed men, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. But I did champion a few of the fairer sex too – for instance, Grace Cossington Smith – you’d know of her – and Thea Proctor too. On my rota were also the likes of William Dobell – yes, that fellow who caused a scandal at the Archibalds. They were so staid and strictured in my era before he came along to set the cat among the pigeons. There was Norman Lindsay too – another I published. Some considered Norman the devil incarnate with his penchant for voluptuous maidens, in nary a stitch, frolicking around. Rumour had it that his models, up at his property in the bush, were altogether most brazen in their disdain for any form of clothing. So scandalous! Let’s see – there were also Donald Friend, Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen I recall. I looked after them well and they did quite nicely out of it too. For most of them I published lavish, expensive-looking volumes full of plates of their art work – coffee table books you would call them up there in your century. I did one for Margaret Preston too – tried to give her a leg up, but it seemed harder to accomplish with the women I represented. It truly was a man’s era. Women who attempted to make headway in the art world just seemed not to be taken too seriously. The perception with many was that it could only be a hobby for them – not something to make money with. That was left up to the menfolk. Look at that lady from down Mornington way in Melbourne – the one whose art trove was found in a barn somewhere and now, in 2015, where you’re coming from, her work is worth a fortune. When she was around it was dismissed as worthless. No, it was all so different for us, Mr Twenty-first Century Man.

And, as for Hilda – well she was something, she really was. She was tough, resilient and would not deviate one iota from what she thought was right and proper for her. She could ride a steed as well as any male and crack a whip, in both senses of the saying, up there with the best of them. And she could paint – my word, she could paint. But you know all that, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. What you want to know is how we came to fail her – considering the flying start she got off to. Well. good sir, I firmly believe it was simply a matter of, for better or worse, tastes changing.

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She was Ballarat born and displayed an early proclivity towards artistic pursuits. I know you know all this with your instant knowledge, from what you call being on-line, up there in your century – but indulge me. I am going to tell you anyway. I think it will illustrate what I said about where the fault lay for her rejections in her later years – that I, Ure Smith and my ilk weren’t all misogynists failing to see the sheep from the goats.

Anyway, the talent was there so off to Melbourne Art School she went, once her local education was complete. Following that came the usual rite of passage for most affluent Aussies back in her day – the trip to Europe to broaden one’s mind. She used it, of course, to further enhance her skills on canvas. She went to Morocco and produced some remarkable work out of that. She also set herself up in Paris, as any self-respecting artist wanting to hit the big time would do There she could feed off the greats already trundling their easels around the boulevards and the surrounding countryside. She travelled to all the recommended places in France that supposedly produced the type of light that seduced painters. As a result of her unstinting efforts she also discovered, to her joy, that the Paris of La Belle Epoque enjoyed Miss Rix and all she produced. She exhibited and sold quite well.

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But, as we know, the war clouds were gathering and in the end she fled to the safety of England as the Hun advanced. She left most of her oeuvre cached away, in her wake, on the French coast. At this stage she lost both her sister and mother, who were accompanying her in her foreign adventures, to typhoid. Shrouded in grief, she soon thought she had found her saviour. That is when George Nicholas swept her off her feet. He was serving in France when he heard rumours of a fellow Australian, a lady artist, who had escaped the war leaving her paintings behind. He sought them out, liked what he espied and communicated his admiration to her – no mean feat in the days well before the ease of your social networking, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. Taking leave, he came to London, met her and then one thing led to another, as they did during those times of conflict. All too soon he was walking her down the aisle. Her awakening from grief was fleeting though. Within six weeks the Western Front had claimed him.

Hilda_Rix_Nicholas_painting_'In_Australia'

You can imagine, good sir, what that did to her state of mind. But she had backbone. She resolved to return to Australia and throw herself into the one love that remained to her – her art. Almost unheard of back then, she decided to buy a car and by herself, travel the byways of Australia Felix, painting what she found en route. Her mode of transport had to be modified to be up to the task. She took a gamble and it bore success. Australia was still in the grip of post-Impressionism and she soon found there was a market for what she sent back to her dealers. Then, in her travels around the Southern Tablelands, she met a returned soldier, Edgar Wright. Suddenly the world was a better place for her. He removed all her burdens, took her to his property, Knockalong, near Delegate, then wedded her, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. She took to the lifestyle of a grazier’s wife like a duck to water. He built her a fine studio for her art, but she was just as happy out mustering and bringing in the sheep on horseback as she was with brush in hand.

All was tickety-boo for a time, Mr Twenty-first Century Man, but then came the Depression and the bottom fell out of the art market. It also seemed, to many, that the gains made by women became more muted in the thirties. The jobs weren’t there any more and often there was little choice but to knuckle down and just do what it took to survive. Hilda was fine out in the country, but there was little appetite for her paintings with the public in those straightened times. And when the country emerged from the tough years there was another war. By that stage, a new type of artist had emerged. Modernism took hold and all of a sudden daubers like our subject were very much old school, were passe, if you will. She kept on producing and of course, after our mutual demises – hers way after mine in ’61 – she became searched out again. But in her last years she became quite bitter about her, if you like, forgottenness. Her son, Rix, wrote about it at the time so all knew how she felt. The fact remains the market had just moved on and she refused to move with it. Am I to blame for that? She hated the new vogue for painters like Drysdale and Dobell.

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But, my dear man, it is good that so many have come back into their own during your time – my old chum Lindsay, John Russell and so on. But I am particularly pleased about the ladies. There’s not just Hilda, but as well that woman, Clarice Beckett – you know, the one I mentioned earlier.

But, anyway Mr Twenty-first Century Man, I remember Mrs Rix Nicholas fondly. She was a stunning woman in her earlier years. Use that internet machine you have and take a look at some of the photos that captured her in her prime and you will see what I mean. And her art – well some of her paintings really stand out – are timeless. I am particularly fond of the ‘The Pink Scarf’. She produced that delight just before the Great War while she was still overseas. It now hangs in the Art Gallery of South Australia and lights up the room. I know you value that one too. Close to where she lived, ‘Bringing in the Sheep’ is housed in a Bega gallery. I’m told that’s her up on the steed doing the mustering. It’s a self-portrait of sorts then. There’s also the rendering, ‘In Australia’, of a Wright family member that has, I feel, so much of the character of the landowners who inhabited the bush in those days.

At one stage though, she became furious when a work of hers didn’t win a prize she was aiming for to reassert herself. That really had her dander up. She knew it was more technically stronger than the eventual winner – it ticked far more boxes, as it is said in your time, as far as the guidelines went. But, of course, she was up against it because she was female – or at least that’s the way she saw it. The winner was male – and I believe is now quite obscure up there in 2015. The whole farrago bought out Hilda’s pugnacious side, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. The judges never heard the end of it for months. But it didn’t help her cause at all – it just served to get those pulling the strings off-side. She could be a bit of a spitfire when it wasn’t going her way and they didn’t take too kindly to that.

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I feel, my friend up there looking back, she would be pretty chuffed to know the regard in which your generation of art-lovers hold her. From what you tell me, she now has her rightful place in the pantheon of artists who have enhanced your time’s understanding of what it was like back in my years – particularly out in the bush. I’m pleased that in 2015 she is seen as a pioneer, a true modern breaker of boundaries. She was a woman from the back blocks who refused to be pigeon-holed. Now, rightfully and finally, she has made a name for herself out in the light, away from the shadows we placed her in back in our day. You tell me that gender matters far less in your new century. I cannot but applaud those who made it so. Ergo thank you, Mr Twenty-first Century Man. Hilda, I now know, is one of those.

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