Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2019

Nora Heysen, Light and Life (2009), by Jane Hylton

As most Melbourne art lovers know, there is currently an exhibition at the NGV (Federation Square) of the art of father and daughter painters Hans Heysen (1877-1968) and Nora Heysen (1911-2003).  The exhibition runs from March 8th to July 28th 2019, but I haven’t been to see it yet.  (I’m waiting till the worst of the train disruptions are over…it will be great to have all the new infrastructure completed, but the April works are testing the patience of commuters a bit!)

However, when I get there, I will enjoy it all the more due to two lovely books that I borrowed from Bayside Library.  Every week, one of the four branches of the library hosts Book Chat, the idea being that you just turn up and chat about whatever it is you’ve just read.  It’s an enjoyable way for booklovers to meet each other and share their reading, and the added bonus is that at the end of each session, the librarian introduces some books that might be of interest.  That’s how I came to borrow Nora Heysen, Light and Life and Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen (the latter of which I aim to review in due course).

I read Nora Heysen, Light and Life first.  It was first published by Wakefield Press to coincide with the exhibition held at Carrick Hill from April 1st to June 28th 2009.  The book is a generous size (285 x 215mm, not quite A4) and printed on fine glossy paper so the reproductions of Nora Heysen’s paintings can be seen in close detail.  There are four chapters, all profusely illustrated with photos and reproductions of her work, about Nora’s early years in Adelaide; her life in London; her return to Sydney and then her work as a war artist in WW2; and her final years in a home of her own.  The book also includes notes, a bibliography, a timeline of her life, and acknowledgements.  Best of all, for art lovers, is the ‘Gallery’ of her paintings: 41 pages in full-size, full-colour art works, from collections all over Australia (including our NGV which has four of her works in its permanent collection at Fed Square).

Although the art world was male-dominated, Nora Heysen AM was not exactly an artist overlooked because of her gender.  When she left Australia to study in England in 1934, her work was already represented in three State collections, as well as many private ones.  She had won prizes, illustrated a book, exhibited in Sydney and her first one-person show was a critical and financial success.  However she didn’t find it easy in London where the new influences she was exposed to made it difficult to develop her own artistic identity.  To avoid working in her father’s shadow, she preferred to move ‘away from landscape to still-life and portraiture’, both subject areas that Hans Heysen visited much less frequently.  As Allan Campbell says in his foreword:

She was a remarkable woman whose artistic achievements spanned a period of some seventy-five years, and gained continued respect for her acknowledged passion and genuine dedication to her art.  Nora Heysen was a beautiful colourist, formidable drawer. superb draughtsman and skilful exponent of oil on brush; an artist who placed herself in the history books by becoming the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize [ see here] and the first appointed female war artist in World War Two.

There are some of Nora’s war portraits in the ‘Gallery’ but I wanted to see more.  I took a look at my review of Betty Churcher’s The Art of War, but because I’d only covered Chapter One, I’d made no mention of Heysen’s work (or any other female artist) in WW2.  But when I got the book out to check, there’s a  chapter called ‘Far From The Front Line’, which is a bit misleading because along with three wonderful paintings showcasing women’s war work in the field, there’s a photo of Nora Heyson in her Melbourne studio finishing paintings she started in New Guinea.  And we know from other reading (here, and here) that just being a war zone was dangerous and confronting.  There are sections about other female war artists in Churcher’s book and I will make an effort to revisit the book with another review in due course.

Hylton notes that after a short burst of creativity on her return to her old studio at The Cedars, Nora went to live permanently in Sydney.  Away from her father’s influence, her style had changed, and she was used to living independently.  After her overseas experience as a war artist, she later spent time in Britain again with her eventual husband Robert Black, and she went with him to various Pacific Islands with him because he was a specialist in tropical medicine.  But her relationship with her father remained affectionate, and across these distances, the correspondence between Nora and her father Hans is extensive, so I’m looking forward to reading the letters.

I enjoyed Chapter Two most, with its endearing quotations from a fatherly Hans, including a note about remaining warm and not catching cold in what he considered ‘a rather treacherous locality in the early winter.’  I also chuckled over Nora’s dismissal of modernism, including a comment about sculpture described bluntly as ‘useless lumps of stone… resembling nothing on this earth.’  There’s a gorgeous domestic interior from 1935 in this chapter, which you can see here, scroll down till you see Evie in her blue dressing gown, book in hand. (From there at the NLA website I also discovered a bit about the retrospective held in 2001).  This chapter is also interesting for the way that Nora responds to criticism of her work, and her father’s advice about how to deal with it.  But you can tell from this painting reproduced in the Gallery, that the gloomy weather, money worries and the intense hard work got her down sometimes.

It’s fascinating to read the story behind the portrait that won the 1938 Archibald Prize.  The poised Madame Schumann was apparently very difficult about sitting for it, and ‘refused to sit after the first two sessions’.  When Heysen insisted, ‘there she sat. with tears rolling down her face because I was being cruel.’  And it’s astonishing to read that she produced 170 works of art – under very difficult conditions as a war artist – 152 of them held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. You can see two of my favourites at this Pinterest board*: Private Gwynneth Patterson and Transport driver (Aircraftwoman Florence Miles).

* However do they get round copyright issues at Pinterest?

Nora Haysen, Light and life is a lovely book, sensitively written and offering a superb collection of Heyson’s artworks for your enjoyment.

PS If you’re ever in South Australia, I can recommend a trip to The Cedars at Hahndorf.  It’s billed as the home of Hans Heysen but you can see Nora’s studio, and that’s where her private collection is held.

Author: Jane Hylton
Title: Nora Heysen, Light and Life
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2009, 112 pages
ISBN: 9781862548404
Source: Bayside Library Service, Beaumaris Branch

Editor: Catherine Speck
Title: Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen
Publisher: NLA (National Library of Australia), 2011, 351 pages
ISBN: 9780642277305
Source: Bayside Library Service, Beaumaris Branch

Availability: Click the links on the titles to go to the publishers’ websites.  There are also books in the Hans Heysen shop at the Cedars in Hahndorf.



  1. I loved this. I took note of the books you mentioned and will see if the library has them. I would love a trip to Melbourne or Adelaide to go to Handorf to see her paintings. I love art exhibitions and her book of letters sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing. A winter project maybe for when I return from Europe mid June.


    • It would be so nice if you could come over. We could meet up at the gallery and have lunch!


  2. I can see Fed Square from my office window, but I’m yet to make it over there to see an exhibition. I’ll try a little harder for Nora Heyson – I’d love to see this exhibition and I’m so glad a good biography of her exists.


    • Really? Not even for the John Brack? Well, I guess you *were* a bit busy writing a bestselling bio of Elizabeth Macarthur:)
      But now’s the time to check out some of the treasures there! Maybe even some of the artists who were painting in EM’s time!


      • I’ve only been in this office since late last year – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! SLNSW has a new (ish) gallery space with portraits of all EM’s friends and relations. And I recently did a talk at the Queen’s Club, in Sydney, and spoke while facing a portrait of EM’s great-grand-daughter. It was a bit spooky, actually!


        • I haven’t been to the Sydney gallery for so long… I think it’s about 10 years since I’ve been to Sydney, stuff (i.e. life) gets in the way of some things, even when you want to do them…


  3. I will have to see if I can get a day off and go in with Mum to see the exhibition. I haven’t been to the gallery at Fed Square and it’s been a while since I walked around NGV (Monet’s water lilies).


    • And lunch afterwards overlooking the Yarra!


  4. If we get time on our coming trip we will try to see this. We might have a half day on Friday, or Sunday, though I prefer to go to galleries not on weekends.

    As for Pinterest, that’s a good question. I don’t know whether Pinterest itself checks copyright of the images posted on its site. Wikipedia will slap a notice on any image posted without a rights notice. I’m not sure that the other social media sites – Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest etc – check whether people are posting images they own or have rights to or not.

    BTW Sorry I’ve been AWOL, I was at the National Folk Festival for two days over Easter, and then had my parents to dinner, a funeral, and – well, it’s been really busy.


    • I’m sorry to hear about the funeral…
      I know that YouTube removes breaches of copyright if it’s reported.
      When’s your coming trip? Bill (TAL) is thinking of going with his mum if he can get a day off, wouldn’t it be nice if the stars aligned….


      • The funeral was for a very dear man who had been a director of the Archive in our early days. I also did the oral history of him for the NFSA as one of my little post-retirement contracts. He was a Melburnian originally. A very special man. (Oh, and would you believe that he and his wife had a daughter, another daughter, and then TRIPLETS!)

        This weekend… when is Bill there? Right now though, we’ve only pinned down some times with the kids. I’m too flexible I think – I tell them we can fit in with them, which usually results in everything being decided at the last minute!! One day, though, we’ll come for a couple of weeks, not for just a few days at a time.


        • It is a great gift to work for a man who you respect both personally and professionally. I had the good fortune to have three really wonderful principals to work for, and they made a huge difference to my career.
          I’m not sure about Bill’s plans, you’ll have to chase him up by email. You’ll have to count me out because I’m off to NZ soon and have so much to do before we go, I’m going to go after we get back towards the end of May.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes it is, well to work for any person you respect personally and professionally. Makes a big difference as you say when you feel supported and respected back as you do by such people.

            That’s right, you are heading off in early May aren’t you. My how another year is flying!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve now been to the exhibition and we bot h loved it. Of course, I loved Hans’ gums, and I loved the fact that the exhibition includes different versions and various preparatory studies of his subjects. I don’t seek out still lifes though I do enjoy them, and Nora’s are beautiful, but I particularly enjoyed her portraits and the war art room. The info in the labels is also well worth reading. I’m glad we made the effort.


    • Oh good, I’m glad you got there!
      There was a snarky review in The Australian on the weekend. I can’t argue with an ‘expert’ but it seems to me on the basis of the paintings in the book, that people should go and see them for themselves.
      After all, why would the NGV put on an exhibition of an artist’s work if it’s not worthwhile?


      • Yes, exactly. I guess I can’t see the review re because it will be pay walled. Fair enough. If I see a weekend Australian when we’re out – waiting for son now – I’ll check it out.


        • You can sometimes see their paywalled content, it depends how often you’ve visited their website within a specified period of time.


  6. […] focused more on still lifes and portraits. She was also Australia’s first woman war artist. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted recently on Nora. Both were significant Australian artists. Hans won our prestigious landscape prize, the […]


  7. […] mentioned in my review of Nora Heysen, Light and Life, by Jane Hylton, I borrowed at the same time Catherine Speck’s Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans […]


  8. […] Nora Heysen, Light and Life, by Jane Hylton […]


  9. […] Nora Heysen, Light and Life, by Jane Hylton […]


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