Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2019

Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen (2011, reissued 2019), edited by Catherine Speck

As  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 Heysen and Nora Heysen and promised to review it… but time got away from me and I had to take it back to the library.  Fortunately the good folk at Wakefield Press had read my review and wondered if I’d like my own copy?  Of course I would, yes please!

This is a lovely book, well worth reading even if there weren’t 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, so there is still some time to catch it.  The book begins with an excellent introduction by Speck: she covers the [dying] art of letter writing, and includes a profile of not only Hans and Nora, but also Nora’s mother Sallie.

After the Introduction the letters are compiled in sections, as per the ToC:

  • Cosmopolitan London, 1934-1937
  • Sydney and the Archibald Prize, 1938-1943
  • Life as an Official War Artist, 1943-1953
  • To Liverpool, London and Back Again, 1946-1953
  • Touring the Pacific and Settling in Sydney, 1953-1959
  • Success, Anxiety and Change, 1960-1968

There’s also an epilogue, a chronology, a list of illustrations and an index; and the book is illustrated with full colour reproductions of works by father and daughter and photos as well.

One of the things that’s clear from reading these letters is the value of travel for an artist.  Alan McCulloch wrote about it in Trial by Tandem and Amanda Curtin commented on its importance for the subject of her book about the Australian expat artist Kathleen O’Connor of ParisSimilarly, the Kiwi modernist artist Frances Hodgkins (who I discovered on my recent visit to Auckland) also expanded her ideas about art through travel, and both Nora and Hans Heysen acknowledge its crucial influence.  Indeed Hans, with domestic and professional responsibilities in Australia, says in one of this letters that he would love to be in London with his daughter, who was able to stay on there after he had had to go home.

There’s an interesting exchange of London letters on the subject of Everton (Evie) Stokes.  She is the subject of a number of drawings, one in 1935 and this one at the NGA; and paintings (see here & scroll to p 35; and here, scroll down to the painting called ‘Interior’. Having read Janet Butler’s Kitty War, I was reminded of that daughter’s prudent reticence when writing home. I learned from reading Butler’s book that sometimes what’s not in a diary or letters can be just as interesting as what’s in them… and what’s in them, is sometimes not so much about events, but rather about changes in identity.  In Kitty McNaughton’s case, she never writes about the young men she was nursing, only about boys and youths, and whenever she mentions them, she always mentions the presence of some other person, to alleviate any parental worries about her behaviour.  However, Nora was less hesitant about telling her parents that her best friend Evie had become her flatmate in London and this prompted a robust objection in February 1935 from her father whose veiled remarks suggest that he and her mother were worried about a lesbian relationship. There followed, apparently, a hurtful cessation of their regular correspondence.  Nora’s March letter in reply to an eventual one from her mother is revealing: she hadn’t previously felt able to talk about her friendship with Evie, and it seems that her parents would not allow Evie in their home.  Nora’s further airmail response suggests new confidence in asserting her own identity away from her parents:

All this worry seems so useless, we have been very happy together.  Is it not better to be happy, and have companionship, than to be lonely and miserable?

We all have to branch out for ourselves at one time or another.  I have chosen Evie for a friend, whether it is just a spell, as you think it is, I don’t know.  It has lasted too long and stood too much to be just that. (p.34-5)

As it happens, Evie married in December 1935, and Nora herself married in 1953, so the Heysen parents’ suspicions seem not to have been justified.  Now of course, it would not matter, but it’s sad to think that an otherwise affectionate parent-child relationship would have been marred if Nora’s sexuality had resulted in a love her parents would not accept.

As it says in Speck’s introduction, the letters are intimate, expansive and fascinating to read, but there are also sobering allusions to the coming war, and to anxiety about Auntie Annie in Germany needing to prove non-Jewish German ancestry.

These personal issues aside, the letters are fascinating discussions of art and art-making.  Hans advises Nora that poppy oil ought not dry too rapidly even in a room with a gas fire; Nora tells Hans about her professional joys and disappointments and mentions seeing an artist called Orovida, (who jettisoned her surname Pissarro so as not to be identified with her famous father).  And although it’s not explicit, Nora’s delight in seeing the gums and sunshine in the paintings in her father’s exhibition at Colnaghi, suggests that she was sometimes homesick for Australia, even in the warmth of an English summer.

In the chapter about Sydney and Nora winning the Archibald Prize in 1938, there’s a lot about moving around to try to find a congenial studio at an affordable price; there’s a surprising reference to Hans not liking the prize winning portrait (see here) which would have been deflating, to say the least, and doubly hurtful because Nora was being assailed from other quarters for being the first woman to win it. There is also Nora’s dismay about the enlistment of her brothers in WW2, and her alarm when Japanese subs made their way into the harbour.  At the same time there’s a lot about painting portraits and visiting exhibitions, which shows that although some places were closing down for want of custom, life for Nora was still going on during the war years in a way that it wouldn’t have if she’d stayed in London under the Blitz.

All that was to change when she was appointed as a war artist, the first woman to take up the position.  Some of this chapter is quite amusing… like the previous one, most of the letters are from Nora and it seems she had some difficulty adjusting to army life, not least being expected to work a nine-to-five day.  She complains bitterly about khaki because it’s hard to paint, and it’s difficult to do a good portrait when a sitter insists on wearing her cap with the status of braid, because there’s not much face left to see and depict in the portrait!

However, it’s a bit disconcerting to see Nora’s frankness expressed in rather unkind letters home from New Guinea. I say unkind, because I myself am a veteran of letters to parents who worry, and I think that it’s unkind to relate stories about dangerous situations to parents who would have already been quite worried enough about their child being in a war zone.

I was also a bit taken aback by Nora’s own admission that she refused to obey orders to return to base because she hadn’t finished her painting of some flowers. I had assumed that the reason the authorities weren’t very pleased with her work was because they didn’t put much value on the service of the women in the armed forces and that therefore they didn’t value her portraits of servicewomen. The idea that military command… in the middle of a dangerous campaign on the Kokoda Track against a formidable foe… should be messed about by a woman painting flowers just gives women war artists a bad name IMO.

Actually, ‘War artist’ does give a slightly misleading impression, because Nora spent a good bit of her army service in Australia.  She begins her appointment in Melbourne in October 1943, is posted to New Guinea only from April to October 1944, is repatriated to The Cedars because she has dermatitis and then goes back to Melbourne in 1945, and is then posted to North Queensland, Morotai (in the Moluccas) and Wewak (the capital of Papua New Guinea).

In a later chapter, while it doesn’t give a very good impression of Nora, it’s quite fascinating to read her catty remarks about the work of other artists.

She snipes about many of Australia’s most prominent artists: Norman Lindsay; Jacqueline Hick, featured in another Wakefield Press bio by Gloria Strezelecki; two-time winner of the Archibald Prize Judy Cassab; John Olsen; Ian Fairweather who illustrated his own translation of The Drunken Buddha which I reviewed here and whose work also features in Murray Bail’s Fairweather (here); and she describes Louis Kahan’s stunning portrait of Patrick White (which won the 1962 Archibald Prize) (see here) as too theatrical and gimmicky and all that corroded looking paint was repellent. In the chapter ‘Success, anxiety and change 1960-1968, Speck attributes some of this waspishness to her belief that her style was not fashionable in the era of abstraction, especially after her entry for the 1965 Archibald was rejected.

…hovering over her work and its reception was the changing fashions of the era. At one stage she enters paintings in the August 1962 Society of Artists exhibition and writes home: ‘Now that I have my brown Mothers and babies [from her travels in Melanesia] ready to meet the world, I’m sure they won’t be accepted. A very ‘modern’ selection committee this year and probably realism will be outed.’ The work was accepted but this sense of being out-of-step with fashion infuses her letters and critical reception. (p.268)

I wondered also if there were some element of Nora pandering to her father’s taste as well.

BTW There’s a further biography about Nora Heysen by Anne-Louise Willoughby.  Also published this year for the 2019 NGV exhibition, it’s called Nora Heysen, A Portrait, and it’s published by Fremantle Press.  The ISBN is 9781925815207 and you can buy it direct from Fremantle Press.

Update 3/7/19, with thanks to Karen from Booker Talk for the prompt, the credits for the portraits on the front cover are Nora Haysen (self-portrait 1936) and Ivor Hele (1912-1993) portrait of Hans Heysen 1959.

Editor: Catherine Speck
Title: Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2019, 351 pages (first published by the NLA (National Library of Australia), 2011
ISBN: 9781743056417
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available direct from Wakefield Press; from Fishpond: Heysen to Heysen: Selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen or from good booksellers everywhere.


  1. You and I were discussing elsewhere the idea of women going ‘backwards’ in the 1950s and I think Nora Heysen and Eleanor Dark, who are respectively the subject of our latest posts, are evidence of that. My opinion (for which I haven’t marshalled a lot of evidence) is that the 1930s represented a high point for women in the arts in Australia.


    • Well, I’m not so sure about that. The sniping that I refer to included criticism of prominent women artists like Judy Cassab. Nora Heysen didn’t like contemporary trends in art, and she wanted to paint flowers (even in a war zone). Well, good luck to her, and I think creatives of any kind should do what they love. But if what you love has become old-fashioned, IMO you can’t feel indignant about not being notable. You can’t expect an art form to remain stagnant just because that’s what you like.


  2. I don’t know this artist but on the strength of the cover portrait of the old man there is considerable talent here that I want to discover more about


    • Ah, good point, I should have included the portrait credits on the cover in my post. I’ll do that now. The portrait by Nora is a self-portrait, the one of Hans Heysen is by Ivor Hele.


      • ah, so I got it all mixed up. Never mind, the portrait of the old man was excellent regardless of the identity of the painter…


        • I agree, I think it’s a great portrait.


  3. […] Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen, edited by Catherine Speck […]


  4. […] Heysen to Heysen: selected letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen, edited by Catherine Speck […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: