23. NORA HEYSEN
In Interior with Josephine, London 1934, Nora Heysen extends the art of still life to embrace a sitter and domestic scene, bathed in autumnal light. The light and stillness recall the great Dutch seventeenth-century painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1795), whom she greatly admired. Her early familiarity with his works came from reproductions hung on the walls of her father’s studio at The Cedars, in Hahndorf, South Australia. Like Vermeer, the light is an embracing feature of the painting, defining and caressing form and giving a distinct nobility to the everyday scene. A personal glimpse into a particular intimate moment, the setting is Nora’s studio-flat in Dukes Street, Kensington, London, where she lived from September 1934. The sitter is Nora’s eldest sister Josephine.
Daughter of the by then famous father Hans Heysen (1877-1968), Nora’s own rise was phenomenal. By twenty, her works were in the state galleries of New South Wales, South Australia, and Queensland. In 1933, her remarkable Self Portrait 1932 with its reproduction of a Vermeer in the background was given to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by arts patron Howard Hinton. In March of 1934 Hans Heysen, his wife and daughters sailed for Europe. Settling in London, they toured the Continent and later went to Amsterdam for the Rembrandts. Hans was also planning a London exhibition with the additional responsibility of, ‘a commission to spend a thousand pounds on pictures for the South Australian gallery…’1 Nora had decided to stay in London to study. Before leaving Australia, she had held her first solo show, in Adelaide. She was only twenty-two. It was such a success that it helped finance her studies during the following London years. Nora enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts under Bernard Meninsky (1891-1950), her mother Sallie helping her find and furnish a flat.2 ‘Nora fell heavily [Sallie wrote] for a couple of old Cromwellian leather chairs – just like the Vermeer ones…’3
As Nora moved into her flat in early September 1934 and her sister Josephine left for Australia with her parents in October, Interior with Josephine, London would have been painted within those months. The simple repast, the unattended plate with knife and fruit signaling the artist’s absence, increases the mood of introspection and nostalgia, explained by the knowledge that they would not see each other for some years. The contrast between the painted image of Josephine and her description as ‘a beautiful and lively charmer, full of energy and initiative’ could not be greater. 4
On the wall in the background Nora added one of her paintings she had brought with her from Australia, of a bowl of pink roses. Extended to include the flowers in the vase on the table, the image within the image replaced those previously by Vermeer with one of her own. The edge of the leather-backed chair appears to be as described by Sallie Heysen. The influence of Vermeer continued and is strongly present in the larger, related painting, London Breakfast 1935, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The model is Nora’s friend Evie Stokes, the interior, table and chair appearing the same. Evie reads a book, the table offering the everyday objects such as a pot of tea, milk, bread, and a bright orange pumpkin. Casual as the moment may seem, it has been composed with all the care and order found in Interior with Josephine, London, a pearly light replacing the brighter, the handling of the paint not as impressionistic as the earlier work.
Nora returned to Australia as ‘…a widely experienced and extremely competent painter of flowerpieces and portraits, having turned to these quite consciously to avoid working in the same field as her father.’5 She also continued her winning ways, being the first woman to be awarded the Archibald Prize (1938) with a portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, and the first woman appointed an Australian war artist. Interior with Josephine, London is a singular work in the artist’s development, offering a rare insight into an important formative period in her rise
1. Thiele, C., Heysen of Hahndorf, David Heysen Productions, revised edition, Adelaide, 2001, p.231
2. Ibid, p.234
3. Sallie Heysen to Hans Heysen, quoted in Thiele, op. cit., p.235
4. Thiele, p.168
5. Ibid, p.245