Nora Heysen

Nora Heysen, AM

Light and Life

by Jane Hylton

Nora Heysen was born in 1911 in Hahndorf, South Australia, the fourth of Hans and Selma Heysenís eight children. She never questioned that her life would be dedicated to making art. Yet, like her father, Sir Hans Heysen, Nora completed her formal art training in Adelaide at the School of Fine Arts, between 1926 and 1930, under F. Millward Grey.

From there she went to Europe for additional experiences and work. While away in London she sent home lengthy descriptions of her problems and triumphs she experienced in her work, exhibitions she had seen and paintings she found particularly interesting. She became an accomplished artist, but only recently has she been getting the recognition she deserved for so long.

After her return to Australia, she continued to study two days a week at the School of Fine Arts while during the remaining time she painted in her studio, a converted shed, at The Cedars in Hahndorf. While working at the Cedars there were many visitors, among them Dame Nellie Melba, Helen Kellar, Daisy Bates, Anna Pavlova and Lionel Lindsay.

As well as her still lifes, Nora Heysen has been praised for her portraiture. Some would say that she's painted more self-portraits, during her seventy years of painting, than any other artist except maybe Rembrandt.

In 1933, at the age of twenty-two, she had her first solo exhibition at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts Galleries, Adelaide. She exhibited portraits, still lifes and many drawings. It turned out to be a very successful one with most of her works sold, despite it being during the Great Depression. She was also awarded the Melrose Prize for Portraiture.


Self Portrait, c 1932,
Oil on canvas, Collection
Nora Heysen Foundation
Photograph Mick Bradley.

During 1938 she moved to Sydney and was made a Member of the Society of Artists in September. She entered two portraits in the Archibald Prize, which she won, with a portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, wife of the Dutch Ambassador. Being the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, it turned out to be a rather unpopular win in the male-dominated art world of that time.

Nora was appointed official war artist in 1943 (the first female ever!) and travelled to New Guinea in 1944 to paint the activities of the Australian men and women. She completed more than 170 works in this capacity. She was discharged on 7 February 1946. In New Guinea Nora met Dr Robert Black. In 1947 Nora travelled to England and lived in Liverpool and London partly to be near Black. They married in 1953 but divorced in 1972.

In 1957 Nora had an exhibition at John Martinís Gallery, Adelaide. From then on she exhibited in many different places, often in South Australia but also in other States. Nora Heysen was awarded an Order of Australia in 1998. At 89, she had an exhibition at the National Library in Canberra. The Nora Heysen Foundation was established in 2003 and now holds the largest collection of her work in Australia. She died of a heart attack in Sydney on 30 December 2003, aged 92. Her ashes were later scattered at Hahndorf.

She still remains one of the most significant Australian female artists of the last century. She was a remarkable woman whose artistic achievements spanned a period of some 75 years. The studio of Nora Heysen has now been fully restored and was opened for viewing in 1994. This provides another unique feature of The Cedars as it was the artistic home of both Sir Hans and his daughter Nora.

The book, Nora Heysen, Light and Life, written by Jane Hylton, her long time friend, and curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, highlights Nora's talent which was shown already at a very early age. An early water colour of a ginger jar and bowl, painted when she was around 15 years old, already shows an extraordinary understanding of the medium. The book includes many of her oil paintings and drawings as well a biographical outline of her life, a bibliography and footnotes.

Review by Nic Klaassen

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The book @ $39.95 is available from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455

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