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Jason Harris
21 April 2020

NORMAN LINDSAY: Undressing the Controversy

Born into possibly Australia’s best-known art family, five of the ten Lindsay siblings shared the common interest, sons Lionel and Norman becoming particularly distinguished.

 

Their father, Robert Charles William Alexander Lindsay, sailed to Melbourne aboard the Red Rose as her medical officer, on being awarded his doctorate by the University of Glasgow. He took up practice in Creswick on his arrival in June 1864. On 18 May 1869, he married Jane Elizabeth Williams, daughter of a Wesleyan missionary.

 

Norman Lindsay 1931 – photo by Picture Australia

Their first son Percival (Percy) was born in 1870. His art career began at school and he developed as a painter, illustrator, and cartoonist. Second-born Lionel became world-renowned for his etchings and woodcuts and was knighted in 1941 for his service to Australian art. Norman was the fifth child and third son, born five years after Lionel, on 22nd February 1879. Ruby was the second daughter, born in 1885. She became an illustrator and worked on author Steele Rudd’s Back at Our Selection published in 1906. She also contributed to The Hawklet and The Bulletin as did Lionel and Norman. The last child to become known for his art was Ernest Daryl, ninth born, and Robert and Jane’s sixth son. He arrived on 31 December 1889 and became interested in sketching when his brother-in-law Will Dyson, Ruby’s husband, encouraged him to draw life in the trenches of the First World War. On 31 May 1956, he was also knighted for his contribution to Art.

 

The six sons attended the local state school and Creswick Grammar School. Percy began the family tradition of editing the school bulletin Boomerang, succeeded by Lionel and Norman in turn. Norman had a blood disorder that resulted in a rash when he undertook any demanding physical activity. Forced to remain in the house, he taught himself to draw by reproducing pictures in contemporary periodicals.

 

The Lindsays lived in their 16-room home, Lisnacrieve, from the time it was built in 1877. Their bohemian lifestyle, as the local community deemed it, included a profusion of classical books and vigorous conversation.

 

The Reverend Thomas Williams, Jane’s father, was influential in encouraging the children’s interest in art, escorting them to the Ballarat Fine Arts Gallery. Here Norman was entranced by Solomon J. Solomon’s work Ajax and Cassandra. The painting was inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid and depicts the rape of Cassandra by Ajax, a hero of Greek mythology. It was to form the basis of Norman’s interest in nudes in his art.

 

Norman Lindsay at work (1896-1897) by Lionel Lindsay – photo by National Gallery of Victoria

Lionel and Norman were avid readers; Lionel had read a translation of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist and Nietzsche contra Wagner. Nietzsche’s philosophy had an enormous influence on Norman – he went on to spurn Christian doctrines and his mother’s values, which he believed had negatively affected his childhood.

 

Norman’s first earnings were paid to him by brother Lionel. In 1896, Lionel was working in Melbourne for The Free Lance and The Hawklet. Norman joined him in the city, and his ghosted drawings for The Hawklet earned him ten shillings per week out of Lionel’s pay packet of thirty-five shillings. The Free Lance folded in October that year and Lionel went to work for The Clarion; Norman took over the position of cartoonist for The Hawklet.

 

He enrolled for life drawing classes at the National Gallery, where he was captivated by Albrecht Dürer engravings. In January 1899, Norman and a group of friends established a light-hearted magazine called The Rambler but its success was short-lived.

 

The brothers’ mutual friend and fellow artist Ernest Moffitt died suddenly at age 27 in March 1899. Norman and Ernest had shared a cottage near Heidelberg; Norman sketched the overgrown garden while Moffitt introduced him to the pre-Raphaelite painter, illustrator and draughtsman Frederick Sandys. He also encouraged Norman to find his own artistic voice. Lionel was to write the first monograph on an Australian artist, entitled A Consideration of the Art of Ernest Moffitt, to which both brothers also contributed woodcuts.

 

Stories from the Decameron of Boccaccio (1898-1900) – photo by National Gallery of Australia

After Moffitt’s death, Lionel and Norman drifted apart. In May 1900, Norman married Kathleen Parkinson, who was pregnant with their son Jack. Norman had created a series of line drawings based on the 14th century Italian Decameron novellas. A friend showed a selection of these to Australian writer and literary critic for The Bulletin, Alfred George Stephens. In Norman Lindsay: The Embattled Olympian by John Hetherington (1973), Stephens is quoted as saying “For the imaginative illustration of books there is in Australia at the present the least possible encouragement. One sees with surprise, therefore, the set of pen-drawings to illustrate Boccaccio’s Decameron which Mr. Norman Lindsay has executed. … His incomplete series of some 30 or more drawings contains the finest example of pen-draughtsmanship of their kind yet produced in this country”. Norman turned down an offer of £300 to study in Europe, believing that its influence doomed Australian artists.

 

Norman joined the staff of The Sydney Bulletin in May 1901, for which he earned £6 per week. The periodical entrenched the “White Australia” policy with its racist and anti-Semitic viewpoint. Norman was to remain associated with The Bulletin for over fifty years until he was dismissed in 1958. His illustration of the couplet A Trio by James Edmond was one of his seminal works.

 

WE WALK ALONG THE GAS-LIT STREET IN A DREADFUL ROW, WE THREE;

THE WOMAN I WAS AND THE WOMAN I AM AND THE WOMAN I’LL ONE DAY BE

 

Norman and his wife lived in Sydney until Katie returned to Melbourne before their second son Raymond was born in August 1903. Norman was introduced to 16-year old model Rose Soady, with whom he began an affair.

 

Thumbs Down, Norman Lindsay – photo by National Gallery of Victoria

His art style became more sophisticated; his drawings were applauded but not his subject matter. Pollice Verso, generally translated as “Thumbs Down” was originally painted by 19th French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, signifying that a fallen gladiator should be put to death. Norman named 1904 his pen-and-ink drawing of the crucifixion after that work. It was exhibited with much controversy at the Royal Art Society of NSW. Despite this, he became the highest-earning Australian artist before WWI.

 

Norman and Katie had a third son, Philip, in 1906 but their marriage was not to last. Lindsay and the assistant editor of The Bulletin, Frank Fox (who was later knighted), launched their own bulletin The Lone Hand which was published from 1907-1921. Funds generated from successful exhibitions of his drawings in Sydney and Melbourne enabled him, together with his sister Ruby and her husband Will, to travel to London. Katie and boys remained in Brisbane.

 

In transit to London, Norman read the Satyricon, a 1st-century book written by Gaius Petronius. Lindsay created a series of drawings of Petronius but discovered in London that there was no interest in these, until publisher Ralph Straus agreed to publish a deluxe edition. Rose Soady moved in with Norman to a cottage in Hampstead while Norman worked on the drawings, causing the breakdown of Norman and Will’s relationship.

 

Norman joined the Chelsea Arts Club but disliked London intensely, despite the 250-copy print run of his Satyricon drawings selling out in days. He and Rose returned to Sydney, where she nursed him through pleurisy which he contracted following ill-health in London. Norman bought a cottage in the Blue Mountains which he called “Springwood’ and where he lived out his life. His numerous visitors included Dame Nellie Melba, author (Stella) Miles Franklin, and musician Percy Grainger.

 

The Crucified Venus (c.1912) – photo by Pinterest

Fully recovered, in 1912 Lindsay exhibited at the Society of Artists and at the All Australia Exhibition. Here he was castigated for his work Crucified Venus, of a monk nailing a naked woman to a tree to the approval of a crowd of clerics and wowsers [puritans opposed to alcohol]. The painting was removed following outraged public opinion but reinstated at the insistence of fellow artist Julian Ashton.

 

Norman’s proficiency and controversy also extended to writing. The Lone Hand had published his work regularly. His first novel, A Curate in Bohemia, was published in 1913. Following WWI he wrote the children’s adventure book The Magic Pudding, published in 1918.

 

There were a number of difficult years, beginning with Robert Lindsay’s death in 1915. Norman and Lionel were estranged after Norman’s increasing interest in spiritualism, including a supposed communication using an Ouija board with their younger brother Reginald who had been killed in France on 31 December 1916. Rose had a stillborn child from a pregnancy that almost killed her. Norman and Lionel’s sister Ruby died of influenza in 1919. Norman divorced Katie against her will and he and Rose married on 14 January 1920. Rose was pregnant with their first daughter Jane and a second daughter, Helen, followed in 1921.

 

Constable & Co. were London publishers of Art in Australia in the 1920’s. They published a limited- edition book of 129 copies, comprising a chronological order of 84 of Lindsay’s etchings published between 1918-1925. He wrote to a client “I’m glad you liked the Constable production of the etchings. It really is as facsimile perfect as reproduction can be.”

 

Fauns and Ladies, 1929 – photo by MutualArt Services, Inc.

During the 1920’s, Norman worked as an author, artist, sculptor, and craftsman – his talents including building ships’ models. He was also a talented amateur boxer. His work was prolific; there are records of him painting before breakfast, etching from mid-morning till mid-afternoon, sculpting in the late afternoon before writing in the evening. His watercolour Fauns and Ladies (1929) was auctioned for A$24 000 in May 2018.

 

He wrote a second book Readheap which was published by Faber in London in April 1930. It was based on his childhood in Victoria but the salacious content saw the book earn the dubious qualification of being the first to be banned in Australia. It was released in England and America, under the title Every Mothers’ Son in the latter. The Australian ban lasted 28 years, only being published there in 1959.

 

Rita with Veil, 1940 – photo by MutualArt Services, Inc.

In July 1931, Noman and Rose left for New York for a planned exhibition. However, due to the depression following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, this did not materialise. Norman published a third novel in 1932, called Mr. Gresham and Olympus in the US and Miracles by Arrangement in the UK. Attempts to set up a publishing house in London to publish Australian books failed and the Lindsays returned to Sydney. Norman resumed painting, this time in oils. He continued illustrating for The Bulletin but his anti-Semitic sentiments lost popularity amongst emerging young artists. Rose left for the US in 1940, taking sixteen crates of Norman’s work with her. The freight train she was travelling on caught alight and the paintings, drawings, and etchings were confiscated and burned as pornography. Spring’s Innocence (1937) was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria for a record price of A$280 000 in November 2002. His nude The Veil (Rita) painted in the same period, sold for A$42 000 in April 2018.

 

Norman also continued to write, authoring 18 books in total. His 1938 novel Age of Consent was adapted for film in 1969, starring James Mason and Helen Mirren – her first accredited role. The book itself was banned in Australia until 1962, having been published in the UK.

 

Lindsay’s final painting For King and Parliament was completed in September 1969, two months before he died, aged 90, at Springwood on 21 November. The home was acquired by the National Trust of Australia as arranged by Lindsay himself.

Written by

Jason Harris

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