In March 1918, Hilda Rix Nicholas left England on a sea voyage back to Australia. She and her late husband’s brother, Athol Nicholas, arrived in Melbourne on May 10th. She needed to get her love of painting back on track and she did this through the city’s Women’s Art Club and the support of Henrietta Maria Gulliver, one of its founding members. She was soon back in the groove and in November she was amongst the members of the Art Club whose works were displayed at the Athenaeum Hall. The art correspondent of the Punch magazine (November 21st, 1918) wrote:
“…The dominating personality of the show is Mrs Hilda Rix Nicholas, who exhibits a charming profile of a young girl entitled The Pink Scarf which is painted in Mrs Nicholas’ most arresting manner…”
When she travelled to Australia Hilda brought with her the sketches and paintings she had completed during her time in Europe and North Africa and over a hundred were exhibited at the Melbourne’s Guild Hall. The exhibition was a great success and many of her paintings were sold including her 1914 work, In Picardy, which was purchased by National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition moved to Sydney and more of her paintings were bought by private collectors as well as several purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.
Hilda left Melbourne and moved to Mosman, a coastal suburb on the Lower North Shore of Sydney. She continued to exhibit her portraits of Australian military men. She painted heroic images of soldiers which accentuated the spiritual aspects of war and was in line with the thoughts of the day with regards Anzac mythology and the unashamed masculinity of the Australian nationhood. The paintings were works of unapologetic patriotism. They were loved by the public but more conservative critics were troubled by the modern and ‘masculine’ characteristics of the exhibition. With the public liking her patriotic paintings she tendered for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library but was not chosen. The mural commission was given to Harold Septimus Power. An official portrait by George Coates in 1920 depicted the Australian War Artists. The group portrait includes the official War Artists; standing l-r: (Sir) John Longstaff, Charles Bryant, George Lambert, A. Henry Fullwood, James Quinn, Septimus Power, Arthur Streeton, seated back l-r: Will Dyson, Fred Leist, front: George Bell. Note they are all male !
One of her patriotic works was her painting simply entitled A Man. For her model Hilda chose a returned serviceman. She must have thought about her late husband as she painted this work. Look at the way that through her brushstrokes she has affectionately fashioned pockets, buttons, pouches for ammunition and creases in the sleeve. This anonymous ANZAC hero is framed by stormy skies and with so many of the troops dying on the battlefield one realises that despite the uniform, the tin helmet and rifle they all failed to keep him safe. Although this is a patriotic depiction it is also a portrayal of defencelessness as much as it is of military might. Having failed to receive the commission for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library, Hilda abandoned her military portraiture work and began to concentrate on painting local landscapes and portraits.
Hilda believed that the public’s taste in art had changed. Despite the numerous Australian casualties in the First World War, estimated at 62,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. The Australian population wanted not just to think of their dead but consider the future and a reminder of this was to reflect on their beautiful land and the hard-working Australians who remained and were carrying on with their life. It was not just in art that this desire to look forward was seen, as many writers of the time, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, penned stories who eulogised about the merits of pioneer life.
In 1922, accompanied by her friend Dorothy Richmond, whom she had met in Sydney around 1919, Hilda set out to paint in rural New South Wales and one of the paintings she completed around this time was one depicting her friend on a horse. The painting was entitled In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback.
Hilda completed a portrait of her friend, Dorothy Richmond in 1926, entitled Une Australienne, Dorothy Richmond. It is a strong portrait of her good friend. Dorothy is dressed in the height of fashion. She looks out at us with a forceful pose, one of belief in her self-importance, almost haughty but the look gives her a sense of empowerment. She has posed with her head turned causing tension on her neck muscles. This was one of eight pictures Hilda Rix Nicholas had exhibited in the Salon of 1926. The Salon judges were impressed with her work, and she was made an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as a result.
Around 1923, Hilda and Dorothy first travelled to Delegate on a painting trip. The small New South Wales town was situated just a few kilometres from the state border between New South Wales and Victoria. The area was ideal for landscape painting. The couple stayed in a property owned by the Wright family and soon Hilda became friendly with Ned Wright and his cousin Edgar. It was during their stay at Delegate with the Wrights that she completed one of her most well-known works, In Australia, His Land. The painting was a portrait of Ned Wright, the manager of the property at Delegate. He is depicted on horseback, with his pipe clasped between his teeth. His stance is casual, self-assured, and heroic, which was consistent with the up-beat nationalism of Australia at the time. The backdrop to the portrait is a panoramic view of an Australian pastoral landscape.
A similar setting can be seen in her 1920 work, Through the Gum Trees, Toongabbie. It is a commemorative depiction of the Australian landscape, which she held so dearly. For Hilda it was a way of paying homage to the land of her birth. It is a painting full of light and for Hilda it was all about recording the beautiful landscape. We can imagine the joy and pride she got from painting the scene as we look at the distant land through the trees which have cast giant shadows on the ground. She commented on why she wanted to spend her time depicting the Australian landscape, giving her reason as:
“…show the people [of Europe] what is possessed in a land of beauty where the colour scheme is so different, and which sent so many gallant men to the struggle for liberty…”
Another of her paintings, Three Sisters, Blue Mountains of that time captured the spectacular view of the Three Sisters. It is an unusual rock formation representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend were turned to stone. The character of the Three Sisters changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons as the sunlight brings out the magnificent colours. The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and ‘Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.
It was always in Hilda’s plans to return to Europe and take with her the collection of landscape works she had built up in the previous six years and so, after a successful exhibition of her work in Sydney in 1923 she packed up her things and was ready to return to France. In 1924, Hilda, along with her travelling companion, Dorothy Richmond, set sail, on the SS Ormonde, for France, with the intention of exhibiting her work. Also, aboard the vessel was the Australian Olympic team travelling to the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics and the Adelaide Chronicle of July 19th 1924 carried a fascinating story about an incident on the voyage:
“…The Australian artist, Mrs. Rix Nicholas, has been included amongst Australia’s aspirants for Olympic honours. This surprising information comes from a member of the team in a letter to his parents, received only this week. On the voyage home aboard the Ormonde it was noticed that one of the passengers paid particular attention to the athletes when they were on deck for daily training. Day by day she continued to study every member at work. Eventually she summoned sufficient courage to approach the manager (Mr Merrett), with the request that the team be lined up. He agreed, and Mrs. Nicholas selected a certain member as a model. Although somewhat embarrassed, he agreed to pose. When the team arrived in Paris it was learned that an artists’ competition was to be held, in conjunction with the Olympic games, and it was decided that Mrs. Nicholas should represent Australia as the Olympic candidate. The painting, when completed, will be entered m the competition for artists. It was on this account that she was included, and all were overjoyed at having a Woman representative…”
Hilda and Dorothy arrived in Paris in June 1924 and rented a studio in Montparnasse which had formerly been the home of the French painter Rosa Bonheur. In 1925, Hilda’s works were exhibited at the Georges Petit Galerie in Paris, which was a popular alternative exhibition space to the official Salon. Her paintings were much admired by the critics and public and the exhibition was deemed a great success. Her success in Paris was recorded in the February 28th 1925 edition of the Sydney newspaper, The World News, a newspaper published in Sydney, Australia from 1901 to 1955.
GIFTED VICTORIAN ARTIST.
SHOWS “AUSTRALIA” IN PARIS.
Fashioned of the stuff that good and true women are built of, there is little wonder in the cabled news that Mrs. Hilda Rix Nicholas, the clever painter from, the southern Australian State, Victoria, has made good as an artist in Paris, one of the great art centres of Europe. She is an intensely patriotic Australian, and, swayed by this fine feeling, recently gave an exhibition of her country’s typical scenery and atmosphere in a series of exquisite paintings that attracted the Parisian critics and the public. Notwithstanding that she was already represented in the Luxembourg National Gallery, the French Government purchased one of the group, entitled “In Australia,” for the same gallery, which has only two other Australian artists represented, viz.. [Arthur] Streeton and [Rupert]Bunny.
………………..to be concluded.