Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

History Revisited - Armidale plays a big role in Proctor's life

GLAMOROUS EVENT: Thea Proctor's interest in decorative work strengthened by her participation in annual The Chelsea Arts Club Ball.

Artist Thea Proctor was 23 or just 24 when she arrived in London 1903. It was an exciting time.

In addition to her close relationship with George Lambert, she mixed with the other Australian expatriate artists including Charles Condor, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, artists whose paintings can be found in the New England Regional Art Museum.

Proctor became preoccupied with line, colour and form, concentrating on drawing and water colour painting. Here she was influenced by Condor’s fan designs, Japanese prints and the drawings of the French neo-classical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Her interest in decorative work was also highlighted by the Chelsea Arts Club balls with their elaborate costumes and through exposure to the Ballets Russes.

Founded by impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909, the Paris based Ballets Russes is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. Diaghilev consciously tried to promote artistic collaborations among leading young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers. As part of this, he commissioned works from composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, artists such as, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and designer Coco Chanel.

The impact on Thea seems to have been considerable. .After seeing the Ballets Russes in 1911, she exclaimed “it would be difficult to imagine anything more beautiful and inspiring”.

Thea’s art works, her decorative fans and drawings, were well received. However, I am left wondering at the extent to which this focus was gender connected. We know from other writing including the biographies of Australia artist Stella Bowen as well as that of Dora Carrington that decoration was seen as a more acceptable female role.

Thea returned to Australia in 1912, but finding the market unresponsive she moved back to England late in 1914, achieving more critical success. Then, with many other expatriate artists including George Lambert, she returned to Australia following the war.

In Sydney she became active in the Society of Artists and in 1925 held a joint exhibition in Sydney and Melbourne with Margaret Preston. Both artists included brightly coloured wood cuts in scarlet frames. While Proctor’s work was comparatively conservative, it was seen as ‘dangerously modern’ in Australian terms.

The next year, she joined with Lambert and others to found the Contemporary Group to promote young avante garde artists.

While Proctor’s work achieved considerable critical and indeed popular success, she needed to supplement her income through teaching art and writing.

Always elegantly dressed and considered an arbiter of taste, Thea wrote on fashion, flower arranging, colours for cars and interior decoration. In the 1920s she organized artists' balls; in 1932 she designed the fashionably modern Lacquer Room restaurant for Department store Farmer & Co; and in the 1940s produced theatre d├ęcor.

Thea continued to paint throughout her life and to play an active role in encouraging young artists. Unmarried, she died at Potts Point on 29 July 1966. It had been a long and interesting life from her birth in Armidale and those early years at NEGS.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 September 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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