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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Magical World Of Norman Lindsay And His Wife And Muse Rose Soady

There are many Australian artists that inspire me, from the fluidity of Whitely, the mystic folklore of Sidney Nolan, the sombre Blackmans, to the newer contemporary work of artists such as Anthony Bennett, Jasper Knight, Julian Meagher, Oliver Watts, TV Moore and a whole other bunch of young artists I see but have not yet learned the names of. But there is only one Australian artist that always left me with an ethereal playful pathos that subsequently aroused in me the most wild desires and surreal conceptions, and that artist was none other than Norman Lindsay.

The first time I saw a Norman Lindsay was on the wall of my Uncle’s house, who had purchased some water colours at some point in the 1980’s. I can recall looking around the room at conservative portraits of family members, family photos, gilded paintings of nature and then boom! This vibrant orgiastic water colour of ladies in the nude looking garishly at something outside of the frame. It was such an explosion and so incongruous with everything else in the room that I fell in love almost immediately; like spotting the one person in the room with which you really really wanted to make love.

It was not until two weeks ago that I was googling Lindsay, and disappointed in the amount of content there was on the internet, I decided that I ought to make a pilgrimage out to the Blue Mountains to Springwood to see where he lived.

The arrival at the Norman Lindsay Gallery was not as impressive as I’d expected. I was actually a little disappointed that the National Trust had not spent more money on preserving Lindsay’s house and gardens. But then, I was not necessarily there to see the house in as much as I was to see his work.

I was escorted around the complex on a tour of which I was the only participant. As we walked through the gardens across to Lindsay’s studio I was looking for where the pool might be but it didn’t seem to be jutting out from anywhere nearby. We entered the studio and again I seemed to be less than impressed. For a man who painted such seeming decadence, those whirlwind Bacchus Odysseys capturing the roller coaster of festivity; contrastingly,here in front of me was this Spartan studio with a small bed, some paints, an easel with unfinished works still mounted, some books, and an old suit hanging on the wall. It was, as my tour guide explained, left exactly in this manner by Lindsay as the way in which he wished the cottage to be displayed after his death. It was not the creative space I had anticipated. For a man who was so adept in so many disciplines, from writing to sculpting, water colours, oil on canvas, etchings, cartoons and boat building, it was hard to imagine that all that creativity had poured out here, in this small space. It was only a few weeks later that I considered my own life and where I had come up with some of my best ideas or written my favourite passages of text. It dawned on me that often times I had spent in the countryside in very simple circumstances had yielded some of my most creative thoughts and dialogues. Although Lindsay might have conjured up some very mystical Greek forms in his art, of exotic animals from faraway lands, and garish forms he may never himself have encountered; that endless creativity can come precisely from a small Spartan cottage at the start of the Blue Mountains. I can only imagine just how enchanting Springwood must have been all those years ago on a summer’s night with the wind blowing off the mountains, the stars shining brightly at night and the lights of the city just perceptible from the escarpment below.

The simple cottage studio of Norman Lindsay where his creative output flowed until his death in 1969.

To the right, Lindsay's final work titled 'unfinished'
For those of you who do not know much about Norman Lindsay, here is a small bit of background to his life. He was born in 1879 in a Victorian gold mine town to his parents, Robert, a surgeon, and his mother, Jane, who was the daughter of a Reverend Thomas Williams. He grew up with reasonable means and a large enough home to accommodate Lindsay and his nine siblings. Of the ten Lindsay children, five would go on to become accomplished artists. Lindsay is said have been of poor health as a child and this is where he first learnt the art of drawing as he would lie in his sick bed and sketch by copying from illustrated books and then using his own imagination, he began sketching his own work.

Then in 1896 he moved to Melbourne where he and his brother Lionel were said to have bohemian lifestyles, surviving on beer and tobacco and illustrating for newspapers to make ends meet. He then got a break when J F Archibald gave him a job as an illustrator of cartoons at The Bulletin, a relationship which would continue until his final cartoon in 1956 for the Melbourne Olympic Games.

Lindsay married a woman named Kate Parkinson by 1901 with whom he had a son named Jack, then moving to Sydney. Sadly, the relationship broke down by 1906, at which point Lindsay had already had two more children with Parkinson.

It was when Lindsay was in need of a model that he was introduced to Rose Soady in 1902. They were to become lovers. Rose was said to be a great beauty and Lindsay seems to be holding a great smirk on his face in one of these early photos. Rose Soady was to become Lindsay’s muse, a lifelong companion to him and, despite having a break in their marriage, she played a wide and varied support role for Lindsay throughout his life, both financially (through managing his affairs even when they were apart) and emotionally. Rose was considered to personify Lindsay’s ‘feminine dominant’. A forthright woman, full of vitality and creativity, she is attributed as being a major reason that Lindsay enjoyed continued prodigious creative output. Rose would become his muse, his greatest collector (she would hide his paintings so he didn't give them away), his agent (always negotiating better prices for his work), his manager, his nurturer, and his chief printer. It is said that she only stopped hand-pressing his etchings when her arthritis forced her away from the printing press.

Norman Lindsay & Rose - Springwood Garden Circa 1919 - photograph by Harold Cazneaux
Rose also seems to be one of the great creative collaborators of Lindsay’s work. One thing to note when doing some background reading was that Rose was incredibly interested in fashions, fabric and in the process of making clothes. She apparently made so many of her own clothes as well as those for her family. How much of her work ended up in Lindsay’s work is unknown, but to quote her grand-daughter Helen Glad:
“All her life she loved beautiful materials and was a wonderful dressmaker – she certainly must have enjoyed making the costumes which Norman designed for her to wear to the Artist’s Balls during the 1920’s. She never seemed to object when Norman ripped out a bodice to assist in the composition.
Rose had an innate sense of style – she instinctively knew what was best in all areas. She maintained a love of good things to the end of her life”.

Lindsay's etchings were done with painstaking precision to ensure that multiple layers and tones of blacks and greys could add depth and texture to the etchings.
Some of the most riveting water colours you will ever see, Lindsay completely captivates his audience with  references to Greek mythology and the 'feminine dominant'.

With Rose by his side, Norman Lindsay went on to become an artist of distinction in many different disciplines. His sculptures adorn the gardens, his etchings became world-renowned, his sirens have inspired movies, his model boats are some of the finest in the country and his children’s book ‘The Magic Pudding’ has not been out of print since 1918. He is said to have been a genius, almost, say like an Australian Da Vinci.... Well, why don't you form your own opinion?
A real treasure, Norman Lindsay's suit hanging up.
The wool on trousers was a very unusual box

I would most definitely encourage anyone reading this post to visit the Norman Lindsay Gallery at Springwood in the Blue Mountains if you are heading up that way. It makes for a great day trip from Sydney and a chance to cast your eye over the wealth of creativity and productivity that Lindsay was able to achieve without the distractions of city life. It is a lovely way to pay homage to what was a life well lived.
With special thanks to the Norman Lindsay Gallery – 14 Norman Lindsay Crescent Faulconbridge NSW.
+61 2 4751 1067
The images on this blog article were taken at the Norman Lindsay Gallery and the text references come from Wikipedia and The Norman Lindsay Gallery, Springwood by Helen Glad. The book can be bought from

Sadly, the pool which inspired the Sirens was empty. A sign that this national treasure is underfunded or over-governed by occupational health and safety standards.

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