Nora Heysen's Legacy

Nora Heysen's Legacy
From a photograph on a wall to a bequest or an archive, an artist's legacy encompasses many things.
23 March 2017

On the wall behind my desk hangs a framed black-and-white photograph of a young artist. Holding her paint brush and palette, she stands in front of her easel, pondering the next stroke. Her hair is pulled back into a severe knot at the nape of her neck. Her loose smock reflects the folds in the dress of the woman she is painting.

The artist is Nora Heysen. The photograph is a reproduction of a portrait of Nora painting a portrait of Madame Elink Schurman. This portrait would win the Archibald Prize in 1938. The gelatin silver photograph is held in the Library’s Pictures Collection. The print on my wall was displayed in the National Library’s exhibition, Nora Heysen, which opened on 25 October 2000. In the exhibition, the photograph was attributed to Harold Cazneaux (1878 – 1953). The Library's catalogue is not so sure, although the image is in a small collection of portraits of Nora, some of which we know to have been taken by Cazneaux in March 1939.

Nora Heysen painting a portrait

Nora Heysen painting a portrait of Madame Schuurman, [ca. 1936-1941], http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-145509609

The Library’s exhibition, curated by Lou Klepac, opened six weeks after my official Library career began. I had been freelancing as an editor, but at the beginning of September I was appointed to the role of Publications Manager. The first book I saw through the final stages of publication was the exhibition catalogue. I still have a set of printer’s page proofs, with Nora’s glorious still life, Eggs (1927), on the now slightly faded cover.

Nora was 89 when the exhibition opened. Born in 1911, she had lived an extraordinary life by anyone’s standards. She was the daughter of renowned artist Hans Heysen. She was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize and the first woman to be appointed a war artist during World War 2. She held her first solo exhibition in 1933 and travelled throughout the 1930s and 1940s before settling in Sydney in 1948. And although she didn’t exhibit often, she painted constantly. The Library holds a number of her works, including one of her extraordinary self-portraits.

Self portrait of Nora Heysen

Nora Heysen (1911-2003), Self portrait of Nora Heysen, ca. 1932, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-137314383

Nora died three years after the exhibition. Although she seems not to have sought the limelight during her life, she was clearly conscious of leaving a legacy – not only for herself but also for her adored father, Hans. Shortly before her death, she approved the establishment of the Nora Heysen Foundation, based at the Heysen family home, The Cedars, in Hahndorf, South Australia. The Foundation continues to care for, exhibit and promote her work.

And Nora also left the National Library a bequest – a bequest who’s primary purpose is to promote the life and work of her father, Hans.The bequest has been used to fund improvements to access to major manuscript collections containing correspondence, drawings and other material by Hans Heysen. The bequest also supported the publication of Heysen to Heysen: Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen, edited and introduced by Catherine Speck (2011). 

An artist’s legacy is multi-faceted. It is there in the art works they created, sometimes in the memory of the places they lived and worked, in the bequests they make, and in the archives they leave behind.

I’m reminded of Nora’s legacy every day – and, through it, in the role of the National Library in collecting, preserving and making accessible the creative and intellectual lives of so many significant Australians.

Find out more about the legacies of Hans and Nora Heysen at Remembering Hans Heysen, Sunday 2 April 2017.

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