Hilda Rix Nicholas was what people might once have been called a ‘trooper’. Although she had much sadness in her early life, she always overcame it and carried on. In the end, she had a happy marriage to Mr Wright (in both name and circumstance) and was a loving mother and grandmother. Moreover, she had a highly successful life as an artist, producing many memorable works. Indeed, she is one of Australia’s most important early twentieth-century women artists as well as a significant Canberra region artist.
Rix Nicholas was born in Ballarat in 1884 and studied at the National Gallery School from 1902 to 1905. After her father died in 1906, she left Australia for Europe with her mother and sister. Like so many of her contemporaries, she studied painting in London and later in Paris, exhibited work at the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy and was made an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (New Salon). She also had work purchased by the Musée National du Luxembourg, Paris. Each summer from 1910 to 1914, she visited the artists’ colony at Etaples in northern France, and in 1912 and 1914 travelled to Morocco where the colour and light inspired her to produce fresh and lively oil sketches and drawings.
Her wartime experiences were particularly harrowing. At the start of the war, her mother and sister contracted enteric fever; her sister died soon afterwards and her mother in early 1916. Later that year, her husband of only a few months, Major George Matson Nicholas, was killed in action. She was left trapped in war torn London.
When Rix Nicholas was able to return to Australia in 1918, she received critical acclaim for the range and versatility of her work. At this time, she began to paint images of the Australian landscape and country life, exhibiting them successfully in London and Paris. During a visit to the Blue Mountains in the early 1920s, she produced the remarkable and majestic painting The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains 1921–22. Using a dramatic composition, she not only responded directly to nature but also simplified the scene into bold sculptural forms with a restricted pallet of blues, greys and pinks. It is an imposing image in its perspective and depth and conveys a largeness of space. Painted from high ground, the jagged sandstone forms of the Three Sisters dominate the foreground from which we look down giddily into the deep valley and its winding river. On the horizon, there is a ripple of undulating forms beneath a pale green-pink sky.
Rix Nicholas visited Britain and France in 1924–26, and depicted Breton subjects. Following her return to Australia, she painted the Canberra subject, Molonglo River from Mount Pleasant, Canberra 1927, displaying her strong sense of colour and use of bold design. In 1928, she married Edgar Wright, a Monaro District grazier, and went to live at Knockalong station, Delegate, New South Wales. She painted the people and landscapes of her immediate Monaro environment. She continued to exhibit her work throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but failing eyesight and ill health limited her output during the 1950s. She died in 1961, aged 76.
She was the Canberra district’s first professional resident artist whose experiences overseas informed her unique vision of Australia. In this year of the Centenary of Canberra, the Gallery is seeking to improve its representation of this significant artist, and we would like our members to feel part of this collecting initiative by contributing to the Members Acquisition Fund 2013–14. For more information on contributing to the fund, telephone (02) 6240 6408 or fill in and return the donation form in the Members Acquisition Fund 2013–14 brochure.
Anne Gray Head of Australian Art
in artonview, issue 75, Spring 2013