Ballarat, Victoria, Australia 1884 – Delegate, New South Wales, Australia 1961

  • France, England 1907-18
  • France 1924-26

The Fleece 1945 Place made: Delegate, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Primary Insc: Signed upper left in oil, 'H Rix Nicholas'
Secondary Insc: Signed and titled verso on stretcher bar, '"The Fleece" / H Rix Nicholas"'
Tertiary Insc: Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition label verso Exhibition: Project 26 Date: 5 August - 19 September 1978
Dimensions: 100.4 h x 95.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2013
Accession No: NGA 2013.4401
Image rights: © Bronwyn Wright
  • A man looks down intently as he slowly teases a staple of wool. He wears a typical grazier’s hat, khaki shirt and tie. His face is weatherworn and his hands and arms are sinewy, suggesting years of toil on the land. Behind the stocky figure are bins of wool and wool presses and the rough-hewn textures of a shearing shed. At the back there is an open door, through which we glimpse a landscape with grazing sheep. The fleece of the title is placed carefully in the forefront of the image.

    This one of Hilda Rix Nicholas’s finest portraits, and her homage to rural life. The subject is the artist’s much-loved second husband, Edgar. In it she expressed her admiration for Edgar and his way of life, portraying him as a member of the rural aristocracy and conveying his long years of experience working the land. In a letter to her son she wrote:

    I think so much of one’s character and personality is made up of the place one lives in … I always think [Edgar’s] grand big character, his free, large and generous outlook is just like the big Tombong range and distant hills and mountains—that his grand character—unselfish and large and brave has been influenced by the lovely large landscape he belongs to. It was this spaciousness and big simplicity in him and in the place which drew me to him and his life, and in which I felt repose and complete rest after my full life and big sadness.

    Edgar was a quiet, unselfish man, influenced by the large brown land in which he lived and worked. In depicting her husband as the archetypal grazier, Rix Nicholas expressed her commitment to the pastoral ideal. And in this, she showed how much her artistic practice had become tied to her life with her husband, and living on the land.

    Rix Nicholas was born in Ballarat in 1884. She 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. She studied painting in London and later in 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 refreshed her artistic vision. The First World War was a time of great tragedy and loss for the artist. During evacuation at the start of the war, her mother and sister contracted enteric fever; her sister died soon after and her mother died in 1916. Later that year, Rix Nicholas’s husband of a few months was killed in action on the Western Front. Renewed by her return to Australia in 1918, she reformulated her approach to art, exchanging European imagery for those of the Australian landscape and country life. She died in 1961, aged 76, at Delegate Hospital, New South Wales.

    Anne Gray Head of Australian Art

    in artonview, issue 78, Winter 2014