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On display on Level 1


Hahndorf, South Australia, Australia 1911 – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 2003

  • England, Italy 1934-37

London breakfast 1935 Place made: London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Dimensions: image 47.0 h x 53.5 w cm framed (overall) 722 h x 782 w x 60 d mm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1996
Accession No: NGA 96.1046
Image rights: © Lou Klepac

Nora Heysen always wanted to draw or paint.[1] In London breakfast she depicted her friend Evie (Everton) Stokes wearing a blue dressing-gown, against a yellow-cream background, with the strong yellow-ochres of a cut pumpkin. There are white flowers in a blue vase on the breakfast table, and there is a blue and white plate on the bookshelf behind. Heysen was concerned with arranging forms and colours—opposing blues and yellows, keeping the colours as pure as possible.[2]

Heysen painted the portrait in the studio-flat in Duke Street, Kensington that she shared with Evie at this time, where they took turns in posing for each other, half a day each. But Evie did not strictly pose for this picture, rather Heysen depicted her immersed in everyday life: Evie reading a book, enjoying a pot of tea and a simple meal of bread and jam, with her slipper casually balanced on her foot. Despite the casual nature of this work, we would be deceived if we thought that the elements on the table—as well as the parallel horizontals and verticals of the chair, table and bookshelf—had not been meticulously arranged for the picture.

In composition Heysen adopted some of the features of Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother; but instead of Whistler’s subdued palette, Heysen used bold contrasting colours, and in place of the master’s spare composition, Heysen filled the space with practical objects. The portrait is also a homage to Vermeer, whose reproduced works hung in Heysen’s family home. As in so many of  Vermeer’s paintings, Heysen’s subject is dressed in blue and engaged in a tranquil occupation, a pearly light comes into a domestic scene from a hidden window on the left, and there is a careful placement of objects in a clearly defined architectural space. Heysen even emulated Vermeer’s use of dark wood for the frame of her painting.

Adelaide-born Nora Heysen was one of eight children of the Australian landscape painter Hans Heysen. She studied at the School of Fine Arts in Adelaide under F Millward Grey from 1926 to 1930. And at the time she painted this portrait, Nora Heysen was studying in London at the London Central School under Bernard Meninski. It was a period of remarkable development in her work—and just three years before she became the first woman to be awarded the Archibald Prize.

Anne Gray

[1] Interview with Nora Heysen, 25 August 1994, Oral History Collection, National Library of Australia.

[2] Nora Heysen to her family, 6 February 1935, describing a related work, Interior 1935; quoted in J Hylton, Nora Heysen: light and life, Carrick Hill, Adelaide, 2009, p 22.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

Nora Heysen depicted her friend, Everton (Evie) Stokes in this breakfast scene, resplendent in Heysen’s blue dressing gown, her foot casually balancing the slipper. The scene is peaceful, contemplative and domestic. Evie is absorbed in reading, her fingers poised on the handle of the cup. Heysen has carefully arranged the breakfast items on the tray and table. Above the bookcase, a portion of a framed painting is revealed. The light source from the left indicates a window. The simplicity of the decor enhances the formality of the composition.

This is one of a number of paintings by Adelaide-born Heysen portraying her small flat in Dukes Lane, Kensington and, like the others, it is a homage to Vermeer. What is illuminated in this painting is Heysen’s arrangement of the world around her, which she did in order to create stability and a sense of control. The work was painted when Heysen’s family returned to Australia and Heysen found herself alone with only her art classes providing daily human contact, until the arrival of Evie. Heysen celebrates her visit in this painting. Evie is the focus of the work but it is not a portrait, rather Heysen is exploring the arrangement of the figure with the other objects in the room and the interplay of light on all the surfaces. Here, her palette reflects sombre elements, seen in the furniture and shadows, in contrast to the lighter palette she started to adopt after her meeting with the Pissarro family. Heysen painted London breakfast in precise detail, although she used broad brushstrokes in some areas of the painting to enliven the surface. Heysen’s interest in Vermeer extended to emulating his selection of dark wood for the frame (and like the one on the picture depicted above the bookcase).

 Lola Wilkins, 2002.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002