Remembering the artful Norman Lindsay

Photo of Mark Thornton

Artist, painter, author and sculptor Norman Lindsay's Blue Mountains home holds some of the great man's work. 

Surrounded by 17ha of eucalyptus forest on the fringes of Springwood in the Blue Mountains stands a beautiful neoclassical sandstone house. Driving to it through the creeping encroachment of suburbia, it surprises with its simple style and to me called out “this is the home of an artist”.

And what an artist. Norman Lindsay lived there with his second wife and favourite model Rose from 1912, when he was 33, until he died in 1969, aged 91. The house was elegantly built for Francis Foy, of Sydney department store fame, but Lindsay transformed it to look more like a Roman villa, adding classical colonnades, fountains and paths leading to little dells and a swimming pool in the bush. Much of his work was inspired by nostalgia for the pastoral, but with a fascination for pagan naughtiness.

Most notable are his voluptuous sculptures strategically placed around the property. Some are crafted from bronze and others from wire and concrete, though these look like rough-hewn stone until you get up close, and feature nymphs, satyrs and other mythical creatures from Elysium.

Norman Lindsay is one of Australia’s favourite and controversial sons thanks to his prodigious output of larger-than-life drawings, paintings, etchings, editorial cartoons and sculptures of buxom nudes and their consorts, plus his Bohemian lifestyle. Yet he has left us with a far greater artistic legacy, having written and illustrated a number of books, including 11 novels and two children’s books, notably the iconic and ever-popular The Magic Pudding and Cats.

He had enormous energy and an enviable work ethic resulting in his prolific creative output, which became more prodigious as he grew older. In his early 40s, he woke early and before breakfast would paint a watercolour. Then followed hours of painstaking work in his etching studio before he moved outside to the garden to create the Elysian sculptures. 

In the evening he retired to his study to write. He also designed, carved and decorated furniture, created Roman columns and built his own additions to the Springwood property, known affectionately and with tongue in cheek by his family as Olympus, the abode of the gods.

As if he needed any further diversions, he also built 14 scale models of sailing ships, including Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour, complete in every tiny detail with meticulously hand-stitched sails and knotted rigging.

He spent three months while in London in 1910 at South Kensington Museum studying sailing ships of all makes and periods, and making careful drawings of a number of them to refer to back home. He was in England for a year to promote his work but confessed in a letter to his friend Jules Archibald (editor of The Bulletin magazine and founder of the Archibald Prize): “I hate the climate and I’m beginning to hate the people.”

Learning about his creative capacity from the National Trust guide at Springwood exhausted me. I shouldn’t have been surprised because I knew his work. My wife, Dianne, owned bookshops in Canberra and Bungendore, a village half an hour east of the city, and we specialised in Lindsay’s works by arrangement with Lindsay expert Lin Bloomfield and her family, which has the rights to publish certain of his materials.

Bloomfield also edited Rose Lindsay’s autobiography A Model Life; an extraordinarily detailed and entertainingly written personal account of life with Norman by this daughter of English farm labourer immigrants. Reading the Bloomfields’ books about the Lindsays, plus chatting with Lin’s daughter Jane, gave us further insights into the Lindsays and their alluring lifestyle.

Rose had a good memory and in her book recounts in detail meetings with characters such as American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who she describes as a rather opinionated, tetchy fellow, in a plush New York hotel in the company of a beautiful green-eyed Romanian princess. A Siamese prince also appears. 

The Lindsays’ lives were punctuated by encounters with a who’s who of Australia and the world, including Banjo Paterson, Percy Grainger, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson, Dame Nellie Melba (who adored Rose), H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Hans Heysen and American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker, to name literally just a few.

Despite my fascination with the Lindsays, it was only last March that I visited Springwood for the first time. I was spellbound and impressed with the National Trust’s care of it, particularly his studio, which looks as if he might have just left it, complete with all materials, easels and the etching bench. Just before he died, Lindsay had arranged for the Trust to acquire Springwood. And his painting gallery.

Lindsay was one of 10 children, five of whom became artists of distinction: Lionel, Percy, Daryl and their sister Ruby, which must have been a great and pleasant surprise to their parents Dr and Mrs Robert Lindsay, who had emigrated from Ireland to Victoria in 1864. The children’s maternal grandfather frequently took them to the Ballarat Fine Arts Public Gallery where they developed their interest in art.

Lindsay was a sickly child due to a blood disorder, yet his mother’s insistence he remain indoors promoted his artistic inclinations. In his confinement he taught himself to draw by copying pictures from magazines. All the children were encouraged to read widely and he did so, devouring the classics. At the age of 17 he discovered the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche became a leading influence in Lindsay’s philosophy of art and life, and he upset some of his friends with his rejection of Christianity and racist attitudes, particularly towards Jews.

By then he had left home to live with his brother, Lionel, in Melbourne, where he worked selling illustrations and cartoons. It was there he developed his association with The Bulletin drawing political cartoons, which lasted almost until his death.

Rose had served as a model for Lindsay’s first sculpture. But she became more than a model and wife. She became business manager, mother to their two girls, maker of picture frames, cast plaster ornaments, and she printed and recorded his etchings. Without her his achievements as an artist would not have developed and matured as they did and as a couple they were at the centre of Australia’s artistic and literary life.

One incident that showed the strength of their relationship occurred in 1940 when Rose, fearing an Allied defeat in the war, took 16 crates of paintings, drawings and etchings to America. However, the art was discovered when the train transporting them caught fire. They were undamaged by the fire but US officials opened the crates and impounded the works as pornographic, later burning them. 

Rose was distraught but Lionel recalled Norman reacted calmly: “Don’t worry, I’ll do more.” And he did, summing up his attitude to his work. It would appear the act of creating was just as important as the creation.


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