Possibly Australia’s best known and most accessible artist, Norman Lindsay was also a cartoonist, illustrator, writer and talented boxer. His beautiful home in Springwood, NSW purchased by the National Trust in 1970 after his death at the ripeness of 90, remains an homage museum to his creative spirit and a life of fulsome expression.
Born into an artistic family; five of his nine siblings also became artists; Lindsay is lovingly known in Australia as the quirk behind one of our most treasured children’s books, The Magic Pudding. Published in 1918 with its naughty and darkly illustrated characters; the loyal but cranky Albert, Bunyip Bluegum and Bill Barnacle, Lindsay’s uniquely Australian colloquial voice and imagery was created as he put it, because Aussie kids want to read a story ‘about fighting and eating’ over some European whimsey about fairies!
The original cover of The Magic Pudding, 1918
In all, Lindsay the writer went on to publish 18 books, mostly for grownups with his 1930 novel ‘Redheap’ the most excitingly controversial. Based on his early life in Cheswick, it was banned in Australia for 28 years.
But it was for his visual art that Lindsay is best remembered. His rare artistic perspective drew heavily on the Nietzschean idea of an ‘integrated mind and body’.(1) To this end, his female subjects were central to his visual stories and he became known for his evocative line work and defiant portrayal of women as powerful, sensual and dominant beings, a counterpoint to the more passive female subjects by his peers.
Lindsay’s etchings and prints, illustrative work and later oil paintings are all romantically fantastical and yet heart-felt and earthy. An established artist by the time he was in his early 40s, he earned more than any other Australian artist at that time.
Lindsay’s successes despite, and perhaps because of, his controversial themes (politics, sex and anti-religion), were also due to his incredible work ethic. Legend has it that he painted before breakfast, etched from mid-morning till afternoon, sculpted in the late afternoon and took a break by writing in the evenings.
Lindsay with his paint brushes
Thematically, his aesthetic buoyed through the natural world and the sexuality he imbued in his models, which unlike other artists of the time, was less about the audience’s titillation and more a kind of advocacy for the strength and authenticity he saw. An admiration for women’s courage and an advertisement for their autonomy and independence, their pure sexuality outside of societal judgements and constraints. In a nut shell he rejected suburban domesticity and the conservative gender politics of the time and place, in favour of “bohemianism and Arcadian pantheism madly admixed in a fantasy world”, (2)
Sex is not only the basis of life, it is the reason for life.
As early as 1904 his work was deemed blasphemous by the conservative over-archers, but Lindsay managed to balance out with a growing number of fans in Australia and overseas who found his attacks on societal conservative attitudes positively heroic and wonderfully avant-garde.
He had married Kathleen Parkinson, sister of his journalist friend Ray, in 1900, when she was pregnant – the same year that he and his brother joined The Bulletin, a paper he would stay connected to throughout his life. The couple had three sons, Jack, Raymond and Phillip.
Early Bulletin covers by Norman Lindsay
But it was Rose Soady, who first shone as his principal model and then secret lover. She became his most enduring life partner, joining him in London in 1910 while he was still married. The couple moved to Springwood on their return to Australia in 1912 and had two daughters; Jane and Helen.
Rose became his most well-known muse and ‘chief siren’, as the models he worked with at the time were dubbed. They married officially in 1920.
Norman and Rose Lindsay, 1920, photographed by Harold Cazneaux
Rose was distinct in her beauty, described as voluptuous, muscular and forceful with a glint in her almond shaped eyes and a legendary sense of humour. Before Lindsay, she modelled for Long, Rubbo, Julian Ashton and more. There is an evocative photo of the couple taken in 1909; Norman in a suit and Rose with tousled black curls, stockings and pantaloons, looking very much an equal pair, owning their sexuality with confidence and defiance.
It was at Springwood that Lindsay and Rose’s artistic lives blossomed, she was also a talented artist and master printmaker. Their reputation as the most fashionable of Bohemes grew, their mountain home frequented by the in crowd of the day; Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, Dame Nellie Melba and Miles Franklin to name a few.
Every mind which has given itself to self-expression in art is aware of a directing agency outside its conscious control which it has agreed to label ‘inspiration’
Lindsay said, ‘I have taken the feminine image as a dominant factor in my concept of life, both because I love the beauty of women, and because they are the continuity principal which drives life eternally on into the future … I have utterly repudiated the academic nude image of femininity as an innocuous stuffed dummy designed to decorate walls of second class suburban homes, but I have sought to infuse into it as much vitality and desirability as my own response to women suggests, and which is the normal response of any properly constituted male ego’. (3)