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The real Thea

by Dr Sarah Engledow, 30 March 2015

Portrait of Thea Proctor, 1905 by George Lambert
Portrait of Thea Proctor, 1905 by George Lambert

Real life doesn’t offer a person the opportunity to sell her soul and wade into debauchery, remaining lovely as ever while the face in her portrait sinks and erodes. Outside fables, a portrait stays the same, consoling, taunting or astonishing its ever-degrading sitter with a vision of what she was or seemed, to someone, to be. It was the fate of the Sydney artist Thea Proctor to share sixty-three years of her life with a ravishing picture of herself. Hanging in her flat, it never changed; but her own life might have taken a different course had it never been made, had she never accepted it, or had she never hung it. At most, she should have kept it with her feather fans, tasselled dance cards and amber beads at the bottom of an awkward drawer. Perhaps she would have done better to throw it away.

Thea Proctor, born in Armidale in 1879, learned as much as she felt she could about art in Sydney before leaving for London in 1903. She was to stay there, excepting an interval in 1912–14, until after World War i. When she returned to Sydney forever in 1921, her art and ideas sprang to the front line of contemporary art and design in Australia. Her proclamations on decoration, colour, interior design, flower arrangement, ballet and fashion were published in new journals such as The Home (for which she designed many covers) and Art in Australia, and she had a room to herself in the watershed Burdekin House modern-living expo in 1929. She remained a commanding figure in the Sydney art world almost until her death in 1966. Although she enjoyed a large circle of friends (and adversaries), into her stately old age she lived very frugally in rooms in a 1920s-era building in Darling Point Road, making a slender living from drawing classes, periodic exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries and commissioned drawings of Eastern Suburbs children. Described by a friend as a ‘breath-taking beauty’, from about 1902 until she died, she was single.
At sixteen, in the mid-1890s, Thea began her art studies at Julian Ashton’s school in King Street, Sydney. Ashton remembered her as a charmer, who readily fell in with the rabble of students. Then there was George Lambert: of all the art schools in all the towns on the eastern seaboard of Australia, he turned up in hers. Lambert had come to Australia from England at thirteen, and had worked as a station hand and jackeroo, shearing, mustering and breaking horses while developing his extraordinary gift for drawing. In Sydney, he was working as a grocer’s clerk while studying at the Ashton school whenever he could. Manly in stature, with steady eyes – characterised as a ‘job-lot Apollo’ by his friend the writer William Beattie – he seems to have been almost literally lustrous. Julian Ashton encouraged his students to take on commercial art, and in 1899, Lambert, Proctor, Sydney Long and Christopher Brennan, amongst others, began contributing to the short-lived Australian Magazine. Many of its stories were illustrated by Lambert, and for some he used Proctor as a model. Lambert shared a studio with Sydney Long in the Ashton school building. In the late 1890s, at about the same time as Long painted his sinuous and fantastical Spirit of the Plains, he managed, somehow – for he lacked polish, and was ‘almost elfish’ – to secure a promise of marriage from the statuesque Thea Proctor. No doubt the reproduction of Spirit of the Plains in the elegant English art journal The Studio encouraged her to believe they could make a go of it.

In the spring of 1900, Lambert married Amy Absell, a photographic retoucher at Falk Studios, and a writer. They shipped out two days later, to subsist on the New South Wales Society of Artists’ Travelling Scholarship in London and Paris. The liaison between Long and Proctor dragged on. Long was surely on the ropes from the start of the round, but the final blow was probably the cruellest: years later, Proctor told a friend that it would have been impossible for her to marry ‘such a bad artist’ as he was. In 1902 she curtailed their understanding; in the autumn of 1903 she left Sydney for a long time, and Sydney Long for good.

Soon after her arrival in London Thea began art classes in St John’s Wood, but her preparations for the Royal Academy examinations were dashed as she had to take time off on account of eye strain. She never did get to the RA school. Lambert, living with Amy in Shepherds Bush, wasted no time before engaging Thea as a model: a painting of her in a lavishly-smocked blouse, Miss Thea Proctor 1903, became the first of Lambert’s pictures to be accepted by the Royal Academy. In the years to come she would appear quite often in Lambert’s paintings, with and without Amy Lambert and her sons.

In 1905, George Lambert drew a portrait of Thea Proctor that’s still shocking in its sensuality. It’s clear from the hooded, gentle eyes, the angle of the divinely dimpled chin (the pad of flesh rubbed to light, amongst dark strokes of charcoal) that the artist appraises the sitter from below. The plump flesh of the face invites the viewer’s grasping touch – thumbs on the high cheekbones, fingers laced through the heavy swathes of dark hair caught loosely at the nape. The lit section of neck between high collar and ear lies open to the tongue like a swipe of creamed honey. The cushiony lips, corners benignly upturned, breed imaginings of the sweetest, dirtiest kind. Lambert was a painter of great skill and panache, but his human figures are generally remote, wry actors in the drama of his pictures. To anyone who knows Lambert’s body of work, what’s really remarkable about the charcoal drawing of Thea is the melting warmth it gives off.

The blouse Proctor wears in Lambert’s portrait is of fine lawn, with insert lace detailing. It’s likely that in the four or five pictures made over a period of some years that show her in a high white collar, it’s this same garment that she wears. Doubtless it was one of the items she wore through, and couldn’t afford to replace, while she was in England that first time.  Over the time she spent there, she met many of the leading figures of the Edwardian art world, and was introduced to friends of her handsome second cousin, William Alison Russell, a colonial judge and exemplary (Scottish) Englishman; but she recalled ruefully that she ‘had to drop some of them when I came to the end of my clothes and other people too’. Later, she said that she had no regrets about staying in London with no money – ‘I had to learn to draw’, she said – but the uneven cycle of exhilaration and disillusionment, and the discomfort of the cold and dark, eventually proved as intolerable for her as it had, and would, for many other Australian artists. She came back to Australia to live with her grandmother in Mosman. She held her first solo exhibition, attracted attention in Melbourne as a ‘clever Sydney girl’, made costumes for a masque written by Christopher Brennan and John le Gay Brereton, and saw one of her fan paintings accepted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. All the same, she left again after eighteen months.

During her second period in London, Proctor built upon her interest and skill in drawing to pursue the newly-fashionable medium of lithography. The Senefelder Club had been established there five years earlier to promote art lithographs. Proctor studied at the Chelsea Polytechnic in 1914, and became an honorary exhibitor with the Senefelder crowd. From the years 1915-1920 come her lithographs Mother and son, a cosy depiction of Amy and Constant Lambert; Before rehearsal and The balcony, each of which features George Lambert’s sons; as well as the decorative compositions The tame bird, The shell and Stunting, all depicting her new (and lifelong) friend Eunice Graham. Arguably the nicest of her lithographs, its name notwithstanding, is The toilet, published in a special ‘Modern Woodcuts and Lithographs’ edition of The Studio in 1919; critic Malcolm Salaman wrote that in that work she expressed ‘a true feeling for the stone’.

In 1916, William Alison Russell married. Thea, who was to keep little, relishing sessions at the incinerator in the grounds of her block of flats, retained his photograph all her life in a small box of miscellaneous belongings. Lambert painted what was to be his last picture of her, Portrait of a lady (Thea Proctor) in 1916. On Christmas Day 1917 he embarked for Egypt as an official war artist. In the last months of the war Eunice Graham went to Rotterdam to reunite with her husband. Amy Lambert was her chief friend now, but she seemed to be tiring of Thea, and she was probably eager to spend some time alone with her husband when he came back from the Middle East. In early 1921 the artist had to take a ‘thorough rest’ for a few months with friends in the English countryside. By August, she was on her way back to her native country, the rawness of which she deplored. She was nearly forty-two.

Soon after arriving in Melbourne, where her mother and remarkably uncongenial brother were living, Proctor drew a self portrait on a lithographic stone at the Fine Art Society Gallery in Melbourne. In London, she’d formed a plan to exhibit works made by Senefelder Club members, but the expense of mounting an Australian exhibition prevented it from happening. She’d brought some art prints with her though, and exhibited her own amongst them, hovering in the gallery three afternoons a week to explain lithography to visitors. The self portrait was made on-site in connection with the exhibition, printed then and there by Daryl Lindsay and Cyril Dillon – although it isn’t known how many prints were made. The following year Proctor’s lithographs were shown in Sydney, amongst those of some London practitioners, but her works in the ‘crude and stern’ medium of lithography were deprecated by local critics and subsequently – influenced to some degree by Margaret Preston – she turned to making the decorative woodcuts for which she is now very well-known.

Thea Proctor’s self portrait confronts the viewer with a markedly different woman from the one in Lambert’s drawing. Thin-lipped, intelligent and grave, without a trace of coquetry or invitation, the bespectacled artist faces herself square-on. It’s not surprising that sixteen years after Lambert drew her, Thea looks different. A self portrait will typically look different from a portrait by another in any case. Most of us look in the mirror to check that we look normal and won’t affront the public, but an artist making a self portrait uses the mirror to calculate the proportions of the elements that combine to make her look like she does. Unsurprisingly, often the self portrait subject is frowning, with a combination of concentration and dissatisfaction – at who they see, perhaps, as much as at what they draw. As in a great many artists’ self-portraits, in this one there is a feeling of watchfulness. Although it was made in unusual circumstances, Proctor was still exhibiting the print in 1938, which proves that she was pleased by it. That year, the critic for the Herald wrote ‘A lithograph displays Miss Proctor herself looking through spectacles with unwonted severity’ (implying that she usually looked happy and approachable). It’s true that in Thea’s version of herself there’s a little frown that could either deepen or dissipate, but there’s also a sense of assertion: of skill; of independence; even – given her years in London – of survival. Certainly she seems to have had fun demonstrating the use of various tools, scratching to make areas of her forehead, nose and left cheek advance and recede, using a greasy crayon for her hair and the ruffle of her shirt (ruffles, she loved).

William Beattie wrote after Lambert’s death that he had been ‘Clean, wholesome, strong and good to look at; truly the young Siegfried; and, above all, happy; … he was glad he was alive.’ If happy and glad to be alive, even the most ill-favoured person is attractive – and Lambert was handsome. Probably, when he was about thirty-five, there was a time of all-points exhilaration when being around Thea increased his happiness. Then, presumably, there was a time when being around her subtracted from it; and then came the period of his ultimate return to Australia, when he and she promulgated modernism together, and moved in the same circles for about nine years. Opening her art show in Sydney in 1924 he said that ‘her work gives me a very great and stimulating thrill … because of the intellectual quality, the power of selection which she exhibits in every thing she does.’ That was the year he painted the Self portrait with gladioli, a showcase for his talents which, his son said, ‘disguised from the mediocre but revealed to the sensitive just what a few years in Australia had done to him’. He was put under tremendous pressure to produce, and demanded much of himself, also; Thea, too, was hounding him about art, at least. ‘I look to my English branch as a place where nerves are not so fashionable as they are out here’, he wrote to Amy in England. Amy came to try to look after him for a few years from 1926, as he was still scrapping with a ‘nasty little packet’ of malaria that he’d contracted during the war, but it didn’t work out between them. A friend of both Thea and Amy wrote to another that Thea had told her she and Amy had ‘met as strangers’ at the opening of an exhibition of Thea’s work that year. Lambert referred to her at least once as ‘Thea Proctor’ in a letter home. In November 1929 she addressed a stiffly formal letter to him as ‘Mr Lambert’, expressing the hope that ‘you will not rub in your contempt of me too much’. He died six months later. Thea was at his funeral on South Head; Amy was in London. A few months after Lambert died, Amy wrote to Sydney Ure Smith explaining that Thea ‘had quarrelled with her once’ and they were estranged for a long while in spite of earlier confidence and intimacy but that now they were ‘more or less in harmony’. Decades later, in 1963, Amy farewelled Thea by letter, saying that ‘We are enduring a bad winter. How more than right of you to avoid old age in England. My loving memories to you – farewell – yours as ever Amy BL.’

Thea Proctor was designing covers for The Home when Margaret Olley was born; Olley was Proctor’s stablemate at the Macquarie Galleries from 1948. That year, the younger artist sat to William Dobell, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend. Jeffrey Smart, Judy Cassab, Danelle Bergstrom, Nicholas Harding and Ben Quilty were amongst those who later made Olley’s portrait. Proctor knew everybody on the art scene, too, over several generations. For her, though, only Lambert would ever do as a portraitist; and he depicted her for the last time the year she turned thirty-seven. At eighty-two, embarrassed for funds, she had had to sell a cut-down Lambert portrait of her, sent to her by Amy, to the Queensland Art Gallery. She had by then given up Lambert’s Study for Alethea, a likeness of her, fleet and slender, that her friends considered the best of all. As she read Amy’s last letter in her little flat in Double Bay she may well have glanced up at the portrait she would never give up; Lambert’s charcoal from 1905. It was alongside that portrait – made before Proust started writing In Search of Lost Time – that she drew and painted, wrote her gracious and amusing letters, fed her cat, read near her Fyrside kerosene heater. She is not known to have made any self portrait after her lithograph. Not directly, anyway. Just as in the 1920s she would indicate, say, a Japanese print in the corner of a portrait-in-an-interior as a clue to her current aesthetic interests, decades later she half-represented the portrait Lambert made of her – tentatively, gesturally – in watercolours she made of other women. If it wasn’t exactly a self portrait she was making, it was an affirmation of identity; of continuity; of Australian art-historical aristocracy. Who knows, in fact, that it wasn’t an oblique indication – elliptical, for she was proud – of the very essence and persistent reference point of her existence; the time, and the bond, against which everything else was measured.  
Knowing many of Lambert’s sitters, Thea was in a position to observe that on canvas and paper, his subjects usually had longer necks, slenderer fingers and smoochier cherry lips than they did in the flesh. Faced with his drawing of herself, though, it’s hard to believe she could resist the idea that she really did look like that to George. Who could? He looked; he delineated; he adumbrated her face. As a fellow artist, she knew what he was doing as she looked at him; and as he studied her he knew she knew. We can’t know how insouciantly, or intently, he approached the task of drawing her; how long it took him, what they talked about, whether he could resist that look of hers or whether, at some point, he laid down his charcoal and moved toward her. No one knows if they ever touched each other’s skin. Anyone may well have fallen in love with Lambert for his looks, his high spirits, his masculine competence or his facility for painting everything from camels to decanters. Yet for Thea, the belief that they shared a way of looking surely overrode all corporeal and practical factors. It’s easy to stop touching, when asked: just don’t go where the other person is, or put out your hand. But how hard is it to give
up on love if you can’t see anything without thinking of seeing it with the other, or how you’ll describe it to them in words or strokes of line? Whether George cared about her or not by the end, having bewitched Thea with his sketch of herself, he must, in some way, have cast a pellucid net in the way of her finding any other companion.

What private moments of frustration and grief his portrait of Thea witnessed, with apparent tenderness, but actual impassivity, can only be surmised. Whether she hung her own self portrait, sensible and redolent of resilience, is not known.

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Thea Proctor

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