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Jessie Street
, 1929

by Jerrold Nathan

oil on canvas (frame: 125.0 cm x 100.0 cm depth 12.8 cm, support: 101.0 cm x 76.0 cm)

Jessie Mary Grey Street (née Lillingston, 1889–1970), feminist and activist, spent her early childhood in India where her English father worked as a civil servant. The family moved to Australia in 1899, three years after her mother had inherited Yulgilbar, a cattle station in northern New South Wales. Educated at a progressive girls’ school in England, she enrolled at Sydney University in 1908, and during her three years there became involved in women’s rights campaigns. In the years before her marriage to lawyer Kenneth Street in 1916, she attended international women’s conferences; ran her own dairying business at Yulgilbar; spent time working at a women’s hostel in New York; and founded the NSW Social Hygiene Association, which advised women on family planning. In the interwar years – in addition to raising her four children – she intervened in unemployment relief, the plight of Jewish refugees, and Indigenous rights, and travelled in Europe, the USSR and the USA studying social conditions. She stood unsuccessfully as a Labor Party candidate in the federal elections of 1939 and 1946; in 1945, she was the sole Australian woman delegate to the founding of the United Nations and was involved in forming its Commission for the Status of Women. Street first visited Russia in 1938, and was president of the Australian Russian Society from 1946; as the Cold War developed, she was (falsely) accused of communist sympathies. In 1949, expelled from the Labor party, she stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate. In the 1950s she worked for the World Peace Council in London and successfully instigated the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal rights. Her autobiography, Truth or Repose, was published in 1966.

Jerrold Nathan (1899–1979) trained at the Royal Academy and came to Australia in 1924. He settled in Sydney where his reputation as a portraitist was underlined by the commissions he completed for many prominent Sydneysiders. Nathan first entered the Archibald Prize in 1926 and thereafter, with only two exceptions, was a finalist every year until 1958. An Archibald finalist for 1929, this painting of Jessie Street was displayed in the family home and later at Sydney’s Jessie Street National Women’s Library before being gifted to the National Portrait Gallery by the Library and Street’s two surviving children, Belinda Mackay and Sir Laurence Street, in 2010.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of the Street family and the Jessie Street National Women's Library 2010
Accession number: 2010.64