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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Nora Heysen

In their own words

Recorded 1965

Nora Heysen
Audio: 2 minutes

I did actually begin in watercolours. I remember I tackled a very difficult subject with white apple blossom against a blue background. I couldn’t do it now if I tried! And at that time, Dame Nellie Melba was visiting home and she saw this picture, and she thought it showed great talent and she’d wanted to give me something to remember her by and her recognition of me. And she gave me my first palette, and that started me off on oil painting, which I really wanted to do. And I’m still painting on this palette today.

I like painting flowers direct. I like to gather a bunch in my hand in the garden, put them in a setting that enhances them, and to paint direct, to get the whole feeling of the bunch in the round.

Flowers have always had that fascination for me, because I can remember when I was a war artist right up in the steaming jungle of New Guinea. I’d arranged myself a beautiful native bowl full of flowers and I was sitting in the mess, painting this, when I had a signal to be moved on down to Lae, and I ignored the signal, and the jeep came along to collect me to take me to the airport, and I said, ‘Go away, I’m in the middle of painting flowers’, and I continued with my flowers and got into hot water over this. The signals flew from New Guinea to Melbourne and back, and I was still painting my flowers, refusing to budge.

I recall that picture and sticking it out, and I remember painting it on the mess table; I had to move every time a meal was brought forward, and it took me about four or five days to complete it, and I’ve kept that canvas, I called it The Flower Sip and it’s one picture that didn’t go into the Military History Section. I felt I deserved that one.

Acknowledgements

This oral history of Nora Heysen is from the De Berg Collection in the National Library of Australia. For more information, or to hear full versions of the recordings, visit the National Library of Australia website.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery is an Australian Government Agency