Isn’t this a striking, full length portrait? The subject is Tasmanian born artist Florence Rodway. It was completed by her friend and fellow artist Norman Carter (1875-1963), in 1910. Unfortunately no colour version exists.
The first mention of the portrait in the press was in 1911;
Mr Norman Carter is holding a private view of his paintings at Norwich-chambers today. This artist has devoted himself chiefly to portraiture during the past year or two….Visitors will admire amongst works of the past his forceful oil painting of his colleague of the brush Miss Florence Rodway.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, May 13 1911)
Norwich-chambers was Carter’s Sydney studio, on the corner of Hunter and Bligh Streets. The picture was on show again the following year at the city’s Royal Arts Society’s Exhibition. From there it travelled to France, as friends of the artist thought it worthy of an international audience.
By 1915 the portrait had gained quite a reputation. The Sydney Morning Herald published a piece under the title A MUCH-TRAVELLED PICTURE;
‘A much admired work by Norman Carter which will be remembered under the title of ‘A Low-toned Harmony’ as a dominant contribution to the Royal Art Society’s Exhibition of 1912, has now safely reached his studio once more, after an adventurous absence of nearly three years. This striking, full-length portrait subject, which reproduces many of the characteristics of Miss Florence Rodway, who inspired it, was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1913′ [The portrait was entered under the title Mlle X]
Carter was awarded a bronze medal by the Salon, the first Australian to have achieved such a distinction. ‘Though a very large work, the canvass being about 7ft by 3½ft, it was later hung upon the line in London at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1914.’
Being hung ‘upon the line’ meant it was displayed at eye height, the ultimate accolade. However, just before World War One was declared the portrait was removed, and for several months it was ‘lost’.
Now of course these were chaotic times. It turned out that Carter’s Paris agent, M. Lefebvre-Foinet, had left for the front with the French army and not been heard of since. The sub-agent responsible for placing the picture before the Royal Academy in London did not reply to queries regarding its whereabouts. In the end a friend sent Carter a catalogue which revealed that the portrait was at a studio in St. John’s wood. Fortunately the lovely ‘Florence’ was retrieved and sent home. The article concluded, ‘Now the cherished picture is once more at Norwich Chambers, where it may be seen by art lovers.’
Another mention of the painting appeared in Sydney’s Sunday Times on Sunday, August 10 1919. Under the heading ART NOTES’ by GALLERY BOY, it was not the most flattering review of Norman Carter’s more recent work.
‘Mr Norman Carter is a striking example among Australian artists of one who, after achieving success by his early work in portraiture, has now deliberately abandoned it for landscape, mural decorations and figure studies. His painting of Miss Rodway and the ‘Cello Player’ portrait of his brother are undoubtedly among the most successful examples of Australian portrait painting. The numerous portraits of local celebrities which followed these first successes, it must be allowed, have had very much smaller merit, and the degeneration in the powers of the artist can be traced almost visibly to his endeavors to satisfy to his endeavors to satisfy his sitters…..’ Was the assessment fair? Well, that’s a debate for another time.
THE PORTRAIT OF THE LADY VANISHES
There now followed an extraordinary hiatus in the public life of the portrait. It would not see the light of day for more than forty years.
In February 1962, Norman Carter, then 87 years old, donated the painting to the Library of New South Wales. But!….something terrible had happened; a full third of Miss Rodwell was missing. There was no accompanying explanation of why the portrait had been so reduced in size.
What on earth would possess Carter to ‘desecrate’ one of his most highly regarded works? Even if it had suffered some accidental damage, surely it could have been restored?
The canvas had been cut from both the left hand side and from the bottom. Remember that originally it was 7ft tall and 3½ft wide. The essence of the work, Miss Rodwell’s imperious, but oh so elegant stance with her gauntleted hand on the stick, was lost.
The cut down canvas was re-signed on the right hand side.
Today, Mr Carter’s painting is on public display in the Library’s amazing, permanent exhibition, ‘Paintings from the Collection‘ You can find it up in galleries, Room 3, West Wall, No. 242. After being specially selected, the works were then sponsored by friends and supporters of the Library. I’m delighted that Mr Carter’s portrait made the grade, but so sad Florence is not there in all her glory. I wonder whether her sponsors knew the background story?
Yes, she is still hanging at eye level.
Norman Carter died on September 18 1963. It appears that any hope of solving the mystery of why he cut down his wonderful painting died with him.
For an article on Florence Rodwell and her work CLICK HERE.
INFORMATION ON THE LIBRARY OF NEW SOUTH WALES GALLERIES