The Australian born artist Hilda Rix (1884-1961) was living and working in France when war broke out in 1914.
She abandoned her studio at the Etaples artists’ colony and fled to London with her widowed mother and her older sister Elsie. Many of her pictures were left behind.
Sadly, by 1916 both her sister and mother had died. It was at this low point in her life that she met Australian army officer Major George ‘Matson’ Nicholas.
The story goes that while stationed at the Etaples military base Nicholas saw Hilda’s abandoned paintings. Intrigued, he looked her up while he was on leave in London. Amid the heightened emotions of wartime the meeting led to a whirlwind romance.
On October 4 the couple attended a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, where Major Nicholas received a Distinguished Service Order from King George. What a heroic figure he looked as they left the palace together. They were married in London on October 7.
Tragically, Captain Nicholas was killed on November, before the letter reached him. Hilda’s brief dream of happiness also died. Her work titled ‘Desolation’ was an expression of her sorrow, and anger at the futility of war.
Hilda returned to Australia in 1918. Over the years her paintings presented an idealized vision of rural Australia; a land men such as her late husband had given their lives for.
Increasingly the artist found herself out of step with the emerging, modernist art movement in Australia. William Dobell’s Archibald Prize winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith, in 1944 went against all Rix Nicholas’ ideas of what art should be, particularly as the country was again at war. She described the figures in paintings by Dobell and Russell Drysdale as; ‘More like victims of the German prison camps’. Significantly, both men went on to win the prestigious Wynne Prize; Drysdale in 1947 and Dobell in 1948.
Rix Nicholas’s work was exhibited at the Royal Art Society’s exhibition in 1944. Reviewing the show, Kenneth Slessor wrote;
‘The members of the society were content with honest bread and cheese, leaving the absinthe and hashish to the wild men Only one incident could agitate the eyebrows of the oldest member. The Royal Art Society made a joke for the first time in 50 years. Propped against the platform there is a rather childish parody of Dobell’s Archibald prize-winner, ‘Joshua Smith…‘ (The Sun, 14 Sept. 1944)
Smith’s head had been replaced by that of Adolf Hitler.
President of the society Howard Ashton said he could not reveal who had painted the picture, signed ‘Nemesis’, or whether the artist was a member of the Royal Art Society. Tellingly, ‘Nemesis’ wrote in a letter at the time; ‘Any resemblance to contemporary or passing phases of art only proves again how easily the fleeting present impinges on the past.’
As far as I’m aware the true identity of ‘Nemesis’ was never revealed. However, if someone told me it was Hilda Rix Nicholas I would believe them. Look at what she wrote in a letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald the following year. It is as full of rage and hurt as her destroyed WWI painting, ‘Desolation’.
The nationalistic, traditional work Hilda was producing was widely criticized. By the late 1940s she had ceased exhibiting, feeling that, as she wrote to her son, no-one really cared whether she painted or not. In failing health, the loss of her creative outlet affected her deeply.
In 1980 art critic Sasha Grishin wrote a piece titled NICHOLAS NEGLECTED, In part it read;
Hilda Rix Nicholas in her later work seems to have withdrawn into an even more conservative adaption of her style of the 1920s and to have continued painting more for the enjoyment of the act of painting than concerning herself with a philosophical justification of her work. At a time when the Melbourne Antipodean painters revolt became the establishment and Sydney became dominated by imported abstraction, Hilda Rix Nicholson’s paintings became a provincial anachronism, but one which remained true to itself. (Canberra Times, Jun 19 1980)
We are left to wonder how this talented woman would have developed as an artist if she had not been so scarred by grief in WWI. Her pre WWI paintings of Morocco were considered her most adventurous.
NOTE – In 1928 Hilda Rix Nicholas found happiness in a second marriage to NSW pastoralist Edgar Wright. However, it is difficult for any relationship to replace a love that is lost at its most passionate and intense.
The artist died aged 76, in 1961. In recent times her work has been reassessed and is more appreciated. Ten years ago there was an exhibition of her paintings at the National Portrait Gallery. She is represented in most major Australian galleries and at the Australian War Memorial.
FOR MORE BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION ON HILDA RIX NICHOLSON, CLICK HERE.