Grace Crowley
being modern

23 December 2006 – 6 May 2007

Introduction | Conservation | Crowley works in the National Gallery collection

Essay 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


Grace Crowley ' Ena and the turkeys' 1924 oil on canvas Private collection Grace Crowley 'Ena and the turkeys'  1924  oil on canvas  Private collection enlarge

Becoming an artist
Australian pastoralism

Crowley’s long journey to becoming one of the most modern of Australian artists had an inauspicious beginning. Born into a wealthy family of graziers who had pioneered European settlement in the Barraba region of northwest New South Wales, Crowley was brought up on the family property. Nothing in her background of hardy pioneers would have set her upon the course of becoming an artist and she recalled that growing up her ‘contact with anyone interested in art was NIL’.1 That she became an artist at all, let alone one of the leaders of the avant-garde in Australia, is remarkable.

The Crowley family traces its origins in Australia to John Crowley, a convict who arrived in 1803, transported for life for stealing a sheep. His son William took up a large run, Cobbadah, in the Nandewar Ranges near the township of Barraba, north of Tamworth. In 1845 William married Emma Baines and their fifth son, Henry, born in 1854, was Crowley’s father.2 He married Elizabeth Bridger in 1878 and they set up home at The Forest, close to the main homestead at Cobbadah Station. However, the rural depression of the 1890s, together with the division of William Crowley’s estate among his many children, severely affected the family’s fortunes. As Crowley recalled, ‘When I was born things were tough in the country. Graziers those days had lots of land and fresh air and that’s about all’.3 Henry had built a slab house consisting of two large rooms connected by a breezeway at The Forest where all of their children were born.

Grace Adela Williams Crowley was born on 28 May 1890, the eldest daughter and fourth of five children. In 1893, the family moved to Cobbadah Station, which had been purchased by Henry in partnership with one of his brothers after their father’s death. A forceful personality, Henry was to clash with Crowley as she grew up. In contrast, Crowley’s mother was
a gentle, softly spoken woman, who Crowley remembered as ‘always sewing, baking, washing, mangling, ironing, getting ready for visitors, getting hens, gardening etc., etc. and et cetera’.4Crowley and her sister were brought up never to raise their voices in anger or in laughter, and all her life Crowley was known for her genteel demeanour. Yet there was another side to Crowley and, while her niece recalled that there was nothing obviously rebellious about either her appearance or her manner, she was considered the rebel of her family.5 She was also known for her fiery temper, of which her family learnt to be wary, and that ‘when she went off she could really go off’.6

In 1899 the partnership between Henry and William Crowley was dissolved and Henry purchased Glen Riddle, a property of 15 000 acres on the southern side of Barraba. Reflecting the family’s increasing prosperity, a large brick homestead was built, into which the family moved around 1900. Crowley’s upbringing was conventional: she and her younger sister Florence were educated at home by a governess and the family observed the manners and mores of their class.

Crowley recalled that as a child her first drawings were done with white chalk on the smooth side of an old square brown tank behind the kitchen. Later, she would draw the animals around the farm, and a drawing of her father’s prize bull was framed and hung in his office. Crowley’s early efforts were clearly of some pride to her family and, around 1903, her mother sent one of her pen-and-ink drawings to New Idea, where it was reproduced in the children’s page and won a prize. According to Crowley: ‘encouraged by this success my Mother forwarded it on to “Gossip” who conducted a page in The Stock and Station Journal for his opinion. “Gossip” showed it to Souter (do you remember Souter’s cats?) who said, “Your little girl has the gift” and advised an art training’.7

Grace Crowley 'Empying carts, White Bay' c.1921  Grace Crowley 'Empying carts, White Bay' c.1921 
pencil on ivory wove paper, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Bequest of Grace Crowley 1979 enlarge

Souter’s opinion was possibly enough for the family to decide that Crowley’s talent should be encouraged or at least indulged. When, in 1905, Crowley and Florence were sent to Sydney for a year of school at Methodist Ladies College in Burwood, Crowley’s clergyman uncle, Archibald Crowley, encouraged her parents to allow her to attend classes one day
a week at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. For her to be allowed to do so, Archibald also had to enrol in the classes
and accompany Crowley to and from the school.

While Ashton was later to play a major part in Crowley’s development as an artist, and become a close friend, she remembered that her early time at Ashton’s ‘had bored me to death as a school kid’.8 She had wanted to paint pictures, but Ashton started beginners in the cast room, where they spent many hours making precisely rendered drawings of plaster casts. Crowley only attended the school for two terms before returning to Glen Riddle in 1906, where she was now expected to take on a greater share of household duties. Crowley was clearly frustrated as, although the drawing classes had not fired her with enthusiasm to be an artist, neither did she want to take on the expected domestic role. As she recalled:

When I returned to Glen Riddle I did no more drawing. I felt deflated – or was it partly because my Mother believed firmly that ‘a woman’s place was in the home’ and the best way to introduce us to ‘household duties’ was to sack the maid! Anyway, our time was more than full of ‘woman’s role’.9

Ashton had been invited to visit Glen Riddle in 1906 and returned in 1909 for a painting trip when Crowley was nineteen. Ashton’s visit revived Crowley’s interest in art and she accompanied him on his early morning painting trips when she too ‘became deeply engrossed in the attempt to seize the “momentary effect of light”’.10 However, it was several more years before Crowley returned to Sydney and enrolled as a student with Ashton again.

The date of Crowley starting at the Sydney Art School has been variously given as 1912 or 1915. Crowley herself created this confusion, giving the date as 1912 in correspondence with Daniel Thomas and later correcting it to 1915 for the catalogue of his 1975 Project 4: Grace Crowley exhibition.11 She later conceded that ‘events between 1912 and 1915 are difficult to place in continuity, and I doubt if ALL that time was spent in study at the school, nor would ALL the time have been spent at G.R. [Glen Riddle]’.12

In late 1914 she became engaged to her first cousin Gordon, who owned a remote property between Narrabri and Barraba. Soon after their engagement, Gordon enlisted for the First World War, but just before he was due to sail, he was invalided out of the army and he returned to his property. Around this time Crowley broke off the engagement for reasons unknown.13

What is clear is that in 1915 she was enrolled as a full-time day student at the Sydney Art School and ‘certainly not with the approval of my parents’.14 However, this time:

I became enthusiastic about the anatomical head and figure, and still more absorbed in the nude figure when I entered the life-class – but then I was 8 years older and able to appreciate the master’s relentless insistence on the accurate ‘training the eye’. The structure of the human figure absolutely fascinated me so I guess I paid more attention to that sort of thing than any of the other students in the Sydney Art School when I was there. We had the skeleton, and the anatomical figure, and I’d trot along to the museum and make drawings there, hands, that sort of thing.15

Grace Crowley 'Horses pulling plough' 1920, oil on canvas on cedar panel, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 2001 Grace Crowley 'Horses pulling plough' 1920, oil on canvas on cedar panel, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 2001 enlarge

Yet already at this early stage Crowley was aware of the limitations of Ashton’s teaching, which is significant in light of her later preoccupation with pictorial construction: ‘J.R.A did not teach composition. Once returning from Glen Riddle with an effort I had been struggling with of men mustering horses, Norman Lindsay gave me a valuable lesson on how to organise the group of horses … At that time N. Lindsay god to art students!’16

Crowley’s first teacher at the school was Mildred Lovett, who was soon after replaced by Elioth Gruner, at that time a rising star in the Sydney art world. Crowley quickly established herself as an outstanding student and a favourite of Ashton’s and in 1916 had a drawing selected for the annual exhibition of the Society of Artists, of which Ashton was president.

During a sketching trip to Gerringong, near Wollongong, in late 1914, Crowley met Anne Dangar and began a friendship that was to play a major part in both of their lives.17 Their initial meeting was inauspicious. Crowley later recalled that every night before she went to bed, Dangar hid her money from Crowley in her shoe. Dangar’s first impressions of Crowley also were not promising: ‘she looked as though she wouldn’t say BOO to a goose’.18 In 1915 Dangar joined the day class at the Sydney Art School, as did Dorrit Black, and by the following year the three friends were living together in a flat in Potts Point, then moving together to Craigielea in High Street, Neutral Bay, sometime later. During these student years Crowley acquired her nickname ‘Smudge’ by which she remained known to her close friends.

In mid 1918 Gruner resigned his position at the Sydney Art School to enlist for the First World War and Crowley was appointed in his place. Crowley was a popular teacher, yet despite her diminutive size could also be somewhat intimidating. A former student, Karna Birmingham, related her impressions of Crowley: ‘you pattering down the “antique room” in those little dancing pump shoes you used to wear – your hair in a marvellous bun, all smoothly swathed … If you only knew with what awe we looked at you, and your drawings done in one beautiful flowing line’.19 From about 1920 Ashton’s failing health meant that his visits to the classes became less frequent and Dangar was appointed as an assistant teacher to help Crowley. She later recalled that between the two of them they carried the school.20

Throughout this time Crowley continued to visit Glen Riddle, which provided the main subjects for her painting. While very few works from this period remain, the titles of her early exhibited works – such as Waiting for the ploughing c.1918, Plough horses c.1919 and Milking yard c.1919 – indicate her main interests. Sydney also provided interesting subjects, including the excavations at White Bay, and she was fascinated by the movement of men, horses and carts there. The drawing Emptying carts, White Bay c.1921 is one such study and appears to be used as the basis for a later painting.21 One of her earliest paintings, Horses pulling plough 1920, shows Crowley working in the conventional late-impressionistic manner popular at the time. Similarly, the celebratory rural themes of her work accorded with the nationalistic mood that prevailed in Australia following the First World War. Having grown up in the country, all her life Crowley felt a deep affinity with such subject matter, and she continued to draw at Glen Riddle until the late 1930s.

While the first ripples of modernism had been felt in Sydney from as early as 1915, Crowley did not respond to these new developments. It is not known whether Crowley saw the 1915 or 1916 Royal Art Society annual exhibitions in which Grace Cossington Smith and Roland Wakelin exhibited their post-impressionist works. She did, however, know Roy de Maistre,
a fellow student at the Sydney Art School in 1916, ‘and to anyone who wanted to listen, he would talk about colour’.22 In 1919 Crowley accompanied Ashton to the opening of de Maistre’s and Wakelin’s experimental and controversial Colour in art exhibition in which the artists exhibited abstracted landscapes based on colour–music principles. Crowley remembered Julian as ‘strongly disapproving’ and Howard’s [Julian’s son] critique in the Sun, as ‘scathing’.23 As Ashton’s head teacher, it is likely that Crowley would have shared his negative assessment. While modernism was slowly making an appearance in Sydney, in these early years Crowley remained firmly aligned to the mainstream in art.

In mid 1923 Crowley resigned her teaching position at the Sydney Art School to concentrate on preparing works for the recently re-established travelling scholarship of the Society of Artists. She returned to Glen Riddle to work, a decision that she was to later regret as ‘the domestic situation had become impossible’.24 Unfortunately none of the works that she submitted are known to have survived and are not known by reproduction, although the principal work, The milking yard c.1923, ‘was inspired by the familiar sight of a man milking, surrounded by cows’.25

Crowley believed that, as head teacher of Ashton’s school and with his support, she was favourite to win the scholarship. The awarding of the scholarship to de Maistre was unexpected and a shattering blow to Crowley.26 Apparently the votes of George Lambert and Thea Proctor, both influential and pro-modernist artists, had given the scholarship to de Maistre, and Ashton was outraged. In a letter to Sydney Ure Smith he accused Proctor of ‘bulldozing’ Lambert to support de Maistre and resigned his presidency of the Society of Artists in protest.27 While bitter at the time, and believing that de Maistre had won because of his society connections, in retrospect Crowley considered that the loss of the scholarship was ‘a deliverance rather than a calamity otherwise I would have studied at the Slade London, like other scholarship winners’.28Instead, Crowley, through the enthusiasm of Dangar, set her sights on Paris. This decision was to have far-reaching consequences, introducing her to more advanced forms of modern art than prevailed in England at the time.

Grace Crowley 'Mary and the babe' 1925  Grace Crowley 'Mary and the babe' 1925 
oil on canvas, Private collection enlarge

Soon after the loss of the scholarship, Crowley and Myra Cocks, a former student who had also submitted works for the 1923 travelling scholarship, briefly visited Melbourne, where, on the suggestion of Julian Ashton, they attended the classes of Bernard Hall at the National Gallery School. Crowley and Cocks were not impressed by Hall and apparently Hall was not impressed by them: ‘me thinks B.H. “not amused” – neither were we – deadly teacher. Met two delightful people Geo. Bell and his wife, also Daryl Lindsay’.29 Crowley’s time in Melbourne and contact with these artists did not seem to make any lasting impression on her, although in the 1930s she was to exhibit with Bell and the Contemporary Art Group in Melbourne.

Returning to Sydney, Crowley would have been aware that the tide was gradually turning in favour of modernism. Lambert’s return to Australia in 1921 was an important event for many Sydney artists and his public support for modern British art has been considered as a milestone in the wider acceptance of modernism.30 In 1924 Wakelin returned to Sydney after two years overseas where he had studied the works of Cézanne, an event which was a watershed for Dangar. At his lecture at the Sydney Art School he displayed his recent paintings for the first time, and Crowley recorded that ‘Wakelin returned from abroad head filled with Cézanne … the walls were filled with the best paintings he has done before or since, Anne and I much impressed by paintings’.31 Dangar later recalled that ‘[Cézanne] had shaken me so much that for two years I put all the money that I earned (8 pounds per week) into the savings bank to come to Europe to study “modern art” in the manner of Cézanne’.32 Crowley, however, was not convinced: ‘I remember her [Anne’s] interest in Cézanne’s theories of pictorial construction. However, J.R.A [Ashton] did not share it with her … Indeed at that time neither did I.’33

That Crowley did not respond in the same way as Dangar is hardly surprising given her admiration and friendship with Ashton and her position as head teacher and stalwart of the Sydney Art School until 1923. From 1920 her works were also being well received. She included seven paintings and four drawings in the 1921 Exhibition of paintings in oil and water colours and drawings in black and white by eleven Australian women, alongside Dangar and Black, and her paintings were the highest priced. A pencil portrait drawing, Study c.1921, was reproduced in the catalogue of the1922 Society of Artists annual exhibition. In 1924 she participated in the Exhibition of work by the younger group of Australian artists and her painting Ena and the turkeys 1924 was reproduced in colour in Art in Australiaand singled out by William Moore in his review: ‘From a technical standard the works of Crowley were among the most proficient. She is one of the few who are painting outback subjects and should produce something distinctive in this phase of art.’34

The sentimental theme of a bush childhood of Ena and the turkeys is reminiscent of Lambert’s A bush idyll 1896. Crowley’s young niece Eena is depicted at her brother’s property near Barraba; the distant landscape of gum trees shimmers in the light of the Australian summer. Yet the rhythmic semicircle of the turkey’s fans is an early indication of Crowley’s fascination with geometric forms35

Despite having lost the travelling scholarship, Crowley remained determined to further her studies overseas and decided to accompany Dangar to Paris. She was also beginning to experiment with post-impressionism – in 1925 Crowley painted a work that in its subject and manner departed from her earlier works. Mary and the baby 1925 is Crowley’s first major figurative work, and uses large areas of contrasting high-key colour. There is an increased emphasis on design, with the curve of the umbrella being a dominant element in the composition. While the subject matter is somewhat sentimental and traditional, it is clear that Crowley was cautiously responding to some of the changes occurring in art in Sydney. That Crowley was pleased with this work is borne out by the fact that she took it to Paris with her.

On 17 January 1926, after a farewell party hosted by the Sydney Art School students, Crowley and Dangar boarded the steamer Ville de Strasbourg bound for Marseille. Crowley left Australia at the age of thirty-five with a modest reputation as an artist and teacher and a solid academic training in draughtsmanship. Many years later she summed up this first phase of her life: ‘I was in Australia a post-impressionist, and considered quite sane.’36


1 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

2 The full story of the origins of the Crowley family in Australia is detailed in Betty Crowley, A Crowley story: family history from 1775, 3rd edn, Fairlight, NSW: Betty Crowley, 2000.

3 Grace Crowley, Grace Crowley, Archival art series, Smart St Films, Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1975.

4 Grace Crowley, correspondence with Margaret Curell, 10 February 1975.

5 Eena Job, Skeletons, Queensland: Eena Job, 2001, p. 21.

6 Elena Taylor, conversation with Brian Smith and Eena Job, 9 May 2006.

7 Grace Crowley, ‘Grace Crowley’s student years’, in Janine Burke, Australian women artists, 1840–1940, Collingwood, Victoria: Greenhouse, 1980, p.77. DH Souter was a well-known black-and-white artist.

8 Crowley in Burke, p. 78.

9 Crowley in Burke, p. 78.

10 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

11 In her correspondence to Thomas, Crowley related a story that placed her age at 22 when she started at the Sydney Art School, making the year 1912. Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes to Daniel Thomas, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

12 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes to Daniel Thomas, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

13 Job, p.23.

14 Crowley in Burke, p.78.

15 Grace Crowley, interview with James Gleeson, 25 August 1978, NGA Research Library, transcript, p. 5.

16 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

17 Bruce Adams, Rustic Cubism: Anne Dangar and the art colony at Moly-Sabata, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p.11.

18 Grace Crowley, notes on Anne Dangar, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

19 Karna Birmingham, correspondence with Grace Crowley, 27 October 1976, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive
MS 1980.1.

20 Students at the school included Ralph Balson (evening), John Passmore, Rah Fizelle, Gerald Lewers (evening) Herbert Badham (evening), Nancy Hall, Joan Tillam, Isabel Huntley and Enid Cambridge.

21 Horse and cart and buildings 1921 – the present location of this work is unknown. It is reproduced in black and white in Deutscher Fine Art, Australian art: colonial to modern, exhibition catalogue, Melbourne: Deutscher Fine Art, 1985, cat.66.

22 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

23 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

24 Crowley in Burke,p.80.

25 Grace Crowley, draft of letter to Mary Eagle, 1977, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

26 All her life Crowley considered that she had ‘lost the scholarship to de Maistre’. Myra Cocks, Herbert Badham and Mary Edwards also entered.

27 Julian Ashton, letter to Sydney Ure Smith, 8 May 1923, quoted in Heather Johnson, The Sydney art patronage system, 1890–1940, Grays Point, NSW: Bungoona, 1997, p.53.

28 Grace Crowley, draft of letter to Mary Eagle, 1977, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1. While the awarding of the scholarship to de Maistre has been considered a win for modern art, it has been suggested by Heather Johnson in Roy de Maistre: the Australian years, 1894–1930 that, in the lead-up to the scholarship, de Maistre deliberately returned to a more conservative style of painting to win the approval of the judges.

29 Grace Crowley, draft of letter to Mary Eagle, 1977, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

30 Anne Gray, George Lambert 1873–1930, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996, p. 108.

31 Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

32 Anne Dangar, 1949, Zodiaque, no. 8, 1952, quoted in Adams, Rustic Cubism, p.15.

33 Grace Crowley, notes on Anne Dangar, Grace Crowley Papers, c.1975, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

34 William Moore, ‘The younger group’, Art in Australia, third series, no. 9, October 1924.

35 I am grateful to Daniel Thomas for pointing this out.

36 Grace Crowley, draft letter to Murray Bail, 19 March 1978, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.