Clarice Beckett was among the most original artists of early twentieth century Australia. Deeply sensitive to the effects of colour, light and atmosphere, she painted the life and scenery of her coastal home in south-east Naarm/Melbourne with an eye for the commonplace and fleeting. Her work captured a world on the cusp of modernisation, evoking both the natural environment and simple pleasures of suburbia.
Despite spending her entire life in the state of Victoria, Beckett engaged with the wider creative world through her interests in the visual arts, literature, music, and belief systems including Spiritualism and Theosophy. While her painting was contemporaneously appreciated in some circles, its significance in the public consciousness diminished after her premature death in 1935. The quiet strength of her art, however, and its relationship to international forms of modernism, began to be better appreciated following the efforts of gallerist Rosalind Hollinrake and feminist art historians including Janine Burke from the 1970s.
The National Gallery was the first Australian public gallery to purchase Beckett’s work, with inaugural director James Mollison acquiring eight paintings from her 1971 posthumous exhibition. In recognition of this, Beckett’s sister, Hilda Mangan, donated a group of paintings to the National Gallery in 1972. Following extensive conservation treatment, this collection of works is now displayed for the first time alongside a selection of the gallery’s first acquisitions.
Clarice Beckett was drawn to the soft light of dawn, to smoke and rain. Hers was an in between art; she loved the shimmer of heat on a summer’s day; the glooming dusk, the sun setting over an empty beach. She evoked all of it, and more, with a profoundly intimate, melancholy accuracy.
Beckett was born on 21 March 1887 in Casterton, Victoria, to a solidly middle‑class family. She was extremely shy and from an early age displayed a talent for art (a painting doesn’t demand conversation). After studying with Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery School, she enrolled in Max Meldrum’s classes. She was a devotee of his theory that by observing tonal relationships, the artist could accurately reproduce the appearance of the world. In 1924, Beckett described her artistic aims:
To give a sincere and truthful representation of a portion of the beauty of Nature and to show the charm of light and shade, which I try to set forth in correct tones so as to give as nearly as possible an exact illusion of reality.1
In 1918, Beckett’s parents had moved to the Melbourne seaside suburb of Beaumaris. They insisted that she – their only unmarried daughter – keep house for them and discouraged her artistic ambitions. Nonetheless, Beckett continued to take part in exhibitions and to paint her swift, small pictures, although critics were, in the main, dismissive. She hardly sold anything. She had a homemade cart that she used to transport her equipment and mostly painted in the landscape. She was astonishingly prolific.
On 7 July 1935, Beckett died of pneumonia, after painting the sea during a storm. She was 48. Although a posthumous exhibition of her work was well received, before long, very few people knew of her. Almost 40 years later, her reputation was re‑established by the curator Rosalind Hollinrake who, alerted by Beckett’s sister, discovered more than 2000 paintings in a hay shed near Benalla. Most were destroyed but Hollinrake recognised the value of what had survived. In 1971, she staged an exhibition of Beckett’s paintings at her gallery, Rosalind Humphries Galleries, in Melbourne. It was a revelation. Clarice Beckett is now acknowledged as one of Australia’s most important early modernists and her work is included in major museum collections.
Jennifer Higgie, Editor at Large, frieze magazine and The Annual.
This is an edited excerpt from the Know My Name publication (2020).
- Clarice Beckett, ‘20 Melbourne painters’, 6th Annual Exhibition Catalogue, 1924, quoted in Frances Lindsay, ‘Foreword’, in Rosalind Hollinrake, Clarice Beckett: Politically incorrect, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1999, p 19.
Works by Clarice Beckett
Not titled (Twilight)
Not titled (A petrol station)
Not titled (Sherbrooke Forest)
Not titled (Seascape)
Not titled (Landscape with trees and sea in distance)
Not titled (Sunset)