Thea Proctor by Lara Nicholls

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Romance, drama and modernity: the prints of Thea Proctor contain an ample dose of each, emphasised by the bright, resolute colours of her palette. The overall sense contained within her elegantly crowded compositions is that of Arcadian pleasure and beauty with a hint of not unwelcome trouble ahead. Perhaps Proctor’s most enigmatic and suggestive print, The rose 1927 beckons us to enjoy a fleeting moment of great intimacy. Two women, their painted faces drawn together towards a plum‑coloured rose, are surrounded by vivid garden flowers. While the subject of the work is the symbolic bloom, the central action is the enactment of the sense of smell. The rose itself appears almost secondary to the vibrant hibiscus decorating each woman’s hair. Securing the dark‑haired woman’s chignon is a red beaded comb that echoes the red lipstick and choker of her friend, Proctor’s cousin, designer Hera Roberts. Her downcast blue eyes land on the perfectly formed flower and mirror the flamboyant Lapis earrings worn by her companion, which in turn reflect the blue anemone in Roberts’ hair and striped shirt.

Artist Ethel Anderson explained Proctor’s confident use of colour:

If Mr. Yeates can speak of ‘bitter’ crimson, it is, presumably, orthodox to talk of Miss Proctor’s darting puce, her indignant purples, her garrulous roses and clamant greens and inordinate yellows, her alluring blues, and nestling reds and pinks? With these her palette is as brilliant, and as irrational, as sinking Apollo’s.(1)

Proctor shared an instinctive understanding of colour and design with artist Margaret Preston and her first woodblock prints were made with timber given to her by Preston. The artist displayed Preston’s bright red woodblock print, Bowl of native flowers c1922 in her ordered and minimalist George Street studio in Sydney. Preston in turn painted Thea Proctor’s tea party 1924.(2) In a powerful and enterprising feat, the two women held joint exhibitions in 1925 at Grosvenor Galleries in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Born in Armidale, New South Wales, Proctor moved to London in 1903 where she remained for 18 years making a name for herself as a lithographer and designer. A woman of great taste and style, she was considered one of the most fashionable people in the bohemian Chelsea arts scene where she had a studio in Oakley Crescent. Proctor exhibited at the Royal Academy during this period and would send works back home for exhibition, including the First Australian exhibition of women’s work in 1907.(3) When she returned to Australia in 1921 Proctor was influential in the development of modern art and design in Sydney, where she taught at the Julian Ashton Art School and regularly designed the covers for the newly established and highly fashionable magazine, The Home. Indeed, The rose was originally a drawing for the July 1927 cover of the magazine and was exhibited later that year in woodblock form at the New Gallery in Melbourne.

(1) Ethel Anderson, ‘The Art of Miss Thea Proctor’, Art and Australia, no 43, April 1932, p9.

(2) Society of Artists, 1924, cat 110.

(3) This exhibition was not in fact the first exhibition of women’s work to be exhibited in Australia. The first was the Exhibition of women’s industries, held in Sydney in 1888.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Nicholls, Lara. "Thea Proctor" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 302–303.

LARA NICHOLLS is Assistant Curator, Australian Paintings and Sculpture, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Thea Proctor appears in