In celebration of the Gallery's 40th Anniversary, the National Gallery’s Australian art curators, share their favourite works of art by women artists from the Gallery’s major collection display of Australian art.
Misses Hampson, The Westbury quilt 1900–03
This striking textile was made by the Hampson sisters, Mary and Jane, who lived on Fernbank Farm near the lutruwita/Tasmanian town of Westbury. The work demonstrates the consummate needlework skills of women in the early 20th century who lived in relatively isolated areas of Australia. This work not only shows the artistic expression found in the domestic sphere, but also speaks to the social context in which they lived.
Assembled from 52 individual blocks, The Westbury quilt was made over a number of years. Many of the embroidered vignettes are dated, with the earliest being the central block inscribed 1900. The latest is dated 28 December 1903 in the bottom left corner, and depicts an appliquéd and embroidered white dove with the two sayings: TELL ME THE COMPANY YOU KEEP AND I WILL TELL YOU WHO YOU ARE and COULD EVERYTING BE DONE TWICE EVERYTHING WOULD BE DONE.
Surrounding the rather devotional colonial centre which portrays the likeness of Queen Victoria in full regalia, are many homely sayings accompanied by very detailed imagery of rural life and its inhabitants. These, in turn, are combined with named portraits of the Hampson farmyard animals. Collin the horse, for example, shares a block with his companion, Bell, in the lower centre. In the block above it is unclear if Saucy Dick is the rider or the animal. Other personal favourites include Rob Roy the bull in the top right corner and in the opposite corner a large cat pouncing after two rodents accompanied by the words ‘This is the cat that killed the rat’ from the popular English nursery rhyme This is the house that Jack built. There are, in fact, far too many fantastic blocks to describe here. The Westbury quilt will captivate all who stand before her until she is removed from display due to fragility early in 2023.
Dorrit Black, Backs of Houses, Veere 1929
Backs of Houses, Veere is a confident modernist linocut print by South Australian artist Dorrit Black, that will be on display until early 2023. The dynamic composition highlights Black’s understanding of pioneering teachings by avant-garde English artist Claude Flight in the art of the colour linocut including the simplification of form, colour and dynamic pattern. The underlying emphasis on vitality was gained during her studies with Flight at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London, where students were encouraged to draw subjects from their own lives and travels. While overseas, Black travelled widely across the continent with Australian artist Grace Crowley. In 1929 they stopped in the small Dutch town of Veere on the recommendation of Flight. Despite inclement weather, Black later produced a series of linocuts depicting a bright and inviting landscape.
Black uses Flight’s visual vocabulary of geometry, repetition and contour to energise this image of a Dutch suburban garden. Evidence of her subsequent studies with the Cubist artist André Lhote in Paris are also apparent in the flattening of the picture plane, the organisation of geometric forms around the Golden Section and the use of warm tones to suggest glowing light. The latter was influenced by an appreciation of early Italian Renaissance masters such as Giotto, who were brought to Black’s attention by Lhote.
Julie Gough, The chase 2008
This colonial chaise was modified by Julie Gough to incorporate spears made from burnt tea tree sticks as legs. It is also impressed with pins that form text originally published in The Hobart Town Courier in 1830 that read, 'Two of the aborigines who have been living so long at Mr Robinson's ... absconded this morning ... They were encountered in the bush by two broom makers, one a cripple, who succeeded in taking them. The blacks made every effort to escape ... Nothing can tame them.' As Gough has remarked, the contradictions and 'abject humour in the text' sits uneasily with the reality of what happened to lutruwita/Tasmanian Aboriginal people during the 19th century.
Through her works, Gough reanimates subsumed and often conflicting histories of colonial activity. As she says, ‘making art is a way to directly connect, to try and understand what happened in the past … it’s a kind of conversation between me and the stories and the objects that remain, and the people, to try and bring the events to life again … to give myself and any viewers of the artworks that chance to think differently’. By transforming items of a natural, domestic and functional nature, as we see here, Gough invites us to establish a closer understanding of our continuing roles in unresolved issues of dislocation, representation and prejudice that continue to impact the lives of Australia’s First Peoples.
Virginia Cuppaidge, Lyon 1972
Born in Meanjin/Brisbane into an artistic family, Virginia Cuppaidge studied art in Gadigal Nura/Sydney before moving to New York in 1969. This abstract rendering of a tightly gridded New York cityscape caused her to reflect on her homeland: ‘in Australia, you can step outside and grab space’. In the centre of the work, Cuppaidge softens the grid structure that underpins the painting, using a sunrise-like gradient to evoke her memory of the expansiveness of the Australian landscape and distinctive quality of light. It was painted in her studio in the New York neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen when the artist was 29.
Lyon is one of an important group of works exhibited in Cuppaidge’s first solo exhibition at New York’s AM Sachs Gallery in 1973. She gifted it to the Australian-born sculptor Clement Meadmore, who Cuppaidge joined in New York, and with whom she immersed herself in the abstract art that dominated the city’s creative output. Lyon hung in Meadmore’s apartment until his death in 2005, when Cuppaidge gifted it to the National Gallery. Virginia, a sculpture by Meadmore which is installed in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden, is named after Cuppaidge, and further amplifies the connection between the two artists.
Jenny Watson, The Horse Hospital 1983
Jenny Watson’s enduring love of horses has played an important part in the development of her expressive and autobiographical practice. Horses appear in Watson’s works as dream-like elements from a fantastical world or, as we see here, reflections on her own lived experiences with the animals themselves. In this expansive and dramatic work, Watson conveys her memories of caring for sick and injured horses. Psychologically charged colours – reds, pinks and purples – evoke the idea of wounds and trauma, whereas a disembodied scar and a white bandaged leg are more direct representations of injury, or conversely, of protection and healing. Within the imagery and palette of The Horse hospital Watson reveals a powerful tenderness towards horses, and even how they have come to represent versions of herself at various points throughout her life.
Watson emerged as an artist during the 1970s, her artistic ascent coinciding with the rise of feminism and punk subcultures across the world. During this time her works began to reflect the focus on women’s experiences and the DIY, ‘anything goes’ aesthetic associated with these two major cultural movements respectively. Here we see these ideas translated through the use of unstretched canvas, intuitive and gestural applications of paint and the unconventional addition of glass beads sewn into one of the equine patient’s purple eyes. At the lower left Watson’s name is inscribed prominently in vivid orange, underscoring her declarative and diaristic approach to painting.
Rosemary Laing, groundspeed (Rose Petal) #17 2001
Rosemary Laing suggests that we live in a world where nature and artifice have collapsed into each other, a world in which we are capable of appreciating the artificial masquerading as the real as much as the 'real' itself – that is, if we can distinguish between the two at all. In the series groundspeed, Laing combines the artificial with the natural. She intervenes in the landscape, covering the ground with Feltex carpet. She literally takes it back to the natural world, to where its floral imagery suggests it belongs—there is no digital trickery here. Laing produces a photograph that surprises and momentarily confuses the viewer and speaks about 'our fraught sense of belonging'. The photograph can also be read in terms of the tradition of the pictorial landscape and our attempt to render it harmless and less alien, both by domesticating it and by rendering it tame.
Produced without digital manipulation, Laing makes large-scale colour photographs that are the result of real-time actions in the environment. As Victoria Lynn has observed, ‘[s]he goes to great lengths to choreograph situations, invoking a unique set of circumstances that reflect upon historic, social, environmental and material conditions1. Central to her practice is the complexity of the Australian landscape, a subject that she has explored in images of diverse locations around the country. Capturing her chosen sites with a cinematic eye, Laing’s works engage poetically with politics of place whilst also extending the limits of imagination and memory.
 Victoria Lynn, “Rosemary Laing”, in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, p. 222.
Juz Kitson, Charred urn, a lament for the wildfires no 2 2021
Juz Kitson’s artistic practice is underpinned by an interest in duality. Her works simultaneously engage with ideas of life and death, fecundity and decay, permanence and ephemerality. As she notes, her ‘ambiguous forms explore ideas of abjection, giving particular attention to the natural environment and the human condition. Working experimentally with materials that blend the body, human and animal into hybrid forms, I’m trying to evoke the holistic cycle of our fragile ecosystem and the precarious relations between various life forms.’
Kitson’s Charred urn, lament for the wildfires ceramic series was created in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020. The works starkly reflect the impact of this environmental catastrophe in a way that grieves for the past and is optimistic for the future. With her studio located on the New South Wales south coast, Kitson witnessed the effects of these devastating fires, as well as the regeneration that occurred as the region recovered. Working in black porcelain, she created a group of large amphora-shaped vessels, decorating the simple silhouettes with monochrome accretions reminiscent of seed pods, tendrils, leaves and petals. Her use of black clay and glazes emulates the charred, wounded landscape after the blaze and signals mourning, while her highly detailed decorative additions mirror the regrowth and recovery of the area.
This story has been published as part of the National Gallery's 40th Anniversary. For more visit 40 Years.