Tasmania, that island off the south east of Australia that many of us have heard of but really know nothing about including the fact that it produced painter Florence Rodway (1881-1971).
I think Papeeta was the first piece I saw by Florence Rodway and I was stunned by how beautiful, textured, and contemporary it looked. It’s a perfect example of Rodway’s style of focusing on the face and letting all other elements merge together. The pastel was up for auction and sold through Sotheby’s, Sydney in 2005. Have a look:
I wanted to share the work of this artist with you so I began my research. As often is the case with lesser-known artists, it took time to dig far enough to locate her work in museums and to get information as close to the facts as possible.
There is very little information on this artist out there. As Andrew Sayers – director of the National Museum of Australia at the time – exclaimed in a 2013 lecture at the exhibition, Australian Art and Artists 1913, “If I have anything to do with it, Florence Rodway won’t be under-rated for much longer.” (Sadly, when I searched for a way to contact him, I discovered Sayers had died late last year.)
In that same talk, Sayers blamed the disappearance of Rodway on the pastel medium itself. Showing an image of Rodway’s painting of Henry Lawson, Sayers said, “I would have loved to have included this in the exhibition, but unfortunately it’s too fragile. It resides in the State Library of New South Wales and is clearly a portrait of Henry Lawson by Florence Rodway that was drawn in 1913 [the State Library dates it at 1914]…. It really is fragile; it can’t travel; and it can’t be exposed to light for long periods of time. So, as a pastellist, unfortunately Florence Rodway has disappeared from view. A medium choice has unfortunately obscured a great Australian artist.” (As an aside, I am saddened to think of the continued idea that pastels are fragile.)
So I’m hoping this post will add to the movement to expose her work to the world.
Florence Aline Rodway was born in Hobart, Tasmania 11 November 1881, the only daughter among five sons. She studied art at the Hobart Technical School under the London born Benjamin Shepherd. In a 1965 audio interview she says they were “very interesting classes.” (audio 2:40)
Rodway applied to study at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England. (Note that her art teacher Benjamin Shepperd had studied there and won the Academy medal so we can surmise that it was under his influence that Rodway made this application.) She was accepted as a student and awarded a four-year scholarship. This was quite an achievement considering Rodway was a woman and from the back and beyond of Tasmania.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford to live in London (the scholarship covered tuition only) and had to return without finishing. While there though, she would have been exposed to the world of art both historical and her contemporaries. In her 1965 interview, Rodway explains that she was taught by Royal Academy artists and associates and that they changed every month (audio 2:40).
On her return from England, Florence Rodway moved to Sydney, Australia setting up a studio in 1906. She attended the Julian Ashton Art School (which is still going today!). In her 1965 audio interview, Rodway recalls, “He had an interesting class and he was a clever teacher” (audio 4:04). Rodway produced illustrations for various magazines including The Lone Hand, a magazine of literature and poetry co-founded in 1907 by J.F.Archibald (Rodway would later paint a posthumous portrait of Archibald in oil which was a finalist in the Archibald prize in 1921). Somewhere along the way, Rodway discovered pastel, a medium that was meant for her hands!
Florence Rodway not only helped found the Society of Women Painters in 1910, but was also an award-winning member of the Society of Artists. In 1909 and 1910, she won awards for her pastel portraits at the Society of Artists’s Exhibitions and this led to the purchase of two portraits (Toffee and A Child) by what is now the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Although these two pastels were done in the same year, they have a very different feel about them. Toffee is created with broken and vigorous linear strokes, a style that Rodway was notable for in these years. Parts of the clothing remind me of Daumier’s work for some reason. A Child, on the other hand has the softness of style that seems more akin to her charcoal work at the time (see below). It has a more finished and worked quality. There is also almost a feeling of a painting in gouache rather than pastel.
Her success with pastels was noted by critics. According to the biography on the Design and Art Australia website, one of her 1909 award-winning paintings (‘Sleep’) was reproduced in The Lone Hand journal in April 1910 along with a review that stated: “Miss Rodway has come with pastels into her kingdom, to which her familiar charcoal studies seem to-day but a highway. Unlike her charcoals, she does not over-work her pastels; and the several children and fair girls that she shows are handled with a most refreshing directness.”
You can see what the reviewer is referring to in the way he describes Rodway’s pastels in this charcoal work:
Surprisingly in a world of the male artist, she was acclaimed as an equal. As quoted on the Wikipedia page about Rodway, this was also written about her in 1909 : “Sex is an accident – the capacity for expressing the infinitely large or the infinitesimally little cannot be gauged by outward measurements. The soul frequently bears little relation to its case. Else, why does Florence Rodway, tall, slight and blonde, revel in peopling large spaces with the Titanic creatures of her imagination.”
Another painting from the early part of the second decade is The Romanian Blouse (sold by Christies, Melbourne in May 2004). This painting and Papeeta above show Rodway’s extraordinary application of pastel in a very linear and bold way. The face is complete and you feel the portrait of the person does captures the person’s essence. The focus is on the face whereas the clothing and background are less finished and the paper colour, more visible in this area of the painting, becomes an integral part of the whole. Much of the clothing is merely hinted at with the paper doing much of the work. There’s enough pastel for the viewer to ‘see’ the clothing but look more closely, however, and there’s less indicated than perhaps imagined.
A painting that may have been done around the same time as the painting above is Portrait in Blue. Sold by Sothebys in early 2015 from the collection of Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, it had apparently been exhibited in 1914 in Rodway’s solo show at the Atheneum. In the exhibition’s ‘Catalogue of Portraits and Studies in pastels by Florence Rodway,’ there is a painting titled Madame Melba which it says was ‘lent by Madame Melba.’ Although no one has said it directly, if this is the painting being referred to in the Catalogue, this must be a portrait of Dame Nellie Melba herself. (Also lent by ‘Madame Melba’ for the exhibition is a painting called Pepita. Is there any possibility that this is the same painting as Papeeta seen above?)
The 1914 exhibition also included other works on loan, for example from J.F. Archibald (co-founder of The Lone Hand and originator of the Archibald Prize, one of Australia’s foremost awards) and Julian Ashton (owner of the Art School where Rodway continued her art studies on her return from London).
Take a close look at this exquisite painting – the rich colours with what looks like the warm yellow of the paper coming through; the delicate yet lively linear strokes creating the face, the hair, the background, and more loosely, the clothing; the light transparency of gauze; the figure beneath the clothing. You can almost hear the rustle of the fabric as the sitter adjusts her position.
Something interesting I came across in my research was a book written by Dame Nellie Melba which was published in 1915. Called Melba’s Gift Book of Australian Art and Literature, all profits went to the Belgian Relief Fund. The frontispiece was a portrait of Dame Melba by Florence Rodway. (I’m not sure how we know this wasn’t the portrait seen in the 1914 Atheneum exhibition but Sotheby’s, in their auction notes, made the connection between the painting mentioned in the 2014 catalogue and Portrait in Blue rather than this one. One thing is that the portrait is reproduced in a 1915 publication so it may have been done that year thus later than the 2014 exhibition.)
In 1913, Florence Rodway painted George Whiting and also Bertha Lawson, daughter of Australian poet Henry Lawson who she painted in 1914 (see above for the portrait). In the 1965 interview, Rodway says that Archibald asked her to do a portrait of Lawson. Lawson “came when he felt inclined…Poor man sometimes wouldn’t come at all. He’d come and shake hands and say he had to see a man about a dog or something then go away and not come back again.” (audio 6:50)
These two paintings are also fine examples of Rodway’s vigorous style. The colours seem more neutral than those seen in Portrait in Blue, Papeeta, and The Romanian Blouse. It’s incredible the way Rodway created volume with parallel linear strokes, especially in the face. Her marks are bold and dynamic, with the confidence that comes from a well-seasoned artist. Can she have been influenced by the work of the Impressionists?? She no doubt would have come across their work while in England.
Florence Rodway herself sat for a portrait by Norman Carter in 1913. It gives us a wonderful sense of this successful woman artist, her confidence revealed in her direct outward gaze.
In the first issue of Art in Australia (1916) Rodway’s portraits were described as having ‘considerable power … certainty and grace’.
That same year, there was a review in the Sunday Morning Herald of an exhibition of the Society of Artists. The reviewer writes this of Rodway:
“However, the principal ‘dealer in magic and spells’ due to pastel effort is Miss Florence Rodway, whose portraits are again one of the leading features of the show. The most striking example of her talent is the strong, young, handsome face of a woman full of vitality and expression, in which the flesh-tones show up admirably against the yellow, gold-tinted background. Miss Rodway’s portraits of children are charming, and we like also the homely interior entitled The New Teapot, in which the artist’s fine appreciation of the pastel-medium is markedly apparent.”
Sadly I was unable to find a reproduction of the interior but could the reviewer be talking about Portrait which was purchased in 1916 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales?
In this painting, we can begin to see the transitioning of styles, from the bold linear quality seen previously to a more tonal approach. This is evident mainly in the hair. I love the way Rodway created a primarily high key painting that’s punctuated by the darkness of the subject’s hair. She didn’t feel as if she needed to balance out the darkness anywhere else in the piece.
Florence Rodway was married in 1920 (aged 39) to civil engineer Walter Moore, and had a daughter, Susanne, in 1922. She continued to work and exhibit although her life was also taken up with marriage and motherhood. She was one of the artists chosen to represent Australia in the 1928 exhibition of Contemporary Art of the Empire held at the Imperial Institute, London. This shows how highly regarded Florence Rodway was as an artist at the time!
Over the second decade of 1900s, Rodway’s style changed from a more linear look to one that utilized the side of the pastel in a more painterly way. You can see this in the marvelous painting The Interview which shows three full length figures rather than a partial portrait of a single individual.
This is such a dramatically lit piece. The composition underlines unseen tensions in what at first looks like a fairly sedate scene. The two women eye each other; the lady of the house seems to grasp the edge of the curtain. The young girl, lit sharply against the dark clothing of the woman on the left, looks away from the scene. Even though she looks out beyond the picture plane, our eyes, rather than following hers, are pulled back to the dark figure on the left who looks over at the woman on the right. And around we go, wondering how the story will end.
The high contrast of nearly blacks and whites between the young girl and the woman behind is balanced nicely with the aura of colour enriching the woman on the right and her surrounding area. Rowdy use of the paper colour in the background wall to give a wallpaper effect and also as the shine in the dark floor is superb.
Two portraits of sisters reveal Rodway’s shift to a more painterly style. Gone is any hint of her former linear style. She now uses the side of the pastels both in the subjects’ face and the clothing and background. They are elegant and polished portraits, showing off Rodway’s draughtsmanship and her understanding of value and colour.
One other pastel portrait I came across was of William E.L.H Crowther. It is undated but as it shows an older man who lived in Tasmania, it is likely painted after Rodway moved with her husband and daughter to Hobart, Tasmania in 1932. This hypothesis is held up by the framing label which is dated 1940, a date that would make Crowther a 53-year old man. Seems to fit. This portrait now has the painterly feel of an oil. Gone are all linear strokes. Instead pastel is applied in bold swatches seen especially in the clothing.
There is little info on Florence Rodway after she moved back to Hobart in 1932. She shared a studio with other prominent Tasmanian women artists of her era during the mid 1930s. Rodway exhibited with the Art Society of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Group of Painters, and also exhibited in Australia in 1948 and 1950-51.
Florence Rodway died in Hobart on 23 January 1971 at the age of 84 and was cremated.
In this digital age and the proliferation of images across the internet, we can hope that we will see more of Rodway’s work and hope it finds a more prominent position in the realm of Australian artists, and also on the world stage of pastel artists.
If you made it all the way the end, congratulations! I know it’s quite long but I was determined to collect in one place as much accurate info as I could about Florence Rodway and her pastel work.
I’ll be interested to hear if you know of other pieces by Rodway and their locations, and if you have ever seen her work in person.
That’s it for now. I do look forward to your comments!!
Until next time,
1965 Audio Interview: http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2003594
Design and Art Australia: https://www.daao.org.au/bio/florence-aline-rodway/biography/
Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rodway-florence-aline-8251