Portrait pioneer

• Anne-Louise Willoughby

FREMANTLE author Anne-Louise Willoughby travelled as far as Hawaii to research her new biography of Nora Heysen, Australia’s first official female war artist.

In 1938, when Ms Heysen was just 27, she became the first woman to win Australia’s premier portraiture competition, the Archibald Prize.

Ms Willoughby said it was a huge gender breakthrough, because in those days being a full-time artist was not viewed as a viable career option for women.

“I didn’t write the book because she was an artist, I wrote the book because she was an extremely accomplished woman and what she did was outstanding,” Ms Willoughby says.

In 1943 Ms Heysen became the first woman to be appointed as an official Australian war artist, producing over 250 paintings of World War II, including scenes of  soldiers and doctors stationed in New Guinea.

“Looking at the work she did has made a difference to the people who lost their children in the battle and it makes a difference to the people today so that they can remember that loss and service of those people,” Ms Willoughby says.

As part of her research for the book, a family representative of the Nora Heysen Foundation gave Ms Willoughby access to personal papers belonging to the artist in the National Library of Australia.

“I was able to speak with her family members and went as far as Hawaii to meet Nora’s niece who had been very close to her. Because I never met Nora, it was very important that I spoke to as many people as I could who did know her.” Ms Willoughby said.

The author says her interest in Ms Heysen began in the 1990s, when she spotted a print of one of her beautiful paintings at her nephew’s home and she didn’t know who the artist was.

Nora Heysen: a portrait is available from http://www.fremantlepress.com.au

by AMY EWERS

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