NORTON, Rosaleen (2 October 1917 – 5 December 1979); GREENLEES, Gavin
The art of Rosaleen Norton : with poems by Gavin Greenlees (Signed by Norton and Greenlees)
Sydney : Walter Glover, 1952. ‘This edition limited to one thousand copies, three hundred and fifty of which are bound in leather and six hundred and fifty with fabric. The first twenty copies include an original coloured work by Miss Norton. The number of this copy is 461’ (colophon). Quarto, red cloth boards (some fading) with gilt stamped lettering and design, in original pictorial dust jacket (mild foxing and staining, chipped at head and tail of spine and corners, rear panel chipped at top edge and with tear and creasing at bottom edge), illustrated endpapers; a presentation copy for an unnamed recipient, inscribed in ink by the artist on the colophon (page 5) ‘Audley, Oct. 2nd 1952 (birthday). Rosaleen Norton’, with the full signature of Gavin Greenlees beneath; pp 79, illustrated with 31 full page monochrome plates; light foxing to preliminaries and last few leaves, spotting to fore-edges, occasional marginal foxing, otherwise internally very good.
A rare surviving example – signed by both of its creators – of this suppressed publication, one of the major causes célèbres of Australian publishing and censorship.
The art of Rosaleen Norton, featuring works by the occultist Norton, the infamous Witch of King’s Cross, accompanied by the poems of Gavin Greenlees, her collaborator and lover, was published in Sydney in 1952 in an edition limited to 1000 numbered copies (350 leather-bound, 650 in cloth). It achieved permanent notoriety when it became the first Australian art publication to be censored. The sexually explicit nature of some of Norton’s artwork led to Glover being charged with producing an obscene publication and a court order ruling that the work could only continue to be distributed on the condition that they no longer contained the two offending plates. These plates – The Adversary and Fohat – are both present in the copy we offer here, which was inscribed by Rosaleen Norton on her 35th birthday, shortly after the book’s publication. It is likely that ‘Audley’ refers to the location in the Royal National Park where the book was signed, presumably during a birthday outing.
The following extract from Keith Richmond’s essay Lewd, lascivious and lubricious : collecting the literature we weren’t suppose to read (in Oz Arts Magazine, no.12, Sept / Dec 1995, pp 108-116) provides a concise history of this controversial publication:
“… artist Rosaleen Norton and her poet-companion Gavin Greenlees probably knew there was something amiss when the first review of their book, The Art of Rosaleen Norton, appeared in the Sunday Sun under the title ‘Witches, demons on rampage in
weird Sydney sex book ‘. It was September 1952. Cold War puritanism was at its peak, and the pair surely knew that someone would take offence at the esoteric symbolism, biting satire and skilfully drawn if sometimes bizarre nudes which filled Norton ‘s work. They probably did not expect a reaction quite as intense as that of Mrs. Woodward of the Progressive Housewives’ Association who appealed to the Chief Secretary, Mr. Kelly, to ban the book and then went on to tell the Daily Mirror: ‘Burning it isn’t good enough; all copies should be burnt and the plates destroyed.’ Shortly thereafter the Postmaster General advised the publisher, Walter Glover, that he was barred from sending copies through the post on grounds of obscenity. New South Wales police then served summonses on him for publishing and selling an obscene book, and on Tonecraft Pty. Ltd. for having printed it. Glover pleaded ‘not guilty’ to both charges, and a long drawn out series of hearings began. In court, each picture was subjected to intense scrutiny and debate, and on one occasion the artist was in the witness box for two hours, explaining the symbolism behind them. Defence Counsel, Mr. Shand, contended that the obvious intention of the book was to convey ideas, through symbols: ‘The book must be taken as a whole, and the drawings studied with the written matter beside them. The book has a logical story, told in a graphic way, of various opposing influences.’ On February 5, 1953, Mr. Solling S.M., ruled that two of Rosaleen Norton’s drawings, ‘The Adversary’ and ‘Fohat’, were ‘obscene and on offence to chastity and delicacy’ and Glover was fined £5 plus costs for having sold the book. The other charge of publishing the book was later withdrawn. Tonecraft Pty. Ltd., who had pleaded guilty to having printed the book, were fined the token sum of £1. Glover planned on appeal but had to back down because of lack of funds. In 1953, Customs also took up the ban on the book, preventing the return of copies that had been sent to an overseas publisher. The mechanics of the N.S.W. ban were such that Glover was not prohibited altogether from selling the book; legal advice suggested that all he had to do was black out the offending pictures. He subsequently got to work on some of the copies, running a roller dipped in printer’s ink neatly over the two offending plates so that they were completely obliterated, thereby fulfilling both the legal requirements and none-too-subtly drawing attention to the fact that the book hod been censored. His heart was not in these unexpected alterations, which proved ultimately to be unsuccessful, as he was still barred from sending the book through the post and not many local booksellers were interested in taking mutilated copies of a book tarred with the brush of ‘obscenity’. The project was financially ruinous for Glover, and he drifted into bankruptcy. Ironically, amongst the assets that were taken over by the government receiver were the rights to the supposedly obscene book. The Art of Rosaleen Norton thus took its place in Australian history as the first locally produced art book to be successfully prosecuted. Copies of the original edition are now scarce, although oddly the ‘uncensored’ cloth-bound first edition is the most common of the variants that appear….”