# 42818

PARSONS Elizabeth (1831-1897)

Untitled (Pastoral view across St. Kilda and Albert Park) 1885

$5,500.00 AUD

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Watercolour on paper, 240 x 345 mm (image), signed and dated in image l.l. ‘E. Parsons 1885’; small vertical section of discolouration along right section of the image, otherwise very good condition; housed in a hand gilded period style frame by Jarman’s Framing after a design by recognised colonial framer Isaac Whitehead.

Elizabeth Parsons (1831-1897) – also known as Mrs. George Parsons – was a significant but under-recognised female colonial artist working in Melbourne and Victoria in the 1870s and 1880s. She was a founding member of the Australian Artists’ Association. Examples of Parsons’ work are held in the NGA, NGV and SLV.

This attractive plein air watercolour shows a group of girls in a pastoral setting in St Kilda or Prahran, where Parsons resided at the time. To the left is the distinctive silhouette of the Wesleyan Church on Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda (opened in 1858, the four pinnacles visible were removed in the 1960s), to the right are some small sail boats on Albert Park Lake, with Port Phillip visible in the distance.


Caroline Ambrus. Australian women artists : First Fleet to 1945 : history, hearsay and her say. Canberra : Irrepressible Press, 1992.

Joan Kerr (ed.). Heritage : The national women’s art book. Sydney : Art in Australia, 1995.

From the DAAO:

‘Elizabeth Parsons, painter and lithographer, was born on 27 September 1831, daughter of George and Elizabeth Warren of Holly Lodge, Isleworth, England. She trained with the Newcastle-on-Tyne watercolourist Thomas Miles Richardson, then with James Duffield Harding (some studies are in one of her sketchbooks). Later she studied in Paris and ‘at the famous artists’ colony of Barbizon’. Some paintings done at the last accompanied her to Australia; in 1881 she showed At Fontainebleau (‘a harmonious study of rocks and vegetation – an infinitesimal section of the lovely domain which artists so revel in’) with the Art Society of NSW. One of her sketchbooks (D-M 2001) includes views at Fontainebleau. She was a successful painter and art teacher in England until 1866 when, aged 35, she married architect George Parsons, a widower with two sons. They had a daughter and four more sons.

In 1870 the family migrated to Victoria. At first they lived in Carlton, then settled in St Kilda. Despite being listed as ‘amateur’, Mrs George Parsons (the name under which she generally exhibited, though she signed her work ‘E.P.’) gained immediate attention for her work. James Smith of the Argus generously noted that her watercolour views of English scenery were ‘very solid and free for a lady’s hand’. In December 1870 she had five watercolours of Devonshire scenery (‘of conspicuous merit’) in the first exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Arts (VAA). A watercolour of the University of Melbourne is dated 1871. She exhibited oil and watercolour landscapes regularly with the VAA and in 1875 was elected to the Council – its first woman member. She also exhibited with the NSW Academy of Art. Her Lilydale views, shown in the 1877 exhibition, were ranked among the best watercolours by the Sydney Mail art critic who preferred them to her oils – apart from Girl at the Well . Later that year James Smith noted in the Argus (17 March 1877, p.8) the ‘bright, transparent and truly Australian’ atmosphere of her View from Berwick Hill .

Although her oils were less experimental than her watercolours (LT), Parsons’s paintings were usually called ‘broad’ in treatment and generally praised, although few critics appreciated her novel interest in capturing an impressionistic light that bleached and simplified motifs. In 1875 a reviewer commended her ‘boldness and dash of treatment’ simply because it was such a relief ‘after the insignificant stippeling [sic] employed by the majority of artists’. In 1881 another stated that her watercolour Sketch at Lorne (shown in the Fine Arts Court at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition with eight other works) was no more than ‘a rough blot’, yet ‘a blot which is very telling when it is looked at from a little distance’. The previous year both her oils and watercolours had been admired for their ‘natural breezy freshness, telling of a close study of atmospheric effect’.

Parsons was committed to working directly from the subject. In a paper read before the Australian Church Ladies’ Reading Club, she stated: ‘The rules of art are few and simple, but Nature is subtle and so infinitely various, and her effects so beyond the power of memory, that the artist should have constant recourse to the ever-changing beauties.’ Her work demanded attention because it so vividly displayed her thorough English and French (especially French) training. Nevertheless, a review in the Sydney Mail (26 July 1884) typifies the most common form of lukewarm praise: ‘In landscapes the lady painters are not on a level with some of the male members; but the works of Mrs George Parsons are quite equal to the average.’ She asked appropriately low ladies’ work prices. In 1876 her oils cost five or ten guineas and her watercolours two or three guineas.

Well before the area became inextricably identified with the ‘Heidelberg School’, she showed two highly praised Views at Heidelberg in the first exhibition of the Sydney Art Society (December 1880). In 1884-85 she showed landscapes near Lake Wakatipu in Sydney after a trip to New Zealand. (NZ watercolours, photographs and other memorabilia were in one of her Deutscher-Menzies albums.) Along with Tom Roberts , Arthur Streeton et al. she was a founding member of the highly professional Australian Artists’ Association in Melbourne, where she had solo shows in 1885 and 1896 (a catalogue of the latter was in the D-M sale, 2001). Along with artists of a younger generation Parsons was a member of the Buonarotti Club, a source of semi-bohemian culture in Melbourne in the late 1880s (see Bonyhady The Colonial Earth and McQueen Tom Roberts ). After its demise she founded and was president of a society for young artists called ‘Stray Leaves’. She also published drawing books appropriate for Australian students; they contain freely sketched lithographs of the semi-rural outskirts of Melbourne.

Three Australian views ‘treated in the lady’s usual free and easy style’ were included in the 1873 London International Exhibition and there is some speculation that she was also included in the 1875 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. One English oil and two Australian watercolour subjects by her were part of Victoria’s offerings to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, while two oils and three watercolours were shown at Sydney’s 1879-80 International Exhibition. She had three oils in the 1880-81 Melbourne Centennial International, six watercolours in the 1884 Victorian Jubilee Exhibition and was also well represented in the 1888-89 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition. 10 of her watercolour views were sent to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London and one oil painting. The latter, now known as Point Ormond, St Kilda but then titled Red Bluff 1881 (LT), was one of three Australian paintings illustrating R.A.L. Stevenson’s review of the colonial works in the Magazine of Art . It was, he said: ‘another work inspired by study of good schools … composed and arranged with taste and method; and the colour is laid on in good broad washes.’ In 1920 a large posthumous exhibition of Parsons’s work was held at Decoration Galleries, Melbourne.

Despite this impressive career and oeuvre Parsons remains little known. Public collections hold only a few of her finished paintings, but have numerous sketches (LT) and a drawing book of St Kilda views (NGA). Many of her larger paintings remain with descendants, although these have been increasingly appearing on the market. In 1993 her Louttit Bay, near Lorne, Victoria (1879) was for sale at $16,500. Her luminous and detailed rural landscape, Afternoon Walk 1876, oil on canvas 32 × 47 cm, was offered by Sotheby’s Melbourne on 28 November 2000, lot.172 (ill.), estimate $4,000-6,000. Two of her albums containing over 600 watercolours and drawings done in Britain, Australia and New Zealand were offered at Deutscher-Menzies in August 2001, estimate $15,000-$20,000. The six watercolours illustrated in the catalogue (p.48) were: Heidelberg ; Sydney Road near Park Gates 1872; Brighton Beach 1888; Circular Quay, Sydney ; St Kilda road ; The Hotel at Healesville.’