Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Elizabeth Parsons (1831 - 1897) - artist

Elizabeth Parsons (1831 - 1897) was a professional artist, who created many delightful landscapes in water-colour, oil and drawings. The State Library of Victoria has around thirty of her works on-line, many of the St Kilda area (1) however Elizabeth also has a number of works of Berwick.

View from Wilson's Hill, Berwick, 1878 by Elizabeth Parsons.
Image: National Gallery of Victoria A35-1976

This is a very short history of her life and works, most of which I have summarised from the book More than a memory: the art of Elizabeth Parsons by Veronica Filmer.  This is the catalogue of an exhibition of Elizabeth Parson's work held at the Geelong Gallery in 2004. The exhibition was also curated by Veronica Filmer. It's a lovely book, I found a copy at an on-line second-hand book seller and it is well worth tracking down, however the Geelong Galley has recently digitised the book and it is available on their website, here

Elizabeth was born to William and Elizabeth (nee Keens) Warren on November 27, 1831.  The Keens were market gardeners and William and Elizabeth and their children lived on the family property after their marriage in 1820. Elizabeth (the younger) found employment as a governess and in the late 1850s began art lessons with instructors including Thomas Miles Richardson and James Duffield Harding.

Her mother, who died in March 1867, left Elizabeth an annuity as long as she remained unmarried and this gave her some freedom to travel around England on sketching trips. It was on one of these trips that she met George Parsons (1830 - 1920) who was the manager of the Lizard Serpentine Marble Works.  George had trained as a surveyor and was a widower with two sons, George and Cecil. Elizabeth and George married on October 28, 1868. Elizabeth gave birth to  a daughter, Adeline, in August 1869. 1869 was also significant for Elizabeth as she exhibited seven works in the Society of Female Artists exhibition, her first major exhibition. Elizabeth exhibited under the name of Mrs George Parsons.

In 1870 the family decided to migrate to Australia and they arrived in Melbourne on May 20, 1870 and their son Henry was born the same year. In 1872 another son, Warren, was born followed by two more sons, Noel in 1875, Jonathon in 1876 and a still-born baby in 1879.   Elizabeth lost no time in establishing herself as an artist in her new country and she exhibited in the Victorian Academy of Art exhibition in November 1870. The Argus had a two part review of this exhibition, which you can read here and here. The Argus said that there were three water-colour landscapes of conspicuous merit by Mrs G. Parsons.

Report on Elizabeth Parson's work at the Victorian Academy of Art exhibition
The Argus December 1, 1870

There was also a more detailed review of Elizabeth Parson's work in The Argus of  December 26, 1870, which Ms Filmer quoted in her book (2) and I have reproduced, below.

Praise for Elizabeth Parson's work.
The Argus December 26, 1870

Elizabeth commenced teaching in the early 1870s as well as continuing to exhibit works  depicting local landmarks such as the Carlton Gardens and Melbourne University. Around 1873, Elizabeth rented a studio in Flinders Lane and the next year the family moved to a house in Neptune Street, St Kilda. They later moved to Charnwood Road in the same suburb and then to 249 Carlisle Street in Balaclava.

The family also toured the State and scenes from areas such as Mornington, Geelong, Woodend and Berwick featured in Elizabeth's work. Ms Filmer writes that the family spent many summers in Berwick, where they had either leased or brought  a small holiday house. From here Elizabeth could make sketching trips into the surrounding district. (3)  The picture, below, shows  the back of the holiday house in Wilson lane (or Wilson Street as it was actually called). Ms Filmer also writes that from the Berwick house popular locations such as Harkaway and Koo Wee Rup were easily accessed (4) I checked the Shire of Berwick Rate books and neither George or Elizabeth are listed as owning property at Berwick,  so they must have rented a house in Berwick. 

Wilson lane, Berwick, c. 1876 by Elizabeth Parsons.
Image: More than a memory: the art of Elizabeth Parsons by Veronica Filmer (Geelong Gallery, 2004) 

Elizabeth's standing as an artist continued to grow and in December 1874, she was elected to the Victorian Academy of Art Council, which is all the more remarkable as there was much opposition to women taking up public positions of any kind and also that she had the responsibility of a  young family to care for and George was often away due to his job as inspector and auditor of the Seymour to Avenel section of the North Eastern railway line. Elizabeth also continued to exhibit and began painting in oils.

In the early 1880s, Elizabeth became more enterprising and published three books - the Drawing book of Australian Landscape - book one covered buildings, book two trees and book three landscapes. Books one and two have been disgitised by the State Library of Victoria, here and here and Ms Filmer writes that no trace has been found of the third book, Landscapes (5) 

At Berwick, 1882, by Elizabeth Parsons. This illustration was originally published in her book, Drawing book of Australian Landscape - Part 1 - buildings. 
Image: National Gallery of Australia Image NGA 86.1996. 

The 1880s saw Elizabeth continue to exhibit in the annual Victorian Academy of Arts shows, the Sydney Art Society exhibition, Victorian Jubilee Exhibition of 1884, amongst other shows. In 1886 she joined the newly formed Australian Artist's Association along with other artists such as Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. The first exhibition of this group was reported on in the Melbourne newspapers, see below and you can read Elizabeth's review, below.

Praise for Elizabeth Parson's work at the inaugural Australian Artist's Association exhibition.
The Argus September 7, 1886

Elizabeth was also a member of two social clubs - the Buonarotti Club, whose members were mainly young artists (6) and the Stray Leaves Club, which was active from 1889 to 1892 and often met at the Parson's home in Balaclava. Emma Minnie Boyd (1858 - 1936) was also a member of the Stray Leaves Club. Emma was an A'Beckett from The Grange at Harkaway. Ms Filmer writes that Emma Minnie Boyd and Elizabeth Parsons, exhibited together from the mid 1870s, had stylistic similarities and that Elizabeth may have been something of  a mentor to Emma. (7) As Berwick and Harkaway are neighbouring towns, it is likely that they also socialised when the Parsons were at Berwick.

At Berwick, 1882, by Elizabeth Parsons. This illustration was originally published in her book, Drawing book of Australian Landscape - Part 1 - buildings. 
Image: National Gallery of Australia Image NGA 86.2250

From 1889 Elizabeth decided to retire and sold many of her works at a sale in 1890 and she held another sale in 1896. You can read the coverage of the 1896 sale in The Age of  July 17, 1896, here.  By this time Elizabeth was suffering from breast cancer and she died May 28, 1897. She is buried in the St Kilda Cemetery, as is her husband, George, who died January 19, 1920.

There were periodic exhibitions of Elizabeth Parson's works after her death, mainly instigated by her daughter Adeline, and also one in 1920, which Ms Filmer said reignited interest in Elizabeth and her art (8).  The Herald reviewed this exhibition - it is partly quoted by Ms Filmer in her book (9) and you can read it here and see it below.

The review of Elizabeth Parson's 1920 retrospective exhibition. 
The Herald, March 15, 1920

We will finish this post on Elizabeth Parsons once again quoting Veronica Filmer - Through persistence and hard work Elizabeth Parsons reached a prominent position in the Victorian art world and was an inspiration to many around her who aspired to do the same. (10)

Nearly all this post I have summarised from Veronica Filmer's essay on the life and work of Elizabeth  Parsons, which was published in More than a memory: the art of Elizabeth Parsons (Geelong Gallery, 2004). It is of course a much more comprehensive, scholarly and detailed study of  Elizabeth's life and work than what you read here. Here is the link to the  work again from the Geelong Gallery website  Even though you can view it on-line, as I said before, if you ever come across a copy of the book, it is still worth buying. I've scanned the cover, so you will recognise it if you see it. It has 40 of her works reproduced, it's just a delight.  I found out about Elizabeth Parsons, her connection to Berwick and  Veronica Filmer's book, from my fellow historian,  Isaac Hermann.

(1)  As well as the Elizabeth Parson works which are on-line at the State Library of Victoria, you can view some of her works on the Geelong Gallery website, The National Gallery of Victoria has three of her works, on-line, The National Gallery of Australia has ten of her works on-line
(2) Filmer, Veronica More than a memory: the art of Elizabeth Parsons (Geelong Gallery, 2004) page 15.
(3) Filmer, page 17
(4) Filmer, page 28
(5) Filmer, page 24
(6) Filmer, page 33
(7) Filmer, page 33. Ms Filmer was alerted to the possible connections between Elizabeth Parsons and  Emma Minnie Boyd by Jennifer Phipps on the National Gallery of Victoria (footnote 79, page 33)
(8) Filmer, page 35
(9) Filmer, page 35
(10) Filmer, page 37

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