How does an artist address the legacy of a grandmother once described by Margaret Whitlam as “an undaunted woman of the first quality”?
Mary Pridmore has long been open to exploring her identity through painting, influenced by radical 1970s second-wave feminism on the one hand, and by a deep and complex maternal lineage on the other: a celebrated grandmother, a mother institutionalised by mental illness when Mary was 11, and a loving and present godmother – all three loved equally.
This is the third exhibition in which Pridmore has investigated spaces connected with this remarkable heritage. The first, Home-Scapes, (2010) probed the dark images of her mother’s garden; the second, Home-Scapes 2, (2017), examined her godmother’s house; and now Postcards from Home Hill celebrates the playful, artistic energies of her grandmother, Dame Enid Lyons, whose public and private lives were deeply entwined.
Although this has been a decades-long project for Pridmore, this year (2020) has proved uniquely turbulent. Painting in the morning has not only helped Pridmore survive social distancing and covid-19 lockdown, but also the shock of being told she had contracted a life-changing condition. The lightning bolt of her illness, together with the pandemic, has put vital emphasis on the nature of home spaces, of the home as artwork, refuge, and revelatory expression of the inhabitant. Sharpened by awareness of her own mortality, Pridmore returned earlier this year to Home Hill, the Lyons family home in Devonport, as soon as covid-19 restrictions allowed. She took photographs to place alongside her grandmother’s, of rooms maintained and appearing much as they were when she stayed there as a child.
The faded photos of Dame Enid’s own exuberant flower arrangements, styled in vases set against an array of bright, floral wallpapers, had always intrigued her granddaughter. These extravagant displays were made from blooms picked from the garden at Home Hill. Dame Enid lived here for 40 years, raising 11 children after her husband (Tasmania’s only Prime Minister) died suddenly in office in 1936, and where she grew her own substantial public life as the first woman elected to Australia’s House of Representatives.
“Never one to wait for help, Enid often put her hand to the jobs needing attention around her estate, whether electrical, or chopping wood,” writes Enid Lyon’s biographer, Anne Henderson. Enid, as at home with bluestone as chiffon, famously turned an old doorway into a display cabinet, did all her own wallpapering, laid crazy paving from stones collected on the property, sent visitors home with plant cuttings, and made her own lampshades out of chiffon fabric sourced from Faye Gardam, a favourite interior decorator and Launceston historian.
“This wonderful elderly lady, who had supped with kings and sat at the table of government, was ensconced in my armchair happily rummaging through my treasure box,” Gardam wrote in 1996.
The effect of all of this – neither quaint nor gay – is the product of an abundant creative imagination; blocks of varied patterns and blocks of colour reverberate through each room. Pridmore, who says her grandmother is the first artist she knew, paints through her grandmother’s eye, intrigued by Enid’s ability to make do and keep going. In making the paintings small, some loose, even satisfyingly unfinished, they are a window into her grandmother’s world, observed in the same spirit in which she lived her life. Like postcards, they souvenir the moment, freezing in time a distant place that someone would want to visit. A place that is both a family home and a national treasure.
Scale also in Pridmore’s paintings serves to enhance the heimlich/unheimlich (concealed/uncanny) effect of houses no longer inhabited. The observer is aware of looking into the past as well as into the objectifying distance, through doorways, halls, across odd angles and corners, always in search of the elusive lives for which these rooms were once the medium of daily life. The eye rests on a pattern here, a globe lampshade there, an empty chair which gives the impression that the elusive creator of these rooms may only just have moved out of sight.
The intimate interiors of Edouard Vuillard – a painter Pridmore views as mentor and forebear – inform the work. Vuillard believed that the mysteries of existence were revealed by paying less attention to people than the things that surrounded them. Also influential were the 9x5 paintings of Australian impressionists Charles Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. Scale was an intrinsic part of the work, painted on board and often executed quickly, to record the artists’ interest in their first observances of fleeting effects.
Pridmore is now the same age Dame Enid was when, in the absence of her mother, she spent time with her. She found her grandmother gentle and kind, someone with whom she could share her deep sorrow at her mother’s illness. “Nanny was nanny,” says Pridmore. “It’s only later you realise she was a colossal person.” Twice Enid was made a Dame: once by King George VI, presented personally to him the day after his coronation; and later by Australia. And yet she was once filmed for British cinema darning her husband’s socks.
That Dame Enid did not seem diminished by her domestic world, mothering 11 children, was testament to her solid character and the reach of her public life. In fact, home became the foundation stone of a common-sense political philosophy, even drawing on metaphors of the kitchen in her maiden parliamentary speech in 1943.
"The foundation of a nation's greatness is in the homes of its people," she told an otherwise all-male House of Representatives, quoting the words of King George V as he neared the end of his reign.
Pridmore acknowledges a desire to stringently avoid the sentimental, but there is a deeper geology, too. In her 2008 doctoral thesis, “Reinventing Rapport: An Investigation of the Mother-Daughter Dyad within Contemporary Figure Painting”, Pridmore establishes that an examination of the mother-daughter relationship in a domestic setting is largely absent in western art.
Both homely and intellectual, Pridmore’s grandmother then became the ideal subject to dissolve gendered bias and “reinvent rapport”. With a reputation as the north-west coast’s Germaine Greer, Enid Lyons never denied her femininity. “Because I am a woman, I cannot divest myself of those qualities that are inherent of my sex,” she said in that maiden speech. And, continuing, “That does not in any way imply a limitation of my political interests; rather it implies an ever-widening outlook on every problem that faces the world today.”
A poem by WB Yeats infuses Pridmore’s memory: in the L-shaped room at Home Hill, Enid had once read A Prayer for My Daughter to her then 14-year-old grand-daughter at the request of Mary’s mother who was sick in Hobart. The poem grounds itself in both custom and ceremony, “rooted in one dear perpetual place”. That place is a family’s as well as a nation’s, more shared and intimate than grandiose, the home on the hill.
. . .
Postcards from Home Hill opens at the Colville Gallery, 91A Salamanca Place, Hobart, on August 25, 2020. For more information, see colvillegallery.com.au.
This piece was written by Hilary Burden for the exhibition catalogue and first appeared on the Colville Galley website. Forty South thanks both Hilary Burden and Colville Gallery for permission to re-publish it.
Images courtesy of Colville Gallery