Nora Heysen – a natural talent

In late 1937 South Australian artist Nora Heysen (1911 - 2003) returned home to The Cedars at Hahndorf after nearly four years studying art in London, and periods of travel in Europe looking at works by old and modern masters. Before she left Australia for England in March 1934 she had already achieved a great deal.

Her first one-person exhibition at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in December 1933 had been a spectacular success.
At age twenty-three she was also already represented in three public collections and she had won a number of prizes for her work, including an important one for portraiture.

While in London many external influences caused Nora Heysen's painting style to change, and it became looser and more high-keyed. By early 1938, after her brief return to The Cedars, she had moved to Sydney, which remained her home for the rest of her life.

Her ties with South Australia remained strong and she continued to make regular visits to The Cedars and to exhibit work at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, the Heysen Gallery and the John Martin's Gallery.

Nora Heysen won the 1938 Archibald Prize, the first woman to be awarded this prestigious prize for portraiture. She was also the first woman to take up appointment as an official war artist, serving from late 1943 to early 1946, during World War Two.

During her service she met her future husband, Dr Robert Black, whom she married in 1953. After their marriage Heysen and Black lived in Hunter's Hill and she accompanied him on a number of trips to various Pacific Islands while he undertook research on malaria.

The art of Nora Heysen spans well over seventy years and can be divided into several discrete groups. Among these groups are her Pacific works, her drawings from the model, her still-lifes and portraits, and her student works. It is an extraordinary body of work by an artist who refused to be categorised and spent her artistic career pursuing her love of light and life.

In 2009 Carrick Hill celebrated this remarkable artist's life with the exhibition Nora Heysen: Light and Life which was accompanied by a book of the same title published by Wakefield Press, Adelaide.

Jane Hylton
Curator and author, Nora Heysen: Light and Life

The following works on this site are in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. They can be also be viewed on the AWM web site by following the links.

Pathologist titrating sera (Captain Robert Black), 1944
Australian War Memorial ART22409

Blood donor, 1944
Australian War Memorial ART23058

WAAF cook (Corporal Joan Whipp), 1945
Australian War Memorial ART24394

LST loading troops, Dreger Harbour, May 1944
Australian War Memorial ART23627

AAMWS (Private Gwynneth Patterson), 1944
Australian War Memorial ART22822

Sister Minnie Goldstein working in the blood bank, Alexishafen, 1944
Australian War Memorial ART23921

View from Sisters' Mess, Finschhafen, April 1944
Australian War Memorial ART22392



Self portrait, 1953. Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Corn cobs, 1938. Collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.