The Australian Interwar Years: A Palette For New Cultural Imagination

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Clockwise from top right: Dorrit Black, Grace Cossington Smith, Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston

The interwar period was a time of social and cultural change across the world. The First World War had changed everything – it had broken the smooth and steady traditions of the past in all aspects of society: from class and women’s rights, to transport to home-wares, to music, design and the arts.[1] In many ways, the home was the first frontier for modernity – it was there that new concepts of designs were first accepted into peoples lives through bold fabric designs and a move towards practical slim-lined furniture.[2] It was in the home that many modern artists made their names through fabric or pottery design or by providing illustrations in women’s magazines. The line between popular art and high art began to blur as artists drew inspiration from plays, films and the advertising industry, creating prints that were inexpensive and suitable for the home.[3] Cities were growing and becoming part of the artistic vernacular. Modern artists began to explore new ideas and subjects, to work across mediums and to re-imagine past traditions. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, which provided many with work during the Depression, was transformed by artists into a symbol of modernism and optimism.[4] In Australia, the war had changed how Australians perceived themselves, and artists became part of a national conversation about what an Australian national identity could be and how it should be expressed. In this cultural context, artists began to re-imagine traditional genres and to use old mediums in new ways.

We now understand that women were vital to the adoption of modernism;  and to that end I will be discussing the work of four female artists from the inter-war period and exploring how they tackled their subjects in new ways, and how the subjects themselves were often a new take on genres from the past.[5] The art of Dorrit Black, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Thea Proctor helped re-shape the art world and had a lasting impact on how Australian art is experienced to this day.

All four of these women had traveled beyond Australia before returning with new ideas and a preparedness to teach others.[6] Australian artists had a long history of traveling in order to appreciate the artwork of the Old Masters, but also to interact with the new generations who were bringing new ideas into the art world. In 1927, Dorrit Black traveled to London where she studied at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art under Claude Flight. Flight was particularly an advocate of linocuts not only because he believed them to be democratic due to their cheapness (and the easy availability of the lino), but also because he felt that lino was a medium that offered the artist a range of possibilities for expression and movements.[7] The Grosvenor School also promoted the Arts and Crafts Movement, a modern movement that called for the recognition of simple, cheap and useful art to be appreciated in the same way as traditional mediums.[8] The idea of democratic, decorative art resonated with Black and the appeal of linocut, once ignited, would continue throughout her career.

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Illustration 1: Dorrit Black, Music, 1928-9, Colour Lino Print on Paper, 24.1x 21.2cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

In her work Music, created in 1927-8, Black has captured the free-flowing joy of dancers moving to the music of the modern age jazz. The image skilfully incorporates Flight’s idea that art should reflect the energy of the modern age.[9] The tan figures seem to dance across the page, they are free flowing, lost in the music, seemingly unaware of the viewer. The abstract background, colours and line, suggest coloured lights or perhaps different tones in the music. The dancers are flattened and elongated, they appear almost pagan in their rhythmic circling dance. This work is modern not only in its medium, but also for its depiction of pared back figures, its energy, and its abstraction of the music. Even the subject – the enjoyment of jazz – refers to the modern age.

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Illustration 2: Thea Proctor, The Rose, 1928, Hand Coloured Wood Cut on paper, 22.1 x 20.8 cm, Art Gallery New South Wales

Reduced forms and decorative presentation became key to a whole thread of Modernism. Another example, Thea Proctor’s The Rose (c.1928), conveys many of the same principles of Modernism that were so eloquently captured by Black in Music. Thea Proctor had also traveled to Europe, returning to Australia in 1921.[10] She had a deep interest in Chinese and Japanese art and design, the influence of which can be seen here.[11] The Rose is bold, striking and decorative, simple yet effective. The image captures an intimate moment between two women as one offers another a rose to smell. Flat areas of colour are brought to life through the line of the woodblock-print, highlighting Proctor’s concern with clarity of line, form and colour. [12] The design is about feminine beauty and intimacy, it’s compressed space and formal qualities giving it a modern character.[13] The style of the print may have been influenced by advertisements, the drawing that inspired the print having been originally created for The Home magazine.[14] It is also possible that the image, with its close up perspective and style, has some roots in cinema, a medium that was popular at the time.[15] In the modern style, the colour palate is pared back and surfaces flattened. If to be modern is to be of the time, then this print certainly fits the bill.

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Illustration 3: Dorrit Black, The Bridge, 1930, Oil on Canvas laid on board, 60x81cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

In the 1920s and 1930s, Sydney became a bustling centre for modernist art and design. Despite the Depression, many artists found work teaching and displaying artworks of their own. In the year after her return from London in 1929, Dorrit Black moved to Sydney, where surrounded by like-minded modernists, she began to put on her own exhibitions and, in 1931, quietly opened the Modern Art Centre – a teaching and exhibition space near circular quay.[16] A year later, the Modern Art Centre was given its official opening, just days before the ceremonial opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.[17] In a context of nation-building and a search for post-war identity, the Bridge was seen by many as a symbol, not only of modernism, but of hope. [18] Artists across Sydney put their perspectives of the bridge on paper. In her work The Bridge of 1930, Dorrit Black paints the Harbour, the two halves of the bridge reaching up to the sky and each other, almost touching. There is an energy and industry to the building of the bridge which suits the modern style of the work. A five-masted boat in the Harbour and the old barracks in the foreground contrast with an electricity pole and the mighty monument of the bridge which towers over them – the old being overshadowed by the new, the past versus the future. The cubist style that Black had learnt from Andre Lehote in France clearly influences her style here, though there are nods to Flight’s ideas of movement and colouring, and the amalgamation of ideas make this work uniquely Black’s own style.[19] The work is thought to be Australia’s first cubist landscape.[20] Certainly the subject and the style in which this work is painted are inescapably a break from Australia’s traditional realist pastoral landscapes of the past.

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Illustration 4: Grace Cossington Smith, The Curve of the Bridge, Oil on cardboard, 1928-29, 110.5 x 82.5cm, Art Gallery New South Wales

Another artist who found inspiration in the building of the Bridge was Grace Cossington Smith. Cossington Smith grew up in Sydney where she studied alongside fellow modern artists Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre, and after traveling abroad, returned to her home in Sydney where she resumed her painting.[21] For Cossington Smith, the city life and the Bridge in particular, were sources of enthusiasm and inspiration.[22] She painted many versions of the Bridge in various mediums, from crayon to pastel, coloured pencils to oils. Her work focuses less on the iconic view of the Bridge from afar, but rather the odd angles and perspectives that could be gained from standing up close, or on an unusual angle.[23] In The Curve of the Bridge, she depicts the great plinths on which the metal forms of the Bridge rest. The curve of the Bridge referred to in the title is not the upward curve, but rather the way the construction appears to curve horizontally out from the land and across the water. For Cossington Smith the excitement seems to be in watching the bridge come into being and conveying a sense of hope and optimism for the future.[24] At a time when not everyone was embracing the modern elements of everyday life, Cossington Smith sees the bridge as hopeful, strong, and through the use of clear blues for the sky contrasting with the construction of orange and red, very Australian. The bright, almost unnatural colours and simplified, flattened surfaces are examples of her style. Cossington Smith saw light as the binding source of all things.[25] This is made clear here particularly through her depiction of the clear blue Sydney sky which through its angled brushstrokes and progressively darker tones, seems to reach up towards infinity.[26]

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(Left to right) Illustration 5: Thea Proctor, Standing Female Nude, sanguine on cream wove paper, date unknown, Art Gallery New South Wales

Illustration 6: Dorrit Black, Nude with a cigarette, oil on canvas on composition board, 1930, Eva Breuer Art Dealer Sydney

It was not only new subjects that were painted in a the new styles – traditional genres were also re-imagined. At the art schools at which Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Dorrit Black taught, the nude was an important teaching tool.[27] Thea Proctor championed the art of drawing as a way to improve the expression of form. She made an argument for ‘drawing for its own sake’, that is that a line drawing in itself could be complete.[28] In Standing Female Nude (date unknown), we can see how she works to capture the female form in a realistic way. Although the work is very different from her prints and earlier work in many ways, equally it has similarities in its simplicity, its decorative form and femininity. Details are discarded in favour of dominant lines.[29] And where Thea Proctor was approaching the nude through pencil, Dorrit Black was tackling the traditional genre in an entirely different way. In her Nude with a Cigarette (1930), Black depicts a woman casually smoking, her back to the viewer. The subject is casual rather than ideal, her skin pale and flattened, devoid of detail. Her features are reduced to their dominant forms – she could be anyone. She is independent in the face of tradition – as Mary Eagle and John Jones have written of the work: “naked not nude, smoking therefore modern, young rather than mature, the woman with her cigarette was allowed to represent her own life and personality rather than asked to play one of the standard roles of the traditional nude.”[30] Black has modernised the work by simplifying her subject down to her dominant form, turning the scene into patterns of form and colour.

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Illustration 7: Grace Cossington Smith, Landscape at Pentecost, 1929, oil on paperboard, 83.7 x 111.8cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

The genre of landscape was also being rethought for the changing times. In the Australian landscape tradition, the landscape often embodied emotion, but modern artists, with their focus on form and simplicity, were more interested in capturing the life of the Australian land itself. It was becoming recognised that Australia was an ancient, now infertile continent and this was being explored in art and literature.[31] Grace Cossington Smith’s Landscape at Pentecost is one example. The painting depicts a road of red dirt cutting through the rolling green fields towards the purple mountains beyond. Some trees and houses dot the landscape, and the sky is a dark gold as though it might be about to rain. The landscape is flattened, the road made up of geometric shapes. The colour palate is pared back, the paint applied through angled brushstrokes and cross-hatching. The road takes up a great deal of the front of the canvas, placing the viewer in the painting. The painting is full of movement, colour and form, a marked shift away from the pastoral. It also points to Thea’s independence and the way that modern forms of transport were making exploration possible for this new generation of artists allowing them to move beyond the city to the countryside beyond. It is thought that Cossington Smith may have been commenting on her love of the land in this work. Through her travels she was aware of the diversity of the landscape, and she said of the land: “There’s a sort of wisdom about it, as though it knew much more than other countries … and I don’t think we are doing as much as we should to preserve our country. I don’t think we appreciate it nearly enough”.[32]

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Illustration 8: Margaret Preston, Grey day in the ranges, 1942, Oil on hardboard, 51.0 x 50.7cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

In the early 1940’s, Margaret Preston was also exploring the importance of the land. She was interested in Aboriginal art and craft and was exploring how these elements should be conveyed as part of the discussion around a national identity through art in Australia.[33] Preston had studied Aboriginal art and artefacts in museums and traveled as far as Western Australia to see cave paintings while the place of Aboriginal art in art galleries was a strand of national public debate.[34] In her work Grey Day in the Ranges, Preston has painted an Australian landscape. A valley with a scattering of trees, each element is outlined in black, flattening the image. The flattening of space in this work could be attributed to the way she first experienced the landscape, flying over it in an aeroplane, changing the sense of perspective.[35] The landscape is composed of different shapes, almost like a puzzle or stained glass window. The colours are browns and greys, and dull golds – hinting at inspiration drawn from Aboriginal ochre-based works.[36] Though Margaret Preston has come under scrutiny for her appropriation of Aboriginal designs and motifs, her work in advocating the use of Aboriginal art as part of a national identity was part of an effort to bring the discussion into the forefront of public consciousness.[37] This work should also be seen in the context of the time in which many post-colonial societies were seeking to build a national identity through their indigenous art.[38]

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 5.41.40 pmIllustration 9: Margaret Preston, Hollyhock, 1928, woodcut on paper, 29.5 x 30.2cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Preston’s advocacy of Australian Aboriginal art and craft should also be seen in the context of the push for the acknowledgement of crafts and design as art in the modern period. It was through the home and the public sphere that modernism was first encountered and accepted, and it was through homewares that Margaret Preston sought to expose people to indigenous art.[39] Preston was also bringing modernism into the home through her prints of flower arrangements. The prints were decorative, cheap and small enough to be hung in the home.[40] These flower works were part of a wider modernist concern to democratise art and were directed towards private homes and the purchasing ‘everyman’ (or woman).[41] Her Hollyhocks from 1928 show how her designs were bright, striking and simple all that the same time, the flowers taking up much of the available space. It was Preston’s flowers that made her name, and she used her influence as a contributor to The Home magazine to appeal to a wide readership of women not only through her art, but also through her writing.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 5.42.15 pmIllustration 10: Grace Cossington Smith, The Lacquer Room, 1936, oil on paperboard on plywood, 74.0 x 90.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Department stores too were selling modernism. In her painting The Lacquer Room, Grace Cossington Smith captures her delight at the colour and art deco style of the David Jones Department Store cafe in Sydney. According to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, “The Lacquer Room‘ embodies the modern inter-war urban experience… Cossington Smith’s bold approach to colour exudes a sense of celebrating the new, similar to the contemporary consumer culture epitomised by the department store.”[42] Cossington Smith uses visible vertical brush strokes to create a flattened yet full rendering of the cafe’s green marble bench tops, red lacquer chairs, art deco light fittings and of course the customers.[43] Everything is pared back, made simple, yet the colours are strong and vibrant. The brightness of the space creates a sense of enjoyment and positivity about her experience and reiterates her interest in light.

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Illustration 11: Thea Proctor, The Bay, 1942, pencil and watercolour on paper, 48.0 x 50.0 cm, Art Gallery New South Wales

In the interwar period, it was not only the public spaces that were celebrated, but the private too. Many women artists worked across mediums, and Thea Proctor was no exception. Thea was a tastemaker, advising people on interior design, fashion, flower arranging and more.[44] Her watercolour interior scene, The Bay, combines many of these interests. The painting depicts a room with a view out over the bay in Sydney. An old fashioned sofa sits in front of the window, with comfortable-looking cushions placed on either side. A purple robe has been discarded on the sofa, while a copy of a magazine (perhaps The Home?) and a vase of flowers sit on the coffee table. The scene is intimate and welcoming, whilst also feminine and clearly modern. The room suggests something about the character of the occupant, that it is a woman, that she is independent, a device that allows the viewer to feel as though they know something of the person that they cannot see.

With hindsight, it is possible to appreciate the great role that women played in bringing modernism to the public – not only through their own works, but by promoting modernism through magazines and by teaching the next generation of artists. Margaret Preston outlined this view when she wrote in Art in Australia in 1929: “The easiest way to understand modern art is to buy an example and live with it. Custom makes consciousness”.[45] While their flexibility in medium and content allowed women to make a living from their art, it hindered their ability to become recognised by the (often male-dominated) art establishment.[46] Subject matter often explored by women were seen as somehow easier, and critics used their associations with magazines such as The Home to suggest that their work was better thought of as ‘popular’ than ‘high’ art. In spite of this, women artists including Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Grace Cossington Smith and Dorrit Black were able to make a living from their art, and in doing so helped to change the course of Australian art history.

Illustration Index

Illustration 1: Dorrit Black, Music, 1928-9, Colour Lino Print on Paper, 24.1x 21.2cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

Illustration 2: Thea Proctor, The Rose, 1928, Hand Coloured Wood Cut on paper, 22.1 x 20.8 cm, Art Gallery New South Wales

Illustration 3: Dorit Black, The Bridge, 1930, Oil on Canvas laid on board, 60x81cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

Illustration 4: Grace Cossington Smith, The Curve of the Bridge, Oil on cardboard, 1928-29, 110.5 x 82.5cm, Art Gallery New South Wales

Illustration 5: Thea Proctor, Standing Female Nude, sanguine on cream wove paper, date unknown, Art Gallery New South Wales

Illustration 6: Dorrit Black, Nude with a cigarette, oil on canvas on composition board, 1930, Eva Breuer Art Dealer Sydney

Illustration 7: Grace Cossington Smith, Landscape at Pentecost, 1929, oil on paperboard, 83.7 x 111.8cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

Illustration 8: Margaret Preston, Grey day in the ranges, 1942, Oil on hardboard, 51.0 x 50.7cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Illustration 9: Margaret Preston, Hollyhock, 1928, woodcut on paper, 29.5 x 30.2cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Illustration 10: Grace Cossington Smith, The Lacquer Room, 1936, oil on paperboard on plywood, 74.0 x 90.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Illustration 11: Thea Proctor, The Bay, 1942, pencil and watercolour on paper, 48.0 x 50.0 cm, Art Gallery New South Wales

Bibliography

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Grace Cossington Smith- The Lacquer Room’, viewed online 5/11/2014 http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/OA10.1967/

Chanin, Eileen. “Making Sydney Modern”, Modernism/Modernity, Volume 21, Number 2, April 2014, pp 547-556

Eagle, Mary and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, Sydney: Macmillan, 1994

Edwards, Deborah, “Secular light and the curve of the chairs”, in Grace Cossington Smith ed Deborah Hart, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2005

Edwards, Deborah with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi. Margaret Preston. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005

Engledow, Sarah, “The World of Thea Proctor” in The World of Thea Proctor, ed. Sarah Engledow, Canberra: Craftsman House, 2005

Freak, Elle. “The Modern Medium: Colour Lino Cuts” in Tracy Lock Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014

Hart, Deborah, “Grace Cossington Smith”’, in Grace Cossington Smith ed Deborah Hart, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2005

Hart, Deborah, ‘The Curve of the Bridge’, in Grace Cossington Smith ed Deborah Hart, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2005

Hylton, Jane, South Australian Women Artists 1890s-1940s, Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1994

Lock-Weir, Tracey, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014

Maloney, Shane and Chris Grosz, “Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston”, The Monthly, Nov 2008, p.74

Pearce, Barry, 100 moments in Australian Painting. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2014

Peel, Rose, “Australian Arts and Crafts: Margaret Preston; ‘the ladder of art lies flat, not vertical’” Style 1900, Summer-Fall, 2002, Vol.15(3), p.50(8)

Preston, Margaret, Art in Australia, 1929, quoted in Art Gallery New South Wales, “Margaret Preston, art and life,” viewed online 5/11/2014 http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/sub/preston/artist_1920.html

Sayers, Andrew, “Thea Proctor: artist and tastemaker” in The World of Thea Proctor, ed. Sarah Engledow, Canberra: Craftsman House, 2005

Steven, A. McNamara, A. Goad, P. Modernism and Australia: Documents on Art, Design, and Architecture 1917-1967, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006

Footnotes

[1]    Mary Eagle and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, (Sydney: Macmillan, 1994) p. 146

[2]    Steven, A. McNamara, A. Goad, P. Modernism and Australia: Documents on Art, Design, and Architecture 1917-1967, (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006) p.15

[3]    Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi. Margaret Preston. (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005) p. 21

[4]    Eileen Chanin, “Making Sydney Modern”, Modernism/Modernity, Volume 21, Number 2, April 2014, p. 547

[5]    Jane Hylton, South Australian Women Artists 1890s-1940s, (Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1994) p. 1

[6]    Jane Hylton, South Australian Women Artists 1890s-1940s, p. 9

[7]    Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014) p. 5

[8]    Elle Freak, “The Modern Medium: Colour Lino Cuts” in Tracy Lock Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014) p. 147

[9]    Elle Freak, “The Modern Medium: Colour Lino Cuts” p.148

[10]  Andrew Sayers, “Thea Proctor: artist and tastemaker” in The World of Thea Proctor, ed. Sarah Engledow, (Canberra: Craftsman House, 2005) p. 5

[11]  Andrew Sayers, “Thea Proctor: artist and tastemaker” p. 6

[12]  Andrew Sayers, “Thea Proctor: artist and tastemaker” p. 7

[13]  Andrew Sayers, “Thea Proctor: artist and tastemaker” p. 7

[14]  Mary Eagle and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, p. 144

[15]  Eileen Chanin, “Making Sydney Modern”, p. 555

[16]  Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014) p. 66

[17]  Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, p. 66

[18]  Eileen Chanin, “Making Sydney Modern”, p. 547

[19]  Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, p.63

[20]  Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black Unseen Forces, p.63

[21]  Barry Pearce, 100 moments in Australian Painting. (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2014) p.80

[22]  Deborah Hart, ‘Grace Cossington Smith’, in Grace Cossington Smith ed Deborah Hart, (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2005) p. 39

[23]  Deborah Hart, ‘The Curve of the Bridge”, p. 132

[24]  Deborah Hart, ‘”Grace Cossington Smith” p. 39

[25]  Barry Pearce, 100 moments in Australian Painting. p.80

[26]  Barry Pearce, 100 moments in Australian Painting. p.80

[27]  Mary Eagle and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, 168

[28]  Andrew Sayers, “Thea Proctor: artist and tastemaker” p. 13

[29]  Mary Eagle and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, p. 166

[30]  Mary Eagle and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, p. 168

[31]  Mary Eagle and John Jones, A story of Australian painting, p. 162

[32]  Grace Cossington Smith, in an interview with Alan Roberts, 1970. Quoted in Deborah Hart, ‘The Curve of the Bridge’, in Grace Cossington Smith ed Deborah Hart, (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2005) p. 42

[33]  Jane Hylton, South Australian Women Artists 1890s-1940s, p. 13

[34]  Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi. Margaret Preston. (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005) p.61

[35]  Barry Pearce, 100 moments in Australian Painting. p.98

[36]  Barry Pearce, 100 moments in Australian Painting. p.98

[37]  Rose Peel, “Australian Arts and Crafts: Margaret Preston; ‘the ladder of art lies flat, not vertical’” Style 1900, Summer-Fall, 2002, Vol.15, p. 53

[38]  Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi. Margaret Preston. (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005) p.80

[39]  Barry Pearce, 100 moments in Australian Painting. p.98

[40]  Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi. Margaret Preston. p.50

[41]  Deborah Edwards with Rose Peel and Denise Mimmocchi. Margaret Preston. p.50

[42]  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Grace Cossington Smith- The Lacquer Room’, viewed online 5/11/2014

– Ingrid Goetz

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