Only a fraction of what the NSW Art Gallery owns is on display at any one time. The remainder of its collection is held in storage at a specially designed warehouse in an industrial area a good half hour drive away from Sydney’s centre. By pre-arrangement, any member of the public can ask to view one of those stored pieces.
After all our research JA and I had a pile of circumstantial evidence, but nothing that “provided any direct proof” that the sitter for Norman Carter’s Study in Brown was Lucy Elizabeth Creft. All the same, we were determined to see the painting with our own eyes.
There’s nothing glamorous about viewing artwork in storage. Designed for easy access by trucks, the ample car park and modern building looked more like the supermarket warehouses I was familiar with from my working years, rather than a sanctuary for precious art. The complex is not usually visited by the public, and the car park was deserted, save for a few staff vehicles. JA and I arrived in separate cars. After finding the nondescript entrance, we went through the standard security check. Then after a brief wait we were ushered into a cement-floored hallway, a solid wall on one side, and a wall of metal mesh on the other.
And there, hanging about eye-height on a section of the metal mesh, all alone and awaiting our inspection, was Study in Brown. It was bigger than we’d expected, 3′ x 2.5′ in the old scale (91x75cm), and the oil paint gave off a luminescence that is not obvious in the digital image. Here was our dark-haired, fair-skinned twelve-year-old schoolgirl, practically in the flesh. Seeing her like that, we were even more convinced this was the painting that had been described to each of us by my aunt and JA’s grandmother.
To our knowledge, “grandmother” was the last surviving person who had seen the portrait many times, and knew for certain that the sitter was Lucy. She had the story from her father, who was married to Lucy up till her death in tragic circumstances, aged only thirty-one. Despite his re-marriage, he honoured Lucy’s memory and took his daughter to visit the portrait very frequently. When she was older, she continued the pilgrimage for herself.
Seeing the painting, JA and I agreed we’d done as much groundwork as we could think of. It was time to ask grandmother if she would make the eight hour drive to Sydney, and tell us whether or not this was the portrait.
I wasn’t there the day that JA took her grandmother to the storage facility. I wish I had been. “There was 100% acceptance,” JA told me. “It was like she was re-united. She barely took her eyes off her.”
And that, my friends – as if I really needed any convincing by then – was good enough word for me. I too, have become very attached to Lucy, and in a strange way, also experience this feeling of re-connection to a lost soul whose DNA I share.
And although it is not the irrefutable proof that would be needed to meet the requirement for art world provenance, the curator I have been liaising with has advised this story will be kept on Study in Brown‘s file for background information.
It’s been many decades since the painting was on permanent display. Recently, that curator has revisited early 20th century Australian art, and for a short time, Study in Brown is once again on view – right where my Aunty Myra told me to look in the first place.
And Norman Carter is once more re-united with his contemporaries such as Rupert Bunny.
The below snaps are from my phone. They don’t show that the painting has been restored, and now it truly shows its depth and the exquisite colouring of the complexion. Nor can you see just how red is the bow in her hair, which I quite obscured in the close-up photo. You can take another look at the digital image here.
I have always wondered about the splotch of white frill at her neck. The main cause of Lucy’s death was a thyroid goitre, and I’ll never know whether this frilly piece was for decoration, or some type of choker to hide an already growing protrusion.
Whatever the case, it was wonderful to see the painting back on display, with both the portrait and frame restored and glowing. It was quite an emotional moment, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to see her for myself. Much as the Art Gallery’s digital image is better than my mobile phone snaps, nothing compares to seeing the real thing.
A final footnote to this story is that in 1962, a year before his death, Norman Carter was interviewed by Hazel de Berg; an oral history pioneer. Here we have the voice of the man, then in his late 80s, recollecting his early art studies, his approach to portrait painting, and his stained glass work. It runs for about twenty minutes and you can listen here (click “I accept” for the licence agreement). Once again this valuable piece of history is made available to us through the National Library of Australia’s digitisation project; and locatable through Trove.
And that, my friends, is the final part of our search to re-unite my great-aunt, Lucy Elizabeth Creft, with her rightful place in Australian art history.