In the 1920s and ‘30s, Adelaide Perry painted landscapes that owed a predictable debt to Cezanne and could be hard to distinguish from Dorrit Black’s work, and she made prints of Sydney with silhouettes of cranes and office blocks that looked a lot like the linocuts Adrian Feint was producing. She also painted portraits of her female friends. Whoever’s work these resembled, they were her own.
We know the sitters were her friends and not commissions because the paintings have an intimacy commercial portraitists never achieve, let alone aspire to. The women look away, distracted by minor annoyances. Betty looks down with tight lips and a pensiveness suggesting a dilemma that began with one phone call and will end with another.(1) Rachel Roxburgh looks to a point just over the viewer’s shoulder, absorbed with some small but nagging regret.(2) Marilla taps absent-mindedly at a drum or tambourine as though waiting for a friend who is always late.(3) The mystery in Perry’s sitters lies in their ordinariness. They are teachers, musicians and other artists. They wear cardigans and twin sets and are demure without being prudish, and they are always quietly self-possessed.
Perry’s 1931 painting, Woman Pilot has that same intimacy. With her flying helmet and goggles covering her hair, she looks past the viewer, musing rather than worried yet nevertheless indifferent to the painter’s presence. Unlike the other sitters she is outdoors, though it would have been odd in the 1930s to paint a pilot in costume and sitting in her living room.
And like Perry’s other sitters she has a face that is vaguely familiar, not a friend so much as someone whose office is just down the corridor, who catches the same train in the morning, who lines up at the supermarket with a trolley full of groceries: someone whose responsibilities occupy enough of her time that she need not concern herself with your existence. Her name is Ailsa Lee-Brown. She is a pilot, but in 1931 she is better known as an artist.
Mascot aerodrome and Botany Bay lie behind and below her, washed in sunshine. Three years after Adelaide Perry paints this portrait, Ailsa’s husband, Dr Robert Lee-Brown, will take off in a Tiger Moth from that aerodrome, lose control and crash it into Brighton Le Sands, killing himself and his passenger.(4) This is still an age when flying isn’t a profession so much as a calling, when a writer pilot like Antoine Saint-Exupéry can list off fellow flyers who’d disappeared inured to the eventuality he will go the same way. We might want to read that existential insouciance in the portrait of Ailsa Lee-Brown, but Adelaide Perry was after something else.
In the 1920s, Adelaide Perry and Ailsa Lee-Brown studied together at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School.(5) The teachers and students who came through the school that decade: Thea Proctor, Roy de Maistre, William Dobell, Black, Feint and others, would define Sydney Modernism in the 1930s, which itself would dictate how a generation across Australia thought about the stuff of their lives, everything from the design of their houses to the furniture in their lounge rooms to the pattern on their neckties. It was the first real break Australian popular culture made from Victorian conventions, so there could be an underlying assumption that Perry and Lee-Brown were caught up in a movement, maybe not at its centre but close enough to draw from its energy, to think, as anybody would in that situation, that they were at liberty to change the world. And what could be more bohemian than a woman pilot, scorning not just danger but all the social constrictions placed upon her?
A photograph Harold Cazneaux took at Ashton’s Art School in 1931 casts doubt on that.(6) It shows a life model class in progress. Some twenty students, mostly women, have crowded around the model on the dais. Three, a man in the left foreground and two women in the main audience, are working on their easels. All the female students have their hair cut in fashionable bobs and they look up at the model with a concentrated seriousness. She is nude and covers her face from the camera with her arms, her figure twisted, like Eve in the garden hiding from God. In the background, several casts of classical statues, also in states of undress, look on. One has his arm extended as though pointing accusingly across the room to the life model. Every detail in the photograph is staged of course; the model hides her face from Cazneaux, not the students, because to show it to the camera while naked would have pushed the photograph into uncertain legal territory. Some students were given easels, but not too many otherwise the scene would have been cluttered with their frames, so most sit and merely observe with that unsmiling intent, maybe aware of the absurdity of the scene but under instruction not to reveal that.
Cazneaux was no social progressive; read his correspondence arguing why women shouldn’t be allowed in the Sydney Camera Circle. What he wanted from the photo was something perfunctory, a positive view of the school drawn from the essential information: dedicated students, rigorous methodology, a tradition stretching back to Greece and Rome, but despite the life model’s unambiguous presence in the scene, the students might as well be wrestling with the technical problem of how to depict a cube in one dimensional space. For an art school, Julian Ashton’s looks oddly straitlaced and joyless.
Maybe it was. Art schools today have reputations to maintain as breeding grounds for social experiments opposed to the mainstream. The photos from Ashton’s Art School have something else to say. They share with Perry’s portraits the evocation of a suburban homeliness that lay in the heart of Australian Modernism. Like the bush, the central city was a place to visit. The task of living, joyful as it could be on occasion, took place in the suburbs. That middle class modesty is present in the identical haircuts the female students have, (We know Ailsa Lee-Brown had the same bob because in 1927 Thea Proctor drew her with one.) and in the understated evidence from Perry’s portraits that most of her friends are sitting in their living rooms. Students and sitters; they might be fascinating but they’re not rebels.
“A woman who has the care of a home and family needs special courage and determination to practice an art which gives her self-expression”.(7)
Thea Proctor said that at an opening of an exhibition of Ailsa’s in 1938. If it sounds self-evident, under only cursory scrutiny it comes across as hollow and banal, something that could easily have been printed on the frontispiece of the Golden Wattle Cookbook. It appeared at the head of a review of the show in the Sydney Morning Herald and we can’t quite trust it. Like sports journalists, art critics had the bad habit of putting their ideas in other’s mouths. It was also possible the hack spied Thea Proctor leaving the opening and hurried over to grab a quote. Ms Proctor remembered something she’d said recently that pleased her and tossed it out again before hurrying off to her next engagement. In 1938, no one really cared what artists thought.
We want to believe that a woman pilot in the 1930s was a pioneer, possessing daredevil nerves and suffragette grit, and when Ailsa Lee-Brown posed for Adelaide Perry in helmet, goggles and jacket, she was calling out to all women to join her in the sky. In the same way, we want art school students to have been free radicals, striking out for new territories of the mind. Except that in the history of Australian Modernism, one reason the names of the dissenters and agitators remain vivid is that they were so rare. Most artists followed Thea Proctor’s advice and sought self-improvement through elegant domesticity. “Generally speaking,” she once piously advised. “One cannot wear the same clothes in Sydney as in London”.(8) The secret to Perry’s painting, why she called it Woman Pilot instead of Ailsa, is that her sitter’s identity doesn’t matter. She could be any woman.
A year after Robert Lee-Brown was killed, Ailsa married her flying instructor George Allan, better known as Scotty.(9) He had a résumé that would have made Biggles jealous: fighter pilot on the Western Front, copilot with Charles Kingsford Smith, pilot on a record breaking flight from England to Australia and an early sign-up with QANTAS. With that list of achievements, he inevitably smothered his wife’s ambitions. Before long she was merely described as a “keen flyer”. As an artist, she took Proctor’s advice to its logical conclusion, into neglect. Then she was killed, not in a plane crash but after being hit by a bicycle, which sounds like irony for someone who deserved it, though she didn’t. That was in 1943, when she was forty five. The obituaries referred to her as Scotty Allan’s wife.(10)