The Artists

Elizabeth Parsons


Elizabeth Parsons
Private Collection

Elizabeth Parsons, painter, lithographer and teacher, was born on 27 September 1831. She was the daughter of George Warren, and his wife, Elizabeth, of Holly Lodge, Isleworth, England.

It has been recorded that 'she apparently inherited a talent for drawing from relatives who were surveyors and teachers of drawing'. Her early art studies were under Newcastle watercolourist, Thomas Miles Richardson, and James Duffield Harding, at that time considered to be the 'greatest painter of foliage in Europe'. The teachings of Harding, who was also a painter, lithographer and writer on the principles and practice of art, had a profound and lasting influence on Elizabeth Parsons, who later advertised herself as being a 'Pupil of J.D.Harding'. She undertook further studies in Paris, and visited the 'Barbizon' Artists' colony. A number of these works that she produced in England and France, she later included in her exhibitions in Melbourne.

One of her earliest known watercolours, is 'The Thatched Cottage, Cornwall', which she produced in 1866, and signed E.Warren. This was possibly painted on one of her visits to see George Parsons, who resided in Cornwall.

On 28 October 1868, she married George Parsons, born 3 January 1830, who at the time of his marriage managed a Cornish Marble Mine, 'The Serpentine'.

Soon after the marriage, Elizabeth produced several more watercolour works, one a 'View of the Cornwall Coast', and the other, a very large watercolour, which was a view of 'The Thames at Isleworth', close to where she was born.

Her husband's first wife had died in 1864, and his two surviving sons from his first marriage were George, born June 1859, and Cecil, who was born in 1861. Elizabeth's first child was a daughter, who was named Adeline. She was born in England on 10 August 1869, and died on 21 December 1949.

The Parsons departed England on 19 March 1870, bound for Australia, aboard the S.S.Great Britain, (Voyage 35) of 57 days. They arrived on 20 May 1870. Elizabeth and George had on board with them, the two boys, George and Cecil, and seven month old, Adeline. Elizabeth was pregnant with Henry. Henry was born on 12 October 1870, and between November 1870 and 1872, Elizabeth gave her address as 3 Gratton Place, Keppel Street, Carlton. Her son, Warren was born on 30 July 1872, and died on 11 March 1905.

On her arrival in Australia, Elizabeth Parsons wasted little time in establishing her reputation as a professional artist. As early as 1 December 1870, her works were shown in an exhibition of 'Works by Victorian Artists', that was opened by Viscount Canterbury at the Melbourne Public Library. In all, two hundred and thirty works were shown in this exhibition, and this included works by O.R.Campbell, Louis Buvelot, and Eugene von Guerard. Elizabeth Parsons' works were highly praised, as 'landscapes of conspicuous merit', and in the Argus review of the exhibition under the heading 'Exhibition of the Victorian Academy', her five watercolour works must have been of considerable quality. Given the stature of the male artists, with whom she was exhibiting, the review was high praise, and noted
'In the watercolour department there are no better landscapes than those painted by Mrs Parsons'.

She adapted to painting the Australian landscape, in oils and watercolour with little trouble, and again successfully exhibited her watercolour works in 1872.

Her watercolour works, apart from landscapes, also included delicate recordings of Australian flora, such as Boronia, Lobelia Gibosa, and the Blue Tinsel Lily.

In January 1873, her husband, George became the Inspector and Auditor on the North Eastern Railway - Seymour and Avenel, and at this time, Elizabeth gave her address as 23 Stephen Street, South Melbourne. During this year her works were accepted for the London International Exhibition.

Between 1874 and 1878, she gave her address as Neptune Street (off Grey Street), St.Kilda.

Her fourth born child was another son, Noel, born on 6 January 1875, and her fourth son, and fifth born child, Jonathon, was born on 18 August 1876. One would have to assume that she had a nanny to look after her children, especially when she went away on one of her many painting excursions to distant and remote areas.

She regularly contributed to the exhibitions held by the Victorian Academy of Arts, and in 1875, she was elected, against considerable opposition and voicing of disapproval from her male counterparts, as the first woman Council Member of the Victorian Academy of Arts, Eastern Hill, later the Victorian Artists' Society.

She had a forceful personality, and made the way easier for future professional women artists to gain recognition, and to hold executive positions on Art Societies. Also, through her Council position on the Victorian Academy of Arts, and her teaching, she had a marked influence on the standard of the art in the community, especially that of women's art, and was a strong advocate of the watercolour medium.

Her early years in Australia were spent between raising her young family, her commitment to the Victorian Academy of Arts, and her teaching. It has been recorded that even in her early years, she was considered 'a successful painter and art teacher', and one of her pupils was her son, Henry, who also became an accomplished artist.

During 1876, one of her English oil subjects and two Australian watercolours, were sent, with the exhibition, as part of Victoria's offering to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial.

For a short while in 1877, she lived in Berwick, and gave her address as Wilson Road (off Lyall Road), Berwick. She drew and painted a number of works in the vicinity of this country town, as well as producing works of Lilydale. Her Lilydale watercolour views were exhibited in 1877 with the New South Wales Academy of Art, and were ranked among the best exhibits. Her husband meanwhile, was employed as Auditor and Inspector on the Gippsland Railway Contract.

Like Louis Buvelot, she was an early advocate of painting plein air, and her travels in search of new subjects took her to many remote areas of Victoria, as well as to interstate, and overseas locations. These locations included places as far afield as Woodend and Maffra, Phillip Island, Kalimna, on the Gippsland Lakes, the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, various areas of Tasmania, and remote areas of New Zealand. Her strength and determination to travel to these areas was remarkable, especially for a woman, for in those days, women did not travel by themselves great distances away from their home and family. Also, her only means of transport would have been by train, and to some destinations, boat, coach, or horse and cart.

One of the works she produced at this time while on one of her painting excursions, was 'Loutit Bay', 1879, an area to which the Cobb & Co. coach had only recently established a service. On the reverse of this work is the inscription 'Mrs George Parsons. Charnwood Road, St.Kilda'. This was an oil painting, however, she also at this time produced a number of watercolours. One, known as 'Lorne Jetty', was painted in 1879, and is a view along the beach at Lorne, towards the Jetty, while another, 'View across Loutit Bay', painted in 1880, is a very similar view to that of the oil 'Loutit Bay, 1879. From the dates of these works, it would seem that they were painted over the Christmas, New Year period of 1879-1880, and would suggest that Elizabeth Parsons stayed in Lorne, possibly at the newly opened Erskine House, or local Hotel, that was also newly opened.

Elizabeth Parsons continued exhibiting her works, and included two oils and three watercolours in the International Exhibition, held in Sydney, 1879-1880. She also exhibited three oils in the Melbourne International Exhibition, in 1880-1881.

Along with Frederick McCubbin, Clara Southern and Jane Sutherland, she was one of the early members of the Buonarotti Society, which was formed in 1880. Cyrus Mason was its President, and the Society has been described as 'a source of semi-Bohemian culture in the Melbourne of the late eighties'. When the Buonarotti Society ceased, Elizabeth Parsons formed a new society, which she named the 'Stray leaves', and which was designed to 'bring together and encourage young people interested in art'.

On 26 August 1880, her next infant was still-born, and between 1880 and 1885, she gave her address as 'St. Ruan', Charnwood Road (off St. Kilda Road), St. Kilda.

In December 1880, two of her works depicting 'Views at Heidelberg', which were shown in the first exhibition of the Sydney Art Society, were highly praised, and she continued exhibiting with this Society for several more years.

In 1881, she exhibited one of her French works, 'At Fontainebleau', with the Art Society of New South Wales, and in the 1881 exhibition of the Victorian Academy of Arts, her love of poetry and literature found expression in the naming of her works.

She gave the following as the title for one of her entries in this Victorian Academy of Arts exhibition:
'The sea was wet as wet could be.
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky'
Lewis Carroll.

Apart from the recognition given to her watercolours, she was also recognised as an accomplished drawer. Probably because of the interest in her drawings, around 1882, she decided on an enterprising commercial venture, to publish a set of lithographed drawing books on Australian landscape, in three parts. The title of this set was Drawing Book of Australian Landscape by Mrs George Parsons. 'Pupil of J.D.Harding'. Each of the drawings in Part one were dated 1882.

In 1884, six of her watercolours were accepted for inclusion in the Victorian Jubilee Exhibition, and in 1886, she won First Award in the Watercolour Landscape Section, and was presented with a silver medallion in the Bendigo Juvenile and Industrial Exhibition.

In 1884, she produced a number of watercolours, depicting views of different 'beauty spots' around Port Phillip Bay, and two of these works, are her 'View from Ricketts Point', and 'The Pier, Mornington'.

She also travelled to New Zealand in 1884 to visit relatives, and produced a number of large watercolour landscapes, of which 'Mount Alfred and Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand' is a fine example. Works that she produced while on this New Zealand trip, she later exhibited in Melbourne.

In the following year, she painted a watercolour, 'Box Hill Landscape', 1885, and this is interesting, for it was around this time that Tom Roberts and his colleagues were discovering the same area, and shortly after established the Box Hill Artists' Camp.

In 1886, she also had works accepted for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, and her work 'The Red Bluff' from this exhibition was highly praised and reproduced in the Magazine of Art.

In 1887, she travelled to Hobart, where she discovered the beauty of Montagu Bay. Here she produced one of her largest, and most dramatic watercolours, 'Montagu Bay, Tasmania', with cloud shrouded Hobart and Mount Wellington in the distance.

In 1888, she continued her travels, this time to Victorian country towns, and produced a number of watercolour landscapes, depicting the country scenery, the buildings and the people at work. Two of these landscapes, are 'The Country Church', and 'Hop-picking at Myrtleford'

She continued to exhibit her works in Melbourne, and this included the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, held in 1888-1889.

Elizabeth Parsons, was a 'well-educated' woman, with a wide range of artistic interests. Apart from her art, she loved music and poetry, and included references to these in her speech on 'Colour Theories', presented at the Australian Church Ladies' Reading Club. She was a strong advocate for the use of permanent pigments, which she would stress the importance of to her fellow artists, and as for her music, she was known to be a talented pianist.

She was a woman with a pioneering spirit, dedicated to her art. She was also an impressive leading figure in the fight for the recognition of the professional status of women artists, and her contribution to Australian Art has been likened to that of Louis Buvelot or John Glover.

She belongs to that group of artists in Australian Art History, who bridge the gap between the Colonial Artists and the Heidelberg School. Like her male counterparts, Louis Buvelot and Eugene von Guerard, she has been included with the Heidelberg School artists, because of her influence on so many of the young artists who later were recognised as members of the Heidelberg School.

She brought with her considerable experience from her studies in England and France, especially in the area of watercolour painting, and in Australia, like Buvelot, around the same time, taught and encouraged many of the younger artists to paint plein air. She was also one of the earliest exponents of the 'one-woman' show in Melbourne, with one show being held in 1885, and another in 1896, the year before she died.

The 1896 exhibition, was held on 9 July, and was titled 'Water Color Pictures By Mrs. George Parsons' One of the watercolour landscape works she produced at this time, was of the township, 'Fern Tree Gully'.

In her lifetime she produced a large number of works, painting in over a hundred different locations. She was also a prolific exhibitor, and her work was considered of such a standard for it to be accepted for many of the major State and International exhibitions of the 1870's and 1880's.

However, despite her success and wide exposure, like so many of the women artists of this period, Elizabeth Parsons has become one of the forgotten artists. Little is known of her work, which is mostly held in private collections, and in keeping with the social conventions of the day, she exhibited under the name - Mrs George Parsons.

Maree Heffernan, in an article 'Mrs George Parsons' V.A.S. Newsletter, August 1994, pp.3-5, noted that Alexander Colquhoun, a personal friend of Elizabeth, had this to say about her in The Age 10 December 1932:
'Perhaps the happiest time of the artist's life was when she was associated with the old Academy of Arts, and was one of the group of enthusiasts who, in the face of much that was discouraging, kept the door of art open in this country in the interests of the coming generations. The building, described as "a large bluestone room lit at the top by sky-lights" was opened in 1874 and cost 800 pounds - an unpretentious beginning, perhaps, but it has borne fruits, and tribute is due from this generation to the memory of the pioneers. Among whom besides Mrs.Parsons were the Hon. H.T.T.a'Beckett, grandfather of the late Penleigh Boyd, J.A.Panton, F.MacKennell, father of Sir Bertram MacKennell, Buvelot, Von Guerard and Chester Earles.'

Peter Perry in his 'Foreword' to the Elizabeth Parsons 1831-1897 exhibition, held at the Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum, 3 October-2 November 1975, used the following quote from Elizabeth Parsons, that tells something of the philosophy behind her art:
"It is in Nature that colour and form exist in their greatest beauty and most infinite variety, and those who study nature will feel that the highest aim is to represent that beauty.
'To show by heavenly forms on earth
How much this world of ours is worth'
The rules of art are few but simple, but Nature is subtle and so infinitely various, and her effects so beyond the power of memory, that the artist should have constant recourse to the ever changing beauties."
Elizabeth Parsons

Peter Perry rightly notes that Elizabeth Parsons was concerned with the recording of colour and form in Nature.

She died on 28 May 1897, and apart from this October 1975 exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum, where thirty-four of her works were shown, her works since her death have appeared in:

Exhibition of Oils and Water-Colours By Leading Australian Artists, The Sedon Galleries,
129 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, August 1933;

Victorian Artists' Society Centenary Exhibition, 9-19 August 1970;

Artists and Central Victoria, Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum, 2 May-22 June, 1975;

Australian Art of the 1870's, Art Gallery of New South Wales,
Sydney, 1976;

The Bicentennial exhibition, The Face of Australia;

A Century of Australian Women Artists, 1840s-1940s, Deutscher Galleries,
Melbourne, 1993; and

Important Australian Women Artists, The Melbourne Fine Art Gallery, 1993.

A collection of 32 of Elizabeth Parsons' works is listed in the Multimedia Catalogue of the State Library of Victoria. These works were produced between 1874 and 1889, and are mostly depictions of Red Bluff, St.Kilda (today known as Point Ormond), as well as various views of St. Kilda, close to where she lived at the time, in Neptune Street (1873-1874) and Charnwood Road (1881-1885).

The State Library of Victoria also has in its records, 19 items of correspondence between Elizabeth Parsons and the Victorian Academy of Arts, between 5 November 1870 and 24 September 1885. Reference (Box 580/2(c); ms-fs93).

Andrew Mackenzie

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Copyright © Pty Ltd 2000. All Rights Reserved.
ABN 69 067 524 921
Tel: +61 3 98185700 Fax: +61 3 98185044