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On the Line

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Oil painting of woman in 1920s dress wearing a broad brimmed hat.

DURATION: 3mins 10secs

Florence Rodway, 1910
by Norman Carter
presented by Norman Carter, 1962
ML 339

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Executive Director, Library and Information Services and Dixson Librarian

Titled A Low Toned Harmony, Norman Carter created a striking full-length portrait of his friend and fellow artist Florence Rodway. The painting was afforded the ultimate recognition in 1913 of being hung on the line, so hung at eye height, in London’s Royal Academy Exhibition that year.

Closer to home, the portrait had been highly praised when it was exhibited by the Royal Art Society in New South Wales in 1910. That success emboldened him to dispatch it to the Salon in Paris, where it was awarded a bronze medal, a coveted distinction, especially for a foreign artist and a colonial.

And then from Paris to London and the triumph of securing a place on the line. Carter wasn’t actually in London to enjoy his success but his teacher, the artist Emanuel Phillips Fox, considered that having his portrait hung on the line in London at the Royal Academy was an even greater success than receiving a medal in Paris had been. Each of the 40 members of the Royal Academy had the right to have 12 of their own paintings accepted for the exhibition and that left very little room for a painting by an outsider, a non-Academy member such as Norman Carter, to be accepted, so it was a great achievement.

Florence Rodway was herself a well-known Sydney artist. She specialised in using pastels, a very delicate, chalky medium, and so her surviving work is quite fragile. Neither she nor her work is well-known today.

Carter has treated her with a “certain flamboyant strength and pictorial effect,” as his reviewer gushed at the time. Wearing a dark mauve walking costume, standing in an easy pose, gazing at the viewer, gloved right hand resting on a parasol, she’s self-assured and very lovely. He’s placed her towards the right side of the canvas. A generous foreground creates this strong impression of a figure looking down upon the viewer.

But this full-length portrait of Rodway, despite the acclaim heaped on artist and painting at the time, has long been thought to have been lost. We know what it looks because a photograph of it was included along with the reviews when it was exhibited in Sydney in 1910. And then it disappeared. And then, in 1962, Carter presented this three-quarter portrait of Rodway to the library. Identical in colour and pose to his acclaimed full-length work, showing the same gestural brush strokes around hat and face, this smaller canvas has been cut down on two sides that correspond to the missing portions of the original full-length portrait. So, seemingly lost and found.

The similarity between the two paintings has only been recognised fairly recently. Carter kept the portrait of his friend but seems not to have exhibited it again and it’s not known why he chose to reduce the size of a much-lauded, prizewinning portrait.