State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 23 April 1979

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Manuscript: Norman Lindsay as seen by Blamire Young, 1907

Norman Alfred Williams Lindsay was born in Creswick, Victoria, on 22 February, 1879 Destined to become one of Australia's most versatile and controversial artists, Lindsay began to develop his remarkable technical skills from an early age. By the 1900's he was becoming well known as a brilliant cartoonist and black and white illustrator and as a master of drawing.
In October, 1907, he participated in the First Melbourne Exhibition held by the Society of Artists (Sydney) at the Guild Hall in Swanston Street. His pen and ink drawing Pollice Verso was purchased from the Exhibition by the National Gallery of Victoria for the record sum of 150 guineas. Norman's visit to Melbourne with the other Sydney artists inspired Blamire Young's manuscript, titled simply ‘Norman Lindsay’ and dated Greensborough, Victoria, Nov., 1907. A note inserted on page one indicates that the piece was purchased for the sum of £2.10.0 by the magazine Lone Hand. It seems likely, however, that the article was never published.
Blamire Young was born in Londesborough, Yorkshire, in 1862. He received a Masters degree from Cambridge and spent the years 1885 to 1893 as mathematics master at Katoomba College in New South Wales. He returned to England and after a short period at Herkomer's Art School at Bushey he became involved with the poster work of the Beggarstaffs (James Pryde and William Nicholson). He lived in Melbourne from 1896 to 1912 where he established himself first as a poster artist and then as a water colourist. After a further period in England he finally returned to Melbourne in 1923. He died at his home at Montrose in January, 1935.
Better remembered today as a distinguished water colour artist, Young was also an astute critic. He wrote frequently for the Argus between 1904 and 1912 and occasionally contributed articles and drawings to Lone Hand and other local journals. From 1929 he was art critic for the Melbourne Herald.
The 1907 piece on Norman Lindsay is a particularly fine example of Young's abilities as a writer. He blends anecdote with perceptive criticism and generous praise. Impressed by the expression of a strong personality in the work, he predicted a promising future for Lindsay. At the same time he mis-judged Lindsay's direction because he expected the “neo-paganism” to pass. He could not take Lindsay's philosophy seriously, either in 1907 or later. While he continued to admire Lindsay's great technical mastery, he appears to have become increasingly disappointed to find that the talented Norman had not out-grown the pre-occupations of his youth. By 1934, Young concluded that ‘a sense of weariness is reached’ by ‘prints that repeat and repeat the sex motive.’
Judgements about Lindsay's work aside, the article presents a striking impression of the young Norman; it is published, therefore, as a centenary tribute to Norman Lindsay.
Elly Fink
There was no question about the warmth of the welcome that Melbourne extended to the Sydney artists, and in spite of the fact that some few growls were heard at the nature of his subjects it was Norman Lindsay that was accepted as the leader of the band. Of course, I am not going to say that my view, or Melbourne's view, or indeed anybody's view is the right view to take of the work of this young artist: but I have formed an opinion of it and I hope that it may be of interest to Australians. When work is strong and personal it is bound to arouse strong feelings and Norman Lindsay's is no exception to this
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rule. The public see his work every week and have learnt to connect it with a certain type of jest and they like it or dislike it according to their points of view. When they like it, they like it in a loud voice, and when they dislike it they are just as emphatic. But there is always the well-informed person who quarrels with both these opinions. He tells both factions that to judge an artist's work of his bread and butter drawings is to show a limited intelligence. He must be judged by his last work and that was to be seen in the Guild Hall. So to the Guild Hall we went —every man Jack of us, and then the fun began.
For myself I went with the keenest anticipations and mixed up with those was the pleasure of seeing these young lions again after a few years of separation. But I was determined to take an open mind with me as regards their work and so I can assure my readers I carried a most impartial spirit hidden behind my baffling smile. When I got to the Hall I was met by the subject of this article who gave me his hand in a frank and boyish way and showed me where to find his latest work, and when I had seen it all I went away in a very thoughtful mood, but fully convinced that the most wonderful thing I had seen there was the hand that Norman Lindsay gave me. It is a small nervous hand, as flexible as a great pianist, as strong as a swordsman's, as sure and as dexterous as a Florentine silver-smith's. It was a tireless hand such as this that Albrecht Durer employed to trace those celebrated steel engravings of his. His work is best when the powers of that hand are most completely called into play, and that is the reason why his pen-work is so much better than his brush-work. His pen-work is astonishing in its vigour, its power and its resource. Here his technique is his own, direct and un-trammeled, and leaves no doubt in the mind as to the medium in which he is destined to do his best work, to carve his own way, and possibly to join the corner of the great black and white artists where such as Vierge, May, Leech and Daumier occupy somewhat lonely niches.
He is at his best with a pen in his hand among rock and broken foliage and sun-warmed gum-crowned slopes. As a propagandist of the free and liberal life he is a failure. But what does that matter. To speak quite truthfully it is these wonderful backgrounds with their shimmering dancing shadows, their golden lights and lace-like traceries that are really interesting him; and neither he nor his public are taking the neo-paganism very seriously. The trouble is that the “liberal shepherds” don't allure enough. They repel rather. Instead of tempting us to take off our waistcoats the urge is rather to put on our overcoats. But obviously it is not of the smallest importance. Those well-fleshed ladies and gentlemen will pass. Their days are numbered. They do very well just now to emphasize by way of textural contrast the absolutely delightful landscapes in which he places them: but I can see that they are tiring him. They belong to what I call the Howard Pyle period. He is far too great an artist to deceive himself for long. There are already indications that he has said all he has to say in this direction, and that he is entering upon a new period, when he will use the nude with sparing discrimination, with a delectable frugality and appetising reticence. He is opening his eyes to other penworthy matter, to other delightful textures and adorable contrasts that are to be found in draperies, earthenware, metalwork and the rest. And I, for one, am satisfied that during this coming period of his development he will give us drawings that will answer triumphantly every test that criticism can apply to them. Possibly they may be pure landscape. Who can say?
As it is he had drawings at the Guild Hall that were not far from perfect. Among his journalistic work was the great drawing The Trio. When I got there it had the red label on it: so I was foiled in my instant drive to possess it. It illustrates those terrible lines that one can never forget: ‘We walk along in the gas-lit street in a ghastly roar, we three. The woman I was, the woman I was and the woman I'll one day be.’ I don't know who wrote them, but they are of a very high
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quality. And Norman Lindsay's drawing is fully equal to their demand. If he has any lingering desire to influence ethically the spirit of the age in which he lives there is far more risk of him doing so with a drawing like this, than there is of his pagan drawings influencing our relations to one another in the opposite direction. If his success is to be measured by the number of his converts then I should say that this drawing has done more as a moral stiffener than all his other drawings have done to relax our social vigilance, such as it is.
But to the devil with reforming. Our concern is with art not morals: but before I go further I should like to point out the strong moral fibre that his ‘ancestors’ have given him in spite of their obvious weaknesses as portrayed in the Melbourne National Gallery picture called My Ancestors, I can't help thinking he has been somewhat harsh to those worthies in his estimate of their character in this picture. There must have been a sturdy old Briton of an ancestor somewhere that could with a love have counterbalanced the combined influences of the rest of the family, for Norman Lindsay's position in Australian art is a triumph of his own personality. Slowly but surely he has raised his art from its lowly cradle of debased journalism where it started in Melbourne ten years ago when I first knew him. There is a naughty nasty little lane somewhere at the back of the Horse Bazaar where we used to meet — Norman, Lionel, Harry Weston and myself and where we were initiated into the mysteries of lithography. Our preceptor was one ‘Fergie’ — good luck to him — though his establishment was the dirtiest I ever entered. However, all of us learnt a great deal there, and from such humble beginnings has Norman Lindsay raised himself until he is the foremost black and white man in Australia, with probably a world wide reputation waiting for him in the near future. Some day I shall put down all that I can remember of those days at ‘Fergie's’ for possibly they may be as full of significance as they were certainly full of enthusiasm. As we tried to save our lunches from Fergie's rats we used to realize that so far as the ladder of art was concerned —our art — its feet could not have been planted lower than Fergie's cellar, where the dreadful old posters were kept. Still, as Oscar said, ‘though we were all in the gutter some of us were looking at the stars.’ Now to resume.
A very notable change has come over Norman Lindsay's work during the last few years. Until then he used the model very sparingly, far too sparingly in fact. As yet he has not got sufficiently used to models to defend himself from their crippling influences: for it is far more difficult to compose a picture or a design with models than without them. There is a leakage somewhere of freedom and power that everyone feels at first. Pollice Verso is an example of a design without models. It is a splendid conception carried out with abundant enthusiasm and go: but its drawing is very faulty. In a little while he will be strong enough to undertake such compositions as these, with the same splendid spirit, only with the added mastery that comes from the wise use of models.
This new conviction of his that he must work more from nature, and less from knowledge, will soon revolutionize his figure work. He will discard the formulae that he has used so long for faces, hands, ears and such things, and his gain will be instantaneous.
I have often heard people say that Norman Lindsay would never free himself from the fetters that were fastened on him in his boyhood; but I have no such fears. I never had. I see his hand — that highly spcialized servant — and I know that in obedience to a natural law he will grow to tax the powers of that hand. He could not escape it if he would. There is in everybody a reflex action between the hand and the brain. The brain instructs the hand: but just as surely the hand reacts upon the brain and instructs it. In artists, whose hands have been specialized, this is the more true. A hand like Norman Lindsay's is a master as well as a servant and a strict master too. It demands to be employed to the fullest capacity of which it is able, and to satisfy its demands he will have to go a long, long way. He will no more be able to resist the demands of his hand than a lark can resist the impulse of its throat to sing or of its wings to soar.