L o r n a N i m m o
AWI President 1955-1958
This is no lowly medium. A comparatively gentle medium, yes, but one capable of encompassing a powerful range of moods in representational or non-representational painting. – Lorna Muir Nimmo, Foreword, AWI exhibition catalogue, 1958
It is a truism that the best man for the job may be a woman. Clearly, such was the view of members in 1955 when, upon Hal Missingham’s resignation, Lorna Nimmo was elected AWI President, being the only female to hold that office in the history of the Institute. Nimmo also has the distinction of being the first woman ever to be awarded the prestigious Wynne Prize for landscape painting.
Nimmo was an attractive, albeit prim, woman of medium height with clear, alert eyes, somewhat square shoulders and a resolute gait, her hair being always swept back to reveal strong cheekbones and prominent forehead with a pronounced widow’s peak. Although keenly intelligent, assertive and spirited, she eschewed the radical feminist ideology underpinning the Women’s Liberation Movement which, she stated, her experience in co-educational schools had rendered ‘redundant’ to her.1 Yet, her pioneering achievements both as an artist and academic are paradigmatic to the feminist discourse in relation to Australian art history and culture.
The eldest of three children, Lorna Muir Nimmo was born on 11 April 1920 in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, to Robert Muir Nimmo, a postal official, and Alice Jane, née James. Nimmo was proud of her pioneer heritage on both the paternal and distaff sides of the family. Her paternal grandparents, Joseph Nimmo and Elizabeth Muir, had emigrated from Lanarkshire, Scotland, on the Northampton, which arrived in Sydney on 14 January 1879, with a view to bettering their fortune in the colony.2 They settled in the Hartley district of the Blue Mountains, where Joseph exercised for some years his trade as a joiner before acquiring the imposing family hotel now known as Hotel Gearin, at Goldsmith Place in close proximity to Katoomba Railway Station, where Lorna’s father, Robert, and his siblings were raised. Erected in 1880 and initially licensed to George Biles in 1881, it survives as the oldest licensed premises in the township. A prominent local politician and pillar of the community, Joseph Nimmo was an alderman upon the incorporation of the Katoomba Municipal Council in 1889 before serving as Mayor from 1892 to 1893. A hagiographic profile of the ‘well-known and highly respected’ Mayor, which appeared in the Sydney Mail of 16 July 1892, noted that he ‘has always taken great interest in every movement having for its object the good of the people.’
Her maternal grandfather, dubbed ‘Honest’ George James, was an alderman from 1904 to 1927 and twice held the office of Mayor of Katoomba (1909 -1910 and 1914 -1916). A butcher by occupation with shops in Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls from the 1890s until 1905, he built the historic residence, McClintock House in 1912, at 15 Abbotsford Road, Katoomba, named after his mother, Jane McClintock. Still extant, it has since been converted into a guesthouse.
Nimmo recalled her idyllic childhood in Katoomba, with its magnificent panorama of the valleys set against the majestic thrust of the mountains, the native flora and vista of the heathland covering the sandstone escarpments, as one of the lasting influences of her life.3 Her father imported flowers from Holland and the beauty of the blooms that surrounded her — peonies, hyacinths, tulips and fuchsias – remained vivid as a formative visual memory. This passionate response to the natural world was an enduring one that would find expression in her later landscapes and still life subjects.
She attended the co-educational Katoomba High School, excelling in all subjects, including sport, having gained the running championship for the school. Culturally, her father had instilled in her a love of literature at a young age, reading to her as she sat on his knee and constantly reciting poetry by rote. This same love of poetry would have salience throughout her own life. Although possessed of a natural aptitude for drawing, Nimmo didn’t take a formal art class until her final year in high school in 1935, when she was awarded a scholarship to East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School), where she studied from 1936 to 1940. It would prove a transformative experience. ‘Once in art school,’ she noted in retrospect, ‘I thoroughly enjoyed myself and it became a way of thinking allied to a way of life.’ 4
At East Sydney Technical College, Douglas Dundas and his wife, Dorothy Thornhill, were most influential among her lecturers and it was to them, Nimmo said, she owed a tremendous debt of gratitude for their encouragement as much as their personal friendship. As a student, printmaking was among the disciplines in which distinguished herself, producing in 1940 a prodigious series of linocuts inspired by ‘The Beginning of Armadillos’ from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories for Little Children, as well as the japonistic, ukiyo-e influenced Kimono, both of which are held in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
After obtaining her diploma, she undertook a one-year post-graduate course and, in 1941, was awarded the New South Wales Travelling Scholarship but, unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II precluded travel overseas. Instead, that time was spent in isolation painting rural landscapes informed by the work of Joseph William Mallord Turner, whom she cited as being one of the strongest influences of her career.5 Having read John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, a defence of Turner’s work with its premise of truth to nature, she sought verisimilitude in her paintings through a stylistic adherence to realism. ‘To me,’ Nimmo averred, ‘trees are as worthy of portraiture as people.’6
One day that year, Nimmo sat on a knoll in Yarramalong, in the Central Coast region of New South Wales, and painted en plein air the dairy farm below and vista across the valley to the hill opposite. As she put down her paints, three greyhounds gambolled up to her, one of them rolling on the palette and becoming covered in pigment. That oil painting, Valley Farms, won the Art Gallery of New South Wales 1941 Wynne Prize. The news was extremely surprising to Nimmo, not due to the fact that she was the first woman ever to be awarded that illustrious prize for landscape but rather because she considered her smaller oil on canvas, entitled September in Australia, which was likewise a finalist in that competition, to be more lyrical and more creative compositionally. It would be thirty years until another female artist won the Wynne Prize, in 1971, notably Margaret Woodward, later to become a member of the Australian Watercolour Institute. Suzanne Archer, also an AWI member, was only the third woman to be awarded the Wynne Prize, in 1993.
The following year, in 1942, Nimmo began exhibiting with the Australian Watercolour Institute, being elected a member in 1946, and with the Society of Artists (from 1941 until 1944). She returned to East Sydney Technical College in 1945 with a view to undertaking a post-graduate course but was immediately annexed to the staff, teaching drawing and composition with C.H. Vacchini in the Introductory art course until 1951. AWI member Jocelyn Maughan, a student at the National Art School during the 1950s, vividly recollects having Nimmo as a substitute teacher for a drawing class during which she demonstrated a masterly technique for rendering the planes, angles and linear structure of an umbrella. As an art teacher, in later years, Maughan imparted that same technique to her own students.
At the time, Nimmo occupied a large apartment with elongated vertical windows, adorned with massive curtains, at 187 Macquarie Street, opposite the State Library of New South Wales and Parliament House, Sydney, from the balcony of which she recalled witnessing the Victory March on 15 August 1945 upon the declaration of peace following the Japanese surrender. Tall City Window, Nimmo’s intimate, contemplative, architectonic watercolour painting of the interior of her studio-residence, was a finalist in the 1945 Wynne Prize and acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales at that year’s AWI annual exhibition. Subsequently, that same institution purchased three of her watercolours, Snowfall, Autumn Landscape, Oberon and Collitts Inn and the Dark Pines, from the AWI annual exhibitions of 1946, 1947 and 1948, as well as two oils, Burnt Timber (1947) and The Bush Fire’s Passage (1952).
In 1952, Nimmo boarded a French freighter bound for Marseilles, from where she travelled through the south of France to Paris. That sea voyage was made all the more memorable through her friendship with the French Captain, who persuaded Nimmo, a committed vegetarian, to indulge in a meal of beef accompanied by a superior bottle of vin rouge. It was a culinary education and, henceforth, she could only eat meat if washed down with a glass of wine à la française. In Paris, Nimmo studied life drawing at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière while lodging at the former American Girls’ Art Club (later known as Columbia University’s Reid Hall), a residential centre for university students originally built in the 18th century by the Duc de Chevreuse, situated at 4 rue de Chevreuse on the Left Bank. A portrait she painted there of a young Spanish woman, serene, remote and pensive, was included in an exhibition at Reid Hall, being awarded first prize by an adjudicator from the Louvre. Seeing the Monet collection at the Orangerie in Paris, particularly the scale and unerring brushwork of his large waterlilies painted in the light of various times of the day, was a revelation to Nimmo, imbuing her with a renewed appreciation of the artist’s work. She also attended French language classes at the Alliance Française, characterising that time spent in Paris as one of the most enthusiastic and creative periods of her life.7
From Paris, she went to London, studying initially at the Courtauld Institute and afterwards at the Slade School of Fine Art under renowned German art historian, Professor Rudolf Wittkower, and British realist painter, Sir William Menzies Coldstream, then Head of the Slade School. Nimmo’s studies overseas and first-hand experience of European, British and Modernist art would have an impact on her own approach to painting. Drawing inspiration from her own imagination rather than concentrating solely on the motif, the restrained, spatially ordered and tonal style of her earlier works, which show the influence of her teacher and mentor, Douglas Dundas, gave way to a freer approach to painting characterised by a broader palette, opalescent washes and the introduction of abstract forms.
Upon her return to Australia in 1955, by way of Italy, Spain and Greece, Nimmo was offered two teaching positions, one at East Sydney Technical College and the other as a founding lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of New South Wales. She accepted the latter appointment, which comprised lecturing on the history and theory of art, practical teaching of drawing and supervision of post-graduate students. Although Nimmo found that position intellectually and creatively stimulating, she regretted that the rigorous demands on her time adversely affected her personal production as an artist.
Shortly afterwards, Nimmo was elected AWI President, presiding until 1958, in which capacity she wrote the customary introductory essays for the annual exhibition catalogues as well as letters to newspapers regarding diverse issues in the visual arts. It is apt that she acceded to the position following the resignation of Hal Missingham, in light of his leftist socio-political views, progressive art policies and championing of Modernism. In her capacity as AWI President, Nimmo similarly encouraged diverse, contemporary forms of expression in the medium of watercolour, as conveyed in her introduction to the catalogue of the 35th AWI Annual Exhibition in 1958:
Within the quality of its plastic range and the infinite scope of its suggestive power lie the most delightful communications. Within its tendency to respond when called into is innate capricious life or to be exploited by recognition of its very waywardness into the form of a work of art lie, for those who care to seek it, the spiritual satisfaction of visual poems and symphonies.
At the School of Architecture, Nimmo was considered something of an anomaly in that, throughout her entire tenure there, she was accompanied to classes by her various canine companions, which was a great source of mirth for the students. In fact, such was her fondness for birds and animals that Nimmo gained celebrity in the press as ‘The Pelican Lady’ when, for twelve months in 1979, she fed flocks of starving pelicans that had migrated to Centennial Park from Central Australia at a personal cost of over $4000.8
Tragically, in 1970, Nimmo was involved in a serious car accident that prevented her from painting, although she retained her position as a lecturer at the University of New South Wales until her retirement in 1980. Three years later, she moved to a cottage in Murrurundi, a rural town in the Upper Hunter Valley. Having just begun to paint again, Nimmo died there, unmarried and without issue, on 12 December 1990. Two years later, an article appeared in the local Quirindi Advocate concerning the public auction of Nimmo’s estate, which comprised a personal collection of paintings by acknowledged artists, including Douglas Dundas, Hector Gilliland, Brian Dunlop, David Strachan and Jean Appleton, superlative examples of English and Colonial furniture, antique bottles and Asian artefacts, largely ceramics.9 Among her own works was Valley Farms, winner of the 1941 Wynne Prize, which was acquired by the New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale, New South Wales, as a bequest of the Lorna Nimmo estate. Two watercolours by Nimmo are also in that collection, Hillside and Wattle Trees and Wet Morning, Yarramalong, both gifts of Howard Hinton in 1943.
Subsequent to her death, Nimmo’s friend and former student, Virginia Edwards, compiled a scrapbook in memoriam, retained in the Research Library and Archive of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which contains press cuttings, photographs of the artist and her dogs, exhibition catalogues, extracts of her letters and personal notations.10 In it are poignant, adeptly rendered drawings of her canine companions and an extremely emotive elegy to her beloved Irish Red Setter, Kimba. Edwards wrote that one of Nimmo’s favoured phrases was ‘the coefficient of adversity’, a term existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre appropriated from Gaston Bachelard (in his essay, ‘Water and Dreams’). According to Sartre’s analysis of the human condition in Being and Nothingness, the coefficient of adversity refers to the perceived resistance to one’s aspirations. In terms of perspective, an obstacle can also present a strategy. ‘Lorna applied this principle throughout her life,’ Edwards commented.11 This concept of making a virtue of adversity is perhaps best expressed in Nimmo’s reproduction, within her personal notations, of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation from the Greek of Plato’s epigram to Aster, denoting the transformation of loss into beauty through the power of imagination:
Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled;
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus giving
New splendour to the dead.
Lorna Nimmo’s work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the State Library of New South Wales, New England Regional Art Museum and Newcastle Region Art Museum, as well as in private collections in Australia and overseas.
- Lorna Nimmo interviewed by Hazel de Berg, Hazel de Berg Collection, TRC 1/57, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
- New South Wales, Australia, Unassisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1826-1922, State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia.
- Lorna Nimmo interviewed by Helen de Berg, Helen de Berg Collection, TRC 1/57, National Library of Australia, Canberra
- Hickman, Lorraine, ‘The Pelican Lady of Centennial Park,’ New Idea, 10 February 1979.
- ‘Prized possessions for auction at Murrundi,’ Quirindi Advocate, 2 January 1992.
- Scrapbook, Nimmo, Lorna, compiled by Virginia Edwards, MS2000.14, Research Library and Archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen
Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)