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Hester, Joy St Clair (1920–1960)

by Janine Burke

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Joy St Clair Hester (1920-1960), artist, was born on 21 August 1920 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, second child of Robert Ferdinand Hester, a bank officer from England, and his wife Louise May, née Bracher, a Victorian-born teacher. Educated at St Michael's Church of England Girls' Grammar School, St Kilda, in 1936 Joy completed one year of an art-and-crafts course at Brighton Technical School. At the National Gallery schools she won first prize (1938) for drawing a head from life. The course was conservative and she abandoned it, preferring to attend life-drawing classes at the Victorian Artists Society, East Melbourne. A founding member of the Contemporary Art Society in 1938, she first exhibited in its inaugural exhibition in the following year. The C.A.S. was to remain her only venue for showing work until she held her first solo exhibition at the Melbourne Book Club Gallery in 1950. On 1 January 1941 at All Saints Church, Greensborough, she married with Anglican rites a fellow artist Albert Lee Tucker.

Between 1938 and 1947 Hester was part of a stimulating and innovative circle of painters—among them (Sir) Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval—which was colloquially known as the 'Angry Penguins', after the art and literary magazine of the same name published by John Reed and Max Harris. She was the only woman artist in the group. It met regularly at Heide, the home of the art patrons John and Sunday Reed. Sunday was Hester's closest friend, encouraging her work, supporting her financially and later adopting her first son Sweeney.

Hester drew and rarely painted, favouring the media of brush and ink. It was an unusual choice, one that set her apart from her contemporaries and one that she developed with great skill through her brief career. If it determined her style and method, it also meant that during her lifetime her art received little attention. Drawing was not valued as highly as oil painting and was seen as preparatory to the finished work of art. Further, Hester's method of working—sitting on the floor in company and rapidly producing her drawings—meant that she was viewed as a casual rather than a serious artist.

She chose the human face as her motif, focussing on the eyes. Intense emotions and psychological states were registered with quick, sure, expressionist strokes. Her portraits of friends and family were incisive, while the 'Gethsemane' series (1946-47) concentrated on upward-gazing, hallucinatory heads. Her immediate influences included German Expressionism, the Russian emigrant painter Danila Vassilieff, and Picasso. She was also directly influenced by the newsreels shown in 1945 of Nazi concentration camps. Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Judith Wright were her favourite poets. An important early series, 'From An Incredible Night Dream' (1946-47), was inspired by Jean Cocteau's Opium (Paris, 1930).

In 1947 Hester was diagnosed as having Hodgkin's disease and given a short time to live. She left her husband and young son, and moved to Sydney with Gray Smith (1919-1991). In the next two years she produced some of her finest drawings: the 'Face', 'Sleep' and 'Love' series. She exhibited these in 1950, together with a selection of her poems, placed on the walls next to the drawings.

From 1948 to 1956 Hester lived with Gray Smith in rural Victoria, first at Hurstbridge, then at Avonsleigh and Upwey in the Dandenong Ranges. Against medical advice she had two more children. She was in remission from Hodgkin's disease until 1956, when the symptoms re-appeared. During her last years she lived at Box Hill, where she had her first studio. There she produced her largest drawings and, for the first time, began regularly signing and dating her work. The image of a large-eyed child, holding an animal, dominated this period, as did the subject of 'The Lovers' (1956-58) where fear and sexual passion were mingled in the embrace between man and woman. In the same years her poetry was concerned with romantic love and with metaphors of the natural world.

Divorced on 14 April 1959, Hester married Gray Smith on 11 November that year at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. She spent increasingly long periods in hospital. Survived by her husband and their son and daughter, and by the son of her first marriage, she died on 4 December 1960 at Prahran and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. There are four portraits of Hester by Albert Tucker, one in his own collection, another in that of Bob Weis in Melbourne, and two in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; a self-portrait is in the Georges Mora collection, Melbourne. Her work is represented in major Australian art galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Burke, Australian Women Artists (Melb, 1980)
  • J. Burke, Joy Hester (Melb, 1983) and for bibliography
  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors (Melb, 1981)
  • Art and Australia, 1, no 4, June 1966, p 40, 1, no 18, Sept 1980, p 68
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1960, 30 Sept 1976, 7 Oct 1981
  • Australian, 12 Oct 1976, 14 Jan 1984.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Janine Burke, 'Hester, Joy St Clair (1920–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hester-joy-st-clair-10493/text18615, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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