Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nicholas, Emily Hilda (1884–1961)

by Avenel Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Emily Hilda Nicholas (1884-1961), artist, was born on 1 September 1884 at Ballarat, Victoria, second daughter of English-born parents Henry Finch Rix, inspector of schools, and his wife Elizabeth, née Sutton, an amateur artist. Hilda was educated at Merton Hall, Melbourne, and the National Gallery Schools' drawing class (1902-05) under Frederick McCubbin. In 1904-06 she exhibited with the Victorian Artists' Society and also did illustration work.

After her father's death Hilda with her sister and mother went to Britain in 1907. She briefly studied drawing in London, attended the Atelier Delécluse and the Académie Colarossi in Paris, and travelled extensively in Western Europe. In Paris in 1911 her canvas, 'Retour de la Chasse', was hung 'on the line' at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français. Next winter Hilda Rix painted in Spain and Morocco; from her one-woman exhibition in 1912 the pastel drawing, 'Grand Marché. Tanger', was bought by the French government. After a second visit to Morocco she exhibited with Les Peintres Orientalistes Français in Paris in 1914.

Miss Rix had a studio in Paris and another at the artists' colony at Etaples. Here she painted 'an old peasant woman in my garden', later bought by the National Gallery of Victoria. From Etaples they escaped to England after the declaration of war: her sister died in September 1914 and her mother in March 1916. Major George Matson Nicholas, D.S.O., from Melbourne, found and admired her abandoned paintings in France. On 7 October 1916 they married in London. He returned to the front three days later and was killed in action at Flers in November. In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works.

Returning to Melbourne in 1918 Mrs Nicholas moved to Sydney next year and exhibited frequently in both cities. She painted heroized soldier images which emphasized the spiritual aspects of war. These accorded with an emerging Anzac mythology and the identification of manhood with Australian nationhood. Her work is underscored by an uncompromising patriotism. She toured country areas of New South Wales in 1923, and in 1924 returned to France where her exhibition, Tableaux d'Australie (1925), won critical acclaim—the oil, 'In Australia', was bought for the Musée National du Luxembourg. In April 1926 her painting, 'Le Bigouden', was hung at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and that year Hilda Rix Nicholas became an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (New Salon).

From February 1926 to August 1928 her Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings of Australian Life and Landscape toured provincial English galleries. These idealized images of the Australian 'country, its beauty and types of virile manhood', stimulated migration to Australia from northern towns disrupted by industrial unrest. In 1926 she returned to Melbourne to prepare another exhibition and joined ranks with those who denounced modern art as 'bolshevist' and socially disruptive.

On 2 June 1928 at St Paul's Cathedral Hilda Nicholas married Edgar Percy Wright, a grazier, and went to live at Knockalong station, Delegate, New South Wales. Her son Barrie Rix was born in September 1930. She now painted the people and landscapes of her immediate environment. The personal emphasis of her work contrasted with a broader critical concept of national identification through contemporary landscape painting. Nevertheless, her work did sustain a rural ideal in its localized scale. She was perceived by critics as standing apart from contemporary women artists and was identified with qualities traditionally attributed to the work of male artists, such as strength and vigour.

An unsuccessful foot operation in 1944 left her partially crippled. She suffered from Parkinson's disease and by the mid-1950s could no longer see to paint. She died on 3 August 1961 and was buried with Anglican rites at Knockalong. Her husband and son survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • The Art of Hilda Rix Nicholas, introduced by B. Stevens (Syd, 1919)
  • Art in Australia, no 6, 1919, Sept 1927, p 34
  • Home (Sydney), 3, no 1, Mar 1922, p 88, 90, 93
  • New Triad (Sydney), 1 Sept 1927, p 19
  • Graphic (London), 3 Oct 1925, p 541
  • Artemis, 8, no 2, 1977, p 15
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 2 Oct 1919
  • Leader (Melbourne), 30 May 1936
  • A. Mitchell, Hilda Rix Nicholas: The Australian Works to 1940 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1980) and for bibliography
  • Rix Nicholas papers (privately held).

Citation details

Avenel Mitchell, 'Nicholas, Emily Hilda (1884–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nicholas-emily-hilda-7837/text13609, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rix, Emily Hilda
  • Wright, Hilda
Birth

1 September 1884
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Death

3 August 1961

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation