This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000
Rosaleen Miriam Norton (1917-1979), painter and self-styled witch, was born on 2 October 1917 at Dunedin, New Zealand, third daughter of Albert Thomas Norton, a master mariner from London, and his New Zealand-born wife Beena Salek, née Aschman. Albert was a cousin of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The family arrived in Sydney in June 1925. Rosaleen was expelled from the Church of England Girls' School, Chatswood, at the age of 14 for producing 'depraved' drawings of vampires, ghouls and werewolves thought likely to corrupt the other girls. She later studied for two years at East Sydney Technical College under Rayner Hoff who encouraged her 'pagan' creativity.
Norton dabbled as a pavement artist near the General Post Office and worked variously as a kitchen-maid, nightclub waitress, postal messenger, and cadet journalist on Smith's Weekly. At the registrar general's office, Sydney, on 24 December 1940 she married Beresford Lionel Conroy, a Duco sprayer; they were to be divorced in 1951. Her first published illustrations—two fantasy works and a pencil study, 'The Borgias'—appeared in the magazine, Pertinent (October-November 1941). By 1949 she had met her lover, the poet Gavin Greenlees (b.1930). Norton first attracted controversy when she exhibited a series of pagan, sexually explicit drawings at the Rowden White Library, University of Melbourne, in August 1949. Police raided the exhibition, which included such works as 'Lucifer', 'Witches' Sabbath' and 'Individuation', and Norton was charged with obscenity. The charges were dismissed after she provided the court with detailed explanations of her occult symbolism.
Her work was influenced by British vorticism and has been linked stylistically to that of Norman Lindsay, for whom she occasionally modelled. Norton derived much of her imagery from a type of psychic exploration based on self-hypnosis and from what in occult circles has been described as 'wanderings on the astral planes'. Many of her paintings were based on trance-encounters with archetypal beings whom Norton believed had their own independent existence. She began to compile a series of these mystical drawings which, with poems by Greenlees, appeared in The Art of Rosaleen Norton (1952), under the sponsorship of the publisher Walter Glover. This book was even more controversial than her Melbourne exhibition. Glover was charged with producing an obscene publication. The book could only be distributed in Australia with some of the more sexually explicit images blacked out. In the United States of America copies were burned by customs officials. Greenlees and Norton, who had been financially assisted by Glover, were forced to scrounge a living by other means when he was declared bankrupt.
'Roie', to her friends, was small, wiry and vital, with black hair, arched eyebrows and a face sullen in repose. An occult artist and a Bohemian in the 1950s and early 1960s, she sold her sketches and paintings to anyone who expressed an interest. Known as 'The Witch of Kings Cross', she openly proclaimed her dedication to occult beliefs and the 'Great God Pan', but was falsely accused by the tabloid press of holding Black Masses. On the basis of a series of confiscated photographs of simulated ceremonial rituals, she was charged in 1956 with 'engaging in unnatural sexual acts', and she unwittingly played a part in the downfall of Sir Eugene Goossens, the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, who was a member (from 1952) of her occult group.
Norton continued to produce macabre paintings of the supernatural, though they were increasingly lurid and repetitive. She died of cancer on 5 December 1979 in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst. After he emerged from bankruptcy, Glover reissued The Art of Rosaleen Norton (1982) and published the Supplement to The Art of Rosaleen Norton (1984).
Nevill Drury, 'Norton, Rosaleen Miriam (1917–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/norton-rosaleen-miriam-11261/text20087, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 26 October 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000