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Stokes, Constance (Connie) (1906–1991)

by Caroline Field

This article was published online in 2017

Constance Stokes (1906-1991), artist, was born on 20 February 1906 at Miram Piram in the Wimmera district of Victoria, fifth child of South Australian-born James Henry Parkin, farmer, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Jane, née Martin. Connie grew up on her parents’ property and then at Nhill where she attended the local State school. Of slight build and under five feet (152 cm) tall, she would earn the sobriquet ‘La Petite.’ In 1920 the family moved to Melbourne. She continued her education at the Genazzano convent school, Kew, where her art teacher, Susan Cochrane, recognised and encouraged her talent.

Between 1925 and 1929 Parkin studied at the National Gallery of Victoria’s school of painting under the director Bernard Hall. In 1929 she won the prestigious National Gallery Travelling scholarship. The next year she exhibited with the Australian Art Association at the Athenaeum Art Gallery in Collins Street, where her painting Portrait of Mrs W. Mortill attracted the praise of (Sir) Arthur Streeton. Taking up her scholarship in 1931, she studied drawing at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and then painting with the cubist artist André Lhote in Paris. In contrast to the conventional style she had employed earlier, she developed an interest in the use of abstract colour, post-impressionism, and cubism. After touring Spain and Italy, she returned to Melbourne in 1933. On 26 August that year at St Joan of Arc Catholic Church, Brighton, she married Eric Wyborn Stokes, a manufacturer. She held her first solo exhibition at the Decoration Co. Pty Ltd gallery in October. The couple departed soon after on an extended honeymoon in Europe. While there she took anatomy classes at the Royal Academy and visited trade shows with Eric.

Back in Melbourne by mid-1934, they settled in Collins Street in the city. In 1939 she exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society's inaugural exhibition, alongside George Bell and progressive younger painters such as (Sir) Sidney Nolan. The following year Stokes seceded with Bell to his new Melbourne Contemporary Artists group. While never his pupil, she regularly attended informal life-drawing classes at his Toorak studio. She also benefited from his guidance in early modernism, adopting a glazing technique that imbued her textured work with rich colour and luminosity. While recognised for her religious works, still lifes, and rural scenes, she was best known for her depictions of women. Characterised by a warmth and intimacy, her lively female portraits included watercolour and rhythmic open-line drawings of monumental nudes. Her works, such as the well-regarded Woman Drying Her Hair (c. 1946), were described as womanly without being sexual.

Between 1937 and 1942 Stokes had three children. Describing herself as ‘half mother and half painter’ (1965), she endeavoured to combine art with motherhood and life in the suburbs. Although family obligations limited her output, she continued to develop her skills and in 1948 produced one of her best-known works, Girl in Red Tights. In 1953 she was one of twelve artists invited to represent Australia in an Arts Council of Great Britain exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London. She and Eric attended the opening before travelling to the 1954 Venice Biennale, where some works from the exhibition were later shown, and visiting New York.

Eric’s death in 1962 left Stokes with substantial debts and prompted her to produce new works. Her exhibition two years later at the Leveson Street Gallery, North Melbourne, was financially successful. Her painting became progressively decorative; she used high-keyed flat colours, lighter in application, and often reminiscent of the style of Matisse. The mastery of her line-work also became increasingly evident. Retrospective exhibitions of her work were held at the Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre (1974) and Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery (1985), the latter touring Victoria, and to the S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney. She was represented in the Australian Women Artists exhibition at the University of Melbourne (1975), and in the Victorian touring exhibition, The Heroic Years of Australian Painting, 1940–1965 (1977-78). Her last solo exhibition was held in 1981 at the Australian Galleries, Melbourne; and her final painting, Alice Tumbling Down the Rabbit Hole was created in 1990. After suffering a pulmonary thromboembolism, she died on 14 July 1991 at Prahran and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. She was survived by her daughter and two sons.

Stokes is well represented in private and public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. The NGV featured her work in its seminal exhibition Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle in 1992, and the next year held a retrospective exhibition that traced her critical and commercial successes and affirmed her position as an acclaimed modernist artist.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Burke, Joseph. ‘Introduction.’ In Constance Stokes: Retrospective Exhibition, 4-7. [Swan Hill, Vic.]: Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery, 1985. Exhibition catalogue
  • Constance Stokes 1906-1991. Curated by Jane Clark. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1993. Exhibition pamphlet
  • Lloyd, Andrea. ‘Constance Stokes: Her Life and Art,’ BA Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1991
  • Moore, Felicity St John. Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1992
  • Stokes, Constance. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 2 December 1965. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Summers, Anne. The Lost Mother: A Story of Art and Love. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2009
  • Wyborn d'Abrera, Lucilla. Constance Stokes: Art & Life. Malvern, Vic.: Hill House Publishers, 2015

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Caroline Field, 'Stokes, Constance (Connie) (1906–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stokes-constance-connie-27037/text34509, published online 2017, accessed online 8 December 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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