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Grace Adela Williams Crowley (1890–1979)

by Daniel Thomas

This article was published:

Grace Adela Williams Crowley (1890-1979), painter, was born on 28 May 1890 at Forrest Lodge, Cobbadah, New South Wales, elder daughter and fourth child of native-born parents Henry Crowley, grazier, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bridger. By 1900 the family had moved to nearby Glen Riddle, Barraba. When Grace was about 13 her parents sent one of her pen-and-ink drawings to the magazine, New Idea, which awarded her a prize. Taught by governesses at the homestead, in 1907 she had a year at boarding-school in Sydney and attended Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School one day a week.

Back in the bush, she 'did no more drawing' once her mother sacked the maid and introduced Grace to 'household duties'. Her interest revived following Ashton's painting trip to Glen Riddle about 1910. She studied full time at the Sydney Art School from 1915 and in 1918 became an assistant-teacher there. Grace shared a flat and later a cottage at Vaucluse with her best friend Anne Dangar. Having exhibited (from 1916) with the Society of Artists, Crowley resigned her teaching position in 1923 and prepared for the society's travelling scholarship. She went to Glen Riddle on holidays, completed several rural subjects and 'longed to ''do a thing" of men shearing, but my father vetoed that'. Crowley did not win the scholarship, but visited Melbourne and worked briefly in Bernard Hall's classes. Her parents grudgingly gave her the fare to Europe, and her brother Wilfred sent her an annual stipend. In February 1926 she left with Dangar for France, intending to study at the Slade school in London.

Crowley's four years in Paris were the most enjoyable of her life. Grace and Anne worked at Colarossi's without a teacher, acquired their own studio-home at Montrouge in October and from early 1927 were enrolled at André Lhote's academy at Montparnasse (where Crowley spent three years). Lhote's academic cubism was a revelation, as were geometric systems like Dynamic Symmetry and the Golden Section. An occasional writer, Crowley had contributed a chapter to The Julian Ashton Book (Sydney, 1920) and was to send letters from France and lectures on cubism for publication in the Sydney Art School's journal, Undergrowth. After they had attended Lhote's summer school at Mirmande, near Montélimar, Dangar sailed for Sydney in 1928. Next year Crowley spent some weeks at Mirmande, attended Albert Gleizes's classes in Paris and visited museums in Paris, Italy, The Netherlands and Britain. Her Académie Lhote paintings were exhibited in various Parisian salons in 1928 and 1929. Learning of her mother's illness, Grace returned to Glen Riddle in February 1930 to find her easel thrown upon a rubbish tip and Anne about to settle in France. By then Crowley was probably the most experienced modernist painter in Australia.

In March 1930 her French work was seen in the Group of Seven exhibition at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney; a modernist portrait of her cousin Gwen Ridley was a startling sight in the 1930 Archibald prize competition. Crowley came to Sydney in 1932 to help Dorrit Black with exhibitions, art classes and a sketch club at her short-lived Modern Art Centre where Crowley held her first solo exhibition, chiefly showing work from France. Obtaining a studio at 215a George Street, she and 'Rah' Fizelle established the Crowley-Fizelle school, the principal centre for modernist painting. When it closed in 1937 she impulsively invited Ralph Balson to continue his weekend painting in her studio-flat at 227 George Street, a pleasant, rooftop terrace, shaded with a grapevine.

Exhibition 1, at David Jones's Art Gallery in August 1939, was a climax for the Sydney semi-abstract movement, showing work by Balson, Crowley, Fizelle, Frank Medworth, Gerald Lewers and others. In the 1940s and early 1950s Balson's and Crowley's body of abstract 'Constructive Paintings' were unique in Australia. They participated in group exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries and David Jones, but, because neo-romanticism in Sydney and expressionism in Melbourne had become the fashion, their work lost prominence. In 1949 Crowley taught abstract painting at East Sydney Technical College before handing over to Balson.

In 1954 Crowley bought High Hill, a house at Mittagong. Balson painted there at weekends and decorated the ceiling of the living-room with a large, constructivist design; he later lived in the garden-studio. Her own painting virtually ceased as she watched over him. She only half-heartedly followed Balson's new, loose direction in several isolated paintings to which she turned her hand in England and France in 1960-61 while travelling with him. Grace was content to be at High Hill: the 'garden and the house and their care seemed to take up my time'.

After Balson died in August 1964, Crowley gave her energy to ensuring his place in art history. Her own work was reassessed and her paintings were suddenly acquired for art museum collections. A major exhibition, Balson, Crowley, Fizelle, Hinder (1966), and a retrospective exhibition of her work (1975) were mounted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The feminist movement, as well as the growth of Australian art history, brought admirers in Crowley's late years. Janine Burke featured her art and reminiscences (beginning 'Me voici reflecting upon la vie passée') in an exhibition (1975) and book, Australian Women Artists, One Hundred Years: 1840-1940 (Melbourne, 1980). Burke was to draw upon Crowley for a Frenchified Australian painter Margeurite Dance in her novel, Company of Images (Melbourne, 1989).

Small and very slight of build, Grace was somewhat vague in manner and self-effacing in promoting Balson's work. Yet she was strong-willed in her own self-liberation from housework in the bush to painting in Sydney and Paris (and in her insistence on the pronunciation of the name Crowley, to rhyme with 'slowly'). She dressed with chic, favouring the simplest, cream, linen dresses and silk scarves. She lived in immaculate, sparsely decorated, light-filled spaces, with pots by Dangar and paintings by Balson.

High Hill was sold in 1966. Next year Grace bought a modern flat at Manly (she kept her George Street studio until 1971). Fizelle's widow also moved to a flat on a different floor of the same building. They both received research students and museum curators, planned the disposition of the works still in their care, and complained about each other. Crowley died at her home on 21 April 1979 and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at $318,441; she bequeathed her remaining paintings to Australian art museums and her papers to the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Balson's portrait (1939) of Crowley is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Her teaching and single-minded nurturing of Balson's reputation might seem as important as her own rather small body of work. However, her painting, like her dress and living spaces, was consciously pared down. Crowley knew that the twenty-five paintings and twelve drawings gathered together in 1975 were enough. Seeing her life's work summed up, she was 'Appalled, and thrilled'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Thomas, Project 4: Grace Crowley, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1975)
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly, Oct 1966
  • H. de Berg, interview with Grace Crowley (transcript, 1966, National Library of Australia)
  • Australia Council archival film interview, 1975 (A.F.I. Distribution Ltd, videocassette)
  • Crowley papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Daniel Thomas, 'Crowley, Grace Adela Williams (1890–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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