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Helen Dora Lempriere (1907–1991)

by Les Hetherington

This article was published:

Helen Dora Lempriere (1907-1991), painter, sculptor, lithographer, and printmaker, was born on 12 December 1907 at Malvern, Melbourne, only child of Melbourne-born parents Charles Algernon Lempriere, merchant, and his wife, Dora Elizabeth Octavia, née Mitchell. Helen’s great-grandfather was Thomas James Lempriere, a colonial painter, and her aunt was the soprano Dame Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell). Her parents lived at Toorak until 1920, when her father took up grazing at Yea. As a child she loved to draw animals on the farm, recalling: ‘I have always drawn … I can never remember a time when I did not paint’ (Martyn 1969, 7). She graduated from Toorak Ladies’ College in 1925, her education interrupted by several visits to Europe with her parents. By this time she was well known in Melbourne society and beyond as ‘a keen student of languages and art’ (Daily News 1926, 9).

Lempriere initially studied under A. D. Colquhoun, who painted her portrait in 1929; in 1930 she moved to Justus Jorgensen’s studio. A mutual acquaintance, the writer Betty Roland, thought that, although ‘very talented,’ Lempriere had been ‘restless and unhappy.’ ‘Two years with [Jorgensen] … brought a striking change; she looked relaxed and happy [and] laughed easily’ (Roland 1984, 145-46). In 1935 Lempriere became closely involved in building Montsalvat, Jorgensen’s artists’ colony at Eltham, moving there in 1938 after inheriting £3,200 on her father’s death. Investing her money, time, and talent, she undertook a range of building, cleaning, and gardening activities, as well as sculpting and painting. ‘Cheerful, energetic, [and] gifted,’ she was described by Roland as a ‘delightful person,’ whose ‘rollicking good-humour’ often verged ‘on the bawdy’ (1984, 170).

On 15 June 1945 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, she married Keith Augustine Wood, a returned serviceman. Cutting her ties with Jorgensen and his followers, the couple moved to Sydney, where Wood worked as a radio producer. They moved to Paris in 1950. When in Sydney, Lempriere had felt ‘stuck’ with her art (Watson 1994, 22); however, in Paris she ‘found a world of wonderful ideas and techniques’ (Australia and New Zealand Weekly 1961, 4). She studied under Fernand Léger, who taught her drawing, line, and composition, and Fred Klein, who tutored her in the use of colour. Believing that great artists drew inspiration from their own countries, she studied Australian Aboriginal myths and legends and developed a paper surface she called paper bark on which to create Aboriginal-inspired works.

Between 1953 and 1965, Lempriere appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Paris, Milan, London, Utrecht, New York, The Hague, and Amsterdam. When her mother died in 1958, leaving her an inheritance of more than £41,000, the couple moved to London; they returned to Sydney in 1965. Exhibitions of her work based on Aboriginal themes were held in Sydney (1966) and Hobart (1967). In the late 1960s the couple formed a company, Lemwood Productions Pty Ltd, to make documentary and educational films. Lempriere exhibited art inspired by visits to Angkor Wat, Cambodia, (1969) and to the Great Barrier Reef (1976).

Initially a tonalist painter in the style of Max Meldrum, she later thought of herself as an expressionist: ‘I draw my inspiration from reality and then I use it as a means to an end … the way in which I see the thing myself’ (Lempriere 1965). According to the French critic René Barotte, Lempriere ‘gathered a rich cultural harvest’ from the study of anthropological texts, ‘which she … further embellished by her own imagination’ (1960, n.p.). He considered Odilon Redon to be her ‘spiritual father’ (1960, n.p.), but the Australian art historian Joan Kerr thought that her paintings more closely resembled ‘the surreal frottages of Max Ernst—with similar echoes of fin de siècle symbolism’ (Kerr 1993, 7). Kerr believed that Lempriere had ‘achieved her aim of combining the international and national in a personal, original vision’ (1993, 8) and regretted that the artist was not better appreciated in Australia.

Survived by her husband, Lempriere died on 25 November 1991 at Mona Vale and was buried in Mona Vale cemetery. Retrospective exhibitions of her work were held in Sydney in 1993 and 1994. After Wood’s death in 1995, a travelling art scholarship and national sculpture award were established in Lempriere’s name; later the Helen Lempriere scholarships became part of the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition at Waverley, New South Wales. Her work is represented in galleries in Australia, the United States of America, and Israel, and in private collections. Portraits, including a self-portrait from 1945, are held by the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Australia and New Zealand Weekly. ‘People & Places.’ 23 December 1961, 4
  • Barotte, René. Preface to Lempriere, by Helen Lempriere. Paris: Galerie Furstenburg Paris, 1960
  • Daily News (Perth). ‘Mainly about People.’ 3 June 1926, 9
  • Germaine, Max. A Dictionary of Women Artists of Australia. Roseville East, NSW: Craftsman House, 1991
  • Kerr, Joan. Helen Lempriere 1907–1991: Retrospective Exhibition Part I: Paintings from 1930s–50s. Woolloomooloo, NSW: Woolloomooloo Gallery, 1993
  • Kerr, Joan, ed. Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book. Roseville East, NSW: Craftsman House, 1995
  • Lempriere, Helen. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 31 August 1965. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Martyn, Barbara. ‘Artist Was Inspired by an Ancient Temple.’ Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 July 1969, 7
  • Roland, Betty. The Eye of the Beholder. Sydney, NSW: Hale & Iremonger, 1984
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 7849, Helen Lempriere and Keith Wood Papers, 1822, 1894-1995
  • Watson, Bronwyn. ‘Face from the Lost Generation.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 1993, 22

Additional Resources

Citation details

Les Hetherington, 'Lempriere, Helen Dora (1907–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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