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Alethea Mary (Thea) Proctor (1879–1966)

by Roger Butler

This article was published:

Alethea Mary Proctor (1879-1966), self-portrait, 1921

Alethea Mary Proctor (1879-1966), self-portrait, 1921

National Gallery of Australia, 49262

Alethea Mary (Thea) Proctor (1879-1966), artist, was born on 2 October 1879 at Armidale, New South Wales, elder child of William Consett Proctor, English-born solicitor and member of the Legislative Assembly (1880-87), and his Queensland-born wife Kathleen Janet Louisa, née Roberts. In the 1880s the family lived comfortably at Hunters Hill, Sydney, and in 1889 Thea was sent to boarding school at Armidale. Her parents separated in 1892 (and were divorced in 1897). With her mother and brother she went to live at Bowral with her maternal grandparents who encouraged her artistic pursuits. In 1894, while attending Lynthorpe Ladies' College, Thea won a prize at the Bowral Amateur Art Society's exhibition. She passed the junior public examination in December next year.

From 1896 she attended Julian Ashton's art school, which emphasized drawing and the latest decorative ideas in composition. Fellow students included Elioth Gruner, George Lambert and Sydney Long (to whom she was briefly engaged in 1898). With Lambert, Long, and others she worked on the short-lived Australian Magazine (1899). In 1903 Thea Proctor went to London and studied at St John's Wood Art Schools and with Lambert. 'Beautiful, tall, dark-haired, languorous and dignified', she posed for him and frequented his household. Their exact relationship remains an enigma, but she was 'doggedly devoted' to him and found him intellectually stimulating: their friendship was lifelong.

Associating also with other expatriate Australian artists, notably Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, she was influenced by Conder's fan-designs, Japanese prints and the drawing of Ingres. Preoccupied with line, colour and form, she concentrated on drawing and painting in watercolours. Her interest in decorative work was highlighted by the Chelsea Arts Club balls with their elaborate costumes. On seeing the Ballet Russe in 1911 she exclaimed: 'it would be difficult to imagine anything more beautiful and inspiring'. Her decorative fans and drawings, usually watercolours on silk, were well received when exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and the New English Art Club.

Returning to Australia in 1912, Thea Proctor exhibited in Sydney and Melbourne; both the National galleries of Victoria and New South Wales bought works, but she was disappointed with the general response and returned to England late in 1914. She soon produced her first lithographs which, although she continued to paint, established her reputation when exhibited by the Senefelder Club. Later she exhibited also with the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers and at the Goupil Gallery.

Like many expatriates, including Lambert, Proctor settled in Australia after the war. Arriving in Melbourne in 1921, she tried to popularize lithography, but found little interest and returned to Sydney. She joined the Society of Artists and voted with Lambert to award the society's travelling scholarship to Roy de Maistre in 1923. In 1926 Lambert, Thea and others formed the Contemporary Group to encourage young avant-garde artists. The previous year she and Margaret Preston held a joint exhibition in Sydney and Melbourne: both artists included brightly coloured woodcuts in scarlet frames. Although Proctor's work was comparatively conservative, in Australia it was considered 'dangerously modern'. This exhibition and her covers for the Home brought her recognition but little financial reward. In 1932 Art in Australia devoted an issue to her work. She taught design at Ashton's Sydney Art School and privately, introducing many young artists to linocut printing, and in the 1940s taught drawing for the Society of Arts and Crafts.

Considered an arbiter of taste and always elegantly dressed, Thea Proctor wrote on fashion, flower arranging, colours for cars and interior decoration. She organized artists' balls in the 1920s, designed the fashionably modern Lacquer Room restaurant (1932) for Farmer & Co. Ltd and produced theatre décor in the 1940s. In her latter years she continued to encourage young and innovative artists and to paint, in a looser, sensuous manner, carried out portrait commissions, exhibited regularly with the Macquarie Galleries and promoted the neglected work of her relation John Peter Russell. She commented: 'I am not the sort of person who could sit at home and knit socks'.

Unmarried, Thea Proctor died at Potts Point on 29 July 1966 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her portrait (1903) by Lambert is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Burke, Australian Women Artists, 1840-1940 (Melb, 1980)
  • R. Butler and J. Minchin, The Prints (Syd, 1980)
  • A. Motion, The Lamberts (Lond, 1986)
  • Art in Australia, 43, Apr 1932
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly, 5, no 2, Jan 1964
  • Bowral Free Press, 16 June 1894
  • H. de Berg, interview with Thea Proctor (transcript, 1961, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Roger Butler, 'Proctor, Alethea Mary (Thea) (1879–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alethea Mary Proctor (1879-1966), self-portrait, 1921

Alethea Mary Proctor (1879-1966), self-portrait, 1921

National Gallery of Australia, 49262

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Proctor, Thea

2 October, 1879
Armidale, New South Wales, Australia


29 July, 1966 (aged 86)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.