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Alison Baily Rehfisch (1900–1975)

by Rachel Power

This article was published:

Alison Baily Rehfisch (1900-1975), artist, was born on 23 January 1900 at Woollahra, Sydney, elder daughter of William Baily Green, a native-born hardware agent, and his wife Annie Louisa, née Greenwood, who came from England. The family soon moved to Mosman. Annie, an accomplished painter, woodcarver and musician, believed in women's emancipation and encouraged her daughter's interest in the arts. Alison was devastated by the death (1906) of her younger sister Betty and began to draw pictures of God, angels and heaven.

While a boarder at Redlands school, Cremorne, Alison was taught applied arts and design by Albert Collins, a landscape painter. After leaving Redlands, she studied at Julian Ashton's Sydney Art School. On 20 August 1919 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, she married Rodney Eschenburg Rehfisch, a 34-year-old warehouse manager; they were to have one daughter (b.1920). The family settled at Neutral Bay in 1922.

Once her daughter started school, Alison began attending Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo's painting classes at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales where she met George Bernard Duncan (1904-1974). She shared a studio in the city with him and with Dora Jarret, a lifelong friend. Known for her vitality and strength of character, and her outgoing nature and flamboyant sense of style, she held her first exhibition (with Jarret) in 1929, at the Blaxland Gallery. She began exhibiting with the Society of Artists in 1931 and held a joint exhibition with Duncan in 1933.

When the Rehfisches separated, Alison moved (1930) into a studio apartment at 12 Bridge Street. There she lived and worked closely with fellow artists such as 'Dorrit' Black, 'Rah' Fizelle, Thea Proctor and Adelaide Perry. The rooms were later taken over by Norman Lindsay who—in 'The Party'—depicted George, Alison and himself at a seemingly risqué gathering of artists, dancers and models at the studio.

In 1933 Alison Rehfisch left for Europe. She studied under Iain Macnab at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, London, and her highly stylized compositions reflected his teaching. Believing that an artist should not be influenced, but stimulated, by other artists, Rehfisch drew on the work of El Greco, for his colour and elongated shapes, Chagall, for his sense of fantasy, and Braque for his design and simplified reality. She hated 'frills . . . in life and painting, too'. In 1934 she, Duncan and Gerald Lewers were represented in the 'Six Colonial Artists' exhibition at the Cooling galleries, New Bond Street. She also showed with the Society of Women Artists, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the British Empire Society in England, and with the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris. In 1938 she helped to create a huge felt mural, designed by Arthur Murch for the Australian wool pavilion at the Empire Exhibition, Glasgow; the offer of minimal, but much-needed, wages attracted a team of Australian artists living in London, including (Sir) William Dobell.

Captivated by Europe, Rehfisch embraced the culture and languages of Spain, France and Germany. She spent months at Seville, studying the Spanish masters and at Malaga, on the Mediterranean, where she lived in an old Moorish castle converted into a studio. Her colourful and expansive letters home provided the basis for her mother's weekly radio programme, 'Story of an Artist in Spain', for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The death of her estranged husband in 1938 prompted her to return to Sydney, where she later took up residence at 214 George Street.

Alison and George Duncan were married on 4 December 1942 at the registrar-general's office, Sydney. Born on 7 January 1904 at Auckland, New Zealand, son of George Mathew Duncan and his wife Mary Anne, née O'Connor, George travelled and studied in Britain and Europe in 1935-39. During World War II he worked as a camouflage artist. He and Alison continued to exhibit jointly at the Macquarie Galleries. They had an unusually modern, egalitarian relationship. She had an eye for home decoration, but avoided the more mundane chores. George took on the domestic role of provider. In 1947 their studio was destroyed by fire and Alison lost some two hundred paintings. Fellow artists held an exhibition and auction at Desiderius Orban's studio to raise funds to help them. The Duncans moved to the country and began to paint the rolling, rural landscapes of Berrima, Moss Vale, Goulburn and surrounding districts. They returned to Sydney in 1953. He was director (1953-64) of the David Jones' Art Gallery and president of the Australian Water-Colour Institute for six years, which curtailed his time for painting.

Both Alison and George were active as exhibitors and organizers of the Contemporary Group's affairs. She also belonged to the Contemporary Art Society of Australia and was included in the Australian Women Painters' exhibition, held at the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1946. While she painted still lifes, landscapes and some figurative works, she was chiefly recognized for her flower-paintings—a genre low in the hierarchy of art. This, and the modern values in her work, made it less acceptable to the 'establishment'. With her use of generous, but thinly-applied colour, and formalized, finely balanced composition, Rehfisch always maintained her faith in her early principles, of which she stated, 'Simplicity is my aim. The basis of all modern art is design'. Some critics castigated her for pursuing a career and for her use of 'violent colours and dramatic atmospheres', but a number of informed judges praised her exhibited works. In 1950 James Gleeson wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: 'Alison Rehfisch is developing in her flower-pieces an ability to enthral us with a kind of magic nostalgia'.

Despite her disillusionment with emerging trends, Rehfisch continued to exhibit until 1969. She spent her later years at Hillgrove, a house with a beloved garden which she and George had bought at Pymble, where she painted and sought to impart her principles of colour and design to students. George died of cancer on 8 May 1974 at Greenwich. Inconsolable, and suffering from failing eyesight, Alison took poison while 'in a state of severe mental depression' and died on 12 March 1975 at her Pymble home. She was cremated with Anglican rites. Her daughter survived her. A joint memorial retrospective exhibition of Rehfisch's and Duncan's work was held in 1976 at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney and Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Rees, The Small Treasures of a Lifetime (Syd, 1969)
  • Macquarie Galleries, Duncan and Rehfisch (Syd, 1976)
  • J. Burke, Australian Women Artists 1840-1940 (Melb, 1980)
  • J. Campbell, Early Sydney Moderns (Syd, 1988)
  • C. Ambrus, Australian Women Artists (Canb, 1992)
  • R. Power, Alison Rehfisch (Syd, 2002)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 21 Dec 1946, p 30
  • Huntley's Australian Art Investor, 2, Apr 1989
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Apr 1933, 2 Mar 1939, 5 Aug 1946, 5 Feb 1976
  • H. de Berg, interview with Alison Rehfisch (transcript, 1965, National Library of Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with George Duncan (transcript, 1965, National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rachel Power, 'Rehfisch, Alison Baily (1900–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Duncan, Alison Baily
  • Green, Alison Baily

23 January, 1900
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


12 March, 1975 (aged 75)
Pymble, 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.

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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.