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THE MADONNA QUEST Powered By Docstoc
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                                 THE LOST MOTHER
         Part detective story, part art history, part a meditation on motherhood.

In early 1933 a young Australian artist, newly returned from two years at the Royal
Academy in London and from some months travelling to see the galleries of Europe and
from Paris where she had studied under the renowned cubist Andre Lhote, painted two
portraits of a schoolgirl she had observed at Mass one Sunday morning at St Joan of
Arc’s in Brighton, a southern Melbourne suburb. The girl’s parents agreed to the unusual
request that their daughter sit for these portraits and for some months a chauffeur driven
car would collect the young girl twice a week and take her to the artist’s studio. After
each Saturday afternoon sitting she was given a box of chocolates, an unheard of luxury
during the Depression. Later that year, the girl’s family left Melbourne for Deniliquin in
the Riverina district of New South Wales where they settled. The paintings were

Some months later, a relative saw an article in the Herald about a visiting French actress
Alice Delysia, a musical comedy star who had appeared in Noel Coward plays at the
West End as well as in several films. Accompanying the article was a photograph of
Madame Delysia being entertained by a Mrs Mortell at her home “Tay Creggan” in
Hawthorn. Mrs Mortell was a Russian ballet dancer who had been living in France when
she met Australian businessman Mr Mortell, married him and moved to Melbourne. In
the photograph, both women were admiring a portrait of a young girl whom the eagle-
eyed reader recognised as her niece and she sent the cutting to the family in Deniliquin.
Thus alerted, the girl’s mother wrote to Mrs Mortell, asking if she could buy the portrait.
She was informed that it was not for sale.

The story might have ended then were it not for an extraordinary coincidence that is in
many ways the starting point for this story. In 1963, thirty years after the portraits had
been painted, and thirty years after the girl’s mother’s offer to buy that painting had been
refused, the young girl was now forty years of age, living in Adelaide, with six children,
the oldest of whom, her 17 year old daughter Anne, had gone to study in Melbourne. The
Jesuits helped her anxious mother find accommodation for Anne that would be safe and,
above all, respectable. They arranged for her to stay at “Tay Creggan”, now a hostel for
Catholic girls run by a lay order of nuns known as The Grail. The Grail were an unusual
order, dedicated to chastity and to obedience, but certainly not to poverty. The house
they lived in was a Tudor-style mansion that had been built in the late 19th century on
large grounds on a bend in the Yarra in Hawthorn. The nuns wore civilian clothes and
they enjoyed the fine things of life, especially a good table. Their dining room was
enormous, with stained rafters and lofty ceilings, and a huge stone fireplace that, to
Anne’s unsophisticated young eyes, would not have seemed out of place in a Hollywood
movie. Light filtered in through huge pink and yellow stained-glass windows, giving the

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room a somewhat gloomy air. The head Grail, a lanky young woman called Adelaide
Crookall who wore long plaits coiled around her head, giving her a very old-fashioned
appearance, was kind to Anne because, she said, she too came from South Australia.
During her first Easter there, when Anne was the only girl not to have gone home,
Adelaide invited her to join the Grail at their Sunday feast where she was astonished by
the rich food and the flowing wines. After the lunch, Adelaide took Anne to the end of
the room and pointed at a portrait of a clear-eyed young girl gazing down from the wall.
“That’s your mother!” said Adelaide. The girl in the painting had enormous blue eyes;
she was wearing a school uniform with a red beret capping her plaited hair. She held a
book, a very large book, larger than her face even. The book was called Alice and the
White Rabbit.

A few weeks later, my mother came to visit me but mostly to look at the portrait. She was
quite overwhelmed by the image of her schoolgirl self, but she seemed even more taken
by the fact that she had discovered the portrait she never imagined she would see again.
She asked The Grail if she could buy the picture but they told her it was not theirs to sell.
Seven years later my grandmother read in the newspaper that the Catholic Church was
selling “Tay Creggan”. Once again, she wrote a letter, this time to the Catholic
Archdiocese of Melbourne, asking to buy the portrait. On March 16, 1970 the Rt Rev
Msgr PH Jones, Episcopal Vicar for Finance, for the Catholic Archdiocese, informed her
that she could purchase “Girl in Red Beret” by C. Parkin for $50. The oldest son was
despatched from Deniliquin to collect it and the portrait was then shipped to Adelaide.
Attached to it was a copy of the Herald article from 1933 that had first alerted my
grandmother to its location, and the typed receipt from the Catholic Archdiocese. The
painting was a belated gift from my grandmother to mark my parents’ 25th wedding
anniversary, which they had celebrated the year before, but it also represented a moment
of triumph for Elizabeth Hogan and her tenacity at tracking, and finally getting her hands
on, the portrait of her daughter Eileen Cooper as a ten-year-old schoolgirl. It had taken
her almost forty years and without a number of serendipitous occurrences – the several
newspapers articles, her granddaughter needing somewhere to live in Melbourne – she
would never have known where it was. Now it hung on the wall in my parents’ house, a
funny old-fashioned portrait in a gilt frame, an actual painting, an original, that seemed to
sit uneasily alongside the prints of river gums and bush huts that kept it company on the
patterned-papered walls of the dining room. I had long since left home by the time it
arrived, and although I must have glanced at the portrait on my non-too frequent visits, I
have no memory of every talking with my mother about the picture and how she came to
be its subject. As to who the artist was, we had no idea. The painting was signed “C.
Parkin” but who had ever heard of her.

It took almost twenty more years for the next piece of serendipity to occur. By now I was
living in New York but on a visit back to Sydney in October 1991 had agreed to speak at
a fund-raiser at the National Trust’s S.H. Ervin Gallery at Observatory Hill. Before the
talk, the gallery director, Anne Loxley, showed me around the current exhibition. I was

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especially struck by a painting by Roy De Maistre because, I excitedly told Anne, its
style seemed similar to a portrait of my mother done by an unknown artist almost sixty
years earlier. Anne volunteered to do some sleuthing. I don’t know how she did it but a
few days later a letter arrived: “Some detective work has led me to suspect that your
mother’s portrait was painted by a woman called Constance Stokes (nee Parkin) who
worked in Melbourne, London and Paris. Stylistically her work is related to De Maistre
inasmuch as they were both modernists.” Attached to Anne’s letter of October 9, 1991
were copies of entries on Constance Stokes from Alan McCulloch’s Encyclopaedia of
Australian Art (1984) and Janine Burke’s Australian Women Artists 1840-1940 (1980).
The listings were impressive. “A leading figure in the modernist movement in Vic., “
wrote McCulloch, “her early paintings include still life and classically conceived figure
group studies, as well as the open line drawings of nudes for which she is best known.”
From the Janine Burke entry I learned that Constance Stokes was represented in the
collections of the Art Galleries of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia,
Queensland and Geelong, that she had had a retrospective at the Mornington Peninsula
Arts Centre in 1974 and – what really caught my eye – was that she had been part of a
group exhibition of Australian artists sponsored by the Arts Council in Britain in 1953.
Her work had been displayed at the New Burlington Street Galleries alongside that of
Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, William Dobell and Arthur Boyd. This was an
astonishing discovery: the woman who had painted my mother was a famous artist, up
there with some of the Australian greats. I became determined to learn more.

I was now back in New York, but wrote immediately to my mother telling her what I had
learned, attaching photocopies of Anne’s letter and the directory entries, noting that one
of these mentioned Stokes briefly returning to Australia in 1933: “From memory,” I
wrote, “I think you told me the portrait was painted when you were ten so we may have
the right person”. [Mum was born in 1923.] In the same letter, I suggested to Mum that
she write down the story of how the picture came to be painted and how it had ended up
in her family’s hands. “It is an interesting piece of family history, “ I said, “and it may
also turn out to be an important bit of art history, especially if Stokes ever enjoys the kind
of revival that other women artists of the period have”. I was thinking of artists such as
Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith, Dorrit Black, and others whose
reputations had been revived as part of contemporary feminism’s trawling through recent
history for examples of neglected female accomplishment.

The Alan McCulloch entry had mentioned Stokes’s maiden name of Parkin so there was
now no doubt; fifty-eight years after the portrait of my mother had been completed, her
family now knew the name of the artist. In June 1993, after several false starts, my
mother wrote down in two closely typed pages what she could remember of how the
portrait had come about. She included in her account a description of her visit to
Melbourne that year to see the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition of Constance
Stokes and how thrilled she was by the paintings, charcoals and drawings on show. They
were, she wrote, drawn from the Stokes’s family collection as well as the Gallery’s own

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holdings. That the Gallery had so many seemed to indicate that Stokes was – or had at
least once been seen as – an artist of some note. It made my mother feel important that
she had been painted by someone so renowned.

In my spare time, between moving from New York back to Canberra and then to Sydney,
and doing various big jobs, I also did some research and soon learned there was quite a
trove. The National Library of Australia had oral histories; there were newspaper articles
and catalogues. Stokes, it seemed, had been an artist who was well-known and whose
work was well-regarded. I came across an article by Barry Humphries, describing how
he became a student of George Bell’s when he was in his teems and how “exciting” it
was “not merely to be a school boy drawing nude ladies, but also to be the student of the
man who had taught such famous artists as Constance Stokes and Russell Drysdale”.1
So what had happened to her? Part of the answer seemed to lie in an interview she gave
in 1965 to Hazel de Berg for the National Library of Australia’s oral history project in
which she described herself as “half-mother and half-painter”. Stokes had married in late
1933 (to Eric Wyborn Stokes whose family were in manufacturing) and between 1937
and 1943 had three children. For the thirty years of her marriage, she worked only part-
time, she told de Berg. It was during the 1940s and 1950s that she produced some of her
greatest paintings, including “The Girl in Red Tights” that had made her the toast of
London during the 1953 show at New Burlington Galleries and which Sir Daryl Lindsay,
then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, snapped up. (It still hangs at Mulberry
Estate, the former home of the Lindsays on the Mornington Peninsula that they
bequeathed to the National Estate). But her output was small. She could only manage
two or three paintings a year, although she did exhibit these and, as she told Hazel de
Berg, “that’s really how I made my reputation”.

The story of Constance Stokes and her diminished fame really started to intrigue me two
years ago when my mother died and the portrait came to me. Having the picture on my
wall, seeing my mother-as-a-young-girl calmly gazing out at me each day, made me look
at it differently. What did the book mean, for instance? My partner, Chip Rolley,
suggested it might be a significant clue to the artist’s intent. Sure enough, it turns out
there is no book called “Alice and the White Rabbit”. Stokes invented this title. What
was she trying to say? What kind of clue had she placed in the picture? As I reread the
materials I had accumulated about Stokes, I discovered just what a celebrity she had
been. There were endless newspaper articles about her from 1929 when she won the
National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship that took her to London, the
Australian Women’s Weekly had run a two-page spread on her very modern flat at No 9
Collins Street that she and her husband occupied in 1935. She was feted and she was
patronised. Sir Keith Murdoch visited her studio in Brighton and bought several works.

 Taken from Philip Bacon Galleries website but presumably from Humphries autobiography (date cited is
October 2002). Note that in her interviews with Andrea Lloyd Stokes refutes that she was a “student” of
Bell’s. She regarded him as a colleague.

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Arthur Streeton described her 1930 portrait of Mrs Mortell as “liquid and luminous … the
most attractive in the show”. Sir Joseph Burke, Professor of Fine Arts at Melbourne
University and the American expert who had such a decisive influence on post-war
Australian art criticism and collecting, was unreserved in his praise of Stokes and donated
to the University of Melbourne Art Collection several of her works including the 1946
untitled nude that astounded the artists of Melbourne.

I also realised, as I read more about Stokes, there were parallels in the lives of the artist
and the girl she had painted all those years before, times when we might have learned
sooner than we did who she was and perhaps been able to meet her and ask her the
questions that float tantalisingly around the research I am trying to do. In 1962, Stokes’s
husband died. In 1963, the year that my mother and I first saw the portrait at Tay
Creggan, Stokes had begun to prepare for a one-person show, her first since 1933 when
she had exhibited forty-three paintings, including – I surmised - the portrait of my
mother. The show was held in 1964 at the Leveson Street Galleries and was a critical –
and social - success. I was still living in Melbourne then. If only I had known. In 1991,
just as we were learning her name, Constance Stokes died. There was, thus, never an
opportunity for my mother or I to meet the artist and to learn more about her. Everything
that I learn will now need to be from other sources.

It was only after my mother died and I re-read her account of how the portrait came to be
painted that I focussed on the fact that there was another painting. Mum described the
first one, how she was wearing “the clothes in which she had first seen me, school jumper
and stockings (black), my “good” skirt and a red beret”. Then she wrote: “The second
painting was done as the Madonna (a veil draped over my head and shoulders)…”
Reading this in 2005, I wondered why I had never really taken it in before. I had never
asked Mum about this picture, never thought to get her to describe it in any detail. Nor
had I asked Mum about the sittings. Did Stokes – or Parkin as she then was – sketch her?
Stokes said in 1991, just before she died: “I don’t paint from life really. I paint from
drawings”.2 It would be useful to know if there was a pile of sketches for both these
paintings. Maybe they still exist somewhere. But what intrigued me most was the notion
that somewhere out there is a painting of my ten-year-old mother as the Madonna. What,
I wondered, made a 27 year old choose a ten year old for such a subject? She had just
returned from Europe where she had roamed the galleries of Italy and Spain so the notion
of young girls as Madonnas would be a familiar one. Nevertheless, it seemed an unusual
thing to do in Australia, in Melbourne, in the middle of the Depression and I wondered if
there was a larger significance. Both artist and subject would have their lives derailed by
motherhood; between them they would have nine children and each woman would have
to set aside or scale back any ambitions she had had for a life outside the maternal role.
How conscious of this future were each of them over those months when my mother sat
draped in a veil while the about-to-be-married Constance Parkin painted her?

 Interview with Andrea Lloyd April 4, 1991 (included in Lloyd’s BA (Hons) thesis Constance Stokes: Her
Life and Art (University of Melbourne, 1991)

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It was obvious that I had to find this painting. I now had a quest, something I initially
called the Madonna quest, before the singer made the term all but meaningless with her
scandalous purchase of a black baby in Malawi during 2006. Finding this painting
seemed necessary and even urgent. The portrait of my mother as a schoolgirl faded in
significance. That was just another of Stokes’s “red” things – she had done “red tights”
and “red leotard” and “red hat”, the picture of Mum was called “Girl in a red beret”.
Interesting of course, but it did not have the allure of a young woman making a statement
about the virgin mother. I was not sure that I was equipped to write about art, as I would
need to. I did not have the language or the eye. Nor was I really qualified to write about
motherhood, not being a mother myself. But I determined to not let these difficulties stop
me. There was a lost mother out there somewhere. I was going to find her.


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