miniaturist and watercolourist, was born in Melbourne on 17 May 1878, daughter of Thomas Norriss, a scientific chemist. From the age of ten Bess trained with Jane Sutherland , then studied at the Melbourne National Gallery School under Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall (1897-1901), on one occasion, she recollected, being 'nearly expelled for fighting in the Gallery’. Norriss sent samples of her work to George C. Williamson, an expert on miniatures who advised her to come to London. She finally arrived in December 1905, it having taken her six years to save the fare. There, stated Norriss, Williamson 'introduced me everywhere’. She quickly attained critical acclaim for the freshness and originality of her style and in 1907 was made a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters. Later she developed a preference for painting watercolours on a larger scale and became a member of the British Water Colour Society.

On 27 July 1908, at St Peter’s Church, Cranley Gardens, London, Bess Norriss married the Australian musical entrepreneur Nevin Tait (1876-1961). They visited South Africa in 1909, then came to Australia. In 1910 Bess held exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne and carried out portrait commissions in both cities. The National Art Galleries of NSW and Victoria both purchased miniatures. She returned to London early in 1911 and settled in Chelsea. Her patrons included Queen Alexandra, J. Pierpont Morgan and well-known artists and musicians.

Norriss Tait exhibited miniatures and watercolours with the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, at the Grosvenor Galleries, the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon and was chosen to paint the miniatures in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (Windsor Castle). On a later Australian visit, the Sydney studio photographer Yvonne Gregory took her portrait photograph for Home . F. Derwent Wood’s bronze bust of her (1922) is in the Tate Gallery and a copy is in the Art Gallery of NSW. Her son was the painter G.N. Tait.

As soon as Bess Norriss came to London from Australia in 1905, her miniatures were acclaimed and she rapidly acquired a fashionable clientele. In 1906 she took a studio at 49 Roland Gardens, South Kensington where her sitters included Lydia Russell (née Burton) who had married Walter Westley Russell (later Sir Walter) in 1900. Walter Russell, a portrait painter, was a teacher at the Slade School where Norriss was an intermittent student. The miniature of Lydia Russell was exhibited in the New Salon, Paris, and at the Royal Academy, London, in 1908. It received favourable attention in the Australian press at the time, and again in 1910 when Tait exhibited it in Sydney with other of her miniatures. It was then purchased by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Norriss broke with the old tradition of what she described as `superficial, pretty, chocolate-box miniatures’, so popular at the turn of the century. She dispensed with the traditional hallmarks of the Victorian and Edwardian miniature, abandoning stippling to paint in a fluid style and with a spontaneity which distinguished her work from that of fellow practitioners. She believed that miniature painting should be governed by the same technical disciplines as large-scale paintings, with attention being paid to `drawing, structure and colour’. She particularly admired the miniatures of Samuel Cooper (d.1672) who, in the words of Daphne Foskett, abandoned the `detailed technique’ of earlier miniaturists and `painted with a broader and freer brush stroke, more usually associated with that used by painters of oil portraits’. The statement might equally be applied to Norriss’s work, except that her pieces have more affinity with watercolours, being far more loosely painted and less highly finished that those by Cooper. As a writer in Art and Architecture (probably D.H. Souter) observed after viewing Norriss Tait’s miniatures of Lydia Russell and others in Sydney: 'Except for the delicate modelling of the heads and except for the material upon which the subjects are painted, one might with all conscientiousness describe them as water colors’.

In the portrait of Lydia Russell, Bess Norriss Tait also reveals an interest in tonal studies inherited from Whistler and the Aesthetic Movement. Other than the pink of the face and the background, the muted brown of the hair, the white of the blouse and the use of blue highlights and shadows, the work is a study in grey. Veil, dress, fur, and muff are all rendered in shades of it, the textures of the various materials being broadly painted but distinctively rendered. An interest in costume and drapery is a characteristic of her work, developed from a disciplined early training which included, in her own words, `numberless studies of hands and draperies’.

It is interesting to compare the miniature of Russell with Norriss’s own miniature self-portrait (NPG, London), also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1908 (both were illustrated in the Sydney Mail that July). The two women are posed with an almost identical tilt to the head and wear similar costumes and wide-brimmed hats. The self-portrait was shown under the title The Brown Hat , suggesting that Tait regarded fashionable dress as a female attribute. Indeed, her portraits are essentially idealised depictions of upper middle-class women in languid poses, the emphasis being on the beauty and the costume of the sitters. Nonetheless, Lydia Russell is no straightforward Edwardian society beauty. Her wistful, indeed somewhat sad, expression indicates that Bess Norriss Tait’s works were also marked by psychological insight.

Lennon, Jane
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