painter, printmaker, designer and teacher, was born on 2 October 1879 at Armidale, NSW, elder child of William Consett Proctor, a solicitor, and Kathleen Janet Louisa, née Roberts. Her parents separated in 1892 and divorced in 1897. Thea, her mother and brother lived with her maternal grandparents at Bowral. From 1896 she attended Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. Fellow students included Sydney Long , to whom she became briefly engaged in 1898. Romantic medieval paintings were shown with the Society of Artists and she made poster designs, bookplates and illustrations for the Australian Magazine (1899). In 1903 she went to London, studied briefly at St John’s Wood School then privately with George Lambert . Proctor’s friendship with George and Amy Lambert was lifelong and intimate. She believed he was Australia’s greatest contemporary artist and would have thought it a compliment when Lambert (not known for his modesty) called her 'the second finest draughtsman in Australia’.
Charles Conder inspired her to focus on fan painting in London. Other influences were Japanese prints, the drawings of Ingres, the Chelsea Arts Club balls and the Ballet Russe seen in 1911 ('it would be difficult to imagine anything more beautiful and inspiring’). A fan was shown in the preliminary London 1907 Women’s Work Exhibition and two (and a watercolour) at the final exhibition in Melbourne. Another was sent to the 1912 Venice International Exhibition. That year she came home to hold exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, returning to England in 1914 where she made a new name as a lithographer.
Proctor (following Lambert) came back to Australia in 1921. Failing to popularise lithography in Melbourne, she moved to Sydney and held exhibitions of her own work and of English lithographs in 1921-23. In 1924 she produced a tableau vivant at the Theatre Royal in which her cousin Hera Roberts , Jocelyn Gaden and Valerie Hughes posed as 1875 figures in one of the fans she was painting at the time (private collection).
Despite her name becoming a byword for taste and stylishness, Proctor was always financially strapped. She taught at Ashton’s, with Adelaide Perry and privately, introducing many artists to linocut and woodcut printing, e.g. Ruth Ainsworth , Gladys Gibbons , Ysobel Irvine , Amie Kingston and Ailsa Lee Brown . Grace Cossington Smith said, 'Thea Proctor was always up in arms for the women painters’ and when JS MacDonald wrote that there had never been a good woman artist she took up a petition for his immediate dismissal as a newspaper critic.
To encourage innovative art, she founded the Contemporary Group with Lambert in 1926. Her first woodcuts were shown in a joint exhibition with Margaret Preston in 1925, but she abandoned these after producing thirteen (and a few as advertisements). She made many elegant covers for Home , wrote on fashion, flower arrangement, colours for cars and interior decoration, organised artists’ balls in the 1920s and designed modern furniture. She carried out commissions for portrait sketches and had solo shows in 1932, 1935-38 and 1941 at the Macquarie Galleries. In 1932 Ure Smith devoted an issue of Art in Australia to her work. During the 1940s she was involved in theatrical design.
Drawing was always Proctor’s strength: 'line can have a beauty of its own independently of anything it represents’, she wrote. Even the despised JS McDonald called her 'one of those rarities – a woman who can draw’. In 1965, aged eighty-five, she held a solo show of 'nude studies of an astonishing brilliance’, wrote Barry Humphries , who also pleaded for a full retrospective at a state gallery after her death at Potts Point on 29 July 1966. We are still waiting.
NOTE: A retrospective, with catalogue essay by Barry Humphries, was eventually held at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, in 2005.
painter, printmaker, designer and teacher, Sydney and London.
Fan painting, The Arrival n.d., watercolour and pencil (lady arriving at 18th century ball) sold Christie’s auction part 2, 27 November 1996, cat.264 (ill.)
Possible links with Theosophy suggested by her participation in the 'Crusade for a Beautiful Australia’ (in AM). Works in Australian Magazine 17 August 1899 (ex libris design), 18 September 1899 (two women, one with a scroll). The 1908 Australian Women Artists competition, held in the annex to the South Australian Court at the Franco-British Exhibition, London, had 38 entrants in the categories of oils, w/cs, etchings, miniatures, enamels, sculpture, leatherwork, jewellery and wood carving. Winners included Thea Proctor for Terrace Fan and 6 watercolours; Frances Hodgkins for Waterseat & 1 other w/c; Dora Ohlfsen, Dora Meeson Coates, Charlotte Davis, Mrs Tom Roberts (Lillie Williamson), Dorothy Roberts and Eva Gilchrist. Miss Helen Coghlan was President of the committee responsible for the exhibition (info. Daina Fletcher). According to Avenel Mitchell, Proctor exhibited her Susannah and the Elders fan with the Society of Artists, Sydney, in 1908. In 1911 she exhibited with the Society of Women Painters for the first time (acc. AM), then again the following year. Two fan designs of 1913 are Le Carnaval and Design for a Red Fan (Pierrot and Columbine motif) (AM). In 1922 she exhibited with the Sydney Society of Women Painters (for the third and last time, AM).
Artists Ball photos Home 1 September 1923 include Proctor in crinoline, said to be made by Proctor herself, Leon Gellert as George Lambert 's self portrait, Lambert as Persian Prince and Bertha Sloane in Casanova costume by George Barbier (AM).
1929: on committee of Colour Harmony Scheme for Ford Cars in Australia (AM).
Her woodcut Bonnets, Shawls, Gay Parasols 1930s (Mitchell Library has copy no.13 of Bonnets, Shawls and Elegant Parasols 1938 (SV/46) alludes to a poem in Facade by Edith Sitwell with whom she was acquainted in London: