painter, lithographer, cartoonist and illustrator, was born in Paddington, Sydney on 22 February 1911, the only child of William Ungar and his wife, Robina, née Tate (d.1922). Thora knew that she wanted to draw from the age of three. Her mother died when she was a child but she later made several portraits of her father, who also posed for the male hero in several of her magazine covers, e.g. as a US soldier surrounded by Chinese children for an Australian Women’s Weekly cover, published 4 September 1943.

In 1927, aged sixteen, Thora won a scholarship to study art at East Sydney Technical College but couldn’t afford to complete the course, so she worked as a commercial artist for Sydney department stores by day and attended drawing (not painting) classes under Sydney Long and Dattilo Rubbo at the Royal Art Society for four nights a week and at weekends (1927-33). She first exhibited her paintings at RAS shows. She hated the 'daily work of drawing cups and saucers for Grace Bros. I wanted to be part of the sophisticated figurative illustrations seen in the American magazines’, she later wrote. Discovering that George Johnston , a fellow RAS student, was a successful cartoonist with the Bulletin , receiving 2 guineas for a published cartoon as opposed to the seven shillings and sixpence she was paid by Grace Bros, she took a cartoon into the Bulletin office about 1930. It was accepted for consideration but was neither paid for nor published and Thora never heard another word about it. However, the drawing remained in the Bulletin files and is now her earliest extant artwork (Mitchell Library, PX*D 545/1). In 1999 it was included in The Most Public Art exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales, curated by Joan Kerr, Craig Judd and Jo Holder; 'Granny’s column’ [Column 8] in the Sydney Morning Herald featured her pleased response to this belated recognition.

Thora Ungar and George Johnston were married at St John’s Church, Glebe, in 1934. They lived in a rented Walter Burley Griffin house at Castlecrag (The Moon House, next door to Walter and Marion Mahoney Griffin ) and both freelanced. George found a little regular work for small tabloids but Thora was the chief breadwinner, primarily through her work illustrating catalogues put out by Marcus Clark’s department store, especially items of furniture that she would draw in the firm’s Ultimo warehouse. She also continued to do hundreds of drawings of crockery, including entire dinner services for Marcus Clark; some were reproduced in the quality colour pages of the firm’s catalogues (of which she was rather proud).

In 1937 the pair decided to go to London so Thora could study at the Slade. They sold everything in order to afford the cheapest route, via China and across Russia by the Transcontinental Express. Booked to leave Shanghai on 19 August 1937, everything changed when Japan launched its attack on Shanghai on 13 August. George remained in Shanghai but Thora was forced to evacuate to Hong Kong along with thousands of women and children (sanguine drawings of a Chinese mother and baby done at Hong Kong survive – a photo of a large one is in her studio file). At the end of the year she was permitted to return, and she remained in Shanghai with George for four years. Both did commercial art for W.D. & H.O. Wills and Thora drew local people and places. When supplies arrived from Penfolds in Sydney she also painted, but apart from some small paintings and several line drawings was forced to leave all her work behind when they returned to Sydney in 1941, just before Pearl Harbour. A few Shanghai drawings and some later Chinese paintings were included in a modest retrospective held at James Harvey Gallery, Clovelly (NSW) in 2002. Although selected solely from what remained in her Northwood home and studio when she was aged ninety-one, the show still demonstrated her exceptional diversity in style, subject and medium.

Back at Sydney during the war, Thora resumed work as a commercial artist. She drew illustrations as a full-time artist on the Australian Women’s Weekly (1941 [1942 acc. Thora]-46), as well as doing casual work for Woman’s Day and the Sydney Morning Herald (1948-51). Known as Thora Johnston on the Weekly , she was a colleague of such well-known cover artists as cartoonists WEP ( William Edwin Pidgeon ) and Virgil ( Virgil Reilly ) and illustrators John Mills , John Santry and Wynn Davies . Her regular Weekly covers, which included The Kokoda Trail (painted 1942, published 9 January 1943, original artwork Australian War Memorial), a group of heads of happy wartime couples (3 April 1943) and The Woman Tram Conductor (5 February 1944), always carried the signature 'Thora’. The only other woman artist then employed on the Weekly was fashion illustrator René Dalgleish , a good friend with whom Thora swapped work (a drawing of a fashionable René blonde remains in Thora’s collection, along with one of Thora’s own fashion illustrations that was clearly influenced by her friend). She was also friendly with editor Connie Robertson.

After Thora and George divorced she lived with René and they worked together in the separate 'rabbit warren’ where the Weekly housed its 'mothercraft’ staff, in Bridge Street. In 1951 Thora married John Medhurst (d. 2002), whose portrait she painted several times. A large one – still in her studio in 2002 – was runner-up in the 1988 Atelier Acrylic Art Competition (see Australian Artist October 1988, 40) and won an award for excellence in the 1990 Royal Easter Show (see Australian Artist August 1990, 38-39). A good large charcoal sketch of John reading the paper at breakfast in their Northwood kitchen also remains with the artist.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Thora designed book covers for Horwitz and began exhibiting her paintings – landscape, still life and portraiture – at numerous venues, especially metropolitan, local and regional art prize shows. She had a solo exhibition at Sydney’s Barry Stern Galleries in 1964, and she also exhibited at the Von Bertouch galleries in Newcastle. She revisited China in 1961 (when she saw Macao for the first time) and toured Europe with John in 1975, where she made many drawings subsequently developed into paintings, especially of Venice. In 1978 she studied lithography with Helen Best at the Workshop Art Centre, Willougby (NSW).

Thora Ungar received numerous awards for her paintings, particularly her portraits, including prizes from the Royal Agricultural Society’s annual exhibitions in 1967, 1974, 1983-84, 1986 and 1990. Her portraits were hung in the Archibald Prize ten times (1958-59, 1961-67 and 1974) and in the Portia Geach Prize for the best portrait by a woman artist eighteen times, the final occasion being 1996 when she showed a portrait of the Newcastle painter Nancy Goldfinch (the large portrait and a fresh watercolour sketch for it remain in her studio). She won art competitions at Tumut (1958), the Gold Coast (1968), Manly (1972), Armidale (1973), Kempsey (1988), Scone (1989), Gunnedah (1989) and other places, the last being from Port Macquarie Art Society in April 1996 for a still-life painting. A solo exhibition at Sydney’s Durning-Lawrence Gallery in 1996 comprised forty works spanning twenty-five years, with a special focus on her recent large, colourful modernist still-lifes. In November 2002 a retrospective of works from her studio was held at James Harvey Gallery, Clovelly (opened by Joan Kerr).

Thora Ungar died from cancer at her home in the northern Sydney suburb of Northwood on 28th February 2005. In an exhibition of Artists of the Royal Art Society, held in July-August 2006, a “Wonderful retrospective component by Thora Ungar”, was included. The main subject matter of these works were cats.

Speck, Cathy
Peter Pidgeon
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