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Clarice Majoribanks Beckett (21 March 1887 – 7 July 1935) was an Australian painter born in Casterton, Victoria. Her works are featured in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Beckett was born in Casterton, Victoria, the daughter of Joseph Clifden Beckett, a bank manager, and his wife Elizabeth Kate, née Brown. Her grandfather was John Brown, a Scottish master builder who had designed and built Como House and its gardens in South Yarra, Victoria.
She was a boarder at Queen's College, Ballarat until 1903, before spending a year at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School. She showed artistic ability, and after leaving school took private lessons in charcoal drawing at Ballarat. In 1914 she went to Melbourne's National Gallery School, completing three years of study under Frederick McCubbin before continuing her studies under Max Meldrum, whose controversial theories became a pivotal factor in her own art practice.
In 1919 her parents moved from Bendigo to the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris and, with their health failing, Beckett assumed household responsibilities that virtually dictated the structure of the rest of her life, severely limiting her artistic endeavour. Beckett could only go out during the dawn and dusk to paint as most of her day was spent caring for them.
Beckett is recognised as one of Australia's most important modernist artists. Despite a talent for portraiture and a keen public appreciation for her still lifes, Beckett preferred the solo, outdoor process of painting landscapes. She relentlessly painted sea and beachscapes, rural and suburban scenes, often enveloped in the atmospheric effects of early mornings or evening. Her subjects were often drawn from the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris, where she lived for most of her life, caring for her ailing parents during the day and spending time around dawn and dusk painting. She was one of the first of her group to use a painting trolley, or mobile easel to make it easier to paint outdoors in different locations.
Max Meldrum once stated, "There would never be a great woman artist and there never had been. Woman had not the capacity to be alone." It is believed this reflects the overall opinion of the period; Beckett was continually put down by the critics and sold little in her lifetime.
A critic from The Age, 2 September 1924, wrote—
One would imagine from the little scenes that Miss Beckett has gathered, in the name of Australian art, that Australia was in a continual state of fog – all kinds of fogs – pink, blue, green and grey with an occasional mist that surely was never on land or sea. Miss Beckett is probably feeling her way through the fogs and no doubt she will […] at least rise above the dreariness which characterizes her paintings at present.
Beckett continued to paint mists, sunsets and fogs. Whatever she felt about her political handling by the critics she made no comment but with quiet determination and spirit she persisted in painting nature as she saw it.
She produced a style of painting with a simplicity and originality that set her apart from any other artist working in Australia at that time. She took subject matter from what she found around her environment, often selecting seemingly unattractive subjects which most painters would not have bothered with. Melbourne gallery owner Rosalind Hollinrake wrote, "She could translate a strip of wet, tar-sealed suburban road bordered by telegraph poles into a breathing, atmospheric and beautiful reality, stated as honestly as paint could allow."
Beckett was accused of lack of colour, possibly because people missed the brightness of the expected primary reds, yellows and blues. Yet throughout her entire period of painting, her sunsets, sunrises, and many landscapes show her to have a strong colour sense. Her greys offer such variety of tone that the absence of colour is not felt.
Australian Tonalism is characterised by a particular "misty" or atmospheric quality created by the Meldrum painting method of building "tone on tone". Tonalism developed from Meldrum's "Scientific theory of Impressions"; claiming that social decadence had given artists an exaggerated interest in colour and, to their detriment, were paying less attention to tone and proportion. Art, he said, should be a pure science based on optical analysis; its sole purpose being to place on the canvas the first ordered tonal impressions that the eye received. All adornments and narrative and literary references should be rejected.
Tonalism opposed Post-Impressionism and Modernism, and is now regarded as a precursor to Minimalism and Conceptualism. The whole movement had been under fierce controversy and they were without doubt the most unpopular group of artists, in the eyes of most other artists, in the history of Australian art. Influential Melbourne artist and teacher George Bell described Australian Tonalism as a "cult which muffles everything in a pall of opaque density". The derogatory term "Meldrumites" was born, along with "Meldrum mud slinging" which related to the limited palette his students were encouraged to use in their early years.
While painting the wild sea off Beaumaris during a big storm in 1935, Beckett developed pneumonia and died four days later in a hospital at Sandringham aged 48. She was buried in the Cheltenham Memorial Park (Wangara Road) not far from another noted female artist, Mary Vale.
Her work, which had never been acquired for a public collection, was placed in storage, or remained hidden in private collections, and both the artist and the significance of her talent became largely lost to memory.
By a chance encounter in the 1960s Rosalind Hollinrake discovered some mysterious but compelling canvases signed C.Beckett. Embarking upon a search for the identity behind this unfamiliar name, her quest eventually led her to an open-sided barn in the Victorian countryside – and the horrible sight of 1200 rotting Clarice Beckett paintings, the majority of which had been destroyed by almost 40 years of exposure to the elements.
In these cityscapes, if you examine closely you can see how thinly the paint has been applied, how quickly the image has been formed to capture the moment of an emerging modern world of motor cars, electric lights, and telephone poles. Examining how each delicately placed brushstroke works together; we are granted a glimpse of Beckett's private world, formed at a time when she was free to be alone with her thoughts and her paint.
Developed by the Art Gallery of South Australia and featuring works by Clarice Beckett, the 2008 exhibition explored Australian Tonalism as one of the most influential but forgotten movements of 20th-century Australian art. It brought together 82 works by the Melbourne painter Max Meldrum and 17 of his followers. The exhibition toured nationally into 2009.