Ethel Anna Stephens

Ethel Anna Stephens (1864-1944)

painter, printmaker and decorative artist, was born in Sydney, the daughter of William Stephens, headmaster of Sydney Grammar School and later Professor of Natural History at Sydney University, and Anna Louise, née Daniell.
Ethel began to exhibit with the [Royal] Art Society of NSW in 1883. As a student aged twenty, seven of her drawings were included among ‘work of private classes held in Sydney Technical College Rooms’ at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London. The same year she became Julian Ashton’s first pupil.Working in both oils and watercolours, Stephens painted flowers and other still life subjects, portraits and landscapes. In 1888 she exhibited ‘some watercolour flowers’ in the amateur section of the Fine Arts section at the Women’s Industries Exhibition in Sydney. In 1890 she won two student prizes (first and second) for her life-size studies of heads shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, again listed as ‘amateur’. Two years later (1892) she was the first woman elected to the Council of the Art Society of NSWthen was re-elected to the new Council in 1894. That year she became a founding member of the Society of Artists and exhibited with them too (her work was included in its 1901 Commonwealth Exhibition). Membership of this breakaway group from the Art Society was restricted to professional painters, so her status had clearly changed. Indeed, in 1897 she was the sole woman among the eight members of its committee. Between 1894 and 1913 she also exhibited regularly with the Queensland Art Society.
Even so, her gender and subjects, particularly flower painting, tended to marginalise her in art society exhibitions and she began to promote all-women exhibitions, beginning with ‘Five Lady Artists’ (which she instituted) at Bradley’s Art Gallery in Sydney in 1905. The other exhibitors were her cousin Alice Norton, Emily Meston and Aline and Edith Cusack – all to become inaugural members of the Sydney Society of Women Painters (founded 1910). Stephens’s portrait of Miss Rhoda Anderson was illustrated in D.H. Souter’s review of the show, ‘Some women artists – mainly of New South Wales’, in Art and Architecture (September-October 1908, 179-80). She remained an active member of the Society of Women Painters (including being president and on its selection committees) until 1934, when it became the more commercial Women’s Industrial Arts Society and she resigned. She was an early (but not inaugural) member of the Society of Arts & Crafts of NSW (founded 1906) – but a bossy, pretentious and patronising one, convinced that handicrafts were for lesser women who ‘dabble in watercolours and oils who haven’t the remotest idea of painting’ yet could become useful members of society since a trade ‘is so much easier learned’ (interview, Australasian Star 8, 11 April 1908).
After her father’s death in 1891 Stephens began to take pupils; she was holding painting classes in her studio from at least 1900. Her work sold well and in the 1920s she was able to build a home at Vaucluse complete with studio and make several trips abroad. Travelling to London and Paris in 1920-23, she studied at La Grande Chaumière and exhibited in the Old Salon (1920-21). She regularly gave talks on her own and others’ art, on exhibitions and on her experiences as an art student, usually stressing the importance of tradition as might be expected from her training and background. As a 1923 interview in Woman’s World revealed: ‘she is against the unnatural school, the futurist, the forced idea … “only let us be sincere”, she pleads.’
In contrast to the rapturous reception given her flower paintings, Stephens’s competent academic portraits were usually coolly received. Large official portrait commissions could hardly be ignored, but her flowers had an easy appeal as elegant and appropriate signifiers of ‘women’s work’. Nevertheless, her earliest successes had been with portraits. Both her first and second prizewinners in the 1890 art students’ competition at the Art Gallery of NSW had been portraits, and her winning ‘head of an old lady’ was grudgingly praised. However, when she painted Mary Gilmore’s portrait in 1891 (oil on canvas, Mitchell Library – included in the National Portrait Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Possibilities of Portraiture, March 1999), her more adventurous subject did not like it. She showed Capucine with the Art Society in 1892 – ‘a female head and bust, [which] shows skilful treatment of the grey hair above the young-looking face, though the whole effect lacks grace’, reported the Herald. The NSW Governor, Lord Jersey, on the other hand, purchased her ‘beautiful picture of yellow roses’. Her exhibits the following year included A Gleaming Ghost of Tears, her ‘best work in portraiture’, stated the Herald: ‘There is a great deal of sex in the expression, and incidentally the flowers at the breast are beautifully painted.’
The NSW Fine Art section of the 1907 First Exhibition of Women’s Work at Melbourne, which Stephens directed, included her own portraits Fran Reinits and Miss Rhoda Anderson. They were enigmatically mentioned in a review of the preliminary Sydney show as ‘noticeable as pictures of women living here’. At Melbourne, inevitably, she won the prize for best flower painting. For once the Sydney Mail conceded that there was more to her art than her ‘very much admired’ roses: ‘for some time she has been known as a vigorous and faithful painter of portraits, with a special talent for depicting those whom the “snows of age” have touched’. Her portrait of Mary, Lady Windeyer (1836-1912), c.1900 (oil on canvas 74.7 × 62.2 cm, ill. Heritage) – a sister of Emily Rose Twynam – shows her ‘special talent’ at its best. Its informality means that it avoids the cold impersonality of many of her official portraits, even though the disjunction between the painting’s original and present location – a private commission now hanging in Women’s College, University of Sydney – makes it appear oddly insensitive.
This elderly woman knitting is unrecognisable as the dedicated worker for women’s suffrage, education and welfare that history knows as Lady Windeyer. Stephens was an intimate friend of Women’s College and showed work in its 1895 art exhibition, but the portrait was a family commission – hence the motherly pose. Richard Windeyer QC, Mary and William Windeyer’s son, bequeathed it to the College in 1961, as much because his father was the first Chairman of Council (1891-95) as because his mother was a key figure in bringing the place into existence.
In its new context the pose seems ironic. Mary Windeyer was known precisely for not knitting. As organiser of the NSW contribution to the Women’s Work Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, she had rebuked the chairman (sic) when he queried the appropriateness of including sculpture, sharply stating that women’s work went ‘beyond the product of the needle’ (quoted Heather Radi, ‘Mary Windeyer’, in H. Radi (ed.), 200 Australian Women, Sydney 1988).

Writers:
Philp, Angela
Kerr, Joan
Date written:
1995