Is a close relationship between two creative people bound to end in jealousy? Or, if their artistic paths, and chosen media, are separate, might it strengthen and support mutual affection?
The Castlemaine Art Museum collects photographic images of Australian artists by Australian photographers and has built up a quality collection by such noted photographers as Max Dupain, David Moore, Richard Beck, Olive Cotton, May Moore, and Michel Lawrence. While those names are well known, one less so, Pegg Clarke, intrigues me.
Her work featured in prominent early 20th century Australian magazines, at first in thumbnail portraits for The Bulletin. While the Australian quarterly The Home launched by Ure Smith in 1920, nominated Harold Cazneaux (1878–1953) as their “Special Photographer”, Pegg Clarke, probably 8-12 years his younger was accorded bylines in almost every issue from its inception for photographs of stately homes and portraits of artists, performers and high society.
1890 as her year of birth is as uncertain as her origins and whether her name was Clark or Clarke. Even Joan Kerr’s respected 1995 Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book has her death only an estimate; “between 1956 and 1958” (p.329). “Rosebank” from which she was operating in 1921 was clearly not her studio but a humble row of terraces.
To photograph the Governor-General of Australia and Lady Forster at Government House (below) with their haughty and rather impatient entourage would take someone who moved easily in high society, or one who was undaunted enough to calmly organise groups, including the children, and to tastefully and artistically frame subjects against backgrounds with aplomb.
Significant to an idea of Clarke’s personality is her relationship with her main rival, Ruth Hollick (1883–1977), award-winning society photographer exhibited in Australia and internationally, and one of Australia’s most successful professional photographers. With her professional and life partner Dorothy Izard, Hollick met the painter Dora L. Wilson (1883–1946) and her lifelong companion Pegg Clarke (the pair were soon to share a studio), and together the two close couples soon forged a strong personal friendship.
By the end of WW1 Clarke, along with her now better known friend Hollick, were considered the leading photographers in Melbourne. Both were respected for their fashion photography, their high society portraits, especially of debutantes and brides, and their portraits of visiting celebrities. The Australian Gallery Directors’ Council notes that, “[t]he role of Cazneaux covering home and social photographs for magazine in Sydney was shared by Hollick and Clarke in Melbourne.” In his The Story of the Camera in Australia Jack Cato referred to her work as being of ‘the highest standard’
Apart from her professional work, Clarke also showed in galleries, often alongside Dora Wilson, whom she depicts affectionately (again through a strong mise-en-scène) as a figure in the Australian landscape (above) which Clarke was fond of photographing and which was the main subject of her exhibited work.
At 25 she had an early win with a picture Minnie in the October 1915 Australasian photo-review Home Portraiture Competition, though in a letter to the editor in the following issue, a J. G. Shale (a man) expressed a low opinion of it:
Whatever the negative of “Winnie” may be like, the print is awful… I showed “Winnie” to a lady friend, and asked her how she would like photos, of her daughter done in that style. She answered very quickly and decidedly, “If a photographer sent me photos, like that I would send them back quick and lively, and ask him what he meant by sending me such rubbish.” I may say she only voiced the opinions of a number of others to whom I showed the pictures.
In reply, the editor staunchly defended her work and she went on to win further awards including at the All-Australian Peace Exhibition, Adelaide beside Monte Luke, as announced in the May 1920 Australasian photo-review. Unlike Dora, Pegg was not trained at the National Gallery School though she drew as well as photographed. She did however come to know prominent artists of the period, including Jessie Traill, one of Australia’s most important 20th century printmakers who in 1909, moved to a studio in Temple Court, an arcade off Collins Street in Melbourne, the space also occupied by artist Dora Wilson, Janet Cumbrae-Stewart, Nora Gurdon and AME Bale. Writing to Tom Roberts, Jessie exclaims; ‘I will never find such a dear big, dirty place as my dear no. 43’. When the 1859 building was to be demolished in 1923, The Herald reported:
Temple Court, the old Temple Court which is so soon to be a thing of the past, was the scene of quite a gay gathering last week when, hostessed by the Misses Dora Wilson, Jessie Traill, Norah Gurdon, Rose Walker, Pegg Clarke and [Leslie?] Wilkie, an evening party was given in the studios to a large number of guests, mostly composed of Melbourne’s artists, who foregathered there for the last time, Many feasts and revels have been held In these studios, whose tenants have ever been most hospitable, so there was just a wee bit of sadness mixed with the fun.
Perhaps it was there that Pegg met Dora, who had relocated to the purpose-built studios, into one previously occupied by Tom Roberts, at the 1888 Grosvenor Chambers, 9 Collins Street, Melbourne (its name a direct reference to Grosvenor Gallery of London)
Her sympathetic portraits of artists that appeared in a full page layout in The Home in June 1920, show them on location as much as in studios, with Dora working on a large panel on which a nude figure, posed in the bush, is being blocked in, while Harold Herbert, the country boy from Ballarat is shown very much at ease sketching in the landscape with his pipe.
From 1923 Clarke started to advertise her services — mentioning her inclusions in “The London Salon 1921” and “The Pittsburgh Salon 1922” — from 403 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn (opposite the private school Scotch College) where Mary Clare, interviewing Dora for The Herald in July 1935 “visited her studio on the slopes of Glenferrie Hill Hawthorn [and] also met her great friend and fellow artist Pegg Clarke, whose photographic work is a revelation of camera art, [s]itting beside a huge log fire…” Linden Hall was one of many blocks of flats built in the area in an English Arts and Crafts style, and there the friends shared the upstairs studio designed by Clarke, as an October 1925 article in The Australian woman’s mirror details:
When [Clarke] decided to start in a professional way, though she had done good work in the flat where she lived, she felt she could do better if she designed a home with a part specially adapted for studio purposes. The result of much thought and planning on her part resulted in the uncommon blue-brick building in Glenferrie-road with its outside stairway leading to the large studio at the top, and an outlook over miles and miles of city.
Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather in their 1986 Australian women photographers have Dora living nearby with her parents, though they call the apartment block Rosebank.
In the 1920s newspapers kept the public informed through their social columns of their holidays taken together at Airey’s Inlet, Mount Barker and Marysville and in 1927 The Western Mail relayed that:
“Without dreams what a hard matter of fact world this would be! The girl of to-day “dreams,” but she has also the grit to try to realise her dreams, and a feeling of pride in woman-kind floods one when success follows. Two girls have worked hard—artist Miss Wilson, and her friend Pegg Clarke, the clever photographer—to try to make enough money to take them to the old land where they will see things and learn. They leave by the Hobson’s Bay on March 20. A number of artist friends gathered at the Victorian Artists’ Society Gallery to give these two giris a jolly send-off. Congratulations were showered on them.”
Their good connections paid off; Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer anthropologist and generous patron of a number of artists commissioned them to record monuments on their tour. The pair kept up a correspondence while overseas for two and a half years traveling by car England, and by ferry, train, and sometimes by horse-cart, in France and Italy. With them was Madge Henderson of Woodend, who acted as a ‘tweeny’, and a primus stove for cooking. They would “borrow a barn” as their headquarters, and every day they would tour the country in the car, tarrying as they liked in any one place. Clarke’s accounts of their experiences convey their adventurousness:
“Our experiences in Sardinia were like scenes from a comic opera. We came across from Corsica in a little boat. No sooner had we landed at Santa Teresa— a small frontier village — than a dozen’ small, ragged urchins seized our bags and proceeded to squabble as to whom should carry which. As there were only seven pieces to go round I was afraid they would be torn asunder, however, a gorgeously-uniformed individual armed with a sword intervened and reduced the small fry to four. From what I could gather we were the first three British women to visit Santa Teresa. There was a tremendous ‘to do.’ Two more much-uniformed officials appeared and demanded our passports. These were scrutinised inside and out and we were accompanied to the Customs shed and incited to open up our luggage. Miss Henderson was first. Her writing material was on top and they tried to read everything, letters included, expecting evidently to find invisible bombs or propaganda of some sort. Then came the guide book pictures, all of which they looked at and discussed. They took possession of my book of precious photographic plates, which I very promptly grabbed from them. They looked thoroughly non-plussed but undeterred went on examining one thing after an other — even the tea outfit. They had a wonderful time with Miss Wilson’s paintings, viewing each one singly. That ceremony over, we were escorted through the town to our inn. I shall never forget the fuss. Heads were poked out of all the windows, dogs barked, donkeys brayed and we literally had to force our way into the Inn. Even the lady of the house couldn’t get rid of the officials. They stayed with us while we had our coffee. Then we thought we would see the town, but were admonished not to take any photographs except in the streets — no waterfronts or anything that might be of use to their enemies! So off we went, but had not gone two yards when the news was wafted round and we were followed by the children of the town. “The cottages— the doors of which were all open— seemed to consist of one room in which the inhabitants worked, slept, mended boots, sold wine and made things. In one we saw father, mother and daughter-sitting on the floor with a stone In front of them, breaking almonds with hammers. We got back to the ‘Albergo. Grand Italia’, and were asked what we would have for dinner. This consisted of some dry sausage stuff, a quarter of a young kid, potatoes and salad, fried egg, bread and butter and a big dish of walnuts. The hotel was, wonderfully clean — scrubbed clean, in fact. Before we had finished dinner a new lot of police arrived to ask the names of our fathers and mothers, after which they shook hands gravely all round and departed.”
Pegg Clarke exhibited in the Victorian Salon of Photography in 1930, 1931, 1933 and 1934. Arthur Streeton in The Argus wrote of “Pegg Clarke’s Pictures:”
Some people may contend that photography is not art, and others declare that it is art. It is certain that the word art covers many activities in umbrageous fashion. Photography certainly is art, and the best photography is of a high order. There is no doubt that the finest qualities found in photography are infinitely more valuable and interesting than much that is shown in mediocre paintings.. The exhibition of Pegg Clarke photographs which was opened at the Atheneum Gallery yesterday, is of high average in quality. She does not exhibit any prints of sensational or dazzling contrasts of light and dark. Her chief expression lies in harmonious, quiet and reserved tones. For instance No 29, ‘Dream Mirror,” and No 78 “Collins Street, 1927” and No 69, “La Fontana, Villa d’Esme” are simple impressions of nature with a misty lightness and sense of mass.
No 1 “The King’s Highway,” a section of Hyde Park Corner, London, is lovely in its choice of plane trees and the Arch. No 84, “The Giant,” and No 100, “Top-most Branches” give one a most artistic idea of the gums. No 18, in “Au Revoir,” is a good architectural subject with charming figure. There are three portraits of artists No 102, “Blamire Young”, No 95, “Harold Herbert”, and No. 91, “L. Bernard Hall,” No. 92, “Misses Felicity and Veronica Syme as Madame Le Brun and Daughter,” is an artistic rendering of a most beautiful subject. In the huge collection there is nothing finer than No 72, “Florentine Beggar Woman. ” The lighting and arrangement are natural and impressive, and the subject is like a Patrician or one of noble dignity instead of beggar woman.
Art critic for The Australasian Harold Herbert called her “a very able person with a camera” and reviewed a show in her studio at both its opening and closing;
A show by Miss Pegg Clarke which closed last Saturday was one of the best photographic exhibitions of the year. All people who appreciate the art of the camera admire Miss Clarke’s work, and this show of prints—mostly of places abroad—more than justified her reputation. One can generally tell if work is drudgery or not. In the case of Miss Clarke it was obviously not so. A spirit of interest and pleasure seems to emanate from her records of curious old-world towns. An item of supreme importance, as far as photography is concerned, is choice of subject, and, having found it, to compose it in an acceptable manner. Miss Clarke has the good fortune to have a natural instinct for this, coupled with the necessary technical knowledge required for the ultimate results. Her subjects embraced all manner of things be loved of the painter—particularly in landscape—and the general excellence was sucn that to choose several as being better than others is scarcely worthwhile.
As a fund-raiser Violet Teague and Dora Wilson organised 23 Living Pictures, tableaux produced by the artists at the King’s Theatre, Melbourne, in November 1930 which Pegg Clarke photographed during rehearsals for a double-page spread in The Home magazine whose readers, as Anita Callaway points out, would have been more interested to identify the high society performers than the paintings they are imitating. A little girl, the Hon. Elizabeth Somers Cocks, the governor’s daughter poses as Millais’ naive church-goer hearing Her First Sermon.
L Bernard Hall (1906) Sketch for ‘Sleep’, Oil on canvas, 32.0 x 70.0 cm Signed l.r. B. Hall. Collection: Castlemaine Art Museum, Sybil Craig Bequest, 1990
It is likely then that Pegg Clarke’s portrait held in the Castlemaine Art Museum of Bernard Hall posing as an Italian Nobleman was recorded at this event. Hall who in 1891 was appointed director of the National Gallery of Victoria and head of the Art School, and thus was Wilson’s teacher, was expected “to advise the Trustees in regard to the purchase of works of Art.”
Significant to his choice of costume, likely in imitation of that in a Veronese painting, is his 1905 appointment as first Felton Bequest buyer for which duty he was sent to Europe.
His purchases, like his politics as director, were conservative; he abhorred modern art, and as an artist, was fond himself of imitating the Great Masters. Castlemaine has in its collection such a work, a sketch for his Sleep of 1906, that mixes classicism with a touch of the Pre-Raphaelite.
On their return from Europe, Dora concentrated on the production of paintings done en plain air (or in rainy weather, from the seat of her car) of sites around Melbourne, seeking out those that were art disappearing as the city grew upwards and was modernised. It is useful to contemplate just how much the couple influenced each other’s choices of viewpoint. An exhibition Together Again at Town Hall Gallery, Hawthorn 5 August to Saturday 29 August 2009 did just that, and Flickr provides what seems to be its only record.
The painting and photograph on the right looking over at St Pauls Cathedral across the Yarra at Princes Bridge are very close in composition, and seem at a glance to be duplicates, but a closer inspection of the perspective shows that the photographer is standing lower down, closer to the embankment. Rather than compete, the images complement each other, as the friends clearly did, until Wilson’s death in 1946.
The exhibition settles on 1883-1959 as Clarke’s life dates and included a 1979 description of her from Colette Reddin:
Pegg Clarke was short, fairly robust with thick, wavy hair (once brown) brushed straight back from her forehead. She had a clear voice, good accent and a hearty manner (almost jocular) and was agreeable, bright company. One was conscious that aesthetic considerations and interests were paramount to her.
That is an impression borne out in this one photograph of Pegg that I have been able to discover, that heads an article in The Australian Woman’s Mirror on the advisability of a career for women in photography.
As an accompaniment to Clarke’s 1920s photograph Two women reclining on the grass at the head of this post, an older Pegg was lovingly painted as Katisha (an elderly lady in love with Nanki-Poo) in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado by Dora in a work that confirms her appearance as a lively and keen-eyed individual.
Pegg Clarke is an Australian photographer we should remember!
[I’ve now created a Wikipedia article on Clarke with the above information]