Constance Stokes

1906 - 1991

Constance Stokes, initially trained at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, was awarded their prestigious Travelling Scholarship which took her to London from 1930-1933.[i] She studied at the Royal Academy School under William Mornington whom she acknowledged for ‘furthering my understanding of drawing’, and for showing her how line can express form.[ii] Then in the summer of 1931, she took herself to Paris to study with Andre Lhôte who had a profound influence on her. As she recalled, ‘the Lhôte School was a revelation to me and, as I did not have much French, and Lhôte had no English, I had to do the best I could by watching him work with his brush – drawing all the colour together, and for the first time I became aware of colour used as tone, and not used as local colour’.[iii] Back in Melbourne, from c.1940-1966 she attended George Bell’s Thursday evening life drawing sessions, although she was never a student of his. He refused to teach her saying she did not need it, but he was happy to give her criticism, and to pass on knowledge of glazing methods.[iv] Drawing was in Stokes’s blood, she even described it as ‘my great love’, and in 1965 when Hazel de Berg interviewed her she said, ‘I can’t help wanting to use it even now … it’s so strongly in me that I don’t think I’ll ever disregard it’.[v]

Catherine Speck
Professor of Art History, University Adelaide.
Publications include Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen, National Library of Australia, 2011.

[i] On the artist see Lucilla Wyborn d’Abrera, Constance Stokes: Art and Life, Hill House Publishers, 2015; Anne Summers, The Lost Mother: A Story of Love and Art, Melbourne University Press, 2009.

[ii] Constance Stokes Retrospective Exhibition, Swan Hill Regional Gallery, 1985, np; Barbara Blackman interview cited in Felicity St John Moore, Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle, National Gallery of Victoria, 1992, p. 126.

[iii] Constance Stokes Retrospective Exhibition, Swan Hill Regional Gallery, 1985, np.

[iv] Felicity St John Moore, Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle, p. 125

[v] Hazel de Berg interview, 2 December 1965, National Library of Australia.


CONSTANCE STOKES – Essay by Dr Juliette Peers, 2021

Constance Stokes provided a major contribution to twentieth century Australian art. Her life and work is central to the history of Australian art and particularly the much- contested place and impact of women in that narrative. She was a consistent technician, well trained, highly self aware and alert in her commitment to formalism and neoclassicism. Producing work of the highest possible standard was her goal and for some years of her career, especially when her children were young, she limited her output in order to maintain the standards that she set for herself. Yet concurrently her figure subjects were often warm, nuanced and sensitive in their characterisation. Without compromising the undeniable seriousness of Stokes’ intent, her work, and particularly its subjects, also spoke eloquently to a broad audience and have continued to speak directly to the open-minded beyond the sometimes wavering fortunes of her art at the hands of institutional professionals since the 1960s.

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