Words such as “delightful” do not play much of a role in this column, but if ever there were an occasion for such a lapse, it would be Art, Love & Life: Ethel Carrick & E. Phillips Fox, at the Queensland Art Gallery. The Foxes were a successful partnership, both as man and wife, and as two artists working in complementary styles. Emanuel Phillips Fox (1865-1915) was academically trained and naturally cautious in his version of Impressionism. Ethel Carrick (1872-1952), seven years his junior, was a more adventurous painter. Each had much to offer the other.
The tragedy is that their marriage lasted a mere ten tears before Fox – a lifelong chain smoker – died of cancer at the age of fifty. Although one would never know it from this exhibition or catalogue, at the time of Fox’s death their relationship was growing strained. Curator, Angela Goddard, has chosen to ignore this rough patch and present the show as a love story. When an exhibition works as well as this it would be churlish to complain.
The last months of their relationship may have been difficult, but all was forgotten as Carrick became the consummate artist’s widow, campaigning relentlessly on behalf of her husband’s reputation. By 1925 we find her saying: “I want to lay stress on his work, which is so much the greater, my work is nothing in comparison with his.”
For Fox and Carrick the happy days of their marriage were those they spent living in Paris, from 1905-1913. When the couple came to Melbourne in 1913, Carrick found it hard to get on with Fox’s family, who regarded him as a genius and her as a dubious amateur.
She wouldn’t be the first or last gentile wife to have difficulties with her husband’s staunchly Jewish family. Fox, on his part, was not the only man to undergo a personality change upon returning to the ancestral home.
It was a particular problem that the marriage was childless, which was viewed as a perverse decision on Carrick’s part. Another sticking point was Carrick’s burgeoning interest in Theosophy – Madam Blavatsky’s fizzy cocktail of ersatz ancient wisdoms that enjoyed a remarkable vogue among artists at the time. Mondrian and Kandinsky were fellow believers, so Carrick was in good company, although with the passing years Theosophy looks almost as implausible as Scientology.
At the time Fox was diagnosed with lung cancer Carrick had fled from her in-laws and gone to Sydney, where she was staying with Theosophist friends. Upon receipt of a telegram she hastened back to Melbourne, finding Fox already close to death. The strength of her devotion to her husband’s memory probably contained an element of guilt at having left him when his health was failing. Yet there can be no doubting her admiration for his work, and the sincerity of her belief that he was unfairly neglected in his home country.
Nowadays we might see Fox as an artist who has been both underrated and overrated. In his best paintings he is a match for almost anybody in Australian art, but pictures such as The Art Students (1895) or The Ferry (1910-11), are not plentiful in his oeuvre. Most of his paintings have a restraint that borders on timidity, which may be put down to personal modesty and innate conservatism. He was fascinated by the effects of dappled light as opposed to the sunny vistas one finds in the Heidelberg paintings of Streeton and Conder.
Before any great claims are made for Fox we need to put his work alongside that of the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists with whom he cohabited in Paris. He is no Monet, no Renoir, no Bonnard. Although his skill and sensitivity can’t be questioned, he remained committed to a late nineteenth century aesthetic that paid homage to Impressionism while retaining the tonal values of academic realism.
I remember feeling disappointed with Fox’s 1995 retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, perhaps because I had held grandiose expectations. Sixteen years later, having seen many more of his works in public and private collections, and read the available literature, I’ve discovered a different Mr. Fox. This one is less burdened with the chores of formal portraiture, less gloomy in his tones; more willing to take a sensual delight in colour, female beauty, and the life of the streets.
This is the delightful bit, and it owes a huge debt to his spouse. Ethel Carrick was born on the outskirts of London, and had the independent instincts and progressive outlook we associate with that Victorian phenomenon, ‘the New Woman’. By the time she met Fox, perhaps as early as 1901, she had got to the end of her twenties without succumbing to the lures of marriage and maternity. The charming and gracious Fox was the husband she needed – a man devoted to his work who would not play the patriarch.
While the impressive, low-keyed painting, The Breakfast Table (1907) shows Carrick remaining true to her training at the Slade School of Art, she soon began to paint in dabs of pure colour. She considered herself an Impressionist who set out to capture the fleeting instant. This entailed a lot of painting en plein air, with people and places recorded with quick jabs of the brush. She exhibited her oil sketches along with more considered work, but avoided elaborate finishing.
In Paris, Fox showed at the New Salon, while Carrick showed at the more radical Autumn Salon, where the Fauves had made their outrageous debut in 1905. Both artists were appointed associates of their respective Salons, which allowed them some leeway in the display of their pictures.
While Carrick was painting in the Jardin du Luxembourg or the bustling markets of Rue Mouffetard, Fox was working on a series of delicate nudes, where the pale flesh of the model is perfectly balanced by the soft colours of walls and bed spread. In Carrick’s street scenes each colour has a distinct identity, creating a vivid patchwork. Fox, by contrast, was a master of light and shadow. Although his nudes are posed in a closed room one is acutely conscious of the warmth of the sunlight glimpsed through the shutters. It’s tempting to be simplistic and say that Fox’s work has a greater interiority, Carrick’s an extrovert dimension.
When they travelled together to Normandy, to Venice or North Africa, their works grew closer. Away from the studio Fox painted a large number of very free oil sketches in bright colours. He must have enjoyed showing Carrick that if he chose to do so he could paint with just as much vigour and spontaneity as she did. Unlike his wife, he rarely exhibited this kind of small study.
In the same manner as his friend and fellow expatriate, Rupert Bunny, Fox was a dedicated painter of women. Pictures such as On the Balcony or Nasturiums (both 1912), are brilliant decorations, but also full of tender sympathy for the model, Ethel Anderson. Carrick’s portrait of the same model, The white trimmed hat (c. 1911) is direct to the point of bluntness, with none of Fox’s reticence. Carrick has Anderson looking straight out at the viewer, while Fox makes us the unseen observers of her reveries. In his works the model remains secure in her own world, oblivious to our prying eyes.
In this comparison we learn a lot about the respective personalities of the artists. Carrick was outspoken by nature, willing to take on causes and join committees. Fox was more discreet, less confrontational in every way. While Carrick took an experimental approach to painting, Fox was careful not to stray too far from the middle path. He had built up a repertoire of skills and was not about to throw everything to the winds, as artists such as Matisse had done.
Carrick was right to see Fox as her superior. He had a subtlety and depth that she could not match, although she had substantial qualities of her own. Such qualities are on display in probably her best-known work, Manly Beach – summer is here (1913). Although she was not Australian by birth, few artists have been more successful at capturing the colour and activity of a typical day at the beach. This is a very noisy painting, full of the hubbub of crowds and the sounds of the surf. It is the last item in this show, and it is a well-chosen conclusion. One passes through the exit feeling that whatever highs and lows the Foxes experienced during a decade of marriage, they deserve their Hollywood ending.
Art, Love & Life: Ethel Carrick and E. Phillips Fox, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until 7 August
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, April 30, 2011