Ethel Carrick Fox: Travels and Triumphs of a Post Impressionist

Ethel Carrick Fox by Susanna De VriesIn 1996 Ethel Carrick Fox became Australia's highest-priced woman artist when her painting of a French flower market sold at auction for $105,500. She had been ignored for decades ‑ some of her unsigned works had been attributed to her more famous husband, Emanuel Phillips Fox, by unscrupulous art dealers who also accused her of forging her husband's name on her works in order to sell them at a higher price.

Carrick's life was just as colourful as her art. Born in 1872, she graduated from London's famous Slade Art School. She became fascinated by the work of Monet and Pissarro and produced impressionist views which were shown at London's Royal Academy. After her marriage to Australian Emanuel Phillips Fox she settled in Paris with her husband. Paris was the centre of the art world ‑ young artists such as Picasso and Matisse were increasing the role of colour in art. Carrick, more daring than her husband, exhibited with Matisse and Derain, abandoning Impressionism in favour of the colourful linear style we now call Post-Impressionism. She and Emanuel painted in France and in North Africa before sailing to Melbourne. There she soon realised that her Jewish in-laws saw her as a shiksa, an outsider, They could not forgive her childless state and her belief that dignity in marriage depended on the woman's financial independence. Hurt by their rejection, Carrick went to stay in a Theosophical commune at The Manor, Mosman, led by a handsome, scandal-prone guru, where she painted beach scenes around Sydney Harbour.

World War I prevented Carrick and Emanuel's return to Paris. After her husband's premature death, left without assets or a widow's pension, she travelled widely through India, Africa and France with the aid of Theosophist friends. She continued showing in prestigious Salons in Paris and made a series of extended visits to Melbourne and Sydney, spending World War II in Australia and becoming a friend of Mary Gilmore. She died in Melbourne aged eighty.

Ethel Carrick Fox is an outstanding example of a highly talented and determined woman who refused to conform to the expectations of her era. This superbly illustrated biography has restored her rightful place in the canon of Australian and international art and Carrick Fox continues to be one of Australia’s most sought after artists.

The trade edition of this illustrated biography is out of print but after Carrick broke another record and her oil Fruit Market under Trees sold for over a million dollars Pirgos Press created a limited signed edition of 300 copies which has the additional record breaking painting as a tipped in colour frontispiece. The limited edition can be purchased by sending a cheque for $49.95 plus postage to the website of Booksplendour, or by shopping in person or by post at the Art Gallery of New South Wales bookshop.

Press Review

The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 October 1997

MISS MARPLE PICKS UP THE SCENT,
AND THE GREAT ‘FOX HUNT’ IS ON

By Daphne Guiness

Sleuthing is her business. And Susanna de Vries, Miss Marple of the art world, tracked down three Ethel Carrick Fox paintings in Sydney last week. Two she pronounced as ‘marvel­lous’, the third “a bit of a dog”.

Susanna has yet to see French Flower Market, which sold for $105,500 in 1996, making Carrick Australia’s highest-priced woman painter (pipping Margaret Preston), and which is on the jacket of de Vries’ biography, Ethel Carrick Fox: Travels and Triumphs of a Post-Impressionist (Pandanus). But she soon will. She deduces that the owners may be Hungarian. They have invited her to Bellevue Hill for coffee and cake “and that’s very Middle European”, she beams, pure Marple.

News of her book flushed out Ethel Carrick Foxes in unexpected places. Over dinner, a former ambassador said: “Oh, my sister was painted by her” (a shade chocolate-boxy, but Carrick never­theless). Dealer Brian Collier’s L Après Midi sur le Quai des Grands Augustus surfaced at Sotheby’s for $65,000. “This is one I’ve been hunting,” says the sleuth. She’s pleased, but not exactly wobbly-kneed with excitement — “I’ve been working in paintings too long for that.” (Although, flushing out two Conrad Martens for Kerry Packer, she concedes, produced a frisson.)

Then the girl behind the counter said: “Oh you will be interested, we have some Carrick Foxes here,” and produced two small works: woman in a Breton hat, and a market scene, reserve price $2,000.

“That’s far too little,” sniffed de Vries, but, happily for the encounter, pronounced them genuine. First she checked the signature, because Carrick changed it so often. “She signs E. Carrick, Carrick Fox, sometimes E. Phillips Fox when she is feeling married to Emanuel Phillips Fox, her famous husband. But unscrupulous dealers wrote E. P. Fox on the little paintings they did on holiday, often in ink, which is very sinister. If you see E. P. Fox in ink, run a mile. They are sold as Emanuel’s work, but they are hers.”

This information will infuriate the curator who berated de Vries for discussing forgery in her book Conrad Martens on the Beagle and in Australia, and dismissed her as a popular writer. “I’m not Jackie Collins. He’s so disparaging!” Yet when the critic Terry Ingrams heard she had the Order of Australia, he was glad. “He said I am one of the few people prepared to confront the problems of forgery.”

Sleuths must expect to rattle sensitivities, of course but, to her surprise, calling at The Manor, the Theosophical headquarters at Manly, where Carrick stayed (as did the actor Peter Finch) she discov­ered two more Carrick paintings: one of flowers, one of Clifton Gardens. Then, even more amazing, Springtime by Emanuel. “They wrestled this large painting out of the safe and said: ‘Do you think it would pay for a new bathroom?’ I told them it would pay to re-plumb the whole house and install bidets, too.”

De Vries quotes Virginia Woolf’s theory that biography should incorpo­rate techniques of the modern novel: must have suspense, love interest and scandal. “This has all that. I had to find out for myself. It took two years.”

So instead of seeing Carrick’s portrait at the Lyceum Club and thinking, “God, she looks so fragile but paints so strongly yet we’ve ignored her” and doing nothing about it, de Vries put on her Sherlock Holmes hat, pulled out her spyglass and went stalking. She discovered Carrick was very big in European art, so big that she exhibited with Matisse and Derain at the Salon d’Automne, became a jury member (unheard of for a woman), met and married Emanuel Phillips Fox, moved to Australia and remained in his shadow ever after.

Yet her work was outstanding a ‘wishy-washy artist’. She painted like a man in an era when women did not, and was pooh-poohed. Jealousy maybe. In the book, marvellous Sydney beach scenes show fully dressed women watching men besporting themselves half-naked in the ocean: Manly Beach — Summer is here won a gold medal in Bordeaux in 1926 (now at the Manly Art Gallery); the arrival of US ships to Sydney Harbour, Watching the American Fleet coming through Sydney Heads, was shown at Anthony Horders in 1925; there’s The Fruit Market, Nice (c 1923), owned by Kerry Stokes, awash with Carrick’s broad brush strokes; and a moody Les Jardins du Luxemburg (c 1908), once the property of Alan Bond. “I’d like to know where that is now,” said de Vries.

The problem is Carrick travelled so widely that her paintings are scattered: some in Italy, some in France, some in Morocco, some in England, some in Australia, but until now nowhere has her story been recorded. Virginia Woolf would approve. It’s a great story. There’s crime: naughty dealers forged Emanuel’s name on Carrick’s unsigned work. There’s scandal: a Theosophist guru at The Manor, Mosman, showered her with false promises. All the stuff to make a ripping TV art doco.

Dig out those attics, creak open those trunks. If Carrick Fox paintings lurk there, Miss Marple would love to know.

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