Person - Rosaleen Norton

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ROSALEEN MIRIAM NORTON (1917 - 1979)

One of Sydney's most notorious visual artists, Roie Norton played a whore in the New Theatre League’s first performances of Bury the Dead in 1937, and painted sets for some NTL shows. She frequented bohemian clubs such as Pakie’s and the 49 Steps and was evicted from "Buggery Barn" in The Rocks which had a tradition of eccentric lodgers.

Shapely and slim with long brown hair, Roie dressed in slacks and a shirt covered in paint, accentuated her prominent eyes by plucking out her eyebrows and painting in new ones to her hairline, and was reputed to file her teeth. At an artists' ball in Paddington Town Hall, wild-eyed and barefoot and dressed in a fake animal skin, she leaped from table to table, hissing like a big cat and chasing her husband Beresford Conroy. (Conroy played the title role in Golden Boy 1943 after Peter Finch was warned against doing it by Security. Finch said Roie would have been understood if she lived in Paris.) She worked overnight on her own painting a vista of hell on flats for the 1943 revue Let’s Be Offensive, arriving a week before it opened with smokes, two bottles of sweet sherry and a tube of Benzedrine and disappearing by sunrise.

After being evicted from Buggery Barn she moved to an old stable near St Luke’s Hospital Kings Cross where visiting NT members Norma Andresen, Bruce Bull and Rex Chiplin found her living in chaotic conditions with cats, frogs and a filthy white rat. Nicknamed "The Witch of Kings Cross", she spent time in Callan Park ("the giggle house") where she produced a coffee table book of erotic drawings. She worked part-time in the Arabia Coffee Lounge in Macleay Street, and paid her doctor and dentist with drawings. Seldom still, she was a good artist's model, however, knowing and holding whatever pose was wanted.

Rosaleen arrived in Australia from Dunedin NZ in 1925 with her parents Albert Thomas and Beena Norton. Her father, a master mariner, was a cousin of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. After being expelled from CEGS Chatswood at age 14 for her “feelthy” drawings, she studied for two years under Rayner Hoff who encouraged her pagan creativity, and modelled for Norman Lindsay. To make some money she was a pavement artist in the city but gave it up after being struck by pennies thrown from office windows. In 1935 she met duco sprayer Beresford Lionel Conroy. They married on Christmas Eve 1940 and hitchhiked around Australia. During the war Roie was a telegram “boy” because she enjoyed riding on a bicycle.

The Conroys divorced in 1951, by which time Roie had taken up with Gavin Greenlees, 13 years her junior. Greenlees, a trade paper journalist, watched the open-air performance of Under the Coolibah Tree at Katoomba in 1956 and attended NT's 30th birthday in 1962. In 1965 NT Secretary Miriam Hampson sent Gladys Greenlees a letter of sympathy on the death of Gavin's father (also named Gavin). Gavin junior died on 5 December 1983, the fourth anniversary of the death of Rosaleen Norton in the Sacred Heart Hospice Darlinghurst.

The Art of Rosaleen Norton, published in 1952, was declared obscene. In 1956 Greenlees and Norton were charged with committing “an unnatural offence” and in the same year the career of visiting conductor Eugene Goosens ended in scandal because of his association with them.

A great deal of material can be found online about Rosaleen Norton including Wikipedia and Australian Dictionary of Biography entries.



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