Vida Lahey: Known for her distinctive flower studies

 

To celebrate Mother’s Day, we have selected a suite of beautiful watercolours by (Frances) Vida Lahey (1882-1968). Of all the works by Lahey, she is best known for her depiction of the weekly wash-day, Monday morning 1912 (illustrated). Known as a painter of oils on a wide range of subjects, she was also recognised throughout her career as a watercolourist of distinction for floral still lifes.

Lahey was among a new breed of artist — the trained professional — who superseded the Victorian tradition of the genteel lady amateur. One of Australia’s best known woman artists, Lahey was born at Pimpama, a northern suburb of the Gold Coast, and although she studied and travelled widely to London and Europe, she always returned to Brisbane where she lived and painted for most of her life.

Vida Lahey painting

Vida Lahey painting / Daphne Mayo Collection / UQFL119 / Courtesy: The University of Queensland

Women Prominent in Brisbane’s Art World, 1934

Vida Lahey profiled (centre front) in ‘Women who are Prominent in Brisbane’s Art World’, published in ‘The Telegraph’ 8 June 1934 also included Daphne Mayo, Enid Dickson, Caroline Barker, Gwendolyn Grant, Jeanette Sheldon, Mrs Charles Arthur Powell (Gladys Henrietta Dudley née Hobday), and Mrs. D. F. Cowell-Ham / 114526 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

Exhibition opening, Brisbane 1934

(Left to right) Archbishop James Duhig, Daphne Mayo and Vida Lahey at the opening of Lahey’s exhibition showing numerous flower studies, Griffiths Tea Rooms, Queen Street, Brisbane, 16 October 1934 / Daphne Mayo Collection, UQFL119 / Courtesy: The University of Queensland
Interior of Griffiths Tea Rooms, Queen Street, Brisbane, ‘Queensland Society Magazine’ Brisbane August 1922 / 109588 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland, Brisbane

The art environment in Brisbane was particularly conservative, making Lahey’s vibrant flower studies highly visible expressions of modernist ideas at the Royal Queensland Art Society’s annual exhibitions. Although floral still lifes were a popular genre throughout Australia, Lahey’s handling of brilliant colour was considered exceptional.

Various groupings can be made of Lahey’s flower studies — one by the artist herself — is using the same vase over a period for different studies, here we look at two such groupings from the Gallery’s Collection.

RELATED: Explore the work of Vida Lahey

The cretonne curtain 1933

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / The cretonne curtain 1933 / Watercolour and gouache over pencil on wove paper on cardboard / 49.8 x 40cm / Gift of Ann Gruen in memory of her mother, Margaret Darvall 1970 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Flower study (White daisies, phlox and petrea) 1965

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Flower study (White daisies, phlox and petrea) 1965 / Watercolour over pencil on wove paper / 33 x 30cm / Gift of the artist’s sister, Mrs M.E.A. Denholm 1969 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

This same jug — imported from Germany by notable Brisbane businessman Carl Zoeller — can be seen in The cretonne curtain 1933, and again much later in Flower study (White daisies, phlox and petrea) 1965, and indeed appears in many of Lahey’s works. Of interest, the flowers in Flower study, the blue flowering climber Petrea (also known as ‘Purple Wreath’) was a favourite of Lahey’s mother, the blossoms retaining their colour for many weeks before slowly fading.

Art and nature 1934

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Art and nature 1934 / Watercolour over pencil on cardboard / 52.5 x 60.6cm / Gift of the Queensland Art Fund 1950 in memory of Miss Madge Roe (1891-1938) / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Crocus and sunflowers 1955

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Crocus and sunflowers 1955 / Watercolour over pencil on thin cream wove paper / 50.4 x 40.2cm / Bequest of George Brown 1977 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Art and nature 1934, an exploration of the ‘white on white’ technique, is one of Lahey’s most complex still life paintings, commenting on the clash in painting of traditionalism and modernism, represented by a classical plaster bas relief by her friend and Brisbane contemporary Daphne Mayo, a book on Matisse, and the brilliantly coloured Mexican sunflower which yield dozens of daisy-like blooms. The same jug is used in Crocus and sunflowers 1955, with the shapes of strap-like leaves and jug forming an ellipse against a simple background of wall and window.

Lahey and Mayo had a long association with the Queensland (National) Art Gallery (QAG), Lahey was a member of its Board of Advice from 1923 until 1930, in 1929 Lahey and Mayo founded the Queensland Art Fund, which purchased works, in 1932 Mayo was instrumental in obtaining for QAG its first major endowment, through the Godfrey Rivers Trust, enabling the Gallery to acquire contemporary Australian art, Lahey was a member of the acquisition committee until 1937, also a Trustee of the Godfrey Rivers Trust, and founder in 1941 of the Gallery’s child art scholarship class.

Daphne Mayo (left) seated in a room that contains photographs and replicas of the artist’s previous works c.1930s / Daphne Mayo Collection, UQFL119 / Courtesy: The University of Queensland

Delve into more works by Vida Lahey

Monday morning 1912, which shows two women doing the weekly wash with copper, tubs and bar soap, was once a common sight in Australian households. With the advent of mechanical aids and electricity this sight has now vanished, recording as it does a bygone era in vivid detail. In depicting the weekly washday at Lahey’s home in Indooroopilly, Brisbane, Monday morning records the life of most Queensland women in the early Twentieth Century. Esme, a younger sister, was the model for the woman at the washtub.

Monday morning 1912

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Monday morning 1912 / Oil on canvas / Gift of Madame Emily Coungeau through the Queensland Art Society 1912 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Australian floral subjects have been popular since the 1890s, and after Australia attained nationhood through the federation of its six states in 1901, sentiments of national pride, and patriotism soon developed with the Wattle a favourite floral subject and emblem of Australia. In Lahey’s lifetime, the Wattle Day League founded in Sydney in 1909, and a Queensland branch established in 1912, it is possible that Lahey painted Wattle in a yellow vase c.1912-15 for a promotional Wattle Day event at the time.

RELATED: Wattle Day League in Brisbane

Wattle in a yellow vase c.1912-15

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Wattle in a yellow vase c.1912-15 / Oil on canvas on plywood / 24 x 29cm / Gift of the Estate of Shirley Lahey through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Geraldton wax in vase c.1950s

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Geraldton wax in vase c.1950s / Watercolour on paper / 34.5 x 44.5cm / Gift of Rosemary Goodchild through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2015. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Green vase with gerberas 1948

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Green vase with gerberas 1948 / Watercolour on paper / 47.3 x 38.3cm / Gift of Rosemary Goodchild through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2015. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program/ Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © QAGOMA

Geraldton wax in vase c.1950s is of particular interest as a native Australian flower study as the Gallery currently holds only one other Australian floral subject by Lahey, Wattle in a yellow vase c.1912-15 (illustrated) which is one of Lahey’s earliest flower studies. Green vase with gerberas 1948 exhibits the intense vibrant colours she experimented with during the 1930s and 1940s. The works after the 1940s are more subdued however the play of pattern can be just as vibrant and experimental as seen in her use of distinctive table cloths and vases in her still life paintings.

Edited extract by Glenn R Cooke, former Curator (Queensland Heritage), QAGOMA. Additional research and supplementary material by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA

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Featured image detail: Vida Lahey Flower study (White daisies, phlox and petrea) 1965 

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