Meditations on loss: Hilda Rix Nicholas's war

Hilda Rix Nicholas, Desolation
Hilda Rix Nicholas, Desolation, c. 1917, original destroyed 1930. Photo: Rix Wright Collection

Images of women: wives, mothers and lovers who lost loved ones in the First World War tend to be cast in wraps of patriotism and stoicism. Such was the hold of maternal citizenship then, but one Australian war widow and artist Hilda Rix Nicholas (1884–1961) broke that mould. Melbourne born, Hilda Rix had been based in Paris as an expatriate artist since 1907. Her post-impressionist paintings typifying the Belle Époque such as La Robe Chinoise (c. 1913) and The Pink Scarf (1913), and of people and places in Tangier which she visited in 1912 and 1914 including Two Women in the Market Place (1912–14), were well received; and her North African work was shown to much acclaim in the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français in 1914. At the time of the announcement of the war Hilda Rix, her mother and her sister Elsie were in Étaples where Hilda took a studio each summer when the ateliers in Paris closed. Étaples was host to a vibrant artists' colony populated by American, Australian, British and European artists.

With France on a war footing, foreigners of all nations were urged to evacuate and head for England. The boats were crowded, and on crossing the English Channel both Hilda’s mother and sister Elsie contracted dysentery. Elsie subsequently died in September 1914, and her mother in early 1916, and Hilda found herself alone. By October 1916, her life seemed to be turning around when she met, and married, shortly after, fellow Australian Major George Matson Nicholas, a Distinguished Service Officer. He had been based in the Étaples Army Camp, and having seen the paintings Hilda Rix left behind in her studio, tracked her down in England, and a romance ensued. Following the wedding, Matson Nicholas returned to France, but five weeks later he died too. His death was unusual and almost freakish: he had seen his men going “over the top”, and was returning to the trenches when a stray shell hit him.

This was the tipping point for Hilda Rix Nicholas; she had lost not only her immediate family, but was also now a war widow. She had been apprehensive about her husband’s safety when he returned to France, and in letter she wrote to Matson Nicholas on 15 November 1916, which he never received, and just before she received the news of his death she said: “Oh God guard and keep you safe, Matson. Your letter with news that you have gone back to the Battalion has come – and frightens me – oh dear dear lover – it’s terrible – you are in danger – and I am far away – oh this ghastly war. Dear husband, be brave and splendid and always your best – but don’t be wreckless. I need you and love you utterly. Your wife Hilda.”[1]

Grief-stricken and traumatised, she turned to art, and her paintings and drawings became an essential part in her process of mourning. Hers is a very different kind of war art. It is not based on observation, which was the principle underpinning much official and commissioned war art, but on her emotional or affective response to the loss of Matson Nicholas. She was informed of his death via a telegram and then a letter, but like all who lost loved ones in that war, she couldn’t view her husband’s body. He was buried at a distance, in a battlefield at Flers in France; so she did what an artist would do, she visualised him as having died. She took the unusual step of portraying him along with another soldier lying deceased and alone on the rough terrain of a battlefield in a delicate drawing Study for ... And Those Who Gave ... I (1917).

Rix Nicholas reworked this into the painting, These Gave the World Away (1917), to show two soldiers lying in a remote and cold moonlit landscape, out of human reach. In another painting, she even depicted her own husband at the very moment of being shot, grievously hit and about to fall to the ground with arms outstretched in cruciform shape. The religious connotation of his death for a greater cause is overt. The actual setting of Matson’s Nicholas’s death is not accurate – he was behind the parapet when hit by a stray shell, not in the open battlefield – but that seems like an unnecessary detail. This image was the central panel of a triptych, Pro Humanitate (1917), which was destroyed in a house fire in 1930.

Hilda Rix Nicholas, Pro Humanitate
Hilda Rix Nicholas, Pro Humanitate, 1917, central panel, original destroyed, 1930. Photo: Rix Nicholas Archive

We know from a 1919 press report in the Sydney Morning Herald that the panels on either side represented their life before his death, and the family life and home he would no longer have: “[In the first panel] The lovers stand in the foreground, gazing in united happiness at the plain wide-stretching at their feet beneath azure skies. The whole idea of pulsating life, freedom, and strong wind blowing, is wonderfully conveyed ... The third, remarkable for the dexterity of the technique in the treatment of sunlight and the suggestions of the impalpable, shows the bereaved girl, face down, prostrate on a couch in a luxurious modern interior.“The shade of the lost one gazes pitifully upon her.”

In yet another drawing, Rix Nicholas placed herself in the battlefield where she imagined her husband of five weeks had been buried, surrounded by the graves of other recently deceased soldiers. Since she couldn’t ever witness where Matson Nicholas was buried immediately after his death, she connected in the only visceral way she knew when in Study for the painting Desolation (c. 1917) she shows her late husband’s hand protruding from the earth, trying to reach her. At the time of completing the painting Desolation, which was also destroyed in the 1930 fire at her home, she said: “I would have died had I been allowed – I was so near. I wanted to go”.[2] A surviving photograph of that painting shows her as totally alone, well on the way to giving up the will to live, with her long bony feet, and eye sockets verging on being skeletal. The black-hooded coat she is wearing is the one she wore in the days soon after hearing of his death.

Another wartime painting, A Mother of France (1914), shows an aged neighbour and widow in Étaples who had lost her husband in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and then her sons in the First World War. Hilda Rix Nicholas may have started this painting in Étaples before she left, then finished it in England as a widow herself, and thus infused some of her own suffering into that of her subject who so overtly projects feelings of grief. Interestingly, when the painting was purchased by the Australian War Memorial in 1920 she asked that a plaque be placed under the image, citing that the artist was a widow of the late Major G. M. Nicholas DSO of the 24th Battalion: a gesture affirming the authenticity of the emotions conveyed.

Painting was Rix Nicholas’s performative means of coming to terms with her shocking loss and, as she said at the time, “I who was so alone painted out my heart in these big canvases”[3]. Such an affective response melds a past event, a death, with its future consequence of becoming a war widow in a manner that Brian Massumi describes as taking on a different temporal structure in which the “past and future brush shoulders with no mediating present”.[4]

When Rix Nicholas returned to Australia in May 1918 and exhibited these paintings, along with others done in Europe in Sydney in 1919, Grace Cossington Smith saw them on show at Horderns, and was very taken by them. Cossington Smith is better known for her iconic renditions of maternal patriotism such as The Sock Knitter (1915) but she too explored the more private and affective side of living through wartime. Paintings like Cavalry in a Squall of Rain (c. 1917) show soldiers on horseback, the very soldiers she and other women encouraged to enlist, being cut down by symbolic gunfire in the form of rain and merging with the earth below. Such were the schizoid thoughts that filled the minds of many women at home.

The imagery in Rix Nicholas’s wartime paintings stayed with Cossington Smith, who described them in the following way to her friend Mary Cunningham: “Five of them were quite different from the others, about the war ... all the others were gay, happy, spontaneous things, and these five were different – big things. The one who painted all this had to paint just as the feeling was – I suppose it could be called emotional painting – the painter was not left untouched by the war, and being so had to paint what was the biggest and most real thing in these five, all in fact. The tragedy of the war … The strange part is all this was painted by ‘only a woman’ … Of course, really, only a woman could paint like that, a mere man not being capable of feeling things in the least like that – he may paint better, but not feel better”.[5] These almost private images also made “the imperceptible felt”.[6]

Paintings like Desolation were indeed quite different because the emotion of “affect” had kicked in. Rix Nicholas was understandably so traumatised that she, in effect, bypassed normal rational thought processes to work according to her unconscious response to real world events. But before proceeding, what exactly is affect? It is a complex entity, best described as “the active discharge of emotion”, and differing from feelings which Deleuze and Guattari describe as “always displaced, retarded, resisting emotion”. Affects, they write, “are projectiles, just like weapons, feelings are introspective like tools”.[7] Others speak of affect “as a form of thinking, often indirect and non-reflective, but thinking all the same […] and as thought in action”.[8]

Yet the immediate nature of Rix Nicholas’s affective response to the death of a loved one seems more than just “an active discharge of emotion” although; it has the quality of what Brian Massumi calls a “shock to thought”. He explains the process thus: “if the expressive momentum hits the body with its full ontogenetic force, it produces a compression shock. To convey the expressive potential ‘faithfully’ … the body must transmit the reality of that shock”.[9] He describes how in the process ‘thought strikes like lightning, with sheer ontogenetic force. It is felt. The highest operation of thought is not to choose, but to harbour and convey that felt force, repotentialised”.[10] This process seems to equate with the affect underpinning the production of this suite of Rix Nicholas’s wartime work based on the expression of extreme emotion.

Although, this affective intensity dissipates postwar, much of her work turned to honouring her lost husband. Paintings like A Man (1921) while showing a vulnerable soldier protected only by a tin helmet and standing in an open and threatening landscape, are also painted with much love. It is as if each paint stroke completes the fabrication of the soldier’s clothing – his shirt, the pockets on his shirt and so on: she could be “dressing” her lost husband, who is holding a most phallic gun. But that aside, this is also a deeply national painting conveying that the death of Matson Nicholas and the other 59,000 Australian men was for a greater cause.

These are post-affect, considered paintings, produced at a time when much of her post-war output was national. She had put aside her pre-war international lifestyle and cosmopolitan agenda, and even though she made another highly successful trip to France in 1924, and reconnected with her pre-war life, held successful exhibitions in Paris and London, was elected an Associate of the Société National des Beaux-Arts and her painting In Australia (1923) was purchased by the French government; nevertheless, her focus became much more national. Her new subjects included men and women on the land, sheep shearers, jillaroos, and the rural landscape. The “shock to thought” she had endured changed her world and her art.

Hilda Rix Nicholas, Study for ... and those who gave ...
Hilda Rix Nicholas, Study for ... And Those Who Gave ... I, c. 1917, charcoal on paper. Collection: Art Gallery of South Australia ©Bronwyn Wright



  1. ^ Hilda Rix Nicholas to George Matson Nicholas, 15 November 1916, Papers of Hilda Rix Nicholas 1885–1971, MS 9817 National Library of Australia.
  2. ^ Hilda Rix Nicholas, ‘Written in Melbourne during the period of my exhibition of pictures at the Guild Hall, 1919’, Papers of Hilda Rix Nicholas.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 31.
  5. ^ Perseus (Grace Cossington Smith) to Madame Medusa (Mary Cunningham), 10 August 1919, Cunningham Family Papers, National Library of Australia, MS 6749.
  6. ^ Mary Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, p, 18.
  7. ^ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, London: The Althone Press, 1988, p. 273.
  8. ^ Nigel Thrift, ‘Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect’, Human Geography, vol. 86, no. 1, 2004, p. 60
  9. ^ Brian Massumi, ‘Introduction: like a thought’, in Massumi, B. (ed.), Shock to Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari, London: Routledge, 2002, p. xxxi.
  10. ^ Brian Massumi, ‘Introduction: like a thought’, p. xxxi.

Catherine Speck is Professor of Art History, and Coordinator of postgraduate programs in Art History and Curatorial & Museum Studies at the University of Adelaide. Her books include Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars,published by Reaktion Books, 2014.

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