World comes to life on artist's broad canvas
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World comes to life on artist's broad canvas

In the early 20th century, some Australian artists headed for Europe and never came back, while others never left these shores.

Hilda Rix Nicholas spent her 20s travelling the world and making a name for herself as an artist, before returning to a space in which she could finally breathe out.

Bronwyn Wright, Grand Daughter of the 20th century artist Hilda Rix Nicholas in a recreation of her studio at the National Portrait Gallery.

Bronwyn Wright, Grand Daughter of the 20th century artist Hilda Rix Nicholas in a recreation of her studio at the National Portrait Gallery.Credit:Jay Cronan

She brought with her masses of paintings and exotic souvenirs, and set about constructing her own slice of Bohemia on the "broad, bleached" landscape of the Monaro.

A collection of her vivid paintings and drawings are now being shown for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery, alongside objects, furniture, garments, souvenirs and ephemera that come directly from the French Provincial-style studio she built for herself at Knockalong, the sheep property she settled on with her husband in 1928.

Curator Sarah Engledow said the idea had been to recreate the artist's rich surrounds.

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"The show has many moods and it does change," she said.

"Hilda Rix Nicholas saved so many mementoes and souvenirs and paintings and drawings from earlier years, and stored them in her studio on the Monaro … her life was a chronological mash-up, I suppose, because she took all her stuff with her. Talk about excess baggage - how did she get all this gear back here?"

The show begins with her early works from Paris, London and Morocco, for which she became well known.

Engledow said while the artist had spent her formative years seeing the world and building up her artistic practice, she had also had a dark time overseas.

"She had that quintessential Australian expatriate artist experience," she said.

"It was very tough but it was very heady, so that when she came back here, like all of those artists, she felt rather let down, but at the same time so relieved to be back in a country where no one would get typhoid fever, of which both her sister and her mother died.

''The war was over, she'd married a soldier and he was killed within weeks of their marriage, they only had a few nights together, and of course it's cold and it's dark over there."

Rix Nicholas remarried at 44 and built her studio while pregnant with her only child, and while the main homestead at Knockalong was destroyed by a bushfire in 1985, the studio survived.

The stand-alone studio has been partially recreated for the exhibition.

"They were a prosperous landed family,'' Engledow said.

''She never had to do any commercial work, she never had to sell a painting, and that's partly why her paintings are entirely her own world and style."

The artist's granddaughter, Bronwyn Wright, the exhibition's major lender, said she had grown up surrounded by her grandmother's paintings.

"Many of the paintings in our home were of where I grew up, so she painted what I looked at out the windows," she said.

"What I love about Hilda's paintings is that the female figures are large in the environment. The landscape was very important, but it was the people that were right there …"

She also announced yesterday that she had donated a self-portrait of the artist to the gallery's permanent collection.

Paris to Monaro: pleasures from the studio of Hilda Rix Nicholas is on at the National Portrait Gallery until August 11.