Paula Rosenstengel had every advantage in becoming an artist. Born in Brisbane on 14 September 1920, Paula was the child of acclaimed Queensland furniture designer Edward (Ed) Rosenstengel and his wife Evelyn Smith. Paula showed a natural inclination towards the arts from an early age and Edward supported her artistic endeavours, his own success in the industry perhaps providing a model for how art could translate into a sustainable profession. But like many other Queensland artists whose vocations suffered from lack of education, professional networks and exhibition opportunities, Paula felt isolated in a city later described as an ‘art backwater’ (Langer 1958). While other artists migrated south to Sydney or Melbourne, or journeyed further afield to the Continent, a 17-year old Paula found an innovative solution to Brisbane’s paucity of art educators: private art tuition by post. Her correspondence with the English watercolourist Claude Muncaster provides a unique insight into the mind of a young woman artist struggling with self doubt and isolation. These letters, now housed in the State Library of Queensland, reveal a young woman with a passion for art, a desire for recognition and a yearning for experiences and education outside of her grasp.
When Paula Rosenstengel graduated from Brisbane’s All Hallows’ School in 1937, her prospects as an artist seemed bright. Paula’s father, Edward Rosenstengel, was a well known and respected furniture designer who supported his daughter’s artistic endeavours. When it was time for six year old Paula to start her formal education in 1926, Edward and his wife Evelyn chose All Hallows’, a school that valued and privileged the arts. Paula’s natural inclination to those subjects was nurtured; she studied music practice and theory, appeared in theatrical productions and wrote poetry for the All Hallows’ magazine. All Hallows’ had a long tradition of employing highly regarded local artists to mentor students. During Paula’s ten year tenure at All Hallows’ her art master was the English-born and Slade-educated William Bustard, an artist with a preference for painting en plein air and who excelled at capturing Queensland’s distinctive light and colours. Bustard often featured the All Hallows’ Convent and the Sisters of Mercy who lived there as subjects and Paula did the same. The view from the All Hallows’ lawn over the Brisbane River and towards the city’s growing business district is featured in numerous of her sketches and watercolours. ‘Cityscapes,’ 18 year old Paula wrote, ‘[are] the types of pictures I like best.’
With a supportive, artistically-inclined father and several years of solid art education behind her, Paula was poised to pursue art as a career when she graduated All Hallows’ in 1937. One problem presented itself. To continue to grow as an artist, Paula needed to build on her Bustard-led high school training with more advanced and targeted instruction. But interwar Queensland suffered from a serious shortage of high quality, post-secondary art education. The limited training options forced many aspiring artists to relocate to Australia’s ‘centre of cultural learning’, Melbourne, to continue their education. Young artists of Paula’s generation, The Courier Mail explained, were ‘denied the opportunity in their home State to achieve their ambitions in art.’ It continued, ‘Queensland youth’s determination to express itself is best seen in the number who have moved there to work during the day to pay for part-time [art] courses. There is a small colony of them living in rooms in tenements along St. Kilda Road.’
As Judy Hamilton (2014) explains, the paucity of art training opportunities in Queensland reflected the ‘cultural thinness’ of Brisbane’s art world. With a population of 326,000, Brisbane had developed limited infrastructure to support an art scene in the 60 years since the the first School of Art classes were established in 1881. The chief organising body for Brisbane’s artistic community was the Queensland Art Society (QAS), founded in 1887 to provide exhibition opportunities and promote the visual arts in the State. By the late 1930s the State’s art establishment was still centred around the then called Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) (it earned its royal warrant in 1927), which provided the the primary means for artists to exhibit and, it follows, sell their work. The popularity of the Society’s annual art exhibitions amongst local artists is indicative of the lack of exhibition opportunities available in the State; Brisbane, for example, supported just one commercial gallery.
The only other relevant cultural institutions were the Queensland National Art Gallery (QNAG) and the Central Technical College. The Queensland National Art Gallery opened in 1895 after the QAS persuaded the Government of the need for Queensland to have its own public art collection. The Queensland Art Society’s then president, Godfrey Rivers, who was the driving force behind much of Brisbane’s early artistic activities, was the Gallery founder and first curator. However, lack of funding, limited public interest and an over-reliance on amateur managers meant that the Gallery’s development was stagnant for most of the early twentieth century, its collection housed for some time in a single room in the Executive Building. Visiting the Gallery was one of the primary means that Brisbane audiences could learn to appreciate art, but rather than improving the city’s artistic culture, artist Vida Lahey argued that the ‘moribund’ gallery perpetuated the public’s apathy towards art (Lahey 1959).
Queensland’s official source of art education was the Central Technical School’s Art Branch. The Central Technical School (CTS) was formed in 1915 following a series of reforms to the technical college system in Queensland. Godfrey Rivers, who had served as Art Master at the School through its previous iterations, resigned from the post in 1913 as the focus of the school shifted from fine to applied art. When Paula graduated from All Hallows’ in 1937 the head of the Art Branch was F J Martyn-Roberts and the School’s primary purpose was teaching applied art and training art teachers. Martyn-Roberts was replaced in 1938 by Cyril Gibbs, an artist and graphic designer who continued the school’s focus on ‘useful’ branches of art.
An appeal from Bishop Duhig in 1935 for an art school to be established in connection with the State’s National Art Gallery attracted donations, but the plan did not come to pass. In 1939 Queensland’s Director of Education noted ‘art education is something of a problem.’ Margaret Olley summed up the situation more briefly when she labelled the teaching methods at CTS ‘constipated’. Paula Rosenstengel certainly thought so. Galleries, art societies and art schools are pillars of a professional art community. Without reputable art training, exhibition opportunities and access to active and respected industry organisations, it is difficult for artists to validate their professionalism, be taken seriously by art critics and buyers and, in turn, support themselves financially. In 1937 Brisbane’s three official art institutions were in a period of somnolence, but the immediate concern for 17 year old Paula was education. Paula wanted to continue to study art after she graduated All Hallows’, but it seems that neither she nor her father were satisfied with the training options available in Brisbane. Ed Rosenstengel noted in 1938 ‘our schools of art are not very advanced.’ Before his daughter had even finished school Ed Rosenstengel was searching for alternative training opportunities.
He turned for guidance to a trusted source of art news and instruction throughout the Commonwealth, Artist magazine. Rosenstengel wrote to the query department of Artist located at London’s St James’s at least twice in 1937 to ask advice on Paula’s art training. Rosenstengel first sought help from Artist in finding a book about the methods and technique of British artist JMW Turner, who was one of Paula’s chief inspirations at the time. Then, in a letter dated 13 April, he inquired about English art schools or artists who would provide training to Paula via correspondence. The query department provided three addresses in its reply. One was for the Press Art School, which had provided a popular correspondence course for aspiring commercial artists since 1905. Artist recommended the course to Rosenstengel ‘with great confidence.’ The other options presented were individual artists who were both members of the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters: Frank Egginton, a 28-year old landscape painter based from Devon and John Littlejohns, a much more experienced artist who also specialised in landscape painting and had authored numerous books of art instruction.
The full record of Ed Rosenstengel’s correspondence with Artist’s query department has not survived, but in October 1937 Rosenstengel contacted another artist recommended as a teacher for Paula by the magazine, Claude Muncaster. Muncaster was 33 years-old when he received Ed Rosenstengel’s request via Artist and had recently been elected a full member of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colour. The son of Royal Academician Oliver Hall and known at the beginning of his career by his birth name of Grahame, Muncaster adopted his new identity in 1923 to demonstrate his independence from his father, who oversaw Claude’s art education. Muncaster specialised in landscapes and marine paintings, subjects influenced by his father and his time as a deckhand sailing from Australia to Britain in the early 1930s. He was an outdoorsman and considered landscape and outdoors work ‘healthier’ than figure work or portraiture. His early work was singled out for its ‘oustanding technique’, attention to detail and atmosphere. At a time when Britain’s traditionally conservative art world was increasingly seeing young artists experimenting with freer forms and modern styles, Muncaster remained staunchly realist in his approach. This attitude was mirrored in his views towards education. Although Muncaster had no formal art training himself he believed firmly that artists should have a strong foundation in draughtsmanship and master work in black and white before moving on to colour.
It is not known if Muncaster had taken on a student via postal tuition prior to meeting the Rosenstengels, but he already had an interest in art teaching and was preparing to publish a book for art students the next year. His first concern on receiving the request was the quality of Paula’s work and her degree of discernible natural talent. It is telling that he chose not to reply to Ed Rosenstengel’s inquiry until Paula sent examples of her work to his home in Sussex. Finally responding to Rosenstengel in late November 1937, Muncaster noted that he was ‘very agreeably surprised at the quality of your daughter’s work’, commenting on her colour sense, composition and, most importantly, ‘feeling for sound draughtsmanship’. ‘I believe work developed along these lines might go a long way,’ he concluded. Although Muncaster warned that tuition via correspondence could not serve as well as just one or two actual lessons, he undertook to take on her tuition at a rate of two guineas per postal critique.
Thereby began a fruitful teaching relationship played out at a distance of 16,516 kilometres. Every few weeks Paula mailed between six and ten of her works to Four Winds, Muncaster’s home in Petworth, Sussex, and received in return several pages of notes addressing each work individually. Often Muncaster included small sketches of his own to illustrate a point. His style of criticism was precise and meticulous, providing specific instructions on points of colour, composition and form. His first notes, based on three Turner-inspired water colours of Brisbane cityscapes, recommended that Paula streamline her colour palette, experiment with black and white studies and focus her energies on drawing. ‘I advocate very strongly your doing some drawing, pure and simple, whether in pen, pencil or chalk. I don’t mind what medium it is so long as you DRAW. Good draughtsmanship is the basis of all good work; without it, your work will always look weak. I cannot stress this point too strongly. Draw and draw and DRAW! If you don’t get a hold of this at the start, you will find yourself trying to run before you can walk and I’m afraid you will always find yourself stumbling.’ He instructed Paula to devote two hours each day to drawing the things that interested her, and learning to find the interesting details that made up the ‘character’ of things. ‘This,’ he noted in his first critique to Paula, ‘is essential to outstanding work’.
Paula’s first letters to Muncaster betray her timidity. She wrote drafts of her letters before she sent them, and practised writing ‘Dear Mr Muncaster’ and signing her name on scraps of paper. At the start of their relationship, communication was hindered by overlapping postal deliveries; sometimes Paula would post a new batch of work just a few days before Muncaster’s critique of her previous pictures arrived by mail, hampering her ability to apply the criticism to the next works he would see. Paula’s isolation from other artists or mentors is evident in her early letters, where she questions Muncaster on all aspects of her painting, from the types of paints she should work with to the brand of paper he recommended she use. Finding an Australian supplier of the ‘green pasteless boards’ that Muncaster favoured became a running theme throughout Paula’s correspondence.
Both Paula and Claude adopted a formal tone in their letters; they referred to each other by their last names and kept their conversation to the art works at hand, rarely digressing into personal anecdotes or stories. Despite this, Paula’s letters illuminate what life was like for an aspiring female artist working outside of a formal art school environment. Influenced by both Bustard and Muncaster Paula preferred to sketch outside. Her favoured subjects in 1938 were cityscapes drawn from either Kangaroo Point or the All Hallows’ grounds, where she also had a view of the developing construction of the Story Bridge. She found the rainy summer weather frustrating, although as she noted to Claude, ‘father says only an artist would object to rain in Australia.’
When confined to the house, Paula studied articles in Artist magazine and copied reproductions of Turner paintings. Art books were still difficult to come by in Brisbane, but she owned a large folio of engravings of Turner’s oil paintings, and a book on the Norwich School of painters, the study of which Muncaster thought would be ‘highly advantageous.’ To expand her library Paula either had to ask her father to order books directly from their usually British publishers, or ask Muncaster to send out books from England. The difficulty of accessing art reference books in Brisbane was recognised as part of the larger problem of visual literacy in the State. Daphne Mayo and Vida Lahey tried to address this issue in the mid 1930s by establishing an educational wing to their Queensland Art Fund. A donation of 200 art reference books and nearly 2000 photographs of art works by the Carnegie Foundation formed the basis of the Art Reference Library when it opened in 1936, providing significant visual resources to artists and art students who had previously been ‘starved’ of art knowledge, according to the State’s then Chief Justice and President of the Art Fund Sir James Blair.
Paula’s letters also highlight the paucity of art exhibitions and galleries in Brisbane that students could use for inspiration and instruction. The Rosenstengels spent their Christmas holidays in 1938 and 1939 touring ‘the south’ and taking in the cultural attractions of Sydney and Melbourne. ‘I spent a great deal of time in art galleries,’ Paula wrote to Claude, and ‘averaged three hours sketching a day.’ She was interested to see oil paintings by Claude’s father, Oliver Hall, at the Sydney and Melbourne national galleries and spent most of her time studying the old masters and water colours. When Claude sent Paula a newspaper photograph showing him on Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy, Paula bemoaned the lack of exhibitions and art she had access to. ‘I hope some day to see the Royal Academy and other London exhibitions for myself. I always spend a great deal of time in the galleries when we go to the South. The exhibitions we occasionally have here are mostly by local artists, and I really learn most from good reproductions.’ Here, Paula reinforces the value of the Art Library’s collection of reproductions in exposing art students to paintings they would never otherwise have the opportunity to see.
Paula and Claude exchanged letters and pictures throughout 1938 and in to 1939. Ed Rosenstengel wrote to Claude a year after the teaching arrangement began to express his pleasure at Paula’s progress under Claude’s tuition. Claude replied that he was ‘quite astonished at the advance [Paula] has made, especially in the view of the fact that these are postal lessons’, although it would be much easier if he ‘could only show her some of the things I try.’ He again expressed his distaste at ‘modern methods’ of teaching, explaining ‘I am most anxious that she should not be spoilt by … being taught to run before she can walk.’ To Paula he wrote, ‘Thinking back on some of the earlier work you sent me I think it quite extraordinary how your work has improved … your eye for detail and skill in rendering is remarkable’.
At the end of 1938 Claude singled out a water colour of the Brisbane skyline, which had been painted from the All Hallows’ grounds, as an ‘excellent piece of work,’ worthy of exhibition. In response, Paula gave voice to her feelings of disillusionment towards her State’s exhibition scene. ‘You mention that my Brisbane watercolour is an exhibition one and I could submit it to any open exhibition … I’m afraid we have no exhibitions out here, as you know them in England. The only one I know of, in Queensland anyway, is our annual Royal show … Most unfairly the same person is selected as judge year after year. She has a decided leaning towards ultra modern work and a marked preference for vivid colours used liberally, irrespective of form or quality of drawing.’
The judge Paula referred to was almost certainly Caroline Barker, a well known artist, teacher and organiser in Brisbane’s art community. Described by Margaret Olley as quaint and free spirited, Barker was born in Melbourne and trained at the National Gallery School before moving to Queensland in 1920. She saved enough money working as an art teacher at Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School to pay her own way to London in 1923, where she trained at the Royal Academy schools and the Byam Shaw School of Art. Barker’s social circle included Adelaide Perry, Frances Hodgkins and Daphne Mayo, other Antipodean women experimenting with modernist forms. She painted alongside Hodgkins in Cornwall before returning to Brisbane in 1926. By the late 1930s Barker was running an atelier-style art school on George Street, teaching art at Somerville House and participating actively in the city’s art community and the RQAS. She also judged the oils and water colour categories at the Royal Agricultural Show’s art competition throughout the 1930s.
Caroline Barker was undoubtedly a proponent of modern approaches of art, although her own work was not avant-garde. She mentored Margaret Olley’s distinctive, free style when she was a student at Somerville House and her ‘madly furnished’ studio on George Street was described by one visitor as the ‘Montmartre-Chelsea of Brisbane’. While in London, Caroline had made a point of visiting modern art exhibition as well as the old masters at the National Gallery ‘to become familiar with the tendencies and ideas of the younger school of artists.’
Paula Rosenstengel was not alone in her views towards ‘ultra modern works’; modern art was generally met with opposition in Queensland in the 1930s. While lunch time art lectures organised by Vida Lahey and Daphne Mayo at the Art Reference Library aimed to improve visual literacy and introduce audiences to new styles, the unconventional forms and colours were often met with derision. Modern art was scorned in the letter pages of newspapers, where realism was highly valued. While some critics were open to the challenge made by modernism to the ‘staid conventionalism’ of the State’s artistic culture, many in elite circles remained skeptical. In 1942 the Queensland Governor opened the annual RQAS exhibition by noting that he preferred to ‘look at pictures which show clearly what they represent.’
Caroline, while being a popular and well-respected artist and teacher, was one member of the State’s art establishment who, alongside others like Percy Hobday, recognised the need for the State’s art world to embrace new and progressive forms. It is interesting to note that Paula would have known Caroline personally: in 1934 she created a small portrait to sit atop a decorative mirror Edward Rosenstengel designed for Parliament House. The portrait was based on a photograph of Rosenstengel’s only son, Bernard, who had died as a child two years before Paula was born.
Paula’s comments demonstrate that she was somewhat isolated from Brisbane’s art community. She failed to mention the RQAS exhibitions in her letter to Muncaster, despite it being the premier art show in the State and generally did not seem to associate herself with other young artists in the city at this time. The Brisbane art world was cliquey and political and as of 1938 there were no real resources or networks for younger artists. The RQAS’s initiative of ‘junior members’, who enjoyed the rights and privileges of RQAS membership and were allowed to enter its annual exhibitions, was not introduced until 1941. As a student Paula does not appear to have had contact with dynamic women such as Vida Lahey or Daphne Mayo who were shaping and reforming the Brisbane art world for the future. Paula had no art school to attend or exhibition society open to her, and was caught in generational debates between modern and traditional forms of art. Despite having a father in the business, it is not surprising that she felt isolated, even disenchanted with the opportunities of her city art’s world.
It was around this time that Paula and her father started making inquires about life drawing classes in Brisbane. Ed Rosenstengel had asked Muncaster’s advice about the necessity of figure drawing for Paula’s education at the end of 1938, noting that, ‘I have no objection to her taking a course of figure drawing if you consider it would be to her advantage.’ Claude replied that allowing Paula attend a life class with good models would be useful to her; while he personally preferred ‘healthier’ landscape subjects, figure drawing was a much more profitable route when it came to commercial work. However in June, Paula wrote that the only figure class in Brisbane was at the technical school, where the students drew from statuary rather than live models. ‘I really don’t think it will benefit you considerably to attend a class where live models are not employed,’ answered Claude. ‘I am sure you will learn far more from your studies of people passing in the street.’ The rhetoric used by Paula’s father and teacher reflect the traditional attitudes toward women and life drawing that persisted into the 1930s. Ed Rosenstengel felt the need to state that he had ‘no objection’ to his 18 year-old daughter attending a life class, while Claude noted that Ed should ‘let’ Paula practise figure drawing. Although practically all major art schools in both Australia and England had granted women access to life classes by the first decade of the 20th century, women working ‘from the life’ was still seen as untoward by many. Margaret Olley noted that in the early 1940s, ‘looking at nude models was considered a bit risqué, to say the least.’
As Paula intimated in her letter to Claude, women artists and art students in Brisbane faced additional difficulties in accessing life classes, which compounded these moralistic attitudes. The Central Technical School’s curriculum was based on the South Kensington model of art education, derived in London as a systemised method for training art teachers and designers in the 1830s. The South Kensington approach to fine art was originally based around teaching form and chiaroscuro from plaster casts and statuary rather than from the life, particularly for the first few years of an artist’s training. Although the South Kensington model gradually evolved, with its female offshoot, the Royal Female School of Art, introducing living models in the 1860s, in the 1930s the Central Technical School’s curriculum was still highly prescriptive and mimetic. Drawing the figure from the life was only available to full-time students in their third year of study. There were other options available; Caroline Barker, for example, taught a life class at her George Street studio. Edward Rosenstengel may have not considered these atelier style classes suitable for his young daughter, or Caroline may not have been taking on students, but Paula’s correspondence indicates that as of 1939, there was no accessible or suitable life drawing classes for a young woman in Brisbane.
Paula’s feelings of isolation are evident in some of her last surviving letters to Muncaster. In June 1939 Paula admitted that she was struggling to feel that she was progressing while working alone and relying on books and prints rather than face-to-face teaching. ‘For a long time now I have been fumbling along trying to work out the different principles for composition from articles in the Artist and from that book I have by April Pearce and from reproductions … It is very difficult when you are working on your own.’ With Muncaster’s personalised and specific advice, Paula felt as though she was ‘just now beginning to get a grip on the fascinating business,’ although it took her almost as long to plan out a picture as it did to execute it. Her own tastes and preferences as an artist remained unformed. ‘I know I like a particular scene, but I sometimes don’t know why,’ she noted. Working in a vacuum of influences and competition allowed Paula to develop her style and methods independently, but it also left her feeling insecure about her talent and technique and out of touch with what was happening in the broader art world.
It may have been her frustration with working so independently that encouraged Paula to begin sketching her father’s furniture and decorative schemes. ‘I would sooner draw a landscape,’ she wrote, but ‘with father in the furniture business I have an excellent opportunity and I would like to become as proficient as I can.’ Muncaster agreed. Her furniture sketches were ‘very delicate and quite beautiful pieces of drawings,’ and he considered drawing furniture both useful and difficult. Although she was not exhibiting her art work, the decorative schemes Paula sketched for her father’s clients were a small means of moving her art into the public, commercial sphere. Paula also sought out some face-to-face instruction around this time, receiving lessons in drypoint and etching from the well known Brisbane artist Vincent Sheldon at his Clayfield home. Sheldon’s sister, Jeanettie, was a proponent of modern art who ran one of Brisbane’s only commercial galleries, the Gainsborough Gallery, but Vincent, like Claude, believed in strong draughtsmanship over modernist experimentation. Paula’s new focus on interiors also extended to her favoured drawing location, All Hallows’ School, where she turned her attention to sketching and painting the chapel.
The last surviving letters between Claude and Paula are dated August 1939. Whether this marked the end of Paula’s transnational art education is unclear; no mention of ending their teaching agreement is noted in the letters. It may be the case that Paula’s lessons with Sheldon replaced her need for postal critiques, or that Paula felt she had gained all she could from the unusual relationship. However it ended, contact with a successful painter grounded in the English art establishment can only have expanded Paula’s views on her art, and the technique, theory and feeling that informed it. But Muncaster’s staunch loyalty to realism and distaste for modern art and teaching techniques could also have served to alienate Paula from the new generation of artists shaking up Queensland’s art scene. It was modern artists, not traditional ones, who would drive Queensland’s art world forward in the 1940s, and women artists would be crucial to this movement.
Paula eventually came to be on the edge of these circles, but she never fully devoted herself to the cause of modern art. While history remembers art’s rule breakers and risk takers, it papers over those who were on the brink, who were caught in-between, who were in the process of ‘becoming’. That is what makes Paula’s letters to Claude significant; they are the record of a half-formed artist, on the brink of finding her art and herself.