Major George ‘Matson’ Nicholas swept Hilda Rix off her feet
And it was meant to be.
Hilda’s years before meeting Matson had been wracked with tragedy. Hilda, her mother Elizabeth, and older sister Elsie had departed Australia in 1907 after her father had died suddenly. There was a period brief respite when Hilda resumed her love of painting in France and Morocco.
Then the Great War erupted.
The family hastily evacuated from Étaples to England on a crammed liner.
Hilda’s sister contracted typhoid on the trip and died soon after. A bereft Hilda could not bring herself to share the news with her ailing mother, withholding it for three months.
In March 1916 Hilda’s mother also died. ‘I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other,’ said Hilda of that time after her mother’s death.
Hilda stopped painting.
Yet in the depths of her despair, Hilda met Matson.
Their meetings seemed like providence.
When Matson’s battalion had been based in Étaples, he had stumbled upon Hilda’s paintings, which she had left behind when she had abandoned her studio.
The paintings mesmerized Matson. He was determined to meet their creator.
Matson bided his time. Then, during his leave, Matson travelled to London to pursue Hilda.
They met in September 1916. Love blossomed.
For the first time in years Hilda felt the weight of ravenous grief lift from her shoulders. Matson embodied everything that Hilda sought in a man.
The dashing Matson had been a schoolteacher before the war. On Gallipoli, he had been wounded, and later, on the Somme, at Pozières, he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions during a daring daylight attack on a German machine-gun post.
A world-wind romance followed.
It culminated with Matson receiving his award at Buckingham Palace, and then their marriage, three days later, at St Saviour’s in London.
For 32-years-old Hilda new possibilities abounded. She envisaged a future of children, a family life, and her own home with Matson once the war was over.
Two days after their wedding, a smitten Hilda completed an intimate sketch-portrait of Matson, which beautifully captured his smile and warmth.
Yet after three days together, Matson was recalled for duty.
A sense of foreboding struck Hilda.
‘News that you have gone back to the Battalion has come and frightens me,’ she wrote in a letter to Matson. ‘Oh dear, dear love. 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.’
Matson never received Hilda’s heartfelt letter.
He was killed at Flers on 14 November 1916, just five weeks after they had married.
Ravenous grief once again swept Hilda up.
‘I would have died,’ she wrote. ‘Had I been allowed … I wanted to go.’ Hilda took to sleeping on Matson’s greatcoat.
After a period of deep mourning, Hilda turned to her painting for solace.
Matson’s death deeply affected her work, which became melancholic, and rooted in grief and loss.
In one painting Hilda portrayed a gaunt and tearful woman shrouded in a black cloak, crouched, staring at the viewer amidst a battle-scarred landscape, featureless but for the crosses on distant graves. The work captured the epitome of wasteful ruin.
In another work, she painted the moment that Matson was shot, his arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose of crucifixion.
Hilda returned to Australia in 1918, and later exhibited her work in Sydney and Melbourne.
Hilda then immersed herself in her relentless quest to paint the archetypical soldier.
She portrayed her soldiers – which bore a striking resemblance to Matson – with what she felt was a deep sense of quiet dignity. And her paintings resonated with veterans: ‘All the soldiers who have seen [my paintings] say they would have thought only a digger could have painted it, because I have the absolute spirit of the men “on the field”.’
Hilda then chose a veteran as the model for her most seminal work ‘A Man’. For Hilda, the act of painting ‘A Man’ became a sensuous rendition of honouring Matson.
And her finished canvas presented a haunting image.
‘There is a feeling that the soldier’s outer ‘skin’; his tin helmet, webbing, ammunition pouches and rifle may ultimately fail as protective armour on the battlefield,’ wrote a critic. ‘The figure is framed by turbulent skies, and this suggests his extremely tenuous hold on survival and the ultimate frailty of humans, irrespective of their battle dress. This is a portrayal of vulnerability as much as it is of strength.’
Hilda offered her works to the Australian War Memorial in the 1920s, but she was told that some were too intimate for a national collection.
Hilda returned to France in 1925, where she achieved acclaim, becoming the first Australian female artist to hold a solo exhibition in Paris.
Hilda kept the portraits of Matson for the rest of her life.
She died in 1961, aged 77
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