As a woman who possessed a fierce dedication to the arts, landscape artist Elizabeth Parsons made a significant contribution to the Australian art world during her time. Acting as a strong campaigner of the watercolour medium Parsons created many works that were often subject to critical acclaim and having held many prominent positions within the arts community, she played a large role in helping to further the reputation and professional status of female artists.
Born in Isleworth, England in 1831, Parsons demonstrated a skill for drawing from an early age, one that arguably was inherited from her relatives, many of whom were surveyors and teachers of drawing. Receiving a formal education within the arts, Parsons studied under the instruction of famous English landscape watercolourists Thomas Miles Richardson and James Duffield Harding. As Harding was considered to be one of the greatest painters of foliage in Europe at the time, his teachings had a profound impact on Parsons and his influence was later to be reflected through her art. Going on to further her art studies in both England and Paris, Parsons joined the renowned Barbizon artists colony, before pursuing a successful career in Europe as a teacher and professional painter.
After marrying architect George Parsons in 1868, The Parsons migrated to Australia with baby Adeline, and two boys, George and Cecil, arriving in Melbourne on the “Great Britain” in May 1870. Wasting little time in establishing herself as a professional artist in these new surroundings, Parsons had five watercolour works exhibited as early as December 1870 in the ‘Works by Victorian Artists’ exhibition held at the Melbourne Public Library. As a significant point in her career, this exhibition allowed Parsons’ work to be viewed along with the likes of such prominent artists as O.R Campbell, Louis Buvelot, and Eugene von Guerard. As her works reflected an embracing of the Australian landscape, Parsons’ first experience with the Australian art world was highly successful with her work becoming the subject of notable acclaim.
As Parsons’ early years in Australia were spent raising her young family, showing her commitment to the Victorian Academy of Arts, and teaching, she later went on to continue creating her detailed works of the surrounding landscapes and its flora. As an early advocate of plein air painting practices, Parsons often travelled in search of new subjects to paint. Her travels took her to such areas of Victoria as East St. Kilda, Malvern, Caulfield, the Old Red Bluff and Brighton Beach as well as to interstate and overseas destinations. Of the many locations Parsons visited to create her landscapes some include; Phillip Island, The Gippsland Lakes, the Blue Mountains, various areas of Tasmania, and remote areas of New Zealand.
As it was particularly unusual for a woman to travel alone during this time, it goes to show the extent of the strength and determination that was possessed by Parsons in creating her works and bringing the Australian landscape to life. It was for this authenticity that was reflected in her works that Parsons came to be compared to renowned Australian landscape artists, Louis Buvelot and John Glover.
With her repertoire increasing Parsons went on to be a regular contributor to the exhibitions held by the Victorian Academy of Arts. Showing her work in various other exhibitions during her career, Parsons also exhibited at Sydney Art Society, the International Exhibition, The Melbourne International Exhibition, The Victorian Jubilee Exhibition and the Bendigo Juvenile and Industrial Exhibition. Parsons’ works were also showed internationally at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London.
As a result of her commitment to the cause of Australian art, in 1875, Parsons was elected as the first woman Council Member of the Victorian Academy of Arts. In this prominent position and through her teaching, Parsons, with her forceful personality, exercised great influence within the young female artistic community. She soon came to be regarded as an impressive leading figure responsible for furthering the reputation and professional status of female artists.
In 1880, Parsons, along with Frederick McCubbin, Clara Southern and Jane Sutherland, was one of the first members of the Buonarotti Society. With Cyrus Mason as its President, the Society was believed to have reflected the semi- Bohemian culture of Melbourne during this time in Australian history. When the Buonarotti Society ceased, however, Parsons formed a new society, which she named the ‘Stray leaves’. It was designed bring together those individuals who shared a strong passion for the arts.
Producing a large number of works in her lifetime and painting in over a hundred different locations, the work of Elizabeth Parsons was considered of such a high standard that it was accepted for many of the major State and International exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s. She belongs to that group of artists in Australian Art History, who stand on the cusp between the Colonial Artists and those of the Heidelberg School. Despite her initial success and wide exposure, however, like many of the women artists of this period, Elizabeth Parsons sadly has come to be forgotten in Australian art history. As most of her work is held in private collections, little is now known about the woman and her signature landscapes.