Australian Art


Frances Freeman
Frances Freeman

AKA: Madge Freeman

Born: 1898 Bendigo

Died: 1977
  • Landscape
  • Painter
  • Water Colour

Frances Margot Freeman was known as Madge throughout her life. She was the daughter of George Freeman and Frances Ross and the eldest of three younger brothers.
George was a schoolteacher who in his leisure hours was an active member of Bendigo Literary Groups and was a known admirer of Shakespeare. He was also a recognized sportsman and as well as being Vice Principal at Bendigo High School he was also the Sportsman Master.

When the English Test Team came to Bendigo, George was chosen to play against them.
Frances the second daughter of Charles Ross received a
substantial regular income from her fathers joint ownership of the Beehive Store in Bendigo. Frances in turn financed the education of all her children.
The Freeman family lived in Barkly Place with the Cohn's as neighbours on one side and the Lansell's on the other. Ola Cohn and her sister Ziska were to remain lifelong friends of Madge's.
Madge began her education at Girton College and concluded her latter years at Bendigo High School.
At the age of twelve she submitted works for the "Womens Work Exhibition" of 1907 and they were duly shown at the Melbourne Exhibition buildings. In 1911 both Madge and Ola Cohn joined the Bendigo School of Mines and studied art under Arthur Woodward. Throughout the years Woodward and Madge remained friends as was evidenced by some correspondence in the Art Gallery files.

In 1915 Madge became Assistant Drawing Mistress at Bendigo High School for a short time and her good looks combined with her charm had all the boys enchanted and she made a very definite impression one student having been known to utter "gentle voiced ideal of our boyish dreams". Another of her ex students George Speirs stated: "the tall willowy girl with a complexion of the proverbial "peaches and cream", blue eyes and rivulets of blonde curls falling down onto a décolleté apparel was more than sufficient inducement for boys of our class, and indeed of the whole school to pass over the head of our Mistress, and ask ever so kindly from Madge the methods of correction necessary for our drawing mistakes" many a young man was devastated when she left Bendigo.

From 1916 to 1921 Madge was at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. At the end of 1916 she was awarded Second Prizes for "Figure From The Antique" and "Anatomy". In 1921 she received first prize in the Painting Department for "Painting In Monochrome".

Bernard Hall was one of her tutors and he also had a talent for organizing pageants and stage revues. Madge and her close friend Elma Roach became avidly involved in all manner of social events related to the Gallery. The girls made quite a hit and were featured in the social pages of "Table Talk" and "Punch". Also joining the festivities was artist Murray Griffin.

During her time at the National Gallery Madge was still very much in touch with events in Bendigo and exhibited there whenever the opportunity arose. She took part in the Bendigo Art Society Annual Exhibition and the "Bendigo Advertiser" ever supportive of her stated: some very strong and charming work it shown by Miss Madge Freeman, fine drawing is a feature of her work and atmospheric effects are obtained".

Upon completion of their courses Madge and Elma (who was from Shepparton) assumed the life of roaming artists taking lessons in watercolour from Matthew James MacNally whenever they could. In 1923 Madge enrolled at the George Bell School which again was financed by her mother.
In May of 1923 Madge and Elma had a joint exhibition at the Fine Art Society Gallery in Exhibition St., each of them showing over thirty five works each. George Bell commenting on Freeman's work said:

"The Freedom, The Clear True Palette she uses and her forthright work throughout mark her as an artist of whom more will be heard".

Madge joined the Melbourne Society of Woman Painters and Sculptors (M.S.W.P.S.) her contemporaries at that time were Jessie Traill, Dora Wilson, Alice Bale, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Nora Gurdon, and her friend and neighbour from Bendigo Ola Cohn.
Madge and Elma decided to continue studying abroad, so to raise the necessary funds they put their efforts into making "Margelma" ware which was a wooden laquerware. Receiving excellent press coverage from the exhibitions they organized to sell the wares, they raised enough money to sail to England in January of 1924.

Settling in Chelsea, London, they briefly attended the Slade School under Henry Tonks. Madge exhibited that year with forty other Australians at the Faculty of Arts.
It had become evident that Madge was moving away from the tighter style of the Bernard Hall influence to a more modernist approach.
By 1925 Madge and Elma were living in Paris and were taking lessons from Polish born Post Impressionist Adolph Milich, an influence that is evident in a work now owned by the Bendigo Art Gallery. Madge's works were exhibited at the Salon Des Tuileries where the works of Milich were also shown. In May of 1925 her work "A Foggy Morning Chelsea" 1924, was accepted for the Paris Salon Exhibition. By August of 1925 Freeman and Roach were in Venice.

In April of 1926 Madge quite suddenly married Bendigo childhood friend Lanfear Thompson a Graduate Engineer from Melbourne University, and went to West Africa to live where Lanfear managed a gold mine on the Ashanti Fields and later opening a mine at Bibiana.

The marriage was shortlived. Lanfear contracted malaria. Madge took him back to London and together with Elma Roach nursed him until his death in 1929. During her stay in Africa Madge had only done a minimal amount of work consisting mainly of small watercolours depicting village life around her.
She came back to Bendigo for a short time, returning to Europe to once again meet up with Elma Roach.
In 1928 an exhibition of Madge's work (she was overseas) was held at the Memorial Hall in Bendigo making history as the first solo show by a woman artist.

Elma and Madge were in Paris and renewed their association with Milich, sharing his studio and accompanying him on excursions throughout France.

In 1934, still overseas, an exhibition of Freeman's works was held at the Sedon Galleries in Collins St., Melbourne. Her show was represented by works from all over Europe excepting two which were from her time in Africa. The show attracted large media coverage, the "Age" art critic Alexander Colquhoun commenting that the artist at times was a little undecided between the objectives of modernism or those of realism. George Bell from the "Sun" writing that Freeman’s work had significantly advanced from student days and that she had used her studies abroad to advantage and he was particularly impressed by her Spanish paintings.
Blamire Young writing for the "Herald" disagreed with Bell, opting for the watercolours, but then Young was a Watercolourist himself. Streeton writing for the "Argus" concluded "with increased and long study the artist will give more complete and more varies technical expression to her work".
Norman Lilley writing for the "Bendigo Star" was disappointed that her National Gallery training was no longer evident.

Freeman and Roach were by this time in Spain and the rumblings of the Spanish Civil War were sounding.
Madge decided to return to Australia, but Elma stayed on in Europe. She arrived in Melbourne late 1935.
Establishment art was utterly opposed to anything done with a "modernist brush", so artists with a modernist approach flocked to George Bell. Madge renewed her friendship with him and set up a studio in Gipps St., East Melbourne.
Still very much the social animal, Madge frequently spoke at meetings "her speeches entertaining and well received". In a talk to the Bendigo Arts Club in 1936 she appealed for support for modern artists. The Bendigo Art Gallery purchased her Milich influenced work "Still Life" of 1926, but what was more important, it was the Gallery's first purchase of work by a Bendigo born artist.
From 1938-1939 Madge returned to live in Bendigo and proceeded to hold classes in her Barkly Place studio. Mrs. Woodward wife of her former tutor organized an exhibition at the Memorial Hall and included were some works by her pupils. Arthur Woodward opened the show. About this time Madge began exhibiting with the M.SW.P.S. and renewed her membership. She subsequently became President causing her to divide time between Bendigo and Melbourne.
She also exhibited with the "Independent Group" and did so till 1971.
In 1939 Melbourne people for the first time ever had the opportunity to view original modern art which was being exhibited at the Melbourne Town Hall having been selected by Basil Burdett under the patronage of Sir Keith Murdochs "Herald" newspaper. Included in the exhibition were two works by Milich and Madge along with George Bell, Amold Shore, Adrian Lawlor and others gave public lectures on the exhibits. This show bought about a more general tolerance and acceptance of our own modern painters.
The social and communal part of Madge came to the fore with the outbreak of war. As President of M.SW.P.S. she put all her energies into fundraising for the Red Cross, war victims in London and the Royal Children’s Hospital. Artists concentrated on producing cards, toys, calendars, craftwork, etc., culminating in a huge Christmas Fair held at Ola Cohn’s house and studio in East Melbourne. It was a huge success. Community effort rather than personal intent had shown through. Madge's organizational abilities were later recognized in 1941 when she was made a Life Governor of the Royal Children’s Hospital.
In 1940 Madge remarried. Basil Davies was a Gippsland Farmer from Longwarry and Madge spent most of her time at "Koongana" their farm. Though retaining her studio at her grandfather’s house in South Yarra. She came down weekly once a month to attend the M.S.W.P.S. and Lyceum Club meetings .. -
The contemporary Art Society (CAS.) was going through an upheaval and George Bell resigned as president but even so at the Annual Meeting that followed, nothing was resolved so George Bell and his followers walked out, and so came about the birth of the "Melbourne Contemporary Group" (M.C.G.).
Madge severed her ties with the CAS. and joined the M.C.G. and remained with them till 1965.
In 1942 Elma Roach died of cancer and so ended a very dear friendship that had begun in 1916.
There is no doubt that the five years spent with Elma in Europe had played a dominant part in the direction that Madge had taken. Over the years Madge continued to exhibit and in 1951 at an exhibition at George's Gallery the Bendigo Gallery purchased a "Flower Study" and the National Gallery of Victoria a watercolour "Road to Heyfield",
She and Basil travelled overseas in 1952/53 visiting stud farms due to his interest in Ayrshire cattle and Madge took the opportunity to visit Galleries and Museums throughout Europe.
In 1954 the Lyceum Club tendered Madge an "Exhibition in Retrospect". That same year she and Basil left Longwarry and moved to Lower Plenty where Madge returned to plein air painting. Her health had started to decline and in 1960 they moved to Ivanhoe.
In the early 1970s Madge was placed in a nursing home and she died there in February of 1977.
In 1979 Basil Davies established a Madge Freeman prize to be administered by the Bendigo Art Gallery.
In 1981 a retrospective exhibition of Madge Freeman’s work was held at the Bendigo Art Gallery. She was the first Bendigo artist to have her works shown in the Bendigo Gallery as well as being the first artist from Bendigo to have a work bought by them. She had the opportunity to devote her life to painting and produced many substantial works.
Madge probably never developed a distinctive style and Doug Hall who was Director of the Bendigo Gallery at the time of her retrospective commented: "Madge Freeman was certainly an eclectic and it is difficult to find a consistent stylistic pattern through her work".
Though perhaps not being able to resolve her own work to the satisfaction of her critics, there is no doubt that throughout her life she was not just a painter, but also a tireless worker for the arts movement in general, facilitating and championing the modernist cause.
In her home town she was revered and admired.

Source: Erif Vincent
Secondary Source: Bendigo Art Gallery


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