Figure with scales 1957 signed and dated 'Joy Hester 57' centre brush and ink, watercolour, gouache on paper on hardboard 57.0 x 45.0cm (22 7/16 x 17 11/16in).
PROVENANCE The collection of the artist Gray Smith Margaret Carnegie, Melbourne Allen D. Christensen, USA Christensen Fund Collection, Melbourne Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1997
EXHIBITED Paintings from the collection of Allen D. Christensen, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 7-22 December 1976, cat. no. 18 Joy Hester, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, September 1981, cat. no. 68, titled Figure with scale Joy Hester and Friends, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1 September 28 October 2001
LITERATURE Janine Burke, Joy Hester, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, September 1981, pp. 24, p. 50 (illus.) Janine Burke, Joy Hester, Greenhouse Publications, Melbourne, 1983, pp. 162-163, 164 (illus.) Deborah Hart, Joy Hester and friends, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001, pp. 90-91 (illus.), 93
Joy Hester painted this work a few years before she died in 1960 at the age of forty. She had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer affecting the lymph system. The disease is now often curable, but this was not so in the 1940s. Hester managed the disease successfully for some time with bouts of radiotherapy, and went into remission soon after her diagnosis in 1947 until 1955. This was not the only dramatic turn in Hester's life that year. She abruptly abandoned Albert Tucker, whom she had married in 1941, and their two-year-old son Sweeney, to pursue a new life with the artist Gray Smith. Sweeney was eventually adopted in 1949 by Hester's dearest friend, correspondent, mentor and patron, Sunday Reed.
After a year in Sydney, Hester and Smith returned to Melbourne, but not back to the city. Hester now sought the quiet and solace of the bush. They moved to a property at Hurstbridge, which as usual for the perennially broke pair, lacked modern conveniences. Later they moved even further out to Avonsleigh. In 1950, Hester held her first solo exhibition of works on paper and poems in Melbourne, but critical and financial success evaded her. The critics were bemused and she sold nothing. Hester was always an artists' artist, deeply admired by her peers. She gave the lot to Sunday and moved on.
The fifties were a time of consolidation for Hester's life and art. Having had a painfully fraught relationship with motherhood in her twenties, she embraced it in her thirties. Peregrine and Fern were born in 1951 and 1954. Hester renewed links with the Contemporary Art Society, began exhibiting regularly and made vital new friendships with Georges and Mirka Mora and Charles and Barbara Blackman, who came to live nearby at Avonsleigh for six months in 1955.
Hester held high hopes after first acquiring a few chooks in 1952 and persuaded the Blackmans to join her in one of her mad money-making schemes. They would slaughter, boil, pluck and dress a batch of chickens to sell through a delicatessen in the city for Christmas. Unfortunately, the weather turned warm and without refrigeration the chooks started to go off. Figure with scales perhaps recalls the memorable disaster. The figure, who may be Gray Smith, holds the carcass aloft from its neck and quizzically eyeballs the reading on the scales. The shape of the carcase with its protruding neck and clinging scaly feet recalls the shape of the human heart.
Figure with scales was painted after Hester acquired her first studio. Over 1956-7 she produced other closely related works featuring children protectively clutching birds and animals, including Girl with hen and Girl with goanna. This inclusion of animals was Hester's artistic concession to country life. Landscape never interested her in the slightest. Her art focused on the face as a profound and close-up meditation on love, death and the emotional experience of being a fragile human being.
References Janine Burke, Joy Hester, Random House, Sydney, 2001 (first published 1983) Janine Burke (ed.), Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne, 1995 Deborah Hart, Joy Hester and Friends, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001