ETHLEEN MARY PALMER (1906-1958)
Ethleen Mary Palmer was born in Yeoville, Johannesburg, South Africa on 1 August 1906. Her family moved between South Africa, France and England before coming to Australia in 1921 with her mother and sister. Settling in Sydney, Ethleen Palmer enrolled at the East Sydney technical College. Here she studied under artists Rayner Hoff and Phyllis Shillito. Palmer also studied architectural drawing st the Sydney Technical College.
With an education priming Palmer for a career as a commercial artist, Ethleen found herself disappointed after spending two years with the firm Stott & Underwood. A long period of illness followed and Palmer was forced to suspend her art-making for almost a decade. Commercial illustration at had left a bad taste in Palmer's mouth and she shifted her focus to modernist relief prints. Palmer became intrigued with the work of Norbertine von Bresslern-Roth after an exhibition of her works at the Grosvenor Galleries, Sydney in 1926-28 . At the same time, Claude Flight's influence was being felt through the art world, the style of which was readily adopted by other Australian artists including Ethel Spowers.
In 1933, Palmer returned with full force to exhibit her first linocuts at the Society of Arts and Crafts. Ethleen Palmer gained a reputation as a skilled and talented printmaker. She gained critical acclaim after developing a complex printing technique that allowed for tonal graduation and colour overlay. The result were linocuts that took a great deal of time and care to complete. Unlike many linocut artists, Ethleen Palmer did not use black ink to print once and then hand-colour the image, instead Palmer would carefully reuse the same linocut several times over with different colours layered each time. This earnt her the title, "the Australian Hokusai".
Palmer's love of Japanese art and appreciation for the Japanese concern with composition and precision lead Palmer to create many painstakingly executed but beautiful linocuts.The art world responded positively and Ethleen Palmer held solo shows at the Margaret MacLean Gallery, Melbourne in 1936, Bayly's Gallery in Adelaide in 1938 and Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1939. It was not just commercial galleries who were eager to show Palmer's works. By the end of the 1930s Ethleen Palmer was represented in all state galleries.
At the peak of her career, Palmer's attentions efforts shifted, as did the rest of society's, to the Second World War. Palmer put her skills to use by teaching remedial craftwork to returned soldiers and towards the end of the war founded the Double Bay Studio. This marked a change in Palmer's style. It was here that Ethleen produced illustrated cards, calendars and screenprinted fabrics.
Towards the end of her life, Palmer produced a series of serigraph works, one of the first to use this medium to create artworks. Still exhibiting with the Society of Arts and Crafts, Palmer continued to sell cards and fabrics after the Double Bay Studio closed in 1951.
Illness had plagued Palmer for most her life and Ethleen Palmer died in April 1958.
Ethleen Palmer's contribution to relief printing was large and is often glanced over in favour of better know artists such as Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor. The time has come to re-evaluate Palmer's position in Australian art history and give her the same consideration given to other great Australian Modernists.