Kings Cross has been home to many unconventional artists and bohemians over the years, but few were as notorious in their day as Rosaleen Norton.
Artist, writer and a self-proclaimed witch, Norton defied the cultural and societal norms of the 1950s.
You may have walked past a plaque commemorating her life in the area on Darlinghurst Road, or heard about the recent documentary – we explore the story, art and controversy of Rosaleen Norton.
Rosaleen’s early life
Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1917, Rosaleen’s family emigrated to Lindfield on Sydney’s North Shore when she was 8. Even as a child, she rejected the notion of conventionality and was said to dislike authority figures and most other children. She was expelled from school at 14 for drawing vampires and demons. She then studied art at East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst (now the National Art School). After completing her studies, she worked as a cadet journalist and illustrator at the newspaper Smith’s Weekly. The paper published several of her horror stories, but she lost her job there after her illustrations were deemed too controversial.
At Pertinent, Norton met poet Gavin Greenlees, who would become her partner. In 1949 they hitchhiked to Melbourne, where they staged an exhibition of Norton’s artwork. Two days after the show opened, police seized four paintings on the grounds of obscenity. Norton won the subsequent court case and was awarded compensation from the police department.
The Witch of Kings Cross
On their return to Sydney, Norton and Greenlees moved into 179 Brougham Street, Kings Cross. Norton was able to explore and develop her art and beliefs in the Cross, which had a reputation as a free-thinking bohemian mecca for writers, poets and artists. During the 1950s, she became a well-known local fixture. While many regarded her and Greenlees as the local eccentrics, fellow Kings Cross resident and writer Dulcie Deamer included one of Norton’s artworks in her book of poetry, The Silver Branch. Several Kings Cross cafes displayed her artworks, too, including the Arabian, the Apollyon and the Kashmir. As their reputation spread, the curious came to visit Norton and Greenlees at their home. Norton had decorated the home with murals and placed a sign on the door that said, “Welcome to the house of ghosts, goblins, werewolves, vampires, witches, wizards and poltergeists.” During this period, she became known as ‘The Witch of Kings Cross’, and she was happy to publicly proclaim that, despite witchcraft being illegal in NSW, she was indeed a witch. Her distinctive appearance, with arched eyebrows and often all-black (and sometimes male) clothing, made her stand out in 1950s Sydney.
Controversy and scandal
In 1952, publisher Walter Glover released a book of Norton’s artwork and Greenlees’s poems called The Art of Rosaleen Norton. The book proved even more controversial than the Melbourne art exhibition, and Glover was charged with producing an obscene publication. Soon after, in 1955, Norton was falsely accused in the tabloid press of hosting Satanic Black Masses. Norton, who considered herself a pagan but not a Satanist, denied the claims, but there was a public outcry against her work. The police were prompted into action once again, and the proprietor of a local cafe, the Kashmir, was successfully prosecuted for publicly displaying Norton’s artworks. All the press attention drew tourists to the Cross in search of Norton.
There was even more attention for Norton after the scandalous downfall of English conductor and composer Sir Eugene Goossens. The director of the NSW State Conservatorium and chief conductor of the ABC’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Goossens sought Norton and Greenlees out after viewing a copy of their infamous book. He became part of their circle and, as a result, came under police surveillance. In March 1956, he was returning from overseas when officers searched his luggage. He was charged with importing prohibited items, allegedly including ‘indecent works and articles’. The media had a field day, and he was forced to resign from his positions and return to England in disgrace.
After a brief stint living with her sister in Kirribilli, Norton returned to the east in 1967, moving into a rundown house in Bourke Street, Darlinghurst. She retired from public view in the 1970s and lived in a basement unit in Whitby flats in Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay. By that time, her sister lived in the same block. Here Norton continued to make paintings and drawings, practise her rituals and commune with nature. She died, aged 61, from colon cancer, at the Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying in Darlinghurst on 5 December 1979.
Since her death, Norton’s art and life have been the subject of numerous books, exhibitions and plays, including the feature-length documentary film The Witch of Kings Cross, which was released in 2021. A plaque commemorating Norton can be seen on the footpath of Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross.
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Photo credit: Wikipedia