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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gibson, Elizabeth Dickson (Bessie) (1868–1961)

by Nancy D. H. Underhill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Elizabeth Dickson (Bessie) Gibson (1868-1961), artist, was born on 16 May 1868 at Ipswich, Queensland, daughter of James Gibson, bank manager, and his wife Anne, née Blair, who had been twice married. Bessie was a sister of John Lockhart Gibson. When her father retired as bank manager in Ipswich, the family moved to Manly, from where she studied art at Brisbane Technical College in 1899-1905 under Godfrey Rivers. In 1901-02 she visited relatives in Scotland and was inspired to study abroad.

A remarkably open-minded family financed what was meant to be only a three-year study trip to Paris. She sailed in September 1905, visited Edinburgh and was settled in Paris by May 1906. She lived in Montparnasse to 1939, except for frequent trips to Britain and one to Algeria. Never part of the avant-garde, she maintained close friendships with fellow expatriates and remained firmly in the conservative world of the Royal Academy and Salon exhibitions. Studying principally at the Castelucho and Colarossi ateliers under Frances Hodgkins and the American Edwin Scott, she also briefly studied miniature painting, at which she excelled, under Mlle Debillemont-Chardon.

Gibson's work included miniatures of family or friends, formal portrait studies in oils, Whistlerian études on wooden panels of Paris, Honfleur and Cherbourg; and watercolours of portraits, landscapes or interiors. Dating is difficult because she showed little stylistic or technical development. Her miniatures gained early recognition but when fashion changed in the 1920s she concentrated on oil-on-canvas portraits which are largely unsuccessful—these form the bulk of her Royal Academy and Salon entries. Her pochades on small panels do have considerable charm, but the tonal application of paint does not reflect nineteenth century French experimentation after the late 1860s. Her work suggests a conservative application of the Whistler manner.

Gibson's fresh and individualistic watercolours are her most successful works although they are indebted to Frances Hodgkins. Unfortunately, the long-established and then-decaying system of Salon and Royal Academy Exhibitions, in which she achieved reasonable, if unspectacular success, worked against their due recognition. A miniature was 'hung on the line' in the 1905 Royal Academy exhibition and she was exhibited there at least fifteen times between 1905 and 1923. After 1913 Bessie Gibson exhibited almost annually at either the Société des Artistes Français or the Salon d'Automnes until 1939. She won an honorable mention from the former in 1924 and a bronze medal at the International Exposition for Miniatures, 1937.

Despite recognition of the work of contemporary female expatriates, Gibson's work remained almost unknown in Australia. This is probably because of her shyness and her Queensland background. After spending the war years in England, she returned to Australia in 1947 and began to exhibit in Sydney and Melbourne. Her work is now in several State galleries, the National Gallery of Australia and in private collections. A more historical approach to Australian art and interest in women artists in the late 1970s has made her better known. She died in a Brisbane convalescent home on 13 July 1961 and was cremated. Her estate was valued for probate at £10,361.

Select Bibliography

  • N. D. H. Underhill, Bessie Gibson (Brisb, 1978)
  • J. Burke, Australian Women Artists 1840-1940 (Melb, 1980).

Citation details

Nancy D. H. Underhill, 'Gibson, Elizabeth Dickson (Bessie) (1868–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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