Rosaleen Norton, known to her friends as 'Roie', was
born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 2 October 1917. Rosaleen's father was
employed in merchant shipping with the New Zealand Steamship Company.
In June 1925, the Nortons emigrated to Australia, settling in Lindfield
on Sydney's North Shore. Rosaleen attended the East Sydney Technical
College and studied Art under the noted sculptor, Raynor Hoff. She also
worked as a model for Norman Lindsay, a close friend, whose early line
drawings were both controversial and notorious. It was at this time that
Rosaleen became Australia's first woman pavement artist.
Although her talents were mainly artistic Rosaleen Norton also had considerable
talents as a writer of macabre and exotic tales. A selection of these was published
in a limited edition by Keith Richmond in 1996. An association with Gavin Greenlees,
the poet, and Wally Glover in the fifties, led to the publication of a book
- The Art of Rosaleen Norton (with poems by Greenlees). This is now
a collector's item.
In 1940 Rosaleen Norton had an exhibition at Melbourne University. However,
two days after it opened, police descended on the gallery and seized four of
the exhibited pictures.
Charges were laid under the Police Offences Act that these works were decadent
and obscene, and likely to arouse unhealthy sexual appetites in those who saw
them. One of these paintings was the well-known work, Black Magic. This
depicted a black panther copulating with a naked woman. Many of her works were
full of erotic symbolism.
Rosaleen Norton's paintings were a strange mix of magic, mythology, fantasy
and Freudian symbols. They were the product of visions seen during self-induced
trances and dreams or while carrying out occult experiments. She used symbols
such as the serpent crown of initiation, the winged Globe, the yoni, angels
and demons, rites of the black mass, sinuous forms, lascivious devils and paintings
of Pan in her own image. She worshipped Pan - life and death, order and chaos,
creation and destruction, and elemental forces. Rosaleen defended her religious
practice of Pantheism which she described as the heathen worship of ancient
While living in Sydney's Kings Cross in the fifties, Rosaleen Norton achieved
notoriety as a bohemian witch and artist. She was known throughout Australia
as "the witch of Kings Cross'. Her life has all the ingredients of a
good film - sex, black magic, high and low society, drugs and melodrama.
soon be immortalised by another self-confessed occultist and experimental
film artist Kenneth Anger, author of the top-selling movie-scandal books Hollywood
Babylon I, II and III. During a visit to NZ in 1993 to
show some of his short films he announced his intention to make a feature
her life. He said that she inspired the Rolling Stones song "Sympathy
for the Devil".
When I met Rosaleen in 1955, 'Roie' was already famous - perhaps one should
say notorious - as an eccentric artist and bohemian practitioner of witchcraft.
Her paintings depicting naked hermaphrodites, phallic serpents and passionate
embraces were hanging in the Appolyon and Kashmir coffee bars. She told me
that she always knew she was a witch because when she turned seven, two small
blue marks, traditional signs of a witch, appeared on her left knee. She said
that as a child she had a passion for the grotesque and a crush on Dracula.
She was one of the best-known and strangest personalities around the Cross.
I also yearned to be a witch and made an absolute neophyte of myself hanging
around her basement flat at 179 Brougham Street. I was hoping she would divulge
to me her occult secrets. She was very generous and leant me books from her
vast collection of esoteric literature on the Kabbalah, comparative religion,
pre-Christian and primitive beliefs, Satanism and psychology studies. Other
times she acted mysteriously and wouldn't even let me in the door when I called.
I once smelt a secret perfume wafting from the smoke-filled room behind her.
I knew she smoked hashish to open doors to her subconscious for painting, and
to prepare for magical rites while in a self-induced hypnotic trance.
Her interest in the dark or negative forces, called Qlipha in the Jewish Kabbalah,
helped produce images of Lilith, Queen of air and darkness, a horned devil
named Fohat with a snake for a phallus, and a deity called Eloi, who resembled
an ancient Persian monarch. She was a practitioner of occult and psychic phenomena
including automatic writing and could write Boustrephedon, an old Kabballistic
form of writing - using ideograms for mental or spiritual states as letters
of an alphabet.
In 1952 Wally Glover, a publisher, printed and published 500 leather-bound
books on Rosaleen Norton's art. It created an uproar and the book was withdrawn.
The Postmaster General threatened prosecution over what was claimed to be an
indecent publication because certain figures had pubic hair and phallic appendages.
This attracted widespread publicity. Copies of the book were confiscated and
burnt by the US customs. Wally Glover was officially charged with producing
an obscene publication. Wally went bankrupt.
Rosaleen attracted extraordinary coverage in the press and caused a sensation
by appearing at a court-case flamboyantly dressed in a red skirt, black top
and leopard-skin shoes. She confessed to casting spells on her enemies and
was once charged with "committing an unnatural sexual act" with
a male friend. The papers were full of sensational journalistic stories and
purporting to show black magic rites, ceremonial sacrifices and Satanic orgies.
Following the publicity and extended court-hearings, which in every way impinged
upon her personal though unorthodox mystical beliefs, she began to withdraw
from the public eye.
When she died in 1979 Rosaleen Norton was a legendary figure, but for the wrong
reasons. Her art, representing supernatural imagery has now become more acceptable
following the revival of interest in fantasy and surrealistic art. But in her
own day her paintings were regarded as bizarre, obscure and pornographic, and
she was not accorded the recognition she deserved. She was certainly one of
the most interesting, intriguing persons I have ever known and that is why
I have chosen her character as the central figure of my novelette, Tales
of Anna Hoffmann: part two.
In her day Rosaleen is said to have predicted the outbreak of AIDS, the dismissal
of the Whitlam Government and even the exact time of her own death. Many of
her predictions proved amazingly accurate, astounding students of psychic phenomena.
And before she died on December 5, 1979, she imparted some gloomy prophecies
of life in the nineties. One was a national economic collapse - she said the
country would be divided and there would certainly be civil insurrection by
Three Macabre Stories by Rosaleen Norton is available from Keith Richmond,
The Basilisk Bookshop, 407 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065, Australia.
Tales of Anna Hoffmann: part one and two are published by Bumper
Books, PO Box 7356, Wellington South.
Anna Hoffman's [Pisces with Leo rising, Tiger]
visiting card was respelendent with a creepy bat and read "artiste, ecrivain, peregrinator, soothsayer,
somnambulist, adviser to Madam Osmosis". As a young New Zealander, violinist,
and starry-eyed adventurer, she ran away with the circus. She now resides