‘Dorothy’ New Painting December 2014 – The Story Behind The Painting

copyright Mia Laing 2014
oil on canvas December 2014
NFS – Private Family Collection

Without a doubt, this has been my favourite project since I started oil painting 8 years ago.  It’s my Grandmother Dorothy, who I knew and loved dearly.  Mum has been madly scanning our old family photos in a quest to digitally collate the vast collection she has inherited.  She emailed me a bunch of photos in November last year, thrilled to have found such wonderful photographs in the albums.

On Christmas Day, she unwrapped this painting from me…she had absolutely no idea I had painted it.  How could I not?  Wasn’t she the most beautiful baby and posed with a gorgeous furchild? Needless to say, there were tears…lots.

Original Reference Photograph - taken roughly 100 years ago.

Original Reference Photograph – taken roughly 100 years ago.

It was a joy to paint; talk about having a heartfelt connection to an image and feeling that emotion come out onto the canvas.  I spent time prior to putting paint to palette,  choosing the correct skin tones and colours to suit the era.  It was incredibly fulfilling to convert a black and white image to a colour oil painting, carefully mixing the right tones for a toddler, her broderie anglaise dress, pantaloons, mahogany chair and silk cushion.

After a bit of research on the dog breed, given that many breeds have morphed in appearance over the last 100  years, I decided it must be of the Spitz family; possibly a Japanese Spitz.  Our family over the decades have always owned dogs of many shapes, sizes and breeds and we have assumed it is a family pet, though we haven’t found any written evidence of this.   I’ve trawled through hundreds of images on Pinterest and the net and it seemed a pretty common thing for professional studios to photograph children and their dogs at the turn of the century and into the 1920’s/30’s.

copyright mia Laing 2014
‘Dorothy’ Old family photo – Dease Studio’ Perth, early 1920’s

This is another photo of my Grandmother, aged around 6 to 8 years old. What a stunner.  She had the most incredible iceberg blue eyes, peaches and cream complexion and a full, rosy pout.  As she grew into a young woman she caused many a grown man to swoon, so the family stories have told!

copyright Mia Laing
Joseph Kovesy Portrait of my Grandmother Dorothy (Nee McCarthy)

I did not, I repeat, did not paint this image…my goodness, I so wish I was able to paint like this!  This is Dorothy, painted by Hungarian artist, Joseph Kovesy,  after a visit to Melbourne in the 1930’s.

The story behind this painting is wonderful.  A fairy tale.  My mum is a little sketchy on the exact details but it goes something like this…

In Perth, around April 1937, my Grandmother Dorothy and my Great Grandmother , Dorothy, were standing on the deck of a ship overlooking the wharf at Fremantle harbour,  about to set sail for a holiday in Melbourne, when a tall, lean, handsome man, saw Dorothy and was so overwhelmed by her beauty he sent a hand written note to the deck asking to please see her upon her return.  This was the start of a remarkable set of events over the next few weeks.

The ship set sail for Melbourne.  It is in Melbourne, over the next few weeks,  that we think Dorothy first met the painter, Joseph Kovesy.

copyright Mia Laing 2015
Dorothy and Artist Joseph Kovesy
with my Great Auntie Vera as their Chaperone.

Joseph was touring Melbourne at this time, with an exhibition of Hungarian painters. He was many years her senior (she was in her mid twenties, he would have been in his fifties!) but he was totally infatuated with her, fell madly in love and wooed her daily – all done in the very gentlemanly way that they did things back in the 1930’s…with romance and plenty of it!  Every morning, Joseph had fresh violets sent up to her hotel room on her breakfast tray.  He bought her a crocodile suitcase set, complete with a handbag, suitcase and kid gloves of which my Mum still has the handbag. He also sent her a ball gown.  A pale, baby pink organza gown.

At a ball during this holiday, whilst wearing this spectacular gown, she was talent scouted by the Australian movie director, Charles Chauvel, who upon seeing her, desperately wanted her to do a screen test – for Hollywood!

Newspaper article relating to the Screen tests
Newspaper article relating to the Screen tests

Her beauty was legendary, likened often to Rita Hayworth.  The dream of any Hollywood director to cast such a stunning woman; she did the film tests, but not the moving screen shots,  she turned them down out of shyness. She said goodbye to Joseph Kovesy, whom she felt was far too old for her, leaving him with a small black and white photograph  of herself and left for Perth.

Upon arriving back in Perth, the tall, lanky gentleman,  Peter St Barbe Connor, who left the message on the ship at departure from Perth and who had waited anxiously for her return, contacted Dorothy’s Mother (her Father was deceased) and asked if she could go flying with him in his plane (a Gypsy Moth, complete with goggles…my Grandmother was very adventurous!) The rest, we will say, is history.

copyright Mia Laing 2015
Dorothy and Peter – 1937/38
Rottnest Island – Perth Western Australia

Peter was my grandfather…They married in November 1938, not long after Peter’s first sighting of his beloved Dorothy.

Meanwhile…back in Hungary, Joseph Kovesy, painted Dorothy’s portrait from the small black and white photograph she had gifted him; taking artistic licence to drape her seductively with a robe of organza (she was wearing a tailored dress in the photo. No hanky panky in those days.) and painting a bouquet of violets delicately into the painting.  Joseph had the finished painting shipped to Australia from Europe as a gift for her.

True story.

We buried her with her favourite flowers – violets.  Beauty, romance, a painter, a Hollywood director and a tall, handsome Aussie adventurer – sounds like the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster to me!

Anyway, this large painting  has always had a prominent position in my grandmother’s house and now it hangs proudly at my mothers.  One day, hopefully,  in many, many years to come, (I don’t want you going anywhere just yet Mama!) I hope to have it hanging in my home.  It has been a special part of my childhood and the history of our family and  I am sure it will be the same for my girls.

Not only is it special because the subject is my beautiful grandmother, but for me, it epitomizes where I want my art journey to take me…to have the talent and ability to capture with paint, the light,  beauty and  essence of a person.  To have it passed down through the generations, hung proudly, viewed with awe over and over again and stories told and retold about it.

I have proudly added my own painting to hang in close proximity to Kovesy’s masterpiece.

My Mum prefers mine!

She’s a bit biased I’d say.

Mia x




8 thoughts on “‘Dorothy’ New Painting December 2014 – The Story Behind The Painting

  1. What an amazing story, Mia! I hope your mother writes all her memories of your grandmother down so they don’t disappear.

    1. Thanks Louise, I thou of you as I write it, with your Ida’s Children. Trying to get mum to write it down!!!

      1. The other thing is to get an oral history—tape her talking about it. Or ask her questions and write it down … In all this spare hours you have. Not.

      2. You are so right Louise, all that spare time. Even mum complains she hasn’t the time just yet and will get to it eventually…she is young (75) and fit but time is ticking. A recorder is a great idea.

  2. What a beautiful and poignant story Mia!! Your words are as striking as your art. Love Dad XXX

    Sent from my iPad

    1. Thanks Dad, I will have to dig up some stories about Nana too! X

  3. Wow – what a fabulous, personal, touching, dramatic story! Thank you so much for taking the time to tell the tale and share a little of yourself in the process 🙂
    Sally x

    1. I’m glad you liked it! Always good to nut out a few family stories and see how they have morphed over time. It took mum and I a while to work out all the correct dates and sequence of events. Thank you for commenting.

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