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Hall, Phyllis Clare (1916–2009)

by Harriet Veitch

Admirers of Norman Lindsay might recognise Phyllis Hall's face, although perhaps not the rest of her body. Hall was one of the artist's favourite models and featured in many of his works from the late 1930s.

"My breasts were never much," she said in later life, "But if you didn't have them he would give them to you anyway."

Phyllis Clare Silverwood, who has died aged 92, was born in Sydney, the third of five children of Harris Silverwood and his wife, Adeline Britt. The children grew up mainly in the Cronulla area, but because of their father's work as a builder, they often lived in regional NSW. Phyllis especially loved the Riverina, where her extended family lived.

The Depression hit the family hard, and Phyllis left school at 16 to seek work. Her resourcefulness, versatility and sense of adventure brought her employment as an apprentice in a beauty salon, an au pair in Katoomba, a shop assistant in department stores, a travelling companion to a blind man touring the east coast of Queensland and an extra in the movie Dad Rudd, M.P. (1940).

Her beauty also brought work later as a store mannequin at Mark Foys and David Jones. At 21, she was introduced to Norman Lindsay at his Bridge Street studios and became one of his principal life models, working from 1937 to 1942 and featuring in many of his best known works, such as The Pearl Necklace and The Blue Hat. The movie Sirens (1994) was based in part on her relationship with him, although she had some reservations about the film.

She had no shortage of male attention in those days but her affections were secured when she met a young Englishman on a boat from Perth to Sydney. Maxwell Hall was a lieutenant in the Royal Indian Navy and had been seconded to Sydney to oversee the construction of naval corvettes at Cockatoo Island.

They married in 1942. He went back to the war and she joined the Land Army and was stationed at Bombala and Griffith. In 1944, she left for India, and the Halls lived in Bombay, Jamnagar, Meerut and Karachi.

In 1948, they returned to Australia and settled on the north shore. In the 1950s, they bought land on the water's edge at Seaforth and built a family home, but Max found it difficult to readjust to civil life and had trouble keeping the family financially.

When her three daughters were teenagers, Hall found more time to pursue her creative interests. Her love of acting was rekindled and she was an extra in a number of ABC dramas. She also painted, studying with Desiderius Orban at The Rocks.

Hall visited Norman Lindsay in Springwood regularly. She had first posed for him "in clothes and hats", later in the nude. Lindsay's paintings left him with a certain libidinous reputation, but Hall said he never offered anything hotter than a cup of tea.

"He was very keen on my head," she said. "He said I had Grecian features."

His work had caused a measure of scandal and some women hid the fact that they modelled for him. Hall had no such inhibitions: "I think it's silly to be ashamed of your body."

Hall once planned to write her memoirs, in which she described Lindsay as "simple" and "innocent". Lindsay wrote to her: "A simple man means half-witted, and innocent implies a defence against an accusation of guilt." He added that she might have thought him innocent because, unlike some artists, he never touched his models. Hall abandoned the manuscript and sold six Lindsay letters in 1987.

A keen swimmer all her life, she earned her bronze medallion as a teenager in Cronulla, and from the mid-1980s, combined her love of swimming and travelling by competing in the FINA World Masters Swimming Championships in Tokyo, Brisbane and Copenhagen. She won many medals, particularly in butterfly.

The Halls separated in 1993. She moved back to Cronulla and became an active member of the local surf lifesaving club and one of the first volunteers for the Sydney Olympic Games.

Phyllis Hall is survived by her daughters, Sarah, Robyn and Jennifer; grandchildren, Damien, Catherine, Laila and Michael; and great-grandchildren Joshua and Brendon.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 2009

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harriet Veitch, 'Hall, Phyllis Clare (1916–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hall-phyllis-clare-13352/text23981, accessed 24 November 2017.

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