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Nancy Wilmot Borlase (1914–2006)

by Malcolm Brown

Nancy Borlase, who has died at the age of 92, could not help but become an artist, despite circumstances in her early life. Driven by enthusiasm, passion and ideology, she married a Trotskyite and became a prolific painter and noted art critic.

Born in Taihape, New Zealand, she was the youngest of three daughters of Bessie Morecroft and Edward Norris Borlase, the latter choosing to run off with the nursemaid. Bessie took the family to Napier where she ran a cabaret and worked as a dressmaker.

Nancy, a trainee secretary, was at work on November 3, 1931, when an earthquake struck Napier, and she had to be dug out of the wreckage. She moved to Christchurch were she started her first art lessons and earned her living as a cafe fortune-teller, Madame Rosa.

Borlase saw Sydney as the "mecca of South Sea art", and to raise the £10 for her fare to that mecca, she sold several paper lampshades she had made. She chose an extraordinary way to have a last look at her homeland: a solitary trek of the Lewis Pass, through a rugged part of New Zealand's South Island, the first person to do so after the surveyors.

Arriving in Sydney in 1937 with £2 in her pocket, Borlase nearly crippled herself walking the streets in high-heeled shoes searching for work. She settled in William Street, East Sydney, enrolled at the East Sydney Technical College to study sculpture and worked as a waitress and artist's model. She quickly found that the bohemian community had its dark side.

She was once raided by police, but no, she was not a woman of the night. "I managed to convince them that I was an innocent art student."

Lacking a place to do sculpture, she decided on painting. Attracted to all forms of free expression, she went to the Domain's Speakers Corner and listened to Laurie Short expound Trotskyism. But it was another, wharf labourer and aspiring opera singer Bob Dodd, who initially attracted her.

The relationship failed and in 1939 Borlase hitchhiked to Melbourne, lived next door to Sidney Nolan, befriended her benefactor John Reed and again worked as an artist's model.

She co-led a models' strike for better pay and conditions. Alone and a little depressed, she bumped into Short on a street corner and the two struck up a relationship which led to their marrying on May 31, 1941.

Borlase had to use a raincoat as a wedding dress. The only witness was Beryl, girlfriend of one Jim McClelland, later "Diamond Jim" of Whitlam government and judicial fame, who was at work as an ironworker and could not attend.

Borlase and Short moved to Sydney and settled in Balmain, where Short worked as an assistant boilermaker. The home was next to the wharves, and Borlase painted portraits of seamen, including the dark-skinned Pacific Islanders.

The two remained short of money. "Laurie was always on strike and not earning anything, and I was doing all sorts of jobs," Borlase said later. She had to scrub floors and work as a waitress at the Trocadero Cafe in the city. A daughter, Susanna, their only child, was born on August 23, 1944.

In 1949, the family resettled in Gladesville, which did not suit Borlase because it lacked the vibrant creativity of Balmain.

Short, with political views modified, faced his toughest battle when he stood for the position of national secretary of the Ironworkers Federation, pitching himself against the communists. Following a bitter court case, he was confirmed in 1951 as national secretary.

In 1956, when Short travelled to the United States for a steelworkers' convention, Borlase went with him. Exposed to the influence of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning and Mark Rothko, she was inspired, moved from figurative to abstract painting, lectured on the subject and became active in the Contemporary Art Society.

In January 1961 Borlase found a flat in Mosman and the couple moved there. It was to become their home for 45 years.

Borlase's productivity remained high. She could see Sydney Harbour through her window and her abstract landscapes reflected leaves and water. She won the Mosman Art Prize, but success in competitions such as the Blake Prize for Religious Art eluded her. Discouraged, Borlase turned to art criticism, and did reviews for The Bulletin. In 1975 she became a critic for the The Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1981, Borlase returned to painting and resumed figurative work. Some of her paintings were being hung in the National Gallery. In 1994, she received a $25,000 meritus award from the Australia Council. In 2000, she was awarded the Portia Geach Memorial Award for women artists.

Borlase once said: "My life as a painter is a bit like the fable of the hare and the tortoise. It has been a long, slow haul, but I got there."

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Borlase, Nancy Wilmot (1914–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Short, Nancy Wilmot

24 March, 1914
Taihape, New Zealand


11 September, 2006 (aged 92)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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