The Witch of Kings Cross
[originally published in You’re a Witch Bitch issue five]
During the 1950s, a dark attic flat close to Sydney’s Kings Cross, was home to several cats, a huge painted mural of the pagan god Pan, and New Zealand born artist and occultist, Rosaleen Norton (1917–1979) — still considered to be one of the most persecuted female artists in Australian history. A self-proclaimed ‘witch’ with prominently shaped eyebrows and distinctively pointed ears: Rosaleen’s paintings were frequent targets of scrutiny under censorship laws. Her eccentric personality and deeply occultist lifestyle contributed to both villainous interpretations of her artistic work, as well as attracting intense sensationalist media coverage which gave Norton her reputation as ‘the witch of Kings Cross’.
Her story is intrinsically tied to the occult, yet beyond that, it still remains incredibly fascinating as it reflects larger Australian cultural values of the 1950s. The incessant tabloid attention which surrounded Norton throughout her adult life, revealed wider embedded attitudes towards difference, sexuality, and female agency. What’s more, although reactions to Rosaleen Norton — as both an artist and a personality — are very much products of their era, her story nonetheless holds a timeless quality for anyone who has ever felt as though they didn’t quite meet societal expectations.
Once described by fellow artist Norman Lindsay — whom she had modelled for, as ‘a grubby little girl with great skill who will not discipline herself’, Norton was first deemed to be a corruptive influence at the age of fourteen, when she was expelled from the Church of England Girls’ School, for drawing ‘depraved’ images of vampires and mystical figures. The young Norton’s defiance and fascination with spirituality, that influenced this early life event, foreshadowed her later experiences with authority and censorship: growing up to be the only Australian artist to have their work destroyed by court-order.
It was in 1949, at age 32, that Rosaleen would first attract public controversy; in response to her first — and ultimately last — exhibition. Held in Rowden White Library at The University of Melbourne, the show featured works that portrayed demon-like figures, explored pagan themes and had elements of sexuality. It was raided by police, and Norton was charged with obscenity offences that were later dropped. Her obscenity case, attracted the attention of publisher Walter Glover, who in 1952 printed a collection of Norton’s drawings in a book titled, The Art of Rosaleen Norton. This instigated yet another charge of obscenity — directed at Glover for producing the book, which resulted in enforced ‘blacking out’ of what were judged to be the most offensive of the images, before the book could be distributed.
Media attention started to shift away from Norton’s artwork and increasingly towards her personal interest in paganism and her occult social circle in 1955, when newspaper reports falsely accused her of practising black magic- with one article even claiming her group conducted blood-sacrifices. The allegation had originated from a teenage girl called Anna Hoffman, who, when arrested for vagrancy, attributed her state to a malevolent satanic cult that Norton led — an allegation Hoffman would later confirm was false. This attention fuelled Norton’s notoriety and transformed her into a fixture of the Kings Cross’ bohemian landscape.
The following year, Norton was tied to the scandal which arguably she is now most widely remembered for. Norton became involved with revered British conductor of The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sir Eugene Goossens, and was inadvertently attached to the arrest which devastated his career and reputation. While Goosens was shortly visiting London, a journalist from Sun newspaper discovered letters between him and Norton, and organised for police and customs officials to go through his luggage on his return to Sydney. Found in his luggage were pornographic images, witchcraft books, rubber masks and sticks of incense — Goosens was charged with violating the Customs Act and publically disgraced, and for decades Norton was primarily remembered as the ‘depraved’ influence responsible for corrupting a formerly great man.
The memory of Rosaleen Norton risks being overshadowed or dismissed as an obscure eccentric. Yet it has immense value, even outside occultism, because as a woman she had the courage to publicly practise certain freedoms, which one could easily take for granted now. Norton was a fiercely independent divorced woman, who lived with men, was open about her sexuality and practised beliefs and painted pictures considered blasphemous and strange.