Joy Hester is renowned for the production of images which describe the gamut of human emotion and, with an expressive intensity, capture the psychological states of her subjects. As the only female member of the so-called ‘Angry Penguins’ group of artists, her work was sharply distinguished from that of her male counterparts. In contrast to the grand paintings and heroic themes of works by Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Danila Vassilieff, Hester worked almost exclusively on paper with ink and watercolour, her drawings often reflecting personal experience from a distinctly feminine perspective.
In 1952 Hester and the artist-poet Gray Smith moved from inner-city Melbourne to the outlying rural suburb of Avonsleigh and then to Upwey in 1955. In a letter written to her friend Sunday Reed, Hester described their new environment as a place of comfort and nurturing. ‘Yes, this is our land and the place of peace for us … here is the place we can start to find (have started) ourselves … There is air to breathe and peace to survey the world around us …’ (Summer, 1952).
Despite Hester’s worsening health as a result of Hodgkin’s disease, the late 1950s was a particularly productive period. From 1956, for the first time in her artistic career, Hester had access to a studio in which to work. She added gouache and acrylic to her range of media and enlarged the scale of her drawings. In response to the experience of living in the country, she produced a series of works which depict the down-to-earth, hardworking ‘bush types’ she encountered there, as well as images of women and children with farm and native animals, and bunches of flowers.
While Man in a cork hat depicts a typical bush character, replete with checked work shirt and an Aussie swagman’s cork hat, another layer of meaning rests just beneath the surface of the picture. Joan Dickson, a long-time supporter of the National Gallery of Victoria, who lived with this work and bequeathed it to the collection, described it eloquently: ‘Many years ago I bought two Joy Hester paintings. One a head of a man, wearing one of those hats that swag-men wear with hanging corks around the brim, to keep away the flies. His eyes so blue, but so sad, that in them they hold all the world’s sorrows’.
Kirsty Grant, Curator, Prints and Drawings (in 2002).