She was known as the 'Witch of Kings Cross' and Rosaleen Norton confessed to a deep interest in and practice of the occult, which, more often than not, got her into trouble.
Born in 1917 in Dunedin, New Zealand, Rosaleen Miriam Norton was the third daughter of Albert Thomas Norton and Beena Salek nee Aschman. They came to Sydney in June 1925 and Rosaleen attended the Church of England Girls School at Chatswood.
She found the school to be very restrictive. Even as a child she baulked at discipline and convention. She insisted on living in a tent in the backyard and would often draw ghosts and otherworldly creatures, rather than her house, pet or family as other children her age did.
Rosaleen Norton in 1943. Contributed State Library of NSW
At 14 she was expelled from school as there was concern her 'depraved' drawings would corrupt the other girls. Rosaleen went on to enrol at the East Sydney Technical College working under Rayner Hoff, who encouraged her pagan drawings and creativity.
Rosaleen developed her art and also her writing ability, taking on a cadet journalist role with Smith's Weekly. She wrote about the macabre, the supernatural and the 'world beyond knowing'. At 18 years old she left the newspaper and moved to the Rocks area, where the Bohemian and artistic life suited her more.
By 1940 Rosaleen had met and married Beresford Lionel Conroy, a duco sprayer but they were divorced by 1951. Meanwhile Rosaleen kept up her art work and sold her first published illustrations - two fantasy works and a pencil study: 'The Borgias'. These appeared in the magazine, Pertinent.
In 1949 Rosaleen had met her lover Gavin Greenlees, 13 years her junior. At the same time she received controversial feedback when she exhibited a series of pagan, very sexually explicit drawings at the Rowden White Library in the University of Melbourne. This feedback included a raid by the police who confiscated such works as Lucifer, Witches' Sabbath and Individuation. Rosaleen was charged with obscenity, but the charges were later dropped.
Rosaleen with one of her pieces of art. Contributed Flickr.
As the conservative 1950s came around, Rosaleen, even in appearance, was never going to fit in. She had jet black hair, naturally pointed ears and wore very heavy red lipstick. With her arched eyebrows and steely gaze, she was described as the definition of a woman totally at odds with the society around her.
Her work was compared to that of Norman Lindsay, who she occasionally modelled for. It is said her imagery was derived from psychic exploration based on self-hypnosis described as 'wanderings on the astral planes.'
Along with the poetry of Gavin, she compiled a series of mystical drawings published as The Art of Rosaleen Norton with poems by Gavin Greenlees in 1952. Copies were bound in beautiful red leather and printed on Glastonbury antique paper. It was published by Walter Glover, however, he was charged with producing an obscene publication. The book could only be distributed in Australia with certain images blacked out. In the United States the books were burnt by customs officials.
Rare interview with Rosaleen Norton in 1963 at the Appollyon Cafe, Kings Cross. Youtube.
Known to her friends as 'Roie', Rosaleen continued to create her sketches and paintings and sold them to anyone who was interested. She openly proclaimed her belief in the occult and worshipped the 'great god Pan'.
As she got older, Rosaleen's work became repetitive and passe and as her artwork depended somewhat on shock value, interest soon waned. In 1978 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and was tended by the nuns in the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst.
Plaque in remembrance of Rosaleen Norton on Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross
Rosaleen Norton, the witch of King's Cross died on 5 December, 1979. It is believed her ashes were scattered in King's Cross.
Nevill Drury, 'Norton, Rosaleen Miriam (1917–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/norton-rosaleen-miriam-11261/text20087, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 June 2021.
Kay Saunders, 'The Big Book of Scandalous Australian Women', Australia, HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Ltd, 2014, P.233