Nora Heysen was the first woman to win the prestigious Archibald Prize and the first woman to be appointed as an Australian official war artist.
Her father, the renowned landscape artist Sir Hans Heysen, didn’t want her to go. He told her that she would see things that she would never forget. And he was right.
The story of Flying Sister Marie Craig would have a lasting impact on her.
Known as the “Flying Angels”, the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service Air Evacuation Transport Unit flew in and out of combat zones delivering supplies and evacuating the wounded to Australia.
Nora was sharing quarters with some of the sisters, and was keen to paint a portrait of Flying Sister Beryl Chandler, when she met Marie.
“Nora had approached me many times to sit for her and for one reason or another I did not want to,” Beryl wrote in her memoir, which is now held in the National Collection at the Australian War Memorial.
“One day there was only [Marie], Nora and myself in the Officer’s Mess when once again Nora asked me to allow her to paint me
“Again I wasn’t keen, and dithered whereupon Marie said to Nora: ‘Look Nora, you might as well paint me, I’ll pose for you. This job is going to kill me anyway, and at least people will know what Marie Craig looked like.’
“I was aghast at this statement because she seemed to mean it, and I remember saying to her, ‘Marie, it is a volunteer job, and no one would mind if you transferred to ground duties’ … but she was adamant that she was going to fly on, and she was just as sure she was not going to make it home to Australia. ‘No Chan, the writing’s on the wall. I am just not going to come through.’ She loved the work, it gave her immense satisfaction, but she had this strong premonition that she would be killed.”