It took him awhile to gather his thoughts. He looked around the room. Alex had said she would have Dora’s belongings sent over. He found them in a corner: a couple of cardboard storage boxes, a cylindrical container and a bubble wrapped frame.
As he unwrapped the frame he was surprised to see it was a nude portrait of Dora. By the look of the style and Dora’s features it looked as if it were painted when she was in her early twenties. It was not a great painting and he did not recognize the artist’s signature. Nonetheless, Dora’s beauty radiated from the picture, even though the artist had failed to render an accurate portrait. Whoever painted it, it was obvious they were amateur. It was painted in the neo-classical style and he knew enough about Australian art to know that modernism had been all the rage at the time; he was particularly familiar with the work of Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor. But this painting evoked the earlier era of Victorian pseudo-classicism. He was startled by the defiant way that Dora was presented. The room she had posed in was presented as a mock Greek or Roman villa. She lay on a red sofa, her arms were folded behind her head and her breasts seemed to sit unnaturally high. One leg was straight and the other bent underneath. This formed a v-shape that drew attention to her pubic area – the one detail that defied the conventions of the times, which normally dictated the area should be smooth and without any genital detail. But this was certainly not coy. The genital detail was explicit under sparse, blonde pubic hair, like Courbet’s famous erotic painting. She even seemed to be aroused, even post-coital, her rich pink labia folded out like petals. He had the feeling that it was a personal, erotic painting, something not really intended for public exhibition. He looked at Dora’s expression. She seemed to be half asleep, her face relaxed in a languid, post-orgasmic contemplation of the artist. She was indeed a beauty, every part of her. If the artist had been able to capture her features and proportions correctly it would have been an outstanding work.
He turned the painting over and read an inscription written in fading ink on the brown paper backing, for dearest Dora. Lucy. 1937. The date meant that Dora would have only been sixteen or seventeen, depending on when the painting had been done (Dora was born in June) and not in her early twenties as he had first guessed. It explained her high breasts. His mother had mentioned a scandal over a painting done when Dora was thirteen, was this it, or was there another?
He put the painting aside and opened one of the boxes. An old photo album sat on top. He opened it and loose photos spilled out. Only a few were fixed into the album, the result of age. Many of them were of Dora and the family. He recognised the old house, recognised a young Mary, an infant Lizzie, Mary with Lizzie in her lap, Herbert standing in the bush in a singlet – his braces falling by his side, Dora and Lizzie at about ages four and two. Then later images appeared. He looked at one of Herbert standing with a beautiful, exotic dark haired woman outside a dramatically shaped stone house. He turned the photo over and read, Herbert and Lucy, 1930. Gabe assumed this was the same Lucy that had painted Dora’s portrait. His parents had never mentioned a Lucy, was she a relative? Then he picked up a photo that showed Herbert and Lucy laughing and either hugging or wrestling, or trying to hold each other up, possibly slightly drunk. He wondered if Lucy and Herbert had had an affair. The photos seemed to suggest intimacy.
Another photo showed a group of people in an open amphitheatre. Some of the adults and children were dressed in togas. The writing on the back said, Dora, Spring Festival, Haven amphitheatre, 1931. He looked again and could see Dora’s tell tale long blonde hair. There were more photos of dramatic stone houses. He figured that these must have been the Burley Griffin houses in Castlecrag.
Then he turned over a photograph that surprised him. It was a young Dora wading naked in a rock pool, perhaps in Middle Harbour. She was smiling and waving at the photographer. He turned the photo over and read, Dora, ‘28. So she was around eight or nine. It was a stark contrast to the photo he had seen of Dora and Lizzie in bathing costumes when she was the same age. Where was Lizzie? Then there was another photo of Dora squatting naked on a rock, her blonde hair wet, trailing like seaweed down her naked back, her taught skin revealing the detail of her spine and rib cage. She had an even tan, as if she had spent the whole summer naked. He looked at this and the previous photo and noticed that they had been carefully composed, unlike the others, which had been simple candid snapshots, perhaps shot with an early foldout Kodak camera. These were intentional, posed studies and the prints were fractionally larger and of a different quality. He thought the one of Dora on the rock would look good enlarged with sepia tone added.
Then he turned over another. It was of Lucy and Dora. They were both naked. Lucy was sitting with legs folded under her on a small patch of sand amongst rocks and seaweed. Dora was sitting in front of her, her legs also crossed, smiling. He turned the photo over and read. Lucy and her muse, 1928. Where were Mary and Lizzie? They were absent from nearly all the photos.
As Gabe continued he found more formal portraits. Most of them with Dora in diaphanous Greek costumes, including a couple of stunning portraits of Dora with her golden hair backlit by the sun and the shape of her slender body in clear outline. In one she was naked except for a grass skirt and Hawaiian lei. Whoever had taken the photos, Lucy presumably, was quite skilled. It was fairly typical of the photography of the time, romantic evocations of innocents in natural settings.
Then he came across a large envelope, partly faded by sunlight and age. It contained more photographs, but this time of a larger print size. He pulled them out and was confronted with the same image he had seen in his parent’s collection, an older Dora in Ancient Grecian clothing. The next prints were of Dora in different poses, and then, again to his surprise, Dora naked. He looked at the back of the photo and could make out a faded studio stamp, Lumiere Studios, 124 George St, and a handwritten note in pencil, Eleni Xanthai, study five, March 21st, 1933.