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Larger Than Life: Rosaleen Norton – The Witch of King’s Cross!

Australia can’t claim many famous witches but Rosaleen ”Roie” Norton, a talented bohemian painter, adhering to a form of pantheistic / Neopagan witchcraft which was devoted to the pagan god Pan, was known for most of her life as the ”Witch of Kings Cross”.

Rosaleen Miriam “Roie” Norton was born on the 2 October 1917, in Dunedin, New Zealand to Beena & Albert Norton, an English middle class, Anglican family who had moved to the country a number of years before. She was the third of three sisters and her siblings, Cecily and Phyllis, were each over a decade older than her.

When she herself was eight, in June 1925, her family emigrated to Sydney, Australia, where they settled in Wolseley Street, Lindfield. As a child, she never liked being conventional, and disliked most other children, as well as authority figures, including her mother, with whom her relationship was very strained. Her father, who was a sailor, was regularly away from home, although provided enough of an income so that the Nortons were able to live comfortably. Nonetheless, she would later describe her life at this time as being “a generally wearisome period of senseless shibboleths, prying adults, detestable or depressing children whom I was supposed to like, and parental reproaches. Due to this, she kept herself to herself, sleeping not in the house, but in a tent which she pitched in the garden for three years, and kept a pet spider at the entrance which she named Horatius, as well as other pets including cats, lizards, tortoises, toads, dogs and a goat.

She later claimed she was born with certain markings that set her apart as a witch, such as pointed ears, blue markings on her left knee and a strand of flesh that hung on her body.

Norton was enrolled at a Church of England girls’ school, where she was eventually expelled for being disruptive and drawing images of demons, vampires and other such beings which the teachers claimed had a corrupting influence on other pupils. She subsequently began attending East Sydney Technical College, studying art under the sculptor Rayner Hoff, a man who encouraged her artistic talent and whom she greatly admired.

Following her art college studies, Norton set herself up to become a professional writer, with the newspaper Smith’s Weekly publishing a number of her horror stories in 1934, when she was sixteen, after which they gave her the job as a cadet journalist and then as an illustrator. However, her graphic illustrations were deemed too controversial, and she lost her job at the paper. Leaving Smith’s Weekly, Norton moved out of her family home following the death of her mother, and sought employment as an artists’ model, working for such painters as Norman Lindsay. To supplement this income, she also took up other forms of work, including as a hospital’s kitchen maid, a waitress and a toy designer. Meanwhile, she had taken up a room in the Ship and Mermaid Inn, which overlooked Circular Quay, Sydney, where she began reading various books on the subject of the Western Esoteric Tradition, including those on demonology, the Qabalah and comparative religion.

In 1935, Rosaleen met a man named Beresford Lionel Conroy and they married on 14 December 1940, before going on a hitch-hiking trip across Australia, from Sydney to Melbourne, and on through to Brisbane and Cairns. Returning to Sydney, Conroy enlisted as a commando and went off to serve in New Guinea during the Second World War, and upon his return, Norton, who had been forced to live in a stable during this period, demanded a divorce, which was finally settled in 1951. During their marriage, the couple lived at 46 Bayswater Road, Kings Cross in 1943. Now single once more, Norton took up residence in a boarding house known as the Merangaroo in the Rocks area, which she enjoyed for its “eccentric, communal living.”. She began looking for illustration work once more, being employed by a monthly free-thinking magazine known as Pertinent, which had been founded in 1940 and which was edited by the poet Leon Batt. Batt admired Norton’s work, which was being increasingly influenced by pagan themes, describing her as “an artist worthy of comparison with some of the best Continental, American and English contemporaries.”

By the age of 32, she had held an exhibition of her art at the University of Melbourne’s Rowden White Library, where four paintings were removed by the prudish Melbourne police, who argued they were obscene.

Norton was subsequently charged under the Police Offences Act of 1928. At the court case, held in Melbourne’s Carlton Court, she was defended by A.L. Abrahams, who argued that the images in the recently published The History of Sexual Magic, a book that the Australian censors permitted, were of a far more obscene nature than Norton’s paintings. She won the case, and was awarded £4/4/- in compensation from the police department.

Artist Rosaleen Norton, known as the Witch of Kings Cross, at her home in 1950.

While working at Pertinent, she met a younger man named Gavin Greenlees (1930–1983). Greenlees had grown up in a middle-class family where he had developed an early interest in surrealism, and had become a relatively successful poet, having his work published in such newspapers as ABC Weekly and Australia Monthly. By mid-1949, the two had become good friends.

She returned to Sydney in 1951 and settled in Kings Cross, becoming an integral part of the suburb’s bohemian scene. Norton and Greenlees (who had become lovers), moved into the house at 179 Brougham Street. This was in the area known as Kings Cross, which at the time was renowned for being a red light district and for housing many of those living bohemian lifestyles, particularly artists, writers and poets. and mixing with the likes of Dulcie Deamer the ”Queen of Bohemia”, drawing large occult murals. Visitors were greeted with a sign declaring: ”Welcome to the house of ghosts, goblins, werewolves, vampires, witches, wizards and poltergeists.”

The police saw her as a menace and arrested her for vagrancy. When she appeared in court, she was saved from prosecution by Walter Glover, a publisher who employed her and subsequently published The Art of Rosaleen Norton, which ensured her enduring infamy. Glover was charged with the production of an obscene publication and two images had to be blacked out before the book could be sold. Norton was called into court to explain the nature of her works. The judge ruled that two of the images in the book, The Adversary and Fohat, did qualify as being obscene under Australian law, and that they had to be removed from all existing copies of the book. The authorities in the United States were even stricter, and actively destroyed any copies of the book that were imported into their country.[21] The controversy had helped gain publicity for Norton’s work, although the whole affair had bankrupted Glover, and the book’s binder Alan Cross, realising that he would never get paid, was instead given his pick of Norton’s work, for which he chose Fohat

Norton’s “Seance”

Norton’s reputation as a witch was compounded in 1955, when she was falsely accused of holding a satanic Black Mass. In 1955, a mentally ill vagrant named Anna Karina Hoffman swore at a police officer, and was subsequently charged, but at her trial claimed that her life had fallen apart after taking part in a SatanicBlack Mass run by Rosaleen Norton, a claim which was picked up in by the sensationalist tabloids. Norton, who did not consider herself to be a Satanist but a pagan, denied these claims, and indeed Hoffman later admitted that she had made them up. However, by this time, the press had picked up on the idea of Norton as a devil worshipper, and spun stories around the idea, for instance claiming that she committed animal sacrifice, a practice which in reality Norton abhorred. With this public outcry against her work, the police once more began to act against her and those who supported her. In 1955, they successfully took the proprietor of a local restaurant, the Kashmir, to court, for displaying some of her works publicly.That year the police raided Norton and Greenless’ home, and accused them of performing “an unnatural sexual act”, evidence for which they had obtained in a photograph displaying Greenless in ritual garb flagellating Norton’s buttocks. It was subsequently revealed that the photos had been taken at Norton’s birthday party, and stolen by two members of their coven, Francis Honer and Raymond Ager, who planned to sell it to The Sun newspaper for £200.

The following year, she was caught up in an obscenity scandal surrounding British conductor Sir Eugene Goossens, who was then in Australia and who had an interest in the occult, read a copy of The Art of Rosaleen Norton and decided to write to the artist herself. She invited him to meet her, and the two, alongside Gavin Greenless, became friends and lovers. In March 1956, Goossens was arrested attempting to bring 800 erotic photographs, some film and ritual masks into Australia from London, and was charged under Section 233 of the Customs Act. In court, he pleaded guilty to bringing “blasphemous, indecent or obscene works” into the country and was fined £100. He resigned his positions at both the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and returned to Britain, his international career ending in disgrace. Norton’s relationship with Goossens ended, and soon the life that she had held with Greenless also collapsed, as he was admitted to Callan Park Hospital with schizophrenia. She would continue to visit and support him, and in 1964 he was let off on temporary release, but suffered a schizophrenic attack and attempted to kill Norton with a knife before being re-admitted. He would only be discharged permanently in 1983, approximately four years after her death.

Norton openly declared herself to be a Witch. She tried to explain her beliefs to interviewers, emphasising her faith in pantheism. Along with selling her paintings, she was also making charms and casting hexes for people, using witchcraft to supplement her income.

For a short period, Norton moved in to live with her sister Cecily, one of the few family members whom she got on well with, at her flat in Kirribilli, although in 1967 moved back to Kings Cross, taking up residence in a derelict house in Bourke Street, Darlinghurst. She later moved into a block of flats in Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay, accompanied by her pets. Here she began to live a more reclusive and private existence, avoiding the media attention of previous decades.

Although her two main sexual relationships in her life were with men (Gavin Greenlees and Sir Eugene Goossens respectively), Norton was bisexual, and allegedly enjoyed all forms of sexual activity with both men and women, including bondage and sado-masochism. She was also known to enjoy sexual intercourse with gay men, believing that in such situations she could play the active role. She also actively engaged in sex magic amongst her coven, having learned much about it from the writings of Aleister Crowley and from Goossens, who himself had been very much interested in Crowley’s work.Norton died in 1979 from colon cancer at the Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying, in Darlinghurst, Sydney, still worshiping Pan;[21] a pagan until her death. Shortly before she died she is reported as saying: “I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely. A plaque dedicated to her has since been installed in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross.

Rosaleen’s commemorative plaque in Bourke Street

In December 1982, a play opened at the Tom Mann Theatre in Sydney entitled Rosaleen – Wicked Witch of the Cross, by Barry Lowe. It starred Jane Parker as Norton, Peter Laurence as Glover, Christopher Lyons as Greenlees and Alan Archer as Pan, and was attended by both Wally Glover and Gavin Greenlees themselves. However, according to Nevill Drury, who was invited to the show by Glover, “the play itself had most of the weaknesses of an amateur production – it was unconvincingly acted and was not acclaimed a critical success.

In 1988, the anthropologist Nevill Drury, who had published a number of books on the subject of witchcraft and magic, released a biography of Norton entitled Pan’s Daughter: The Strange World of Rosaleen Norton. This volume was subsequently re-released under the title The Witch of Kings Cross. He later “substantially expanded and reworked” this into a new book titled Homage to Pan: The Life, Art and Sex-Magic of Rosaleen Norton, which was published in 2009. Drury had himself met her only on one occasion, at her apartment in 1977, at a time when she had become somewhat of a recluse.[34]

In 2000, an exhibition of Norton’s paintings was held in Kings Cross, Sydney, organised by various enthusiasts including Keith Richmond, and Barry Hale of the Australian Ordo Templi Orientis. A full-colour catalogue, The Occult Visions of Rosaleen Norton was published to accompany this exhibition.In 2009, Teitan Press published Thorn in the Flesh: A Grim-memoir by Norton, with an introduction by Australian Norton scholar Keith Richmond. The volume comprises poetry (often humorous), reminiscences, and various occult jottings by Rosaleen Norton, with reproductions of two stunning photographs of Norton, as well as some half-a-dozen examples of her art (mainly in color).

In 2012 Norton’s work was including in the major exhibition, “Windows to the Sacred” curated by Robert Buratti, which toured a number of Australian museums until 2016. The exhibition drew together drawings and paintings alongside work by Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, surrealist James Gleeson and many others.

References

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