Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson: A shared passion for abstract art

This is the story of how two people from opposite ends of the world ultimately ended up working together in a narrow, pioneering field of art in the early 20th century.......Modernism and Abstraction.

I discovered this story via an advertisement for an exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Victoria (the NGV). It is a joint exhibition of the work of Grace Crowley and Ralph Balson.

Whilst we have written before about Grace Crowley and two of her contemporaries, Anne Dangar and Dorrit Black (links in the footnotes below), I hadn’t heard of Ralph Balson. So of course, I had to go looking for information about him.....

Ralph Balson (left) in his and Grace Crowley’s studio, George Street, Sydney, in the 1960s. Photo by Kerry Dundas © Kerry Dundas. Art Gallery of NSW Archive.

Balson was born in Bothenhampton, Dorset, England. He left school in 1903, at the age of 13, to be apprenticed to be a plumber and house painter. Ten years later, at the age of 23, Balson migrated to Sydney, Australia. A year later, in Sydney, 1914, he married Emilie Kathleen Austin, and then supported his family by working as a house painter. He took up art in his spare time and was largely self taught at that stage. At the start of World War One he applied to join the Forces but was rejected on the grounds of poor eyesight.

In 1932, when Grace Crowley and Rah Fizelle established the Crowely-Fizelle School in George Street, Sydney, Balson helped out by painting the premises and became interested in the Cubist principles they were teaching. 1

The NGV provides a wonderful description of how Crowley and Balson’s lives became intertwined from then on:

When Crowley Met Balson | NGV

In 1955 Balson retired from house painting and devoted himself to his art career. From 1949 to 1959 he taught abstract painting at East Sydney Technical College. In 1960 Balson traveled to Europe and the United States, visiting exhibitions of American minimalism and hard-edge abstraction. During this time he developed an appreciation for, and was influenced by, the work of Jackson Pollock, Alberto Burri and Antoni Tapiès.1

The supportive, artistic partnership between Crowley and Balson continued in Australia, as both became more and more fascinated with experimenting with abstract art.

In fact, Grace Crowley said to Albert Gleizes on 30 June 1947: “We find the path of an abstract painter an exceedingly difficult one here in Australia. In fact, Ralph Balson and I are the only two painters I am aware of who think seriously about abstract painting at all.2 (Anne Dangar and Dorrit Black had both continued to develop more in the field of Cubism rather than pursuing full Abstraction).

The artistic partnership between Crowley and Balson continued until Balson’s death in 1964. Grace Crowely continued on for another 15 years, till her own death in April 1979.

Between them, they forged a new path for abstract art in Australia, creating a recognition and validation for many other artists subsequently following in their footsteps.

The joint exhibition of their work is on at the NGV Australia, at the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. It is on from May 2024 to 22nd September 2024 with free entry. If you are in Melbourne and go to this exhibition, we would love to hear your thoughts in the Comments box below.

If you would like to learn a little more about Cubism and Abstract art, as developed by Crowley and Balson, you might like to watch the following short 3.14 minute video:


  1. With thanks to Wikipedia
  2. With thanks to the NGV website about the Crowley/Balson exhibition.

Links to our previous posts:
Grace Crowley: click here.
Dorrit Black: click here.
Anne Dangar: click here