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Norman St Clair Carter was born on 30 June 1875 at Kew, Melbourne. He was the third son to the English-born Harold Richard Carter and Janet (née Morrow) and had two elder brothers Bryce and Frank. Carter attended the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School between 1888-90, which he left when his father’s business as a grain merchant was affected by the depression. From 1890-94 he was apprenticed to a stained glass maker, a trade he would return to sporadically throughout his life. During this apprenticeship he enrolled in the National Gallery School, studying in the evenings and selling artists’ supplies during the day. His teachers here were Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall, and he also studied for a short period under Emmanuel Phillips Fox. In 1898 he and fellow gallery students Hugh Ramsay and Harley Griffiths rented a shack in Eltham, dubbed “The pillbox”, a location to experiment with painting en plein air.

In 1903 Carter moved to Sydney, accompanied by his friend Hugh McCrae. On 3 November 1908 he married Ruby Eva Burnell at Toowoomba, Queensland. They lived in Wollstonecraft, and they had two sons and three daughters. From his city studio in Hunter Street, and later in Vickery’s Chambers, Carter established himself as a sought-after portraitist, painting notable figures including his fellow-artist Hans Heysen, the art patron Howard Hinton, Chief Justice Sir William Portus Cullen, the governor Sir Walter Edward Davidson, the director of Education Peter Board, and the Prime Ministers Sir Edmund Barton and William Hughes. He claims he painted about four hundred portraits, and in each he felt it important to represent the sitter’s character. His method involved getting to know the sitter, to “talk to him, draw him out and get to know him well” so as to “get the man as a whole” (Norman Carter, 1962, Hazel de Berg Oral Histories, National Library of Australia). As a portraitist, Carter was a frequent participant in the Archibald prize, however he never won. This achievement would have proved a great disappointment to such a prolific and in-demand portraitist.

Not only was Carter an important portraitist, but he was also engaged in many other fields, including teaching. He taught at various institutions until the late 1940s, with appointments at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales until 1916, Sydney Technical College from 1915-40 and the department of architecture at the University of Sydney between 1922-47. Aside from lectures, Carter also wrote for journals such as Art in Australia. For instance, in the first edition in 1916 he contributed an article on Bertram Stevens, in December 1918 he wrote on Rupert Bunny and he also wrote a memorial piece for the August 1930 George Lambert edition.

Carter also worked in fields outside of portraiture, including landscapes, which he found an enjoyable change from painting figures. Like many Sydney-based artists he worked as a freelance commercial artist and contributed to the Bulletin and Sydney Mail. Carter also designed large-scale pieces. He did oil on canvas decorations in private houses, including a smoke room at a house in Strathfield. In 1921 Carter was asked by Professor John Anderson to paint two murals in the philosophy lecture room at the University of Sydney, with one panel illustrating Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the other Descartes, Bacon, and Spinoza. Between 1936-38 he undertook two large-scale rural-themed oil murals for the Rural Bank of New South Wales in Martin Place, Sydney. One work illustrated a farmer harvesting wheat and the other a man on horseback and merino sheep. Carter also designed a mural for the Maritime Services Board at Circular Quay in 1952. He also returned to his original trade of stained glass design. After World War I he received commissions for memorial windows including at St Stephen’s Church, Sydney, the 'Warriors’ Chapel’ in All Saints Cathedral, Bathurst, and the Teachers’ College, Armidale. He also designed the nave clerestory windows in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney (1953-54).

In teaching and exhibiting, Carter was closely involved with the local art community throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Ure Smith invited him to join the Society of Artists, of which he became the vice-president in 1926. In 1937 was a founding member of the short-lived Australian Academy of Art. Like J.S. MacDonald, Carter remained opposed to modern art. He never travelled abroad, and so never had first-hand exposure to the dramatic changes in European trends and movements. Despite this, he was encouraged by the artists E. Phillips Fox and Rupert Bunny to exhibit in Europe. In 1913 he was awarded a bronze medal at the Salon des Artistes Française for his portrait of Florence Rodway, Portrait of Mlle X, which was sent the following year to the London Royal Academy of Arts. This acceptance and acclaim in an international arena inevitably heightened his renown and success within Australia. Carter died on 18 September 1963 at Gordon and was buried in the Anglican section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery.

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