RE-CARVING AN IDENTITY ­ Blog ­ Susan Steggall

. . . .




Highly Commended

Society of Women Writers NSW

2019 National Writing Competition - Non Fiction


It is 1908. A young woman with dark eyes and hair looks confidently at the camera. She is wearing a white dress with a high V-neckline and full sleeves, her only adornment a single long-stemmed rose in her right hand. It is a conventional studio portrait of a society belle, nothing to indicate she is an artist. Yet the caption underneath describes her as:

‘Miss Fairlie Cunninghame, a talented Sydney Sculptor, who is about to proceed to London’.


The decades up to and following Federation were a time of optimism. The introduction of street lighting and the growing popularity of bicycles gave girls a freedom and independence that their mothers did not have. Australian women could enrol in government-funded art classes and become professional artists, rather than be defined as dabblers-in-art, considered the appropriate pastime for ‘ladies’. A peep into a sculpture studio at the Sydney Technical College in 1901 would reveal students standing at workbenches modelling plaster busts copied from classical antiquity. In the painting studio, women in long skirts and hats were sketching those same plaster effigies. I like to think I see Fairlie Cunninghame among them.

I could choose her life’s story to stand for all the women sculptors of her era but that would be to gloss over their individual career pathways. For the purposes of this narrative, I have selected four women – Theo Cowan, Margot Holden, Fairlie Cunninghame and Thea Barclay – born between the late 1860s and mid 1880s, all of whom undertook formal art training, had significant Sydney connections (family and art-world alliances) and worked for the war effort either in Australia or overseas. 

It is twenty years since I first became aware of these women sculptors and their achievements; they are often in my thoughts. In my mind’s eye I wander the dusty corridors of the old Sydney Tech in Harris Street, Ultimo, a ghost from the future. I hear the chink of chisel on stone, smell the plaster and clay dust covering every surface. I see the women’s faces bright with ambition for their future as artists. And successful they were, in terms of commissions and exhibitions, and recognition in publications such as the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, the Bulletin, the Home and Society, as well as entries in William Moore’s The Story of Australian Art (1934).

Cowan, Holden, Cunninghame and Barclay studied in state-sanctioned art schools and colleges: the first three in Sydney; Barclay in Hobart. All four fulfilled the criteria required to be considered ‘professional’. Each produced a significant body of work and took part in major exhibitions. All were represented in a state gallery and/or carried out a public commission. They also travelled overseas to study at prestigious art schools in London, Paris and Rome. This not only gave them access to the latest developments in European art, but also the chance to participate in international exhibitions such as those at the Royal Academy in London or the Salon d’Automne in Paris, which enhanced their reputation at home. 

The image of the artist as an outsider, working alone far from the pleasures and distractions of the workaday world, has been a luxury that sculptors could ill afford. Sculptors have needed to maintain a public presence to attract potential clients and gain commissions. In her heyday, Theo Cowan adopted an elegantly bohemian persona and set up a richly decorated studio, not only to display her work but also to hold soirees for potential buyers. Thea Barclay dressed discretely; perhaps it was her nature or perhaps a result of her protestant upbringing. Fairlie Cunninghame’s image was that of a refined young woman, a credit to her social milieu of eminent pastoralist families. Photographs of Margot Holden reveal a middle-class respectability, consistent with her North Shore address.

In their lifetimes, important works were usually sent to Italy for casting (bronze) or carving (marble). In Australia, craftsmen also carried out the bulk of any carving required, although sculptors liked to put the finishing touches to their work. The promotional value of a photograph in the popular press of a lady sculptor up a ladder working on a large sculpture with hammer and chisel was not to be passed over lightly. Yet as late as the 1970s, one (male) art historian wrote: ‘Sometimes, of course, they could use their female qualities to advantage, but in the long term it seems to have been artistically destructive’. He does not elaborate on these ‘female qualities'– nor exactly what was ‘artistically destructive’ about the use of them, the inference being that the women could not win commissions through artistic ability was patronising and demeaning and says more about his prejudices than their talents.

Examples of these sculptors’ work have survived in a variety of locations. However it would be beyond my means to bring them all under one roof, So I describe here some examples as an imaginary exhibition. First I present terracotta studies of ‘all sorts of girls, in all sorts of costumes, illustrating all sorts of places’ (The King Street GirlThe Manly GirlThe Promenade Girl) created by Theo Cowan (1868-1949) for the 1898 Society of Artists exhibitionCowan at that time was riding a wave of popularity. The previous year she had had the distinction of being not only the first Australian-born woman sculptor but the first Australian sculptor (woman or man) to receive a commission from the Art Gallery of NSW to create a bust of Eccleston du Faur, President of the gallery’s Board of Trustees. Cowan’s portrait was well received by the critics and the public as a ‘speaking likeness’ of the subject. Her 1899, portrait bust of Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton also received praise from the critics. 

Thea Barclay (1883-1964), from a prominent Tasmanian family, left Australia in 1908 and travelled throughout Europe before basing herself in Paris where she studied with Emile Antoine Bourdelle, probably at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In my virtual exhibition, I present a series of Barclay’s small female figures preserved by her daughter-in-law, Shirley Eldershaw. Barclay’s seated, lifelike, women are dressed in loose-fitting garments, their bodies folded on themselves, legs bent, hands on knees, gazing into the distance as if lost in thought. Barclay returned to Sydney in about 1912 and in 1914 held an exhibition in Sydney with painter Ethel Stephens. Barclay’s best pieces were a nude study in wax-plaster of a woman seated on the ground with the weight of the body partly supported on the hands, and Head of an Old Woman in bronze – ‘the lined and wrinkled face strongly modelled and full of character’. A terracotta work entitled Maternity – an Italian peasant woman with a child at her breast – skilfully conveyed the compassion of the subject, understandable perhaps as Barclay is the only one of this group known to have had children. 

Fairlie Cunninghame (1883-?) was nothing if not entrepreneurial and on one occasion applied to the Castlereagh Street Fire Station to create a portrait of a fireman. The superintendent arranged studio space for her on the site where she sculpted ‘a splendid model of one of Sydney’s heroes, a noble fireman’, later exhibited at the National Art Gallery (Art Gallery of NSW). At the hugely successful and very prestigious First Exhibition of Women's Work in Melbourne in 1907, Cunninghame won a bronze medal for A Blind Girl, exhibited in Class 20: Model of a Human Head. Although the whereabouts of both these pieces is unknown, I include them in the exhibition.

Encouraged by her success in Melbourne, Cunninghame travelled to London to study with Professor Edouard Lantéri at the Royal College of Art. ‘I am well up to my eyes in an atmosphere of art and just revel in it,’ she declared in a letter home, written during her first term at the College. Cunninghame also wrote of ‘splendid studios’, where she meant to make statuettes ‘as promised’. She passed the preliminary modelling test and then had to enrol in a course in architecture, ‘plodding away at designing cathedral cloisters and domed buildings’, while she ‘longed to rush to the life class’. A woman of considerable energy, Fairlie participated in exhibitions throughout the British Isles and in France.

Margot Holden (1870s-?) stands apart from the others because of her specialisation in animal subjects. In 1905 and 1909 Holden exhibited watercolour studies of animals with the Royal Art Society (RAS) in Sydney before travelling to London to study with modelling master Cecil Brown at the School of Animal Painting founded by Frank Calderon. In the 1920 RAS Annual Exhibition, Holden exhibited three sculptures: Point to PointThe Straggler and Study of a Greyhound. A photograph of the latter shows a dog lying on its belly, its muzzle resting on extended front paws. The sinuous curve of its spine and powerful muscular haunches show strong empathy with her canine model. In 1924 Holden was included in an article entitled ‘They are devoted to their profession: Sydney’s Women Artists’. In the accompanying photograph she is modelling a galloping horse. 

Little did Margot Holden know that her career would shortly gallop away from her. I am getting ahead of myself. First I must roll the clock back ten years.


World War 1 is remembered in Australia not only for the profound private and public grief it caused but also for the legend of Anzac that developed as a consequence of Australia’s involvement. Many of the character traits admired in the Anzacs – courage, resilience and resourcefulness – also belonged to the Australian women who ran the farms and shops, worked in munitions factories at home, and behind the battle lines in Europe as doctors, nurses and in the Volunteer Aid Detachments (VADs). As early as 1915 Thea Barclay volunteered as a VAD in a Woolwich convalescent home. She also worked in soldier rehabilitation programs. She was a popular and highly regarded director of the Toy Factory in Redfern where she created designs that were typically Australian and anatomically correct: ‘Each bird or animal is true to nature,’ she declared. ‘Everything is carried out in a most workman-like manner, and the machinery is of the very latest and most approved kind.’ When she resigned in May 1919, James Fairfax thanked her for ‘more than three years…daily untiring service’ and the professional skill and artistic spirit with which she approached her work. In 1920, she married watercolour painter John Eldershaw (nine years her junior) in St David’s Anglican Cathedral, Hobart. Their wedding photograph presents John, a tall, distinctive-looking man, dressed in a dark suit and Thea, a short woman, dressed in a softly tailored grey-toned suit with a white blouse and wearing a hat; an informal bouquet of flowers the only light note. 

In recognition of the gravity of the situation, Cowan’s studio became a more spartan affair. Gone were the rich accoutrements; in their place the essentials of a sculptor’s trade, the elegant gowns replaced by a simple smock. In 1915 Theo Cowan carved a soldier with kit and rifle – a ‘regular Tommy Anzac’ – to serve as a model for the disabled soldiers who worked at toy-making, possibly at a centre in Ash Street, Sydney. Both Theo Cowan and Thea Barclay were involved in establishing and managing the Australian Artists’ War Fund and Art Union of 1915. In addition to fund-raising exhibitions they held popular tableaux vivants evenings in which Sydney’s art elite participated with enthusiasm and ingenuity in a variety of historical and political situations – Australia Before the Coming of the White Man, Louis XV bids Farewell to Admiral La PerouseAustralia Places Her Entire Resources at the Service of Britain and Her Allies. Shirley Eldershaw told me that Thea Barclay met John Eldershaw in Sydney during the war when he was participating in these artists’ tableaux evenings. 

Fairlie Cunninghame was active as a VAD in London. She had intended to return to Australia in 1916, citing exhaustion, then changed her mind and remained in Britain for the duration of the Great War. Margot Holden worked throughout the war at London’s Anzac Buffet, organised by the Red Cross. 

In post-war Australia every city, town and village needed a war memorial – a ‘golden age’ for sculptors generally although there were mixed fortunes for women artists. Theo Cowan received a commission to create a cenotaph to honour fallen soldiers in the name of the women of New South Wales. This large work was to be composed of two central figures – a dying Anzac in the arms of a woman representing Death – accompanied by a small boy (Love) and a seated female (Destiny) nursing a baby and surmounted by the Angel of Immortality holding aloft a lamp intended to cast electric light over the group. The press of the day welcomed the project, the state government promised a parkland site and negotiations began with the Public Monuments Advisory Board in 1921. By 1924,Theo Cowan’s cenotaph had been abandoned due to lack of funds. Perhaps the design was too complex; perhaps its inscriptions ‘For the National Life’ and ‘To Our Glorious Dead’, representing peace as well as war, sent an ambiguous message in a time when heroism and nationalism brooked no contrary voice.

More modest in scale, commemorative medallions were affordable and popular. The Brendan Lane Mullins Memorial Medal designed by Thea Barclay for the Royal Australian Historical Society, is a typical example. The soldier portrayed, most likely the dead soldier-son of Sydney solicitor John Lane Mullins, and after whom the medal was named, functioned both as a memento portrait and a memorial.



Modernism emerged late in Australian painting compared to the rest of the western world, later still for sculpture. Even technological refinements in machinery and equipment and the emergence of new materials were slow to dislodge conservative neoclassical ideals. Theo Cowan, for example, maintained a traditionalist stance, insisting that sculpture was an art in which form held undisputed sway, which perhaps had the effect of pigeon-holing her work as somewhat old-fashioned. Nor, as far as I am aware, did the other three sculptors experiment with modernist ideas.

Time began to catch up with these women too. Thea Barclay and her husband John Eldershaw had three children: Elizabeth Anne (‘Anne’) born in May 1921, David in December 1922, and Peter in January 1927. Anne became increasingly troubled by behavioural and eating disorders and died in the 1950s. David began studying architecture but enlisted when war broke out and died of meningitis in 1942. Peter contracted polio at the age of eleven. The Eldershaws divorced in 1949. It is not surprising that Thea Barclay ceased working due to such a heavy burden of family problems, although she remained an active member of Hobart’s artistic scene and regularly attended exhibitions.

Fairlie Cunninghame disappeared from the public record. There is a possibility she returned to Australia; perhaps she married. Margot Holden struggled. It was ‘mostly a work of love’, Holden said, ‘for commercially, modelling is a dead letter.’ There is no indication that she ever contemplated varying her subject matter although there is a reference to her having created bas reliefs for a war memorial on Sydney’s North Shore.

Theo Cowan adopted the appearance of a slightly eccentric aunt, given to wide collars and floppy bows. In 1932 she turned her skill in modelling to the production of ceramics at the Koala Pottery in North Sydney. She crafted figurines of Australian birds and animals glazed in green, brown and cream, as well as bookends of laughing jackasses, and parrots perched on ashtrays. To publicise this initiative Cowan was once photographed, sketchpad in hand, posing with a wallaby at Taronga Zoo. She did not retire from public life and remained a member of the Society of Women Painters and the Society of Artists. She was also a member of the Women's Club, wrote articles for the Sydney press and gave lectures on art at the Lyceum Club.

Why did these sculptors’ careers ‘go bung’? The reply involves a complex convergence of historical and socio-economic forces, including anxiety about men’s jobs and the continuing decline in the birthrate that reinstated motherhood as women’s primary vocation. Professional women, all working women, represented a threat to the conservative mindset and were increasingly subsumed under a newly powerful definition of civic, maternal duty. 

One factor rarely addressed in art historical terms is the ageing process of the human body. Old age is a stage of life in western cultures, Australia included, which has been particularly harsh on women. The image of the revered old master is seldom translated into a corresponding reverence for ‘old mistresses’.[1]

Juliet Peers once wrote: ‘Once more we are left with the story and not the emotions and the events behind it’.[2]The subjective, ephemeral nature of those emotions might now be impossible to re-create. Regardless of how slight the written record, and how little of their work remains in public view, these four artists belonged to the feisty band of Australian women who, in newly federated Australia, dared to believe they could carve identities as sculptors.  

It is time to end my imaginary exhibition. I close the file and shut down the computer to let the artworks and the artist fold back into history.



- Deborah Edwards. Stampede of the Lower Gods. Classical Mythology in Australian Art 1890s-1930s, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 1989.

- Miles Franklin, My Career goes Bung, Melbourne, 1946, the ‘sequel’ to My Brilliant Career, Edinburgh, 1901.

- Ken Inglis, Sacred PlacesWar Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, 1998.

- Joan Kerr, Heritage: The National Women's Art Book, Craftsman House G+B Arts International, Sydney, 1995.

- Ros Pesman, 'Travel and Aspirations'. Duty Free: Australian Women Abroad, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996.

- Ken Scarlett, Australian Sculptors 1830-1977, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980.


Thea Barclay

- Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1914, p.6.

- Letter dated 2 March 1917, signed by Gladys Owen.

Sunday Times, 1 June 1919.

- Undated press clipping, ‘True to Nature’ (family possession).


Theo Cowan:

Bulletin, 2 December 1915.

Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1921.

- ‘Theo. Cowan and her work’, Society, 1 April 1922, p.10.

- ‘New Works of Art’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1897.


Fairlie Cunninghame:

- W.A. Somerset, ‘Informal Interviews and Casual Conversations. A Lady Sculptor, a Competition Winner and some “Stars”,’ The New Idea, 6 September 1906, p.239.

The Australian Town and Country Journal, 6 November 1907, p.27.

- Appleby, Sydney, 10 March, Daily Telegraph; 13 & 25 March, Sydney Herald; 1 July, The Lone Hand, 1908.

Stock and Station, 16 March 1909.

‘Sculpture by Australian Women’, The Home, 1 December 1921.


Margot Holden:

- The Art Gallery of N.S.W. Gallery Collections booklet give the period of Holden’s artistic career as between 1905 and the 1930s.

Bulletin, 12 August 1920.



[1] Dale Spender, ‘To Believe or not Believe Language/Sex Research’, Man Made Language, Pandora Press, London, 2nd edn, 1990, p.17. The loss of parity over the centuries between words such as 'master' and 'mistress' demonstrates how terms for female experience acquire negative and derogatory connotations.

[2] Juliet Peers, ‘“A Rare and Difficult Art.” The Career of the Australian Medallist Dora Ohlfsen’, The Medal, No.21, 1992, p.43.

Leave a Reply