Outskirts online journal

Marisa Young

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About the author

Marisa Young has completed tertiary courses in the visual arts, education, information management and history. She has been employed as a primary and secondary teacher, a secondary school teacher-librarian and a tertiary education lecturer. She has also been a university library employee, worked in the field of government records management, and she has been a volunteer and employee in university and government art museums. Her drawings, paintings and fibre art works have been exhibited in South Australia, the Northern Territory, and eastern Australia.

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Publication details

Volume 28, May 2013

Drawn to new perspectives in the public sphere. Female art, design and craft students and their cultural connections in nineteenth century South Australia


The historiography of female participation in visual art, design and crafts during the Victorian era has produced studies of the trajectories of female careers in these fields (Cherry; Cherry and Helland; Swinth, Carline 61-67; Chadwick 165-170, 191, 212-213, 225; Chalmers 146-148). This article will highlight the rise of the power of female students of art, design and craft in South Australia, a frontier region well away from major cultural centres. These women were far from passive recipients of visual arts education. They helped to shape curriculum developments, and used their instruction to develop pathways to participation in an array of cultural activities. This article offers an outline of far-reaching transformations to educational and associational structures that enabled the successful development of specific types of enhanced personal connections for young women and girls. It underlines the importance of these changes for women who were able to use their cultural connections to join professional networks that provided greatly increased opportunities for social independence and cultural influence.

Art historians, social historians, writers interested in gender studies and educational historians have highlighted the importance of the social networks that surrounded women artists, designers and craft workers. (Cherry; Swinth; Chadwick 165-170, 191, 212-213, 225; Chalmers). Bourdieu has emphasised connections between the acquisition of cultural capital and the development of social networks and social capital (Harker; Robbins; Swartz). Histories of the rise of mass cultural markets have also underlined the social connections and economic power of female cultural consumers, women who used access to financial resources to provide patronage to entrepreneurs in the arts, such as actor-managers, musical promoters, visual artists or designers, crafts practitioners, publishers, authors, and teachers (Brewer; Briggs; Flanders).

Feminist writers have traced the ways in which many nineteenth century women broke down the separation of spheres by moving from restricted lives in the private sphere of the family home to participation in social networks in the public sphere. Opportunities for education, employment and involvement in formal associational circles resulted in social boundaries being blurred or crossed (Davidoff; diZerega Wall; Ryan; Vickery). The historiography of art, design and craft education for women in South Australia is important because research has revealed that instruction in the visual arts provided avenues for female colonists to seek rewarding social connections in social networks in the arts within the colony and elsewhere in Australia and overseas.

The progress made by female teachers and students of art, design and craft in early South Australia was recorded in newspapers, private records and government documents (Speck Women; Wilson 1-26; Young A history; Young More). Habermas has noted that newspapers were key components of life in a civil society in the public sphere, and the lives of these South Australian women were regularly recorded in the local press, either through advertising or reports (Habermas; Young A history; Young More). By the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers in the South Australian capital of Adelaide reinforced the importance of the social value of engagement in these artistic circles as well as the cultural contribution made by female artistic connections. 

Cultural histories of a nineteenth century frontier settlement at the very edge of the British Empire may seem to be unlikely sources for the study of female power and the development of the visual arts and education (Benko; Biven; O’Brien; Ramsay; Wilson 1-38). However, the prominence of South Australian women artists in Australian art history, and the importance of the South Australian School of Art underline the necessity of examining the cultural influence of South Australian female students and teachers of art, design and craft (Benko; Biven; Harris; Speck Women; Wilson 1-38). Established in 1836, South Australia was developed by men who actively supported the migration of families and women from Britain and Western Europe, especially Germany. Unlike other Australian settlements, South Australia was not set up as a British penal colony, and indeed it was promoted in the belief that South Australia was more a province of Britain rather than a colony.

Existing cultural histories of nineteenth century South Australia have demonstrated that numerous settlers were eager to benefit from the expansion of cultural markets and consumption in Britain, Western Europe and the United States of America. Women with literary, musical and artistic backgrounds who were capable of dealing with the difficulties of life in a frontier settlement were viewed as important contributors to the establishment of a cultural environment with an elevated moral tone that would set South Australia apart from the depravities of life in eastern Australian colonies associated with penal settlements (Cooper; Jones; Pike; Radford 1, Radford 2). Well-educated women interested in cultural consumption, especially in the South Australian capital, supported the growth of a conspicuous cultural life and better prospects for participation in social networks in the public sphere. 

Colonial South Australia was notable for the early introduction of government-supported teaching training and university education for women as well as successful campaigns for female suffrage during the late 1880s and the early 1890s (Jones; Mackinnon; Whitehead).  However, the expansion of formal art, design and craft education for women in South Australia preceded the introduction of local opportunities for women to undertake other forms of formal advanced education, as well as political participation. Female enrolments in the advanced classes provided by the South Australian School of Art, one of the earliest art schools established in Australia, not only helped to shape the curriculum and teaching profile of the School, but they also began to influence cultural circles in Adelaide, as well as social networks in Australian art movements (Wilson 1-38; Young A history).

Drawn from the private sphere

Notable female settlers came to Adelaide with existing stores of cultural capital that included instruction in the visual arts, design and crafts. Art historians have represented these women as dedicated artists who fitted within the tradition of the accomplished lady (Biven; Hylton Colonial; Wilson 1-17; Young More). For many nineteenth century women from elite circles, access to art, design and craft teaching was part of the accomplishments curriculum that helped to define the image of a genteel lady, who was expected to elevate the morality and social manners of family life (Carline 61-74, 128-140; Young A history 75-83;  Young Presentation 242-248).

Accounts of the lives of well-educated female settlers in nineteenth century Australia revealed that numerous women found cultural satisfaction in being able to use the artistic elements of the accomplishments to record their responses to natural environments and social life. Descriptions of colonial Australian female artists revealed that their artistic knowledge and skills helped them to develop supportive social relationships. For Martha Berkeley and Theresa Walker in South Australia, artistic expertise supported the transition from developing artistic expression within the private sphere of family circles and close friends to approbation in the public sphere. Both Berkeley and Walker became professional artists in South Australia, but neither of these women had acquired their art education via formal apprenticeships or professional training in art academies. Born in England, Berkeley and Walker, who were sisters, had been educated at home. They also attended classes provided through a church. Yet these female artists contributed to the earliest public displays or exhibitions of art work in Adelaide, and their participation was noted in contemporary printed accounts, thereby distributing information beyond the confines of exhibition venues. (Kerr; Roughly, Ducker and Lennon; Benko; Biven; Cooper; Hylton Colonial; Wilson 1-11; Young More).

Instruction in art, design and craft practices was frequently undertaken within private family homes before the twentieth century. Teaching was provided by family members, as well as paid instructors from outside of immediate family circles such as governesses and drawing masters. The foundations of interest in visual arts education for women in colonial South Australia were established because some female migrants were prepared to become governesses and a number of male artists sought employment as drawing masters. Governesses usually passed on their stores of cultural capital from the accomplishments curriculum, a curriculum for girls from prosperous families that was based on the acquisition of Western European languages, expertise in music, the fine arts and fibre crafts, such as needlework (Carline 60-74; Young A history 75-83; Young Presentation 242-248).

Many young women educated in colonial Australia were able to turn this instruction to their cultural and economic advantage in the public sphere during their adult lives. These women used their own accomplishments education to open private venture schools for girls, or, in some cases, girls, young women and young boys. Their activities in these schools gained considerable public exposure through newspaper advertising and reporting.

The visual arts and education were amongst the earliest and most important routes open for women to move from the social restrictions of the private sphere to participation in social networks in the public sphere. One of the most prominent of the early female teacher-proprietors of private venture schools in Adelaide was Sophia Jane Thwaites. Thwaites established her public profile as an artist, designer, and crafts practitioner when she opened her first South Australian school for girls during the late 1860s in Grove House in Kent Town, situated near the central Adelaide square mile. The daughter of a colonial artist and professional photographer, and the sister of two professional photographers, Sophia Jane Thwaites was clearly encouraged to develop her own expertise in art, design and craft within the family home. Indeed, the Thwaites family profile was such that Sophia Jane probably found role models in the private sphere of her family who encouraged her to launch a personal life course that blurred or crossed social boundaries.  She set up a school for the daughters of prosperous, elite families, and she heavily promoted her school through newspaper advertising and coverage of school ceremonies. Sophia Jane Thwaites also used her artistic skills to prepare work for public display through the annual South Australian Society of Arts exhibitions in Adelaide, and accounts of her school ceremonies and the Society’s exhibitions revealed that she was eager to elevate her standing in social networks.

As professional colonial photographers, the Thwaites men developed peripatetic lives to ensure economic survival. By contrast, Sophia Jane Thwaites was so successful in her own right that she was able to expand the Grove House School. She then continue her teaching work in the public sphere in a variety of ways after her marriage to Charles Murphy, thereby helping to keep her family life in the private sphere intact by supporting her American husband and their children while he sought to establish careers as a commercial agent and a newspaper publisher in Adelaide.

During the course of her relatively brief life, Sophia Jane Thwaites used newspapers to advertise her capacity to provide young women with the opportunities to cultivate their own cultural, social and economic advantages. As an early promoter of womneedlework en and a risk-taking educational entrepreneur (Young More), Thwaites displayed behaviours developed by businesswomen who have been defined by Angel Kwolek-Folland (1998) as nineteenth century proto-feminists. This business historian has suggested that these individuals established the foundations for more widespread female social influence long before the advent of the ‘new women’ who subsequently emerged from university courses. The social connections developed by artistic proto-feminists in colonial Australia deserve much greater attention, because they broke new ground for the development of cultural networks.  

New perspectives in the public sphere

Enrolment in formal visual arts courses provided female students in South Australia with more than new expertise. From the mid-nineteenth century, female recognition of the cultural, social and economic possibilities of this tuition helped women to influence the reshaping of plans for government-supported art and design education in Adelaide. Young women also used their status as art, design and craft students to build social networks for mutual support as well as influence the growth of cultural and social circles in Adelaide.

The groundwork for public art and design education in early Adelaide was established by prominent men, and early newspaper coverage and official records of their activities paid no direct attention to the needs of female students. Now one of the longest established art schools in Australia, and one of the foundation institutions for the University of South Australia, the South Australian School of Art was set up after mid-October in 1856 by a group of elite male settlers as a part of their attempts to establish the South Australian Society of Arts, an association meant to encourage local public interest in art and design. The Adelaide drawing master Charles Hill was a key figure in the early Society, and Hill became the first head teacher and administrator of its School. He had established his own professional art practice as a printmaker and painter in South Australia, and although he had been apprentice printer and a student at one of the provincial British Schools of Design founded under William Dyce’s administration before the 1850s, Hill had become one of the most prominent drawing masters in elite corporate and private venture schools in Adelaide.

Hill provided classes for young gentlemen in boys’ schools as well as classes incorporated into elite girls’ schools across the Adelaide plains (Appleyard Charles Hill; Appleyard History; Bell; Young A history 103-119). Hill also established his own private art school in Alix House in the Adelaide central square mile. Arrangements at Alix House emphasised educational opportunities for girls. Hill’s wife and a Miss Hill, presumably one of their children, ran an elite private venture school for girls in the same premises (Young Presentation 122, 261, 296, 317). It is therefore not surprising that Hill welcomed women as advanced pupils in the South Australian School of Art, which became part of the South Australian Institute, the first public educational institution for young adults in Adelaide. The success of young female candidates in degree courses at the University of Adelaide during the early 1890s has been rightly lauded as a landmark in advanced education for women in regions with English-speaking populations. However, the South Australian School of Art provided women with opportunities for an advanced education far earlier than the University of Adelaide, and young women were enrolled in the early School in greater numbers and on a more regular basis than men. For women with artistic interests, enrolment in the School supported the desire to blur or cross boundaries between the private and public spheres by providing access to important cultural networks and opportunities to build new personal relationships with others who possessed similar concerns and tastes (Appleyard Charles Hill; Jones; Mackinnon; Young A history 13-119, 122-220, 168-169, 173, 202).

The South Australian Society of Arts was a notable force in Adelaide’s early cultural landscape. Its male-only executive fitted within the prevailing mid-nineteenth century administrative model, but it welcomed female participation in its major events (Ryan; Young A history 123-190; Young Art 36-37). Hill used the Society’s annual exhibition to display his students’ work, and South Australian women submitted their work for exhibition and gained press coverage as a result. Hill’s administration of the South Australian School of Art received support from members of Adelaide’s social elite and the press for many years, but during the 1870s demands for an increased emphasis on design teaching as a part of technical education, agitation for the establishment of a public art museum, and accommodation problems within the South Australian Institute resulted in Hill’s removal from the school. He continued to work as private teacher, but he was regarded as ‘yesterday’s man’, and inappropriate for a redeveloped School of Art that was to pass to the administration of the new board responsible for a public library, a public natural history museum and a public art gallery (Appleyard Charles Hill, Appleyard History; South Australian Institute Annual Reports 1857-1883; Young, A history 122-220, 296-371).

During the 1870s, local parliamentary debates and public meetings held in Adelaide laid the groundwork for the redevelopment of the School of Art. Discourse was completely dominated by well-connected men who were influential in Adelaide. Their speeches highlighted a perceived need to focus attention on design teaching as a means of instituting technical education for young male artisans, thereby supporting the growth of manufacturing industry in a region that had suffered from boom and bust economic cycles and a dependence on agricultural and mining production. Reference was made to a public art museum or gallery to elevate public taste and morality, as well as spur local residents to produce superior works of visual art, design and craft (Appleyard History; Feeney; Hirst; Young A history 319-354; Romans). Despite the emergence of female artists, designers and crafts practitioners in South Australia and the involvement of women in school teaching and learning activities associated with the visual arts and crafts, these male campaigners failed to mention any specific advanced educational imperatives or possible outcomes for South Australian women. However, the reopening of the South Australian School of Art under the administration of the newly established South Australian Public Art Gallery actually heralded a new era of opportunities for women to influence the expansion of visual arts education through their power as cultural consumers (Appleyard History; Wilson 12-38; Young A history 359-371, 377-483).

With Hill’s removal, the redeveloped South Australian School of Art reopened with two sections, a School of Painting and a School of Design. The first master in charge of the School of Painting was a German painter, Louis Tannert, a product of the Western European traditional academic artistic training (Young A history 365-371, 377-483). The School of Design was headed by H. P. Gill, an Englishman recruited from the system set up by the South Kensington Department of Art (Aland Art; Fischer; Young A history 274-275, 296-324, 354-371). Tannert’s classes initially attracted the majority of female students, while Gill was supposed to build the base for design education for young male artisans. However, fluctuations in the late nineteenth century Australian economy, coupled with the desire of many young working men in Adelaide to obtain employment as quickly as possible, and, if necessary, outside of South Australia, meant that H. P. Gill faced difficulties. The subsequent removal of Louis Tannert from his position of first curator of the Public Art Gallery, and his departure from the School of Painting meant that Gill became the honorary curator of the Public Art Gallery (Appleyard, History; Fischer; Young A history 327-370, 377-410, 442-445; Weston 171-172, 174-176, 179, 181-182, 194, 200, 202).

Gill’s allegiance to the South Kensington system of mimetic instruction based on a strictly regulated foundation of hard outline drawings resulted in a teaching schedule that required all students to follow a foundation program of South Kensington-style drawing drills, even if they intended to eventually study a fine art painting course (Aland The influence; Efland 25; MacDonald 157-262; Sherwin 8, 14, 18, 32, 102; Weston 90, 93, 169-170, 174, 182-184, 187, 194, 225; Young A history 282-283). Gill’s problems with male enrolments were overcome in great part due to developments that were influenced by female enrolments. Firstly, Gill sought to link his drawing and design courses to the emerging government-supported teacher-training system established by the South Australian Department of Education headed by the Inspector-General of Education, John Anderson Hartley, during the 1880s. Hartley supported the South Kensington system as a means of standardising drawing instruction in public elementary schools and introducing the foundations of technical education. The increasing feminisation of the public teaching workforce in South Australia meant that Gill’s association with the administration developed by Hartley and his immediate successors introduced more female students, many from humble backgrounds, to advanced drawing instruction and design education for the first time in their lives (Aland The influence; Young A history 282-283; Appleyard Art; Hyams, Trethewey, Condon, Vick, & Grundy; Miller 99-113; Murray-Smith; Saunders; Weston; Whitehead).

While male students were reluctant to persevere with Gill’s highly structured drawing program and examination schedule, but Gill discovered that his female students within the School were prepared to work their way steadily through his curriculum. They were also willing to sit for the associated examinations, even if they intended to concentrate on painting studies (Sherwin 8, 14, 18, 32, 102; Weston 90, 91, 93, 169-17, 183-184, 225). As a result, the introduction of the South Kensington system of examinations in South Australian also began to change the teaching of art within elite girls’ schools in Adelaide.

Many young women believed that perseverance with the South Australian School of Art’s introductory programs supported the development of a valuable store of cultural capital, and social opportunities flowed from the acquisition of such capital. They perceived value in the credentialism associated with sitting for the numerous South Kensington-linked drawing examinations that Gill implemented. They also enhanced their stores of social capital because enrolment opened up access to new social networks outside the private sphere of the family home. For his part, Gill was able to adapt to this rather unexpected set of circumstances, and his eagerness to establish himself as a dominant figure in the visual arts in South Australia resulted in his willingness to capitalise on a range of opportunities to extend his influence, such as the development of major displays associated with intercolonial exhibitions and Federal Art Exhibitions.

 The loyalty shown by a significant group of his female students was boosted by Gill’s efforts to build supportive social networks for the School of Art. Gill developed students associations and he revived the fortunes of the South Australian Society of Arts during the final years of the nineteenth century through a variety of means. These associations provided opportunities for female students to build supportive relationships with other like-minded settlers and develop their own public profiles within Adelaide’s cultural circles. Female art students became involved in the organisation of these associations, and they cultivated more complex interpersonal and administrative skills as a result (Fischer; Sherwin; Weston 90, 91, 93, 169-17, 183-184, 225; Speck Adelaide; Darian-Smith; Wilson 10-30; Young A history 376-470).

Gill’s problems with securing a viable level of continuous enrolments amongst young male settlers for drawing and design studies connected to engineering (Young A history 148-173, 190-220, 263-292, 296-371) contributed to the expansion of design and craft education in other ways. Once again, it was the consumer interest and enrolment fees of young female students that helped to build the School’s design curriculum. However, the results had never been anticipated by the male campaigners of the 1870s.

The influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement during the late nineteenth century permeated the growth of design and craft education for young women in Britain, the United States of America and Australia, and the strength of the influence of the movement on the growth of the South Australian School of Art was particularly profound. Indeed, the impact of the Movement on the School’s female students helped to elevate the reputation of both the School and these students elsewhere in eastern Australia as well as elite social circles in Britain (Montana 39, 232, 233, 241; Thompson; Weston 176-178, 181, 200, 207; Chadwick 225-234). Unlike the United States of America, where educational opportunities related to the impact of the Movement were guided by groups of philanthropically-minded, prosperous women eager to cultivate training and employment opportunities for women from less fortunate circumstances, the growth of design and craft teaching related to the Movement at the School in Adelaide was dominated by Gill with the support of local vice-regal patronage and a ladies’ committee that included his wife (McCarthy; Montana 39, 232, 233, 241; Thompson; Weston 176-178, 181, 200, 207).

The School’s female students became particularly renowned for their studies in art needlework (Montana 39, 232, 233, 241; Thompson), a strength that may well have been linked to the prominence of sewing and embroidery in elite private venture schools as well as some schools associated with religious groups and government-supported education. Newspapers had carried accounts of girls’ plain sewing and embroidery in reports of school ceremonies during the 1870s. Examples of this work were displayed as a means to promote the public profile of particular schools and teachers.

During the 1870s, displays of student embroidery from some of the elite private venture girls’ schools in Adelaide were linked to fundraising for charitable causes. Girls at these schools were being initiated into the social manners required for participation in the charitable bazaar, one of the few powerful philanthropic activities where women could hold sway in the public sphere during the Victorian age. Plain sewing was still the socially acceptable form of textile craft for young female students from less prosperous families during Victorian era, being judged by some educational and religious administrators as a means to help improve living conditions in working class homes. Yet in South Australia, both embroidery and plain sewing were at times taught to female pupils in a range of schools that enrolled children from the elite or the less prosperous (Young Presentation 242-248).

The complex art needlework produced by female students in the South Australian School of Art during the late nineteenth century also required both plain needlework and complex embroidery skills. Such was the success of their studies that one of their works, a portiere featuring eucalyptus blossoms and leaves, was presented to the Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901and then subsequently became part of the British Royal collection (Montana 241; Menz front cover). The organising committee of ladies linked to the administration of the art needlework instruction at the South Australian School of Art supported the sale of needlework by the female students within South Australia, a practice which eventually resulted in questions about the propriety of Gill’s activities as a public servant. Unfortunate as this outcome was for Gill, the practice of displaying and selling art needlework from the School served to raise the profile of the female students in the public sphere, and demonstrated to these young women that an activity requiring design as well as craft knowledge and skills was highly valued outside of the private sphere. The expansion of School’s teaching activities related to Arts and Crafts Movement subjects also provided young women with instruction in ceramic decoration and woodcarving (Thompson; Young A history 376-483), but female enrolment in the School’s art needlework classes most clearly highlighted the way in which the School assisted women to cross social boundaries and move from the confines of craft beside the home hearth in the private sphere to the more expansive cultural networks that promoted public recognition of elite crafts (Fischer; Montana 39, 232, 233, 241; Thompson; Weston 171, 176-178, 181, 185-186, 200, 207, 212-213, 215-217).

The cultural networks built by young women artists in Adelaide during the late nineteenth century inspired them to think about new possibilities for their own lives. Gill’s regime at the South Australian School of Art resulted in a range of outcomes that were never canvassed by prominent male reformers in Adelaide during the 1870s. Firstly, a number of the female students who entered the School of Art in order to pursue fine art studies eventually turned their newly-acquired expertise into the foundation of careers as specialist teachers in elite schools for young women, or as professional artists. Accounts of early female graduates from the University of Adelaide have invariably noted that the graduates who turned to teaching work in elite private schools for girls helped to strengthen and expand the curriculum and instructional methods used in these schools. The former female students from the South Australian School of Art who became specialist art teachers also exerted a strong public influence on their young female pupils in elite Adelaide schools, such as Methodist Ladies’ College (Jones; Mackinnon; Wilson 31-35; The Advertiser 21 Jun 1909: 5). Some of these female artists, such as Jean Wilson or Margaret Preston, when she was known as Rose MacPherson, combined teaching work in elite girl’s schools with entrepreneurial activities as proprietors of their own private art schools (Seivl; Hylton, Davidson; South Australian Register 22 Jul 1897: 7; The Advertiser 16 Feb 1907: 5; The Advertiser 4 May 1901: 9; The Advertiser 21 Jun 1909: 5).

Much has been written about the segregation of the sexes in nineteenth century schooling as well as Victorian social qualms, sometimes verging on moral panic, over possible outcomes resulting from the female teachers taking charge of classroom teaching for male students. Only one early elite private venture school for boys in colonial Adelaide openly hired a woman as a specialist art teacher and promoted her presence as a positive feature (Young Presentation 335). While the introduction of a South Kensington-inspired drawing curriculum in South Australian public elementary schools was intended to provide an introduction to technical education, especially for boys, it was frequently taught by female public school teachers. Female teachers in the government school system who underwent Gill’s drawing course supported the extension of art and design education for girls and boys. These women assisted the promotion of the lessons from drawing manuals written in South Australia by Gill, manuals that veered away from the depiction of rigid geometric figures to other subject matter, such as plant forms. From the 1880s, female public school teachers also contributed to the practice of arranging displays of student art, design and craft for large scale public educational events (Aland Art; Thiele, 1975; Young Presentation 261).

Greer has suggested that the rise in the number of young adult female art students during the nineteenth century was not accompanied by an increase in the prominence of senior female art instructors or administrators (79, 310-323). This pattern was not rigidly followed in South Australia. Gill’s administration provided women with opportunities to teach at the South Australian School of Art alongside male lecturers (Wilson 41, 132). Speck’s (1997) study of early female art, design and craft lecturers at the School revealed that none of these women reached the very top of the administrative ladder, but they were able to exert considerable influence on the direction of the School’s development and individual students. They also used their roles as lecturers to enhance their own profiles in South Australia’s cultural life and join professional networks. They were able to shape the artistic training for young women, thereby offering the next generation of women a pathway into public cultural life.

Gill’s work was bolstered by strong consumer support from his female students, but the empowerment of his female students was such that some eventually had the confidence to express opinions that were far from complimentary about the curriculum that he presided over (Sherwin; Wilson 25-40). A number of female art, design and craft students and teachers also began to use their studies in Adelaide as a springboard for travel and further study outside South Australia. Enrolment in art classes in eastern Australia and Europe for these young women underscored the shift from art, design and craft as pursuits that occupied women who were confined to the private family home to the acceptance of visual art as a long-term vocation that could open up a wider range of varied public lifestyles.

Young South Australian women who pursued further visual arts studies overseas joined an exodus of colonial women who sought cultural pursuits away from Australia’s shores during the late nineteenth century. This exodus provided women with new experiences and social contacts that helped them to fashion fresh identities and social paths. Mutually supportive social networks developed by groups of female students so inspired some of these students that they felt able to contemplate new personal horizons. For a number of the most prominent artistic women, their dedication to artistic education and career paths was more dominant than different options for their intimate personal lives, such as commitments to sexual relationships or motherhood. Female art, design and craft students from Adelaide contributed to major exhibitions within and outside of South Australia, and some of them, such as Margaret Preston and Dorrit Black, developed their professional practice to the point where they became significant figures in the history of Australian art. (Downey; North; Wilson 25-40; Pesman 3-17).


What can researchers in the early twenty-first century learn from accounts of female students of art, design and craft in South Australia during the mid to late nineteenth century? Learning opportunities provided through regular classroom attendance provided female students with more than new knowledge and skills associated with art, design and craft. The propensity of nineteenth century female visual arts students to use their student status as a means to build important friendships as well as cultural and social networks should be noted.

The female student’s role as a cultural consumer can exert considerable power over the development of educational opportunities. Prominent male campaigners in the 1870s and early 1880s had quite clear hopes for the redevelopment of the South Australian School of Art, but a combination of economic fluctuations and problems with the enrolment of young men meant that women were able to exert a significant influence on the School’s curriculum. Women educated in the visual arts in the private sphere had already demonstrated that their education could provide greater economic independence. Aided by initiatives sponsored by several important male educators, women armed with a public education in art, design and craft were eventually able to pursue teaching work with the powerful professional status and promotional advantage of formal examination results and credentials. Enrolment at the South Australian School of Art during the Gill era provided better pathways into an associational world related to high culture, thereby helping women to develop new administrative skills as well as even greater power as cultural consumers. The availability of advanced studies and subsequent teaching work gradually assisted South Australian women to shape the expansion of both private and public art, design and craft education for decades to come.

A significant group of women associated with South Australian public art, design and craft education during the late nineteenth century were empowered to such an extent that they reshaped their personal relationships and personal horizons. The expansion of private and public art education and the formation of a female artistic community in colonial South Australia provided women with a means to traverse social and cultural boundaries.  They pursued opportunities for additional studies in South Australia, exhibitions of work, and further study elsewhere in Australia and overseas. They were able to navigate pathways from the private sphere to contribute to the formation of a civil society in the public sphere. Women were also able to transmit their artistic knowledge and skills to others across generational and, at times, class divides. Some became prominent public role models and mentors for other younger women and girls. An artistic education provided one of the earliest and most important means for young women to gain access to cultural, economic, social and physical mobility.


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