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This year for International Women’s Day we are highlighting Australian Women of Note in Art, Illustration, Circus and Activism:

ART – A breaker of traditional barriers

Margaret Preston was one of Australia’s most innovative early modernists,  splitting contemporaries into a number of camps and driven by a quest to find  essential truths in which to ground a national art. Today she continues to provoke a multiplicity of opinions, and I fall in with those who admire her dynamic designs and unerring sense of colour. Born in 1875 she began to study art with Lister Lister in her teens and in 1893 enrolled at the National Gallery’s school of design under Frederick McCubbin. Though she embraced  a conservative classicism in the beginning, by 1916 her exposure to the avant garde in Europe led her to reject academic realism in favour of her own new style based on colour theory. Margaret also wrote about her art, contributing twenty-seven articles to Ure Smith’s journals, Art in Australia and  Home. She was the first woman to be commissioned by the trustees of the Art Gallery to paint a ‘Self Portrait’ (1930), and she chose a style which conveys some of the direct challenge she communicated in her writing. Three of Ure Smith’s publications were exclusively devoted to her work and in 1937 she won a silver medal at the Exposition Internationale, Paris. She was original, constantly experimenting with different media, and a breaker of traditional barriers.

View her richly illustrated monograph here and read more about her at the Australian Dictionary of Biography online.

ILLUSTRATION – Whimsical and piquant

One of Australia’s best loved illustrators of the early twentieth century is Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. Her depictions of fairies in recognisably Australian settings delighted the public and brought her early fame. Together with her literary sister Annie, she produced several illustrated stories when still a girl and they produced their first substantial book, The Lady of the Blue Beads, in 1908 when Ida was twenty. Married the following year her illustrating career took a backseat to motherhood until 1916 when she brought out her first coloured work, Elves and Fairies, a de luxe edition produced entirely in Australia by Thomas Lothian. The delicate water colour plates were to become a signature of her style and in 1920 she exhibited with great success in Paris and London. A & C Black published five of her books over the next decade, The Enchanted Forest (1921), and The Little Green Road to Fairyland (1922) being among her most popular works. At the height of her popularity she illustrated a pamphlet aimed at children for the British Imperial Oil Company. Titled The Sentry and the Shell Fairy it tells the tale of an encounter between an Australian Sentry posted at the foot of the Egyptian Pyramids and the tiny shell fairies who helped build the pyramids by providing precious oil, “the enemy of friction”! Ida’s popularity waned during the Second World War and she later observed that, ‘the war stopped the taste for fairies—in parents anyhow—and the fairies fled, appalled at the bomb’. It’s possible that she also lost her taste for fairies when both her sons died in the conflict.

Today her whimsical and piquant creations have enjoyed a resurgence of appreciation and her book and illustrations are quite collectible.

CIRCUS – The pint-sized Queenslander who took America by storm

May Wirth is a pint-sized Queenslander who despite having a significant entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography seems  little-known in Australia outside of the circus community. Despite this she is internationally regarded as one of the finest circus performers of modern times. Born in Bundaberg in 1894 to a circus family, she was adopted into Australia’s Wirth Bros. Circus after her parents separated. Here she built on existing acrobatic skill and added equestrian skills to her repertoire. She was trick riding by the age of ten and receiving her own billing by the age of twelve as “May Ringling” the “American fearless hurricane hurdle rider.”  In 1912 she was invited to tour in the United States with the Barnum and Bailey circus and billed as the greatest bare back rider in the world. May was the first woman to do a forward flip on horseback from a kneeling position, and she perfected tumbling from one moving horse to another. She was only 4 feet eleven inches but she could leap from the ground onto the back of a galloping stallion, blindfolded and sometimes with heavy baskets on her feet. When she finally retired in 1937, she had spent 25 years as one of the circus’s top female performers. May settled in the United States and on February 23, 1964 she was inducted to the Circus Hall of Fame.

Here’s a souvenir photo of May from the height of her popularity. It is poignant memento of a disappearing world. After 146 years the Barnum and Bailey circus will close in May this year.

ACTIVISM – The first Green Ban achieved by the efforts of thirteen determined women

In 1971 thirteen women from Hunter’s Hill in Sydney approached the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) to request assistance in preventing AV Jennings from building on the last remaining area of native bushland on the foreshore of the Parramatta River. The area had been zoned an  ‘open space’ since 1951 but in 1969 new aldermen in council voted in favour of the Jennings development. It was a period during which vast amounts of money were being poured into urban development and many Australian cities lost valuable old buildings while glass and concrete towers took their place, often speculatively. The Battlers for Kelly’s Bush formed after a meeting of concerned local citizens in September 1969. The BLF agreed to support them and imposed the first Green Ban to the area. By 1974 there were 42 Green Bans in place in Sydney, holding up over $3000 million worth of development, and ensuring that not all heritage was lost. Kelly’s Bush became a symbol and a test case, receiving the support of many organisations until finally on the 4th September, 1983, the Premier of New South Wales announced that Kelly’s Bush would be set aside for full public access on a permanent basis.

The book, The Battlers for Kelly’s Bush, recounts the story through the memories of the thirteen women who were involved. Our copy is signed by six of the women and inscribed by Betty James (one of the thirteen) to her friend Jenny Crawford. Inside a touching note from Betty and Jim to Jenny and Bruce introduces the book and describes a 25th Anniversary visit to Kelly’s Bush where those gathered scattered the ashes of Betty’s close friend Marjorie Fitzgerald and those of (battler) Kath Lehany’s husband.