A lock of Eileen Mayo's hair
A lock of Eileen Mayo's hair

My artist from the archive for 1991 is Eileen Mayo. She reminds me a little of Frances Hodgkins - women artists who were very highly regarded by their peers but who often struggled financially and who are little known today. Hodgkins was a New Zealander who moved to England.  Mayo was born in Norwich in 1906, but emigrated to Australia in 1952 and then to New Zealand in 1962. She was primarily a printmaker, but also worked in a very wide range of other media, from tempura paintings to pottery. Her work was considered “outstandingly good “ by the art historian Kenneth Clark, and she was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1994, just days before her death. Mayo studied at the Slade School of Art in 1923-24, and then worked as a freelance designer while taking evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. To eke out this meagre income she also worked as a model to a number of the best-known artists of the day, including Laura Knight, Dod Procter, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. A beautiful woman, she was particularly known for her golden hair - a lock of which from her childhood is preserved in her archive along with letters from these patrons, artwork, and photographs.  As her reputation as a printmaker and illustrator increased in the 1920s and 1930s, she continued to model and even briefly worked as a family tutor in Germany. In Australia and New Zealand, she was again mostly known for her design work, including posters for the New South Wales Government Tourist Board and stamps for both countries. It was only when she retired that she was able to buy a printing press and make prints full-time. Eileen Mayo’s story says two things to me. One is about the place of women artists in the early twentieth century - how common they already were, and how little we remember them. Mayo has been described as ‘Duncan Grant’s muse’, but I think it’s interesting that those other three main patrons were all successful women artists, as was Mayo herself.  And the other thing is about the nature of artistic success, and the way that all but a very few have always had to find other work to support themselves - including modelling, teaching and commercial art. What other artists can you think of with a day job? TGA 916

Written by Emily Down



This lovely painting perhaps it could be so easily overlooked. It is a perfect memory. The article by Emily Down about her is informative and sensitive and gives an opening to further studies.