Few people passing the unprepossessing little house at the top of Rosebery Street in Highgate Hill would know that this was for many years the home of the celebrated sculptor Daphne Mayo. It’s undergone significant modification from when it was the Mayo home.
Lillian Daphne Mayo was born in Sydney in 1895. The family moved to Brisbane in about 1907. They lived for some years in High Street, Highgate Hill, before moving in around 1913 to their long term home “Hinamoa” in nearby Rosebery Street.
Daphne attended Brisbane Girls Normal School and Eton High School, Hamilton, which later became St Margaret’s Clayfield. Due to bad asthma, she was home-schooled for some years and picked up a love of art from her parents.
Daphne attended Brisbane Central Technical College where she progressed quickly and was allowed to use the modelling studio after hours. There Daphne met fellow student Lloyd Rees. They were close friends for many years and later became engaged.
In 1914, she was awarded a Diploma in Art Draftsmanship. Daphne started to exhibit successfully in the Queensland Art Society’s annual exhibitions. In 1913, the Truth newspaper commented “Truth, however, takes OFF ITS HAT to Daphne Mayo, whose plaster statuette, “The Castaway” is distinctly the best thing in the whole show.”
An opportunity arose for her when the first Queensland Wattle Association’s Travelling Art Scholarship was offered in 1914. The association had been founded by a group including Josephine Papi ( see Ferdinand and Josephine Papi – a Glimpse into Our Past ) in the previous year. The aim was to stimulate Australian national sentiment and to connect it with a love of our beautiful flora. The Wattle Day Association still exists today.
A number of the works of 5 entrants, including Daphne Mayo’s, were sent to London for judging by Frank Dicksee RA and Harold Parker, well known artists of the day. Daphne was the winner. The scholarship gave her £100 a year for three years to travel to Europe to further her study.
The onset of World War One delayed her departure and she spent 6 months studying in Sydney at the prestigious Sydney Art School. By the time of her departure, Daphne had already completed some commissions including a marble bas relief of the Last Supper on the altar of St Mary’s Church in Ipswich, completed in 1919, a War Honour Board for the Bank of Queensland and various busts. The Queenslander published photographs of some of these.
Off to Europe
On arrival in England, Daphne applied for entry to the Royal Academy but was rejected. Women had not been accepted into sculpture courses for the previous 10 years. After a short spell at the Royal School of Art which she did not like and working as assistant to the sculptor John Angel, she tried again to enter the Royal Academy.
This time she bypassed the normal procedure by appealing directly to the Academy Council. This proved successful and she entered the sculpture program much to the chagrin of the male students.
Daphne won bursaries and scholarships every year which helped her get by as the
Wattle League money was proving inadequate, despite the League providing her with additional funds. The culmination of her time in London was winning the Gold Medal for Sculpture at the end of 1923. The subject set by the Academy for the prize was the “Return of the Prodigal Son”. Daphne’s fiancé Lloyd Rees who was visiting modelled for her.
Part of her prize was a scholarship to study in Italy for a year. Lloyd accompanied her, but returned home due to a lack of funds. Daphne was able to study at first hand the rich sculptural heritage of Italy, particularly from Classical and Renaissance times.
Wishing to stay on in Italy, she entered the competition for the Rome Scholarship awarded by the British School at Rome. However, in 1924 her brother Richard died back in Brisbane from a condition he had developed while stationed in Egypt during the war. Also her mother was ill.
Daphne returned home.
Back in Brisbane
Back in Australia, Daphne broke off her engagement with Lloyd. She chose her career over marriage.
Her return to Brisbane in June of 1925 was marked with various welcoming home receptions. During her absence, Daphne’s progress had been regularly reported in the local press and also she had sent back works to the Wattle League to be exhibited.
As a result, it wasn’t long before she started to receive commissions. The first, just months after her return, was a bust of the departing Governor Sir Matthew Nathan ,commissioned by the Queensland University Senate.
Her first architectural commission was in 1926 for a frieze depicting the relationship between humans and horses over the ages in the new Tattersall’s Club arcade.
It’s probable that she was inspired by the Parthenon marbles that she had admired in the British Museum in London in part of the frieze representing ancient times.
Her cause was also aided by accolades from visitors to Brisbane. The celebrated London based Australian artist Sir Bertram Mackennal, for example, visited Brisbane in 1927 and was given a civic reception. The Courier-Mail reported him as saying that “I am glad to see Miss Daphne Mayo here. You should give her a chance, I have seen her work at Home, and she only wants a chance.” The Mayor, William Jolly, in responding said that the City Council hoped to get some of Miss Daphne Mayo’s work to ornament the new City Hall. This led to Daphne Mayo’s most well known Brisbane work, the tympanum of Brisbane’s City Hall.
Catholic Archbishop James Duhig was also a strong supporter. He had unveiled her work at St Marys, Ipswich in 1919.
In 1929, she competed a tympanum for the new church of the Holy Spirit being built in New Farm. This was a personal project of Duhig’s. Daphne also was responsible for the Stations of the Cross in the church.
The City Hall Tympanum
Work on the City Hall had commenced in 1920. The original plan for statuary on the
façade to cost £6,000 had been abandoned due to budgetary considerations. However a new council led by Lord Mayor William Jolly reinstated it. Contractor D. D. Carrick agreed to do the job for £5,750, including Daphne Mayo’s remuneration.
Work started early in 1930 and was the last part of the City Hall to be completed, at the end of that year. Daphne modelled the work in clay and plaster casts were made to guide the carving of the Helidon stone. A team of 6 masons, who had done other stone work on the building, roughed out the shapes in situ supervised by the artist, who did the final sculpting.
This required months of heavy work through the hot and humid Brisbane summer. An interesting description of the process based on an interview with Mayo was published in the Telegraph. The work created great interest and she was visited by both the Governor-General and a former Prime Minister. Observing progress became a popular pastime in the city, and there was widespread reporting of the unveiling.
At the same time as working on these large scale public projects, Daphne together with her friend Vida Lahey established the Queensland Art Fund. They also later founded Queensland’s first Art Reference Library. Amongst other activities, Daphne led a public appeal to raise the £10,000 required to secure the John Darnell Bequest for Queensland University in 1935. This led to the establishment of the University’s art collection.
A New Home
Following the City Hall commission, Daphne purchased a double block at 147-149 Gladstone Road, Highgate Hill, just a few minutes walk from her parents’ house in Rosebery Street. The block also had a frontage on Chester Street. She relocated her studio from the City Hall roof to this location where she also built a cottage.
The cottage was designed by the architect Robert Cummings. Like Daphne Mayo, he had been awarded the Queensland Wattle League scholarship, in 1924.
The cottage has survived redevelopment. It now has a brick structure built in front of it. The studio appears to have been demolished.
One of the masons she had worked with at the City Hall, G. G. Pilling, made her a Brisbane tuff fence in Chester Street that had a sign “Studio” on the end post. The fence has survived, although the post appears to have been demolished to allow room for wheelie bin storage for the block of flats that now occupies the site.
The Women’s War Memorial
Another important work completed in Brisbane was the women’s memorial at Anzac Square in 1931. Originally this was to be a bronze panel with an accompanying fountain but lack of funds led to it being a carved stone panel with a drinking fountain.
Daphne’s idea was for figures representing a serviceman, a servicewoman, a worker and a ‘woman keeping the home front going’ but the organising committee wanted a design representing all the branches of the Australian forces.
The first soldier is said to be a likeness of Daphne’s brother Richard.
Daphne Mayo had been incredibly successful in this period thriving as a female sculptor in the difficult Depression years.
Mount Thomson Crematorium 1934 – “Grief” and “Hope” (Images : P. Granville)
Europe and Sydney
In 1937, Daphne decided to revisit Europe. Just before leaving she was the Queensland delegate at a meeting in Canberra to establish the Australian Academy of Art, chaired by Robert Menzies. She was the only women amongst 11 attendees.
In Europe, she spent some time touring and then set up a studio in Chelsea. She returned in 1939, having departed two days before the outbreak of war. Daphne decided to live in Sydney and established a studio in George Street in 1940.
One of her major works in this period was one of a set of doors for the new Mitchell Library. The various doors were executed by different artists and they had a theme of Aboriginal culture and life. She modelled 18 plaques which were cast in bronze.
In her Sydney period, Daphne also delved into modernist works, ceramics and painting. However, she did not move into the abstract art then in vogue and as a result was ostracised by many fellow Sydney sculptors.
Daphne decided to return to Brisbane in 1961, although she maintained her Sydney studio. By this time, both of her parents had passed away.
In 1960, she became a trustee of the Queensland Art Gallery and amongst other things, continued to support programs for art education for children that she and Vida Lahey had initiated in the 1940s.
Her last large scale public work was a statue cast in bronze of Queenslander Sir William Glasgow, senior Army officer and politician. This was a difficult job and took some 3 years to complete between 1961 and 1964. The clay model weighed over a ton and a large plaster cast had to be made to send to Italy for casting in bronze. There was also the difficulty of reproducing the posthumous likeness of someone she had never met.
Below : the William Glasgow statue at Highgate Hill and the statue today in Post Office Square.
In 1967, Daphne and Professor Robert Cummings resigned as trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery over the controversial appointment of a new Director and the subsequent change in direction of the Gallery. She retired from public life, but continued to sculpt for pleasure. In 1979 she left Highgate Hill to live in a nursing home.
Daphne Mayo passed away in 1982. She was awarded the Society of Artists’ medal in 1938 and the MBE in 1959. In 1988, an art studio at St Margaret’s School was named in her honour. The University of Queensland has established the Daphne Mayo Visiting Professorship in Visual Culture.
Whilst only her cottage hidden behind a recent block of flats, a stone wall and a highly modified old house remain to remind us of Daphne Mayo’s 40 year residence in Highgate Hill, her sculptures grace our country not only in Brisbane, but as far afield as Winton and Hobart.
My thanks to the authors of the following. I have drawn much information from them, particularly Dr. Judith McKay’s thesis.
© P. Granville 2020