Who was Eirene Mort?

An article in a local paper caught my attention in November, advising that the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s summer exhibition ‘Eirene Mort: a livelihood’ had commenced, and would run until 25 February 2018.  As I read further, and discovered that Eirene Mort had been a proponent of Australian materials and motifs in the decorative arts, I wondered why her name was not familiar to me.

A little more research told me that Eirene Mort (17/11/1879 – 1/12/1977) was the daughter of Canon Henry Wallace Mort (a Queensland-born Anglican clergyman) and his wife Kate Macintosh. Mort Street in Braddon, ACT, was named after Henry Mort’s uncle, Thomas Mort.

Eirene Mort attended St Catherine’s Clergy Daughter’s School in Waverly, and studied painting with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo and Albert Fullwood. She travelled alone to London in 1897 (she turned eighteen in the November of that year) and completed courses at the Grosvenor Life School, the Royal School of Art Needlework and at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington.

Eirene Mort returned to Sydney in 1906, and set up a studio with her lifelong friend Nora Kate Weston.  This studio became one of Sydney’s earliest centres for professional design and applied art.  I could see, in some of the work on display, the influence of William Morris.

More biographical information about Eirene Mort is available at the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Walking around the exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, I was struck by the breadth of Eirene Mort’s skills.  Her etchings, her wildflower painting books, her embroidery and the personalised bookplates all appealed to me.  But the highlight for me was the magnificent tapestry ‘An Australian Scene’ which Eirene Mort designed and which was worked by Ninian Thomson between 1928 and 1945.  I smiled when I read that the tapestry was designed with the specification that it ‘must be gay and have a swagman in it’.  There is definitely a swagman in it!

Some of Eirene Mort’s work is also available at the Art Gallery NSW.

I enjoyed this exhibition, and plan to revisit it before the end of February.  There’s so much to see: from the sketches of early Canberra landmarks, designs for Sheridan sheets, some beautiful work done in partnership with Nora Weston, innovative and intriguing designs.

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