Updated: Dec 20, 2020
While visiting the Christchurch gallery in New Zealand early in 2019, I came across a wonderful exhibition of the work of Eileen Mayo (1909 – 1994).
Even though she lived in Australia from the early 1950s until the early 1960’s, I didn’t know much about her. The work in the exhibition consisted mainly of prints and postage stamps, and it wasn’t until I did some further research that I discovered what a diverse artist Mayo was.
Eileen Mayo, Lobster Pot, Tempera on Board, early 1940s
She worked in almost every medium available to her during her career – oil painting (including murals), tempura, prints (including lithographs, linocuts, wood engraving and silkscreens). She was also an author of several nature books and had an interest in calligraphy.
As well, Mayo executed a number of designs for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes.
She was particularly highly regarded for her book illustrations, as well as poster, postage stamp, book plate, diorama, tapestry and coin design.
Earlier in her career May also worked as a model to some of the best-known British artists of the day, including Laura Knight, Dod Proctor, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. (It was through Knight that she received her first major commission, which started her very successful career as an illustrator.)
Mayo actively demonstrated the Arts and Crafts movement’s belief that applied arts was of the same value as fine arts – largely as an outcome of her training at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University of London andat the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London (where she studied lithography, calligraphy and wood engraving). Like other artists of the time her aim was to bring her talents into people’s home and workplaces and to make a living doing so.
She described an artist as ” … a work[er] who designs and/or makes things of our ordinary lives as beautiful as they can be“.[i] She argued that any division between ‘fine’ art and other art forms was illusory.
Equally, Mayo believed that painting was a craft to be mastered. In her review of M. Maroger’s, The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters (1949), she wrote, “We are so obsessed with the idea of painting being an ART that we forget, or even deliberately deny, that of its very nature (since it is not abstract but concrete) it is also a craft“[ii].
According to biographer Jillian Cassidy, as a child Mayo was pre-occupied with drawing from nature, and had “anxious perfectionism and a predilection for making every task as difficult as possible in order to prove both her personal integrity as well as her artistic worth both to herself and to those around her“[iii].
This focus on perfectionism remained with her throughout her career and as she took on new media, she went to great lengths to study her craft. For example, she was famously instructed by Claude Flight over the telephone on how to make a linocut.
In the 1930s she studied at Chelsea Polytechnic with Robert Medley, Henry Moore and Harold James, as well as studying lithography at Horsham School of Art with Vincent Lines. In the 1940s Mayo travelled to France where she undertook a study of the historic tapestries at Cluny and Angers and studied tapestry design at the Tabard Ateliers at Aubusson. She was taught the art of tapestry designing at St Céré by Jean Lurcat, the master of contemporary tapestry design.
Mayo also attended life drawing classes in France with Fernard Legér[iv].
Mayo also applied her perfectionism to her oil painting.
She stated “I am especially concerned about the texture of paint. I like to think that if a small piece were removed from any part of a picture it would be interesting in itself“.[v]
Eileen Mayo, Still Life with a Painting of the Dancer Karsavina, c1920
(However, she was later to identify that painting was not her greatest strength.)
From the late in 1920s her work began to be commissioned for book illustrations and she produced linocuts, lithographs and wood engravings.
In the mid 1930s Mayo travelled by cargo ship to Durban, South Africa, where she made numerous drawings of the Zulu people as well as the local fauna and flora, which she developed into paintings and prints on her return to England.
She produced her first book, commissioned by Waverly Book Company, in 1944, The Story of Living Things and their Evolution. It contained 300 pages of text and over 1,000 illustrations. Shells and How They Live was published the same year.
In 1945 Mayo wrote and illustrated two more books: Little Animals of the Countrysideand Larger Animals of the Countryside, amongst others produced during her career.
Also in 1945 she exhibited her work for the first time at the Royal Academy. It was a lithograph titled Squirrel.
Eileen Mayo, The Squirrel, c1932, National Gallery of Victoria
By 1950 her prints were being more widely exhibited, including at Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Leicester Galleries. (The Victoria and Albert Museum currently holds 89 of her works in their collection.)
It was at this time that she began teaching lithography and illustration at Sir John Cass College and drawing at St Martin’s School of Art, and exhibiting at the Society of Women Artists at the Royal Institute Gallery and with the Royal British Artists.
In 1951, her tapestry Echinoderms was among three contemporary works selected for the exhibition English Tapestries shown during the Festival of Britain.
It was against this background, with her marriage over, that Mayo left England for Australia in 1952.
Eileen Mayo in Australia
Mayo arrived in Sydney suffering from depression and feeling guilty about the breakdown of her marriage. She had made the move because her youngest sister was already living in Sydney, as were her friends Carol and George Foote.
With her substantial background in printmaking in particular, Mayo made a significant contribution to art in Australia, particularly as printmaking was enjoying a resurgence in interest during the 1960s.
She very quickly became friendly with Hal Missingham (also a printmaker) who was the Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Elizabeth Pope from the Australian Museum, Douglas and Dorothy Dundas from the Australian Art School as well as Sir Daryl Lindsay (Director) and Dr Ursula Hoff (Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings) from the National Gallery of Victoria.
She exhibited in galleries across Australia and her prints were received with acclaim – only a year after her arrival she won the Albany Prize for printmaking and her Woman and Siamese Cat (1952) won the Ku ring gai prize for prints in 1960. Her print Pumpkin won a prize in Adelaide in 1962. One major difficulty she faced in producing lithographs in Sydney at that time was the limited number of lithographic presses.
Mayo’s major focus while she lived in Australia was on earning a living through teaching (at East Sydney Technical College) and design commissions.
Overseas tourist travel during the war was almost nonexistent, but by the 1950s it was again becoming popular, and the Australian National Travel Association (ANTA) was commissioning innovative posters to promote tourism.
Three of Mayo’s poster designs were included in the 1955-57 edition of Modern Publicity which was a worldwide advertising journal. These designs were Discover Australia, Cockatoo and Banksia, and Koalas. Her Desert Pea design appeared in the 1958-59 edition and Great Barrier Reef in the subsequent edition. (Mayo wasn’t a newcomer to postermaking, having designed them since the 1930s.)
In 1957 she submitted several stamp designs to the Stamp Advisory Committee of the Postmaster General’s Department, in Melbourne. Although they weren’t considered to be suitable she was commissioned (at the suggestion of Daryl Lindsay) to prepare six possible stamps, each depicting an Australian animal (such as the kangaroo, koala, opossum, Tasmanian tiger, banded anteater and bandicoot) which could be engraved for recess printing.
As with any work she undertook, she undertook thorough research. “My sources of information are whatever I can get and wherever I can find them.[vi]” This included museum specimens, photographs, colour slides, book illustrations and a visit to Taronga Park Zoo.
Although biologically correct, Mayo’s stamps were stylised decorative drawings, rather than photographic representations of the animals. She considered that ” … their design [should be] striking, simple and up to date without being gimmicky, which makes them old fashioned in a year or two[vii]“.
Such was the success of her designs, six Animals stamps were issued between 1959 and 1962, and Stamp Collecting Annual (UK) selected three Mayo designed stamps for the world’s top ten stamps of the year during three consecutive years[viii].
In 1964 when the French Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications invited the Australian Post Office to participate in an International Philatelic Exhibition in Paris, the Australian Post-Master General extended an invitation to Mayo to represent the country at the exhibition. “In view of your recent work for this Department, I would therefore like to offer you the opportunity of participating in this International Exhibition”. [ix]
From the late 1950s Mayo undertook mural painting commissions, including the Tree of the Invertebrates (which consisted of fifty-five panels) for the Australian Museum, Sydney in 1959 and a mural for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in 1961.
The Invertebrate Tree was organised to commemorate the centenary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of the Species. Measuring nine metres by two metres, over 20 people completed the mural over a period of 19 months. Mayo’s contribution consisted of 55 paintings of scientifically accurate enlargements of animals (such as insects, spiders, snails, jellyfish, scorpions, seashells, sea urchins and anemones) normally too small to be seen by the naked eye.
Unfortunately this mural no longer exists.
Her work for the CSIRO was for the main foyer for the building, however, as it was still under construction, Mayo executed the work in synthetic resin “applied by an old kitchen knife and a fine sable brush on panels of marine ply wood in her garage at Neutral Bay“[x].
According to her great niece, the CSIRO mural did survive. “When the old CSIRO building was demolished, they were able to relocate it to their new one, as the mural had been painted on large boards (in Eileen’s garage in Neutral Bay)” [xi] .
Mayo also had a number of smaller commissions. She worked for the Display Department at David Jones, between August 1953 and April 1954. Her diaries record the designing of advertisements for knitting machines, sun tan lotions and promotions for ‘Lower Ground Floor Bargains’. She also painted panels of birds and animals for a window display.
Another commission was to work on colour combinations for Claudio Alcorso of Silks and Textiles Printers Pty Ltd in Hobart in 1957. Mayo’s role was to make colourways for the designs produced by the various artists, often five or six of them to preserve the tone values. Although offered a full time position, she was just beginning to establish good design contacts in Sydney and there was also the prospect of full-time teaching at the East Sydney Technical College.
Mayo also designed the decoration for a dinner set for the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Board Room in Melbourne. Although the Board appear to have approved her wild flower motif drawn between narrow brown bands, the dinner set was not produced.
Mayo moved to New Zealand to be with her mother and sister Margery in 1962, and she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1994 New Year Honours one week before her death at the age of 87.
Eileen Mayo was driven not only by a sense of perfectionism, but also one of self doubt, during her long and successful career.
She was an artist who fully believed that fine art and arts and crafts were of the same value, and also believed in the importance of indepth study to develop technique. This meant that she placed no limitations on her art practices.
She amply demonstrated her abilities across a range of media, particularly in design, illustrations, various forms of printmaking and tempera painting.
I’m so pleased to have visited Christchurch gallery and discovered this wonderful artist, and the contribution she made to art in Australia, as well in New Zealand and the UK.
[i] Barbara R. Mueller, “The Stamp of the Artist,” Western Stamp Collector, 21 July, 1962, p 3.
[ii] Art News & Review, Vol. I, no. 6, 1947, p. 7.
[iii] Margaret Jillian Cassidy, SHIFTING BOUNDARIES: THE ART OF EILEEN MAYO, 2000. p23-24
[iv] ibid, p12.
[v] Jillian Cassidy, Eileen Mayo, Her Prints, Posters and Postage Stamps, in Woman’s Art Journal, vol 24, No1 p 17-22
[vi] Correspondence, Mayo to Mueller, 15 August I 961
[vii] Correspondence, Mayo to Gil Docking, Director of the City of Auckland Art Gallery, 28 April 1965.
[ix] Correspondence, Australian Postmaster General to Mayo, 1964
[x] Cassidy, Shifting Boundaries, p 162
[xi] Lucie Stanford, great niece of Eileen Mayo
Jillian Cassidy, SHIFTING BOUNDARIES: THE ART OF EILEEN MAYO, 2000
Jillian Cassidy, Eileen Mayo, Her Prints, Posters and Postage Stamps, in Woman’s Art Journal, vol 24,
Design and Art Australia online
Independent Obituary: Dame Eileen Mayo, JOHN GAINSBOROUGH, Wednesday 5 January 1994
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
Victoria and Albert Museum
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Lucie Stanford, great niece of Eileen Mayo