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Who is the woman painting the background?

By: Patricia Egan, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 15 Jun 2011

Investigating the woman in the 1922 photograph of two museum staff painting the background of one of the museum's first dioramas.

Painting background of Lord Howe Island diorama

Anthony Musgrave © Courtesy of the Australian Museum

Who is the woman painter?


Recently a researcher asked the Archives why we thought the woman painting the background in the adjacent photo was Phyllis Clarke. This photo first appeared in the Australian Museum in 1922 as part of an article about the making of a Lord Howe Island diorama. The photo is captioned “Painting the Background” and the photographer is identified as A. Musgrave.


Is she Phyllis Clarke?


This article outlined a field trip undertaken by Museum employees in January 1922 to Lord Howe Island to collect material for gallery exhibits with Phyllis, a member of the group, as an artist. Author and leader of the group, Allan McCulloch wrote “we must not only have a taxidermist with us to mount the birds in life-like attitudes, but an artist also who can see and paint the background, and so reproduce the atmosphere in which they live”.


What an adventure this was for Phyllis. We know that she was no stranger to travel as she was born in Queensland and at age 19 was holidaying in Fiji when she heard about a position at the Australian Museum. Returning to Australia she obtained the position where she worked as an artist and illustrator for many years, though she was never made a permanent employee.


In his article Allan McCulloch entertains the reader with the precarious exploits taken by members of the field trip group in pursuit of their scientific endeavours. They scaled sheer cliffs with crumbly footholds and “scorned” the use of ropes. Phyllis was expected to “see and make paintings of the view from the nesting site selected for reconstruction”. Luckily for Phyllis the site selected was “about fifty feet above sea-level, which was fairly accessible to all of the party”.


Could she be Joyce Allan?


Given her considerable involvement in this Museum project it would seem logical that the woman in the photo is Phyllis Clarke. Could it be Joyce Allan asked our researcher? Joyce Allan was 5 years younger than Phyllis and was initially employed by the Museum, in 1917, to assist in sorting and illustrating collections. Joyce too was an artist. About 1914 Phyllis and Joyce were photographed with two of their work colleagues – see adjacent photo. Does this assist in identifying the woman painting the diorama background?


Mystery solved.


Our first photo was taken by Australian Museum Entomologist, Anthony Musgrave a prolific photographer. The Australian Museum Archives holds a collection of 904 glass plate negatives taken by Musgrave. This photo is one of a set of 3 images taken of the painting of the diorama background – all three include the female painter though her face cannot be seen in any of the photos. The original paper envelopes that hold these glass plates are annotated in handwriting "Miss P F Clarke painting background of Boatswain Bird Group Tuesday 23rd May 1922". So it seems the woman in the photo is Phyllis Clarke.