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Portraits of women in the collection

This NSW Women's Week (2–8 March) we're showcasing  portraits and stories of 10 significant women from the Library's Paintings from the Collection exhibition.

1. Faith Bandler, c 1957, by Elsa Russell
Faith Bandler, c1957
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Faith Bandler was born in 1918 at Tumbulgum on the far north coast of NSW. Her father, Peter Mussing, was a South Sea Islander from Ambrym Island and her mother, Ida Venno, was Australian-born, of Irish and Indian descent.

Moving to Sydney in the early 1950s, Faith became active in the peace movement and campaigned for Aboriginal rights. This portrait was painted around the time Faith co-founded the Aboriginal–Australian Fellowship with fellow activist Pearl Gibbs. In 1957 the Fellowship launched its campaign for a referendum on Aboriginal citizenship rights.

After 10 years of sustained effort, the historic 1967 referendum resulted in overwhelming support for the rights of Indigenous Australians.

Listen to Faith Bandler interviews

2. Quong Tart’s mother, c 1888, by unknown artist
Ancestral portrait of Quong Tart's mother, c 1888
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This portrait of Mei Quong Tart’s mother is in the style of a Chinese ancestral portrait – she is seated and dressed in traditional costume with her embroidered rank badge.

Her son, Mei Quong Tart, was a well-known tea merchant in Sydney who opened a chain of tea houses including the Elite Hall in the Queen Victoria Building.

He is said to have returned from a visit to China in 1888 with portraits of his mother and father, which he displayed in his Ashfield home, Gallop House.

Listen to audio guide


3. Rosa Campbell Praed, c 1884, by Emily Praed
Rosa Campbell Praed, 1884
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Australian-born novelist Rosa Campbell Praed grew up on pastoral properties in southern Queensland in the 1850s. In 1876, following the failure of her husband’s cattle station on isolated Curtis Island, she moved to England.

After separating from her husband in 1897, Rosa lived with a psychic medium named Nancy Hayward. A devoted spiritualist, Rosa wove many personal experiences of seances into her novels. 

See her books here

4. Elizabeth Riddell with black cat, c 1946, by Dahl Collings
Elizabeth Riddell with black cat, 1946
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Poet and journalist Elizabeth Riddell won a number of awards, including twice winning a Walkley Award. She also won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in 1992 and the Patrick White Award in 1995.

This portrait of Elizabeth, with her cat Celestina, was painted on the balcony of the house she and her husband rented at Parsley Bay, Vaucluse. A Port Jackson pilot boat can be seen in the middle distance, on the right.


5. Portrait of Maria Little, c 1895, by Tom Roberts
Maria Little, c 1895
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This is a portrait of Bundjalung woman Maria Little (also known as Queen Maria) who worked at Yulgilbar Castle in NSW, owned by Edward Ogilvie.

Maria’s mother, Queen Jinnie Little, also worked at Yugilbar, along with many other Aboriginal people from the nearby Baryulgil community.

This artwork is especially interesting because it was rare for women in the 1880s to be the focus of ethnography, or to have their portraits painted. 


6. Sarah Cobcroft, c 1856, by Joseph Backler
Sarah Cobcroft , 1856
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Sarah Cobcraft came out to NSW in the 1790s as a free woman, but her partner, John Cobcroft, was a convict. 

The Cobcrofts were given land at Wilberforce, which they farmed very successfully. Becoming prominent and respected Hawkesbury settlers, the couple successfully worked their land grants in Wilberforce, and Sarah became the local midwife. Sarah and John married in 1842 to ensure the orderly dispersal of their inheritance – Sarah insisted that her inheritance be left for her grandchilden.

This portrait of Sarah, painted by convict artist Joseph Backler, was possibly the first portrait commissioned by the Cobcrofts.

7. Margaret Fink, c 1987, by Judy Cassab
Margaret Fink, 1987
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Margaret Fink, born on 3 March 1933, was a Sydney art teacher turned film producer. She achieved worldwide acclaim for her first feature-length film My Brilliant Career

Margaret played an important role in the revival of Australian cinema in the 1970s. She met fellow artist Judy Cassab in the early 1950s through the local art scene. 

This portrait of Margaret was painted as part of two-time Archibald prize winner Judy Cassab’s Artists and Friends series.

8. Margaret Coen, c 1932, by Edmund Arthur Harvey 
Margaret Coen, 1932
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Artist Margaret Coen was in her early twenties when this portrait was created. It was painted in a studio in a condemned building, in Margaret Street, opposite Wynyard Park.

Margarets enthusiastic involvement with the Circular Quay artistic community introduced her to the English-born artist Edmund Arthur Harvey, who painted this portrait in 1932.

She was known for her watercolours, paintings of flowers, landscapes and still-life works. Her papers are held by the Library. 

Featured in 10 Works in Focus – Volume 02



9. Portrait of Florence Rodway, c 1910, by Norman Carter 
Florence Rodway, 1910
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Norman Carter painted this striking and flamboyant full-length portrait of friend and fellow artist Florence Rodway in 1910. It was exhibited at the Royal Art Society of NSW, won a bronze medal in the Paris Salon in 1913, and was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1914. 

Florence was a well-known Sydney artist at the time who specialised in pastels, a very delicate, chalky medium. Sadly, much of her surviving work is quite fragile and she is not well known today. 

10. Beryl Whiteley, c 1940s, by unknown artist
Beryl Whiteley, c 1940s
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There is uncertainty about the artist of this portrait of Beryl Whiteley. Once described as ‘a cool strawberry blonde vision of perfect bones and fashion’, Beryl Whiteley was delighted when the Library purchased this artwork to complement her collected papers.

Based on correspondence at the time, the Library initially attributed the painting to Beryl’s son Brett Whiteley. But subsequent analysis of the style led to questions about the artist and the date. The Whiteleys were part of the local arts community on Sydney’s lower North Shore. 

Featured in 10 Works in Focus – Volume 1