Arts & Crafts Movement
The Arts and Craft Movement in Australia
“A result of the increasing interest in craftwork was the rise of the Arts and Crafts Societies in Australia. In NSW the society included several talented china painters as well as some more adventurous potters… Besides encouraging the use of Australian motif in design, the NSW society offered other stylistic influences through lectures on various subjects... Working from nature was also encouraged and in 1913 a nature study circle was formed.”
“Besides the stylistic influence of William Morris and his followers, the Arts and Crafts movement increased the status and respectability of 'hand-made' artware…That craftwork and the teaching of it was regarded as a suitable profession is evidenced by the women’s journals of the time. This was helped by the increasing educational opportunities offered by the rise of technical education…. The technical colleges from the late nineteenth century increasingly admitted women to their courses or offered special women’s daytime classes… At Sydney Technical College a china-painting course was being offered as early as 1896 and pottery was on the curriculum by 1909….
“In Australia the dissemination of ideas about the Arts and Crafts was achieved not only through journals and magazines but also through exhibitions, especially women’s exhibitions which had their precedents in Europe…. Probably the most influential was the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work in Melbourne (1907). The greatest proportion of ceramic work exhibited in the Melbourne exhibition was hand painted porcelain which is indicative of the popularity of the medium both amongst professionals and hobbyists. The fact that many of the china painters of the period also had training in painting, for instance, at Julian Ashton’s Art School led to yet another influence on the style of work produced.” [Go to top]
Use of Australian Motif in China Painting and Pottery
“The use of Australian motif was a dominant characteristic amongst the ceramicists of The Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW. This trend derived from two distinct sources. Firstly, the Arts and Crafts tenet of ‘authentic’ forms of design which were ‘local, sincere and appropriate’. The second was the burgeoning nationalist feeling surrounding Australian Federation. … In Sydney, in the early part of the century, the use of native flora and fauna in design was supported by three key figures, J.A. Peach  , Lucien Henry  and R.T. Baker… These men strongly supported the use of the Australian motif and in 1906, the Museum opened an exhibition of “Australian Flora Applied to Art” which was so popular that it remained on display until World War II…
"The Australian motif was well suited to the Art Nouveau style which was imported from Europe at much the same time as the Arts and Crafts philosophy became fashionable in Australia. The preference amongst Art Nouveau influenced artists for the sinuous organic form is well representsed in the Art gallery of NSW collection of handpainted porcelain and studio pottery."
Mabel’s sister Linda owned a cottage at Woodford in the Blue Mountains were family holidays would have afforded the opportunity to explore the local bushland in search of suitable specimens for future designs. Also, Mabel and her younger sister Mary were members of a society involved with the establishment of the Muogamarra Sanctuary on the Hawkesbury River near Cowan. The sandstone country of Muogamarra is host to a wide range of the native flowers which feature in Mabel’s work. And there was W.R. Guilfoyle's book "Australian Botany for Use in Schools" which he inscribed "To my dear old friend Willie Lesslie with kindest regards and best wishes, 25th September 1888" signed W.R.Guilfoyle.
Many of Mabel’s designs feature Australian flora including Eriostemon australasius (pink wax flower), Boronia sp., Epacris longiflora (native fuschia), Dillwynia sp (yellow pea), Acacia sp (wattles), Eucalyptus sp., Actinotus helianthi (flannel flower), Thysanotus tuberosus (fringed lily), Ceratopetalum gummiferum (Christmas bush), Telopea speciosissima (waratah), Adiantum aethiopicum (maiden hair fern), Patersonia sericia (native iris), Crowea, Grevillea sp. and Leptospermum sp (tea tree). Native fauna include Kookaburras, penguins, dragon flys, blue wrens, scarlet robins, lyrebirds, kingfishers, cockatoos and frogs.
Further design inspiration doubtless came from “Braemar’s” extensive flower garden and fruit trees. These include roses, briar roses, pansies, violets, wisteria, forget-me-nots, apple blossom, asparagus and chickens! [Go to top]
The Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW.
At the monthly committee meeting of the Society held at 183 Pitt Street on Monday 12th April 1920 at 6.30pm Miss Carlill proposed that Mabel Lesslie be admitted as a new member. The proposal was seconded by Mrs Eyre (see below) and the motion passed and so Mabel was "elected" to join the Society. Mabel is listed as being on the Committee in the list of office-bearers given in the Society's Annual Reports for 1928 and 1928-29. She remained a member until 1942 when she resigned.
Mabel contributed to the Society's Annual Exhibitions in 1921 (including a "pedestal reading lamp with shade ), 1922 ("novelties"  in the pottery section),1927 ( 7 vases, 1 jug, 8, bowls and two powder boxes), 1928 (12 vases including "a large blue glazed vase, with a relief in white of Parliament House, Canberra as its ornamentation." , rose bowl), 1929 (7 vases, 2 bowls, 1 jug, 1 ash tray, 1 tobacco jar), 1930 ( 8 vases), 1931 (6 vases, 7 bowls, 1 jug), 1932 ( 3 vases, 4 bowls, 1 jug), 1933 ( 12 jugs, 1 vase), 1934 (1 vase, 2 bowls, 1 jug, and two other pieces), 1935 (1 vase, 1 bowl, book ends and a leaf plate), 1941 ("Pottery Boat NFS" - possibly HJL-4), 1943 (3 hand made dolls with papier Mache Head NFS). Works in the 1928, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935 exhibitions were for sale at prices ranging from 5 shillings to 3 pounds and 3 shillings.[Go to top]
Other Exhibitions Featuring Mabel’s Work
On December 16th 1925 an exhibition of hand-made pottery featuring "typical Australian design" by Ada Carlill, Mabel Lesslie, Edith Sterling Levis, Regine Madsen and Lily Whitney was opened at the Anthony Hordern's Fine Art Gallery. The exhibition was reviewed as follows:
The Sun, Thursday 17th December 1925, p.21
"Women Potters - Exhibition of Work.
Five women potters - Ada Carlill, Mabel Lesslie, Edith Sterling Levis, Regine Madsen and Lily Whitney - are showing examples of their skill at an exhibition opened yesterday at Anthony Hordern's fine art gallery. Typically Australian are the designs of kookaburras, black swans, red gum ...lps , possums and native wild flowers. A squat bowl of brown pottery by M. Lesslie has a delightful design of brown boronia. Black swans, with their scarlet bills making a strong contrast are used with good effect on another vase. Mrs E Levis has chosen native bears to pattern a blue bowl. There are several attractive pottery lamp stands, among them being a grey glazed stand encircled with possums. Mabel Lesslie also exhibits a tall blue vase with penguins .
Pottery baskets are an innovation, and an artistic one of dull blue adorned with flannel flower has been made by A. Carlill, who is also responsible for some blue jars. A display of unfinished articles of pottery ready to be painted and glazed is included in R.Marsden's work."
Evening News Saturday 19th December 1925, p.8
"Hand Made Pottery - Show at Hordern's
The combination of colour and form with a measure of utility is the characteristic of an exhibition of hand-made pottery by Sydney craftswomen at the gallery of Anthony Hordern and Sons. Ltd. The exhibits are mostly in the form of vases and bowl, and the decoration is confined to designs worked from Australian flora and fauna. They are eminently suitable for Christmas gifts, but it is noticeable that not one of the amateur potters has thought of utilising the handsome Christmas bush in a design .
There is an ambitious vase decorated artistically with a design of penguins and native flora by Mabel Lesslie, but it is not for sale l . The same worker has displayed taste in the decoration of smaller objects, a remark which applies to the work of Lily Whitney, whose bowl decorated with red gum leaves and blossom is precious. The other exhibitors are Ada Carlill, Edith Sterling Levis and Regine Madsen."[Go to top]
1. Extracted from the Pottery and Handpainted Porcelain Catalogue notes by Alisa de Torres to the Australian Decorative Arts Exhibition held at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1991. This exhibition included Mabel’s “Lotus Vase” (ref. RJL-6)
2. Sydney Morning Herald Reviews of the exhibitions of 1921, 1922 and 1928
3. This word is illegible.
4. The penguin vase was given to The National Gallery of Australia by Russell Lesslie.
5. Mabel used Christmas bush on various items of painted china. See HJL-11 Christmas bush & Flannel Flower Bowl 1914; TL-12 Cup and Sauce with "Cathie" Christmas Bush design 1945; KP-1 Blue bowl with lid, flannel flower, iris and Christmas bush design; KP-6 platter with Christmas bush and tea tree 1913.
6 Mabel attended Sydney Technical College from 1909 to 1911 where she studied flower painting with A.G.Reid, a former student of Lucien Henry, and china painting under J. Arthur Peach.[Go to top]