Presenter: Carol Duncan
Interviewees: Ann Hardy & Alan Todd
A few years ago volunteers at Grossmann House in Maitland were preparing for an open day when they stumbled across an artwork by renowned Australian artist Pixie O 'Harris. It was an original mural painted on a large board about two metres long and is likely to have been displayed in a health or educational setting. It had been hidden away for some time, and with much excitement was able to be shared with the public.
Pixie O’ Harris was a famous Australian artist and author, born in Wales in 1903 she came to Australian in 1920 with her family, she became a well known writer and illustrator of mostly children’s stories such as The Babes in the Wood, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood 1940 and The Pixie O'Harris Nursery Rhyme Book 1980.
O’ Harris also did cartoons and designed many book plates and in her later life become a fairy-style mural painter of children’s hospital wards. Since 1939 she was involved in painting mural in wards, health centres and schools. She went on the decorate fifty in institutions in Australia. In 1977 she was awarded Patron of the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital where she did a lot of work. Some of the murals at Canterbury Hospital were salvaged in 2005 and become part of a new ward. Other murals were done in schools in NSW. Most of the artworks depict beautiful colourful fairies. She died in 1991.
O’ Harris had a long standing and exceptional career and it is very exciting to think that a small piece of history exists in Maitland, a legacy of an incredible woman who did so much to brighten the lives of children. This mural is thought to be part of the original "Museum of Australian Childhood" in Sydney and transferred to Maitland some years ago when the museum closed. In the collection there is also a screen printed "Pixie O'Harris Print" piece of fabric. A newspaper article about 15 years ago Harry Boyle describes O’ Harris’ background and the Pixie murals in Maitland Hospital. He says "sadly, during renovations, these examples of her art in Maitland were obliterated". We are lucky to have this work in the region because it is reminiscent of the numerous illustrations and books that O’Harris produced that enriched the lives of many children. She was a public artist who contributed significantly to the care and wellbeing of children in government institutions.
This artwork shows three children gazing at two birds in a blossom tree; one of the birds is looking at eggs in a nest whilst the other seems to be merrily whistling away. There is a goat with the children and they are beside a river. The mountains in the background could be the Australian landscape, although the cottage on the river bank is very English in appearance. Similarly the dress of the girls is European, and the boy is dressed very pixie like, playing his flute whilst the small bird sings along. It is a very enchanting painting, and has much going on, no doubt occupying the imagination of the young mind.
Although the mural was not originally displayed at Maitland, its current home is quite apt because Grossmann and Brough houses used to be a school. The house is one of two identical buildings; Grossmann House became Maitland Girls High School in 1893 and Brough House part of the school in 1918. The School moved to East Maitland in 1963. The Education Dept handed the two properties to the National Trust over 40 years ago, Grossmann become a House Museum in 1966, whilst Brough House had a few different uses, the main one being the Maitland Art Gallery for 30 years until 2004.
O’ Harris’ whimsical and colourful painting is a wonderful time piece of childhood in the twentieth century. The artwork is on display at Brough House on most open days.