Arts and Education

Canberra, as well as fulfilling the governmental functions of a national capital, is also home to national cultural and scientific institutions and five universities. The Hanna Neumann Building at the Australian National University is named after Hanna Neumann, who was the university’s first female professor, and head of the Department of Pure Mathematics in the School of General Studies from 1964 to 1971.

Professor and Head of Department of Pure Mathematics in the Australian University's School of General Studies, Professor Hanna Neumann

Professor and Head of Department of Pure Mathematics in the Australian University's School of General Studies, Professor Hanna Neumann, 1964. Australian National University (ANU). Photographer unknown.

Novelists, poets, artists, theatre producers, academics and others involved in the arts and education have lived and worked in Canberra, and have contributed to its rich cultural life.

Artist Rosalie Gascoigne came from New Zealand to marry Ben Gascoigne, an astronomer at Mount Stromlo Observatory, in 1943. At first she found the Monaro landscape alienating, but ‘looked long and hard at a very ordinary piece of Australian countryside, and tried to wring visual interest and variety out of what I saw there’. She began experimenting with sculpture and installations, collecting discarded materials from the paddocks around Stromlo, and held her first solo exhibition in Canberra in 1974. Four years later Rosalie became the first Australian woman to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, and her work is now displayed in major galleries around Australia and overseas.

Two of Rosalie’s friends, sculptor Jan Brown and poet and artist Rosemary Dobson, have also left a legacy of artistic achievements in Canberra. Jan’s sculpture, Kangaroos, of a mother kangaroo and her joey poised to drink at the Mirror Pool in Commonwealth Park, and her Icarus group of ‘bird-men’ in Petrie Plaza, are Canberra landmarks. Jan taught art for over 40 years at the Canberra School of Art at the Australian National University, where the Jan Brown Drawing Prize is awarded annually to celebrate her teaching career.

Portrait of Rosemary Dobson, 1992

Portrait of Rosemary Dobson, 1992, by Bob Miller. National Library of Australia.

Rosemary Dobson came to Canberra in 1971 when her husband, Alec Bolton, was appointed as the first Director of Publications at the National Library of Australia. The literary and artistic community she found in Canberra inspired Rosemary to start writing again after a five-year hiatus. She published over ten poetry collections over the next four decades, for at least two of which, published by Alec Bolton’s Brindabella Press, she also provided the illustrations.

Dorothy Green (Auchterlonie), academic and poet, was an ABC broadcaster in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra from 1942 to 1949. In 1961 she became the first female lecturer at Monash University, lecturing in literature. She then taught at both the Australian National University and the Australian Defence Force Academy until 1987, where she championed Australian literature and drew attention to authors she believed were undervalued, including Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant.

Canberra has also produced a number of novelists, notably the group of seven women known collectively as Seven WritersDorothy Johnston, Margaret Barbalet, Sara Dowse, Suzanne Edgar, Marian Eldridge, Marion Halligan and Dorothy Horsfield – who from 1980 to 1998 met regularly to read and critique each other’s writing.

The group published short stories, novels, children's literature, non-fiction, articles and reviews, and in 1988 collectively authored Canberra Tales, an anthology of short stories about life in Canberra (republished as The Division of Love in 1996). A landmark publication for Canberra fiction, the book received an ACT Bicentennial Award. The Seven Writers group ceased to meet formally after Marian Eldridge died in 1997 and Sara Dowse relocated to Canada in 1998.

A passionate devotion to children’s literature inspired Lu Rees, who came to Canberra in 1938 to work as a researcher at the Australian War Memorial. She became inaugural secretary of the Fellowship of Australian Writers Canberra branch in 1950, and in 1955 opened a Cheshire’s bookshop in Civic. In 1957 she became first President of the Children’s Book Council in the ACT. Lu built up a personal collection of children’s books and archival files on Australian children’s authors and illustrators, which became the nucleus of the Children’s Book Council ACT Branch collection. This was donated to the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now University of Canberra) in 1980, where it was named the Lu Rees Archives of Australian Children’s Literature.

Joyce Goodes as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of  Being Earnest, 1960, a Theatre Players' production

Joyce Goodes as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, 1960, a Theatre Players' production, by Photographics International.

Canberra’s lively theatre scene is indebted to the commitment and passion of three outstanding women. Anne Godfrey Smith, well known in Canberra as a poet, academic and activist in conservation and reconciliation, was also a dedicated theatrical manager-producer, director and actor for Canberra Repertory Society, and author of The Cost of Jazz Garters: A History of Canberra Repertory Society. A Canberra Girls’ Grammar School teacher, Joyce Goodes, also worked with Canberra Repertory in its early days and in 1960 formed her own group, The Theatre Players, producing over 30 plays and collaborating with other local theatre groups. Carol Woodrow’s theatrical career in Canberra spans 50 years, and has been notable for her staging of new theatre works by Jigsaw Theatre Company and Canberra Youth Theatre, the companies she formed and directed in the 1970s. Carol was awarded the AM in 2012 for services to the performing arts, to youth theatre as an artistic director, and the development of women playwrights in Australia.

Ethel Tory, a lecturer in French at the Australian National University, was also a keen supporter of drama and published an edition of Giraudoux’s play, Intermezzo, for secondary and university students in 1970. Ethel’s donations to the ANU were used to establish the Ethel Tory Drama Endowment in 1995, and she made a large bequest on her death in 2003 to provide support to drama and languages students and academics for overseas studies by means of the Ethel Tory Languages Scholarship. The Ethel Tory Languages Centre in the ANU’s Baldessin Building was named in her honour in 2011.

There are many more entries to be found on the Australian Women’s Register about women who were writers and artists, theatrical performers, art gallery owners and directors, academics and teachers and who have made notable contributions to the arts and education in Canberra. Find out more about these women who have helped to enliven and enrich the life of the nation’s capital in so many different ways, and suggest others whose stories should also be told.

Ros Russell

Women's Stories

Read more about women in arts and education from Canberra in the Australian Women's Register.