Frances Burke

Many students passed through George Bell’s art school. He was a classicist finding a place in the modern world and opened a private art school in Toorak, Melbourne, in the early 1920s.

Russell Drysdale and Maisie Newbold were there. Artist Frances Burke was also there.

Burke trained as a nurse but grew up with textiles as her father was in the rag trade.

While she was studying with George Bell, Burke decided to experiment with screen printing. She recalls that Bell taught her the difference between illustration and creativity, and about colour.

Bell visited her printing studio and took an interest in her work. In one of his reviews in The Sun from 1938 he says: “The printed fabrics by Miss Burke and Mr Holloway, both in design and execution, are excellent. The designs show clever use of local motifs. Notable are those derived from the bottle brush and gum blossom.”

Cecil Beaton took a photo of Lady Casey in a Frances Burke Bengal Tiger suit after Lady Casey’s husband was appointed Governor of Bengal. Crazy, I know.

I suppose it’s the reason I’ve always alway been fascinated by this image. Maie Casey was a lifelong friend and commissioned Frances to design the fabric.

| Cecil Beaton, The Lady Casey in Bengal Tiger suit designed by Frances Burke, Calcutta, 1944 |

Burke said: “The art of the craftsman had been lost, and industrial artists were bringing back beauty and high standards of design objects in use in everyday life.”

Here are some swatches of her textile designs.

And this striking jungle theme of monkeys and sailing boats. Very beach house worthy.

| Frances Burke, Jungle furnishing fabric, 1939 |

From 1948 until 1967 she had a shop called Good Design. 

In the 1970s she focussed on lobbying for the recognition of women in the Australian craft and design industries.

Julia Ritson

Reference Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle, Felicity St John Moore, NGV catalogue, 1992.

2 responses to “Frances Burke”

  1. Hi Julia,
    love the last post on Francis Burke. I have a small collection of her originals, which I have always loved as it reminds me of Matisse. As in they were quite concurrent. Do you remember seeing ‘the Dance’ at the Barnes collection?
    The Francis Burke archive is at RMIT by the way.
    Love the Cecil Beaton photograph.
    Pammy xx

    1. Hi Pammy

      That’s great you have some originals. Difficult to find many images. The RMIT archive was online last year and I couldn’t find it the other day.

      The Dance at the Barnes collection? So many things I don’t remember. I remember Philadelphia, the bus, and Duchamp. But obviously not the most important bit being the Matisse!

      Julia x

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