State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Aboriginal Motifs In Design: Frances Derham And The Arts And Crafts Society Of Victoria

Frances Derham (1894–1987) is perhaps best known for her pioneering work as an educator in Australia. As early as the 1930s she espoused the idea that art should be a fundamental component of any person's pre-school and primary education. Derham's cover design for The Recorder however, (the journal of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria) illustrates those interests she is less well known for — her commitment to the arts and crafts movement and her examination of Aboriginal material culture.
Her involvement with the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria began as a member in 1915. The Society itself was established in 1908, partly in response to similar earlier developments in other states and partly given impetus by the ‘First Australian Exhibition of Women's Work’, held in the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne from 23rd October to November 30th, 1907.1 The inaugural meeting of the Society was held on the 20th March 1908. Founding members included Lady Creswell, Miss M. Chomley, and Messrs Blamire Young and R. J. Haddon. By the 1920s Derham was their chief designer, and from 1928 to 1932 she was vice-president of the Society. She remained a member until 1940. From 1929 she contributed to a growing awareness amongst non-Aboriginal Australian artists of the aesthetic value of Aboriginal material culture. She achieved this largely through the promotion of Aboriginal material culture in various lectures and exhibitions, but also within her own art work.
She placed Aboriginal work in two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, contexts — children's art and art and craft exhibitions. Generally her displays included material from her own collection of Aboriginal children's art, which was established with works she obtained during her May 1938 journey to Hermanns-burg Mission in Central Australia.2 Anthropologist C. P. Mountford also contributed at this time, donating and lending works.3 Derham's interest continued, and in 1953 she helped organise the Exhibition of Aboriginal Art and Craft at Melbourne University to raise money for the establishment of an Aboriginal Scholarship Scheme.4
The first clear example of Derham's examination of Aboriginal material culture was in 1929. On June 28th she presented a lecture to the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria, entitled ‘The Interest of Aboriginal Art to the Modern Designer’.5 Margaret Preston's commitment to the same notion is well documented because of her extensive published material on the subject in Art in Australia and The Home.6 Preston often appears as the only artist concerned with these ideas before the late 1930s. A number of people however, predominantly potters,

F. Derham, Cover of “The Recorder,” 1929–33.

including Gladys Reynell, Alan Lowe and Ernest Finlay, were exploring the theme in their work — and Derham should be added to this list.
In March 1929 Derham prepared a design for the cover of The Recorder (published from 1929 to 1933). The first edition included notes on the activities of members, as well as articles written by a number of them, one of which was Derham's “A Place for Handicrafts in Education”.7 Derham's article voiced regret over the decline of skilled craftwork caused by the introduction of mechanical reproduction. This concern was characteristic of the philosophical position of the society. Moreover her handprinting of all one hundred and eight copies of the woodcut cover design for the first edition on wrapping paper functioned as a practical demonstration of this philosophy. The design also indicates she was already studying Aboriginal work in early 1929.
The design is clearly different from her art nouveau-inspired motifs of the early 1920s.8 Replacing the sinuous, organic lines which characterise that style is a roughly hewn geometric design, featuring a simplified figure surrounded by spirals and dots. The figure bears a strong correlation to figures executed on a number of woven baskets from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The baskets were held in the Museum of Victoria collection before 1929.9 Sources for the spiral designs include the concentric circle patterns of Central Australia — as adapted to the rectangular format of the cover.
Derham wrote little about her activities in the 1920s, perhaps because she was fully occupied with raising her children. In the later half of 1929 her attraction to, and promotion of Aboriginal material culture is more easily documented. As well as her lecture in June, she twice visited the ‘Aboriginal Art Exhibition’, held at the National Museum of Victoria from July 9th, 1929.10 Also it is likely that she inspired the students whose work appeared in the ‘kindergarten’ section of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria's annual exhibition. The Recorder editorial report on the event stated: ‘We are interested to see the students carrying out their original designs based on Aboriginal motifs’.11
These manifestations of her interest, however, occurred after Derham completed the design in March. Earlier evidence is merely circumstantial. Amongst her papers were a number of newspaper clippings relating to Aboriginal culture, including most of The Herald articles (1928–1929) concerning Donald Thomson's anthropological research expedition to North Queensland.12 It is possible Jessie Traill, an active member of the Society, introduced her to some material after her painting expedition to Central Australia in 1928.13 Another person who may have had an impact on Derham was biologist and anthropologist Sir Baldwin Spencer, who undertook numerous excursions to northern and central Australia, published several books on Aboriginal culture, and donated his collection of Aboriginal objects to the Museum of Victoria. As Spencer was president of the Arts and Crafts Society during the first world war (and Derham became an active member in 1915), she would have known his work.
There is no clear evidence to suggest other sources for the design. The formal qualities of the cover seem to apply Derham's own lecture statements (as reported in. The Age): ‘it was geometric form in aboriginal art that appealed to the modern designer’.14 Therefore it seems reasonable to cite this as the first product of Derham's interest in Aboriginal material culture.
This conclusion, however, only poses more questions. Presumably the cover of any journal or magazine purports in some way to capture the essence of a publication's philosophy. Yet nowhere is there any serious discussion of tribal art. Nor, with the exception of two small references in 1929, is there any discussion of its appropriation by Western artists. Mention of it only comes within the context of exotic travel stories such as Amy Fuller's ‘A Trip to the Victoria Falls — Zambesi’.15
Perhaps the cover was adopted to reveal the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria's commitment to strong modern design. The cultural source of these designs was unimportant and uncontroversial. Viewed in this way, appropriation of Aboriginal motifs followed modernist examples, in Europe and America, of appropriation of various non-Western artistic traditions. In Australia, unlike overseas however, its introduction, particularly by women's magazines such as The Home and Women's World, ensured that modernism was largely seen as relevant only to design. Yet the mere presence of Aboriginal influence in design, and the associated exposure given to Aboriginal material culture within the arts and crafts societies, though small, inevitably had an impact on the acceptance of Aboriginal material culture as an art form, beyond simply design.
Derham's work therefore played a small part in helping white Australians to perceive Aboriginal material culture aesthetically as well as ethnographically. This change became increasingly apparent by the 1940s when Aboriginal material culture was accepted by some as a rich artistic expression alongside Western traditions. In 1941, though not unproblematically, Aboriginal works were for the first time included in a survey of Australian art (‘Art of Australia 1788–1941’) which toured the United States and Canada.16
Jonathan Parsons completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree at the University of Melbourne in 1987, majoring in Fine Arts.


Caroline Miley, unpublished manuscript.


Derham Papers, University of Melbourne Archives.


Discussed in correspondence between Derham and Mountford, from 1938 to the early 1940s, in ibid.




‘Members Evening’, The Recorder: Journal of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria, June, 1929, 2nd ed. p. 9.


For a detailed discussion see: Butler, R. The Prints of Margaret Preston, catalogue raisonne, A.N.U, 1987.


Derham, F. ‘A Place for Handicrafts in Education’, The Recorder, 1st ed. March 1929.


Australian Gallery Directors Council, Art Nouveau in Australia, ([Sydney]: [1980?]), p. 3.


Spencer, B. Guide to the Ethnographic Collection in the National Museum of Victoria, 3rd ed. 1922, plate 11.


Kenyon, A. S. ‘The Art of the Australian Aboriginal’, Australian Aboriginal Art, Catalogue, (Melbourne: National Museum of Victoria, Public Library of Victoria & N.G.V., 1929), p. 33. See 1929 Diary, in Derham Papers, op. cit.


‘Report of the Standard of Work at The Annual Exhibition’, The Recorder, Dec. 1929, 4th No. p. 5.


Thomson made several journeys to Cape York, Nth. Queensland. These articles refer to his second expedition in 1928. See Derham Papers, op. cit.


‘Australian Artists Today’, The Age, 29th June, 1929,


‘Aboriginal Art’, The Age, 29th June, 1929, p. 22.


Fuller, A. ‘A Trip to the Victoria Falls-Zambesi’, The Recorder, Sept. 1929, 3rd No. part 1; & Dec. 1929, 4th No. conclusion.


Ure Smith, S. (ed) Art of Australia 1788–1941, catalogue, M.O.M.A., (N.Y., 1941).