Named after her paternal grandmother, Caroline Barker was born in Melbourne on 8 September 1894, the eldest daughter of a family of five girls and five boys born to bookseller Arthur Barker and his wife Eliza née Stribley. Her great grandfather was Henry Bone, a portraitist who exhibited at the Royal Academy and, as her mother also painted privately, a career as an artist was encouraged. Her youngest sister Agnes (qv) became a significant craftworker. Caroline enrolled at the National Gallery School in the second semester of 1912 where she studied drawing with Frederick McCubbin and painting with Bernard Hall . Her contemporaries included Napier Waller, Sheila McCubbin, Dorothy Hughes, Marion Jones, Adelaide Perry and Enid Dickson. She was awarded a second prize for watercolour in 1917 and a year’s free tuition, completing her studies in 1919. The following year the family moved to Brisbane for the sake of her father’s health.
The Barkers, in common with parents of their generation, did not expect their daughters to earn a living and were content to support their activities until their 'expected’ marriage. Caroline was the only daughter who did not meet this expectation, instead establishing a career as a professional artist. When Adelaide Perry was awarded the National Gallery School Travelling Scholarship in 1920 she suggested that Caroline take over her position as art mistress at the Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School and she taught there from 1921 to 1922. The desired focus of artistic training at that time was Europe, England in particular. She saved enough money to finance a trip to England and sailed with her mother to London on the 'Wyreema’ in March 1923. On their arrival Barker met up with her friends from the National Gallery School, Adelaide Perry and Marion Jones and Queenslander Daphne Mayo .
Caroline Barker was accepted into the Royal Academy Schools of Art where she studied under Cayley Robinson and Sir Charles Sims. The following year she enrolled at the Byam Shaw School of Art where Rex Vicat Cole taught painting and F. E. Jackson taught drawing. She visited the continent and spent a month in Cornwall on a sketching trip with Adelaide Perry and Frances Hodgkinson. Adelaide and Caroline shared a studio before Adelaide’s return to Sydney in 1925. Caroline returned to Australia the following year after her painting Delphiniums was included in the 1926 Paris Salon (no. 104).
She initially painted in Vida Lahey 's studio in Adelaide Street, Brisbane but established her own studio in Petrie Bight in 1927 and shortly thereafter at 241 George Street, Brisbane which was to remain her studio until 1954. Her sister Agnes Richardson recalled her dedication to her chosen career. Caroline would depart for her studio after breakfast and not return until the last tram at 11.00 pm. Sundays were excepted. She would appear for the evening meal as the Barkers held open house and there was always a host of visitors.
In the 1930s and especially during the years of World War II her studio became a significant meeting place for artists. Donald Friend and Sir William Dargie attended the sketching classes. The latter [in a letter to the author in 1995] recalled: 'I had acquired a few penfriends in Brisbane and one of them – probably James Wieneke – took me along to her studio in George Street and introduced me to her. I liked her at once – who could not? – her friendly bustling Queensland manner and her open-minded acceptance of all styles of artistic expression. She offered me the use of her studio and all the models of her life classes as long as I was in Brisbane.’
She taught art to the schoolgirls at Somerville House (1935-46), Loreto Convent (1938), Clayfield College and St. Margaret’s (c1936-41). A gift shop, Bronte, was set up in conjunction with her sister Agnes at her studio in the late 1940s until she gave up the premises in 1954. At that time a student portrait (identified as a Mrs Evans) was purchased for the Queensland National Art Gallery. Subsequently she taught privately at her home on Macaulay Street, Coorparoo until 1963 when she took over the portrait painting classes at the Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) and then expanded her classes to include still life painting in 1966. By 1978, however, the classes had much reduced so she transferred the classes to her home and was still teaching two classes a week in 1986. Her notable students include Margaret Olley , Margaret Cilento , Gordon Shepherdson, Hugh Sawrey , Dorothy Coleman , Betty Churcher and Lola McCausland.
In 1928 she was elected to the Council of the RQAS and became one of the stalwarts of the Society. She served on the Council until 1937 and in 1943-45 and 1948-55 and acted as Vice President 1945, 1953 and 1956-73. Caroline first exhibited with the RQAS in 1921 and then between 1927-87, a total of more than 200 works. This included portraits (36%), still life or floral studies (56%), genre (5%) and landscape (3%). She exhibited infrequently in other Brisbane group exhibitions in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. She did not hold a solo exhibition of her paintings but was included in 'Six Past Students of the National Art Gallery’, Melbourne (July 1934) at Allan & Stark’s, Brisbane. (Melville and Yvonne Haysom, Charles Lancaster, Gwendolyn Grant and Enid Dickson were the other exhibitors.) A survey exhibition 'A Tribute to Caroline Barker’; was held at the RQAS Gallery, 18 November-17 December 1999.
The training she received in London established her credibility in Brisbane and it was clearly very important to her as in 1933 she described the daily life of the Byam Shaw Art School. She exhibited a drawing on one occasion (in 1941) as her 'sketches’ were drawn directly on the canvas. Her first 'brush with fame’ was in 1928 when she exhibited her portrait of Alderman W. A. Jolly (the first Mayor of Greater Brisbane 1925-30 and the first Lord Mayor 1930-32) at the Queensland Art Society. (The painting was donated to the Brisbane City Council by the Jolly family after the subject’s death.) Of particular interest are her paintings of children such as Joan Haldane as an Elizabethan doll 1931 and Lincoln Robbins in Indian headdress 1938. Most of her portraits were finely painted and were described with some consistency in the annual exhibitions of the RQAS until the early 1940s. Subsequently reviews of the exhibitions become sparse indeed and with the new agendas in art, portrait and still life paintings were largely ignored.
During the 1930s still life was established as an important genre in Australian art and became a consistent aspect of her production: the flowers from her garden filled the vases in her home to become the companion to those on the walls. In an article in Brisbane’s Daily Sun in 1986 she remarked, 'I love Queensland for the colours. The skies are such a vivid blue and the colours of the flowers are so sharp, so positive. I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else.’
The former Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson, commissioned Caroline to paint her portrait in 1986 (completed 1987). There was seen to be a special symmetry in Caroline painting the portrait of the first Lord Mayor then, some 60 years later painting, the first female Lord Mayor. There does, however, appear to be a marked difference in the execution of these portraits. This has been defended by Caroline herself, in the same 1986 Daily Sun article: 'You express things in a different way when you are young. As you grow up you loosen up.’ It was during this portrait session, however, that Sallyanne Atkinson became aware of the significance of Caroline in the context of Brisbane and her great contribution to the art produced here.
A substantial collection of Barker’s work was acquired by the Brisbane City Gallery and The Caroline Barker Award was given in 1987 through the joint effort of the Brisbane City Gallery Advisory Committee and the RQAS. She had been awarded Honorary Life Membership of the RQAS in 1964 and an MBE in the 1978 for her services to art. She was included as a Woman of Queensland in Don Taylor’s 1979 photographic essay and named the Brisbane Zonta Club’s Woman of Achievement in 1986. However, the 300 people who attended her 80th birthday party at the premises of the RQAS give the best indication of the affection with which she was held by Brisbane’s art community. She maintained her interest and enthusiasm for all varieties of artistic expression to the end of her life. She died at her home on Macaulay Street, Coorparoo, Brisbane on 23 July 1988 and was cremated at the Mt Thompson Crematorium four days later.
Queensland Art Gallery: Research Curator, Queensland Heritage
Cooke, Glenn R.Note: Research Curator, Queensland Heritage, Queensland Art Gallery