Designer and craftworker, Sydney, NSW, she was a prolific designer of textiles and various Applied Arts, often featuring Australian floral motifs, and was well known for her illustrations, particularly her alphabet drawings.
designer and craftworker, was born on 17 November 1879 in Woollahra, Sydney, third of the five children of Canon Henry Wallace Mort and Kate Macintosh, née Isaacs. Throughout her life she used the classical spelling of her name, 'Eirene’. As a student at St Catherine’s School, Waverley from the age of 9 (1889-96), she often won prizes for her artwork; in 1897 she was awarded the medal for Design in the Senior Public Examinations. She wrote a lively memoir of school life, 'An A.B.C. of St Catherine’s’ (manuscipt: see Croft). In 1898 Canon Mort helped the recently arrived Italian artist Dattilo Rubbo establish an art school and his daughter became one of Rubbo’s first pupils.
In 1899 Eirene Mort travelled alone to London to study at the National Art Training School, South Kensington. In 1900 she enrolled at the Grosvenor Life School and in 1901 at the Royal School of Art Needlework. 1902 was an important year in her career. The designs for her projected publication, 'An Australian Flora and Fauna Children’s Alphabet’ were featured in the London Artist . Assisted by a reference from Princess Alexandra, she was commissioned to illustrate Sarah Bibbie’s From Cape to Cairo (London 1903). And the quality of her illustrative work resulted in her being offered a position as teacher-artist with the Royal Drawing Society of London. Through the Royal School of Art Needlework’s employment service she gained a number of design jobs, the most important of which resulted in designs for textiles featuring Australian floral motifs for Liberty & Co. of London.
Her alphabet drawings exemplify her lifelong interest in black-and-white illustration and in the importance of design serving a practical as well as a decorative purpose-in this instance, educating children. That the subjects were specifically Australian is indicative of her devotion to her country’s flora and fauna as a source of inspiration, a belief she upheld throughout her long career as a designer. Two possums decorate the letter 'O’, for in 1902 the word 'opossum’ was normally used for the Australian animal (today it refers only to the American marsupial). There are about twenty-four species of possums in Australia. Those shown in the illustration, with their tails curved around the letter, are apparently of the ringtail variety.
In 1903-4 Mort attended a Medieval Art course at the University of London and classes in illumination and etching at the London Central School. In 1904-5 she studied anatomy, painting, sculpture and animal studies at the Hammersmith Polytechnic and probably briefly attended Navellier’s Atelier of Animal Sculpture in Paris, then returned home. The following year, having accepted a teaching position at The Shirley, an enlightened girls’ school at Edgecliff, she took Sydney studios with Nora Weston, Dorothea Adams and Beatrice Pearson. Mort offered art classes while Weston taught woodcarving, carpentry and leatherwork. In business together as interior decorators, they designed interiors with a strong Australian flavour.
In 1906 Mort issued a circular proposing to form an Australian Guild of Handicraft, its objects being
to produce articles of household use and decoration, of a distinctly Australian Character, the designs to be based on natural forms and subjects typically Australian and the materials used to be, wherever possible, of Australian production and manufacture.
The Guild’s 'Australian Applied Art Exhibition’, held at The Shirley on 1-15 December 1906, showed a remarkable range of work produced by six women: Mort, Adams, Pearson, M.C. Cracknell, Dagmar Ross and Sarah Yeomans (curiously, Weston did not exhibit). It included furniture and woodcarving, metalwork, leatherwork and bookbinding, textiles and numerous decorative panels. Many were made to Mort’s designs and most employed indigenous Australian motifs (usually natural history ones).
1906 also saw the foundation of the Society of Arts & Crafts of NSW – probably the reason why the Guild ceased to function. Mort joined in 1907 and, like many of its members, participated in the Women’s Work Exhibition in Melbourne. She designed its Second Class Diploma Certificate (one presented to A.M.E. Bale for her 'Figure Study in Black and White’ was listed for sale in the Hordern House catalogue, March 1996, no. 4). It showed a modern scene symbolising Australian women’s multiple roles: in the arts and crafts, in the home, in the garden and in the agricultural industries. ( Ruby Lind won the national competition and her more conventional allegorical design was used for the First Class certificate.) Mort also designed the poster for the Sydney preliminary show, used on the cover of the special Women’s Work edition of the Sydney Mail .
Mort contributed 'some hundreds of designs’ to every class of the Applied Arts and in the Illustration and Watercolour sections of the vast Women’s Work Exhibition, held in the Melbourne Exhibition Building in 1907. The star exhibit of the show (at least in the opinion of the NSW contingent) was the 12 ft 6 ins [380 cm] square Waratah Carpet afterwards presented to Lady Northcote, wife of the Governor-General and patroness of the exhibition, by the women of New South Wales. Mort had designed it to be embroidered by an army of local women ('the New South Wales Exhibition Group’) and it was 'most carefully drawn and coloured to every stitch, exactly on the principle of the old Berlin wool patterns, for which the designer’s fees were very high’ (Mort, of course, was unpaid).
It was in the range of her work rather than in one specific exhibit that Mort showed her strength. She won first prize in the bookplate class ( Edith Alsop was second) but no other prizes. Nevertheless, her exhibits attracted much favourable attention, including the children’s alphabet, which had returned to Australia with her. It did not win a prize in its class – class 15, 'Best Australian Illustration for Reproduction’ – where the judges awarded first and second prizes to two other NSW competitors: Katharine Lilian Farran for a characteristic 'Old Australian’ subject, the historical “Powder Magazine” at Port Arthur (NLA), and Lala Corbett-Jones for her three late Pre-Raphaelite figure drawings. Although it remained unpublished until 1986, when the National Gallery of Australia reproduced all the drawings in a booklet suitable for both children and adults, it was admired at the time. In reviewing the NSW preliminary show, the Sydney Mail stated:
Miss Eirene Mort has a collection of uniquely beautiful designs, suitable for every branch of applied art, and her Australian animal and bird alphabet should be used wherever the ABC is taught in New South Wales.
It was also singled out in Melbourne:
Miss Eirene Mort (N.S.W.) remembered the children in her clever exhibit “Australian Animal Alphabet”, as also in the stencilled nursery curtains, “Cocks and Hens” and “Kangaroos”-a most versatile contribution to the Women’s Exhibition. Miss Mort has sent in many beautiful specimens of her artistic skill in many sections. In each instance there is an originality of design which gives this exhibitor’s work a mark of distinction.
In March 1909 Mort held her first solo exhibition of Australian Applied Art at Bray’s Studios, Angel Place, which was enthusiastically reviewed in Art and Architecture . She illustrated the Children’s Page (“The Young Idea”) in The Comic Australian of 25 November 1911 with animals playing “The Bush Orchestra”. Her drawing of magpies feeding their young in the Bookfellow’s Decorative Drawing Competition – Headpieces and Tailpieces (18 April 1907, ill. p.9) was commended and illustrated in the magazine, although Hugh McCrae was the winner. She illustrated the first volume of Florence Sulman’s A Popular Guide to the Wild Flowers of New South Wales in 1912 and the second in 1913 after a brief visit to Europe.
Like many other craftswomen Mort commenced occupational therapy work with returned soldiers in 1916. As principal of the Women Painters’ School in 1920-23, she was responsible for introducing more craft-orientated classes. Having been taught etching by Sydney Ure Smith , in August 1920 she was elected to the inaugural Council of the Australian Painter-Etchers Society and remained its only woman councillor for many years. She also did wood engravings, e.g. her own 1920s bookplate with two women pulling prints, owned by Kirsten McKay and included as the frontispiece in McKay’s CAGHM catalogue.
Until 1939, the year she claimed to have retired, Mort exhibited often – mostly etchings and pencil sketches – and continued to work as a designer and illustrator. For a ball and bridge party held by the Society at Blaxland Galleries in Farmers Department store in 1930 (the first ball in the Society’s history), she arranged to paint in her Vaucluse studio a scarlet, black and silver grey 'array of Native Companions [brolgas] which are going to sport among native flowers and shrubs in a frieze in front of the band’ ( Fashion and Society , July 1930). Assisted in the painting by Society members, the 36 life-size brolgas, painted on brown paper and mounted on cutout 3-D plywood, were set around the ballroom among real grass-trees, gigantic crimson lilies and a profusion of native scrub, foliage and wildflowers ( Sun 20 July 1930). In 1937 she showed a three-panel tapestry fire-screen at the annual exhibition ( Sydney Mail , 20 October 1937).
In 1947 she again taught handicrafts in repatriation hospitals with Nora Weston. Over the following years she did some book illustration. In 1966 she was commended for her designs in the Australian decimal currency competition.
Aged ninety-eight, Eirene Mort died on 1 December 1977 at Bowral. The following year her design work was included in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, greatly impressing another generation seeking inspiration in things Australian. In 1984 the National Gallery of Australia purchased a large collection of her work and work executed after her designs. Included were designs for all manner of craftwork, illustration and graphic design and examples of her ceramics, leatherwork, metalwork, needlework and woodwork. As evidence of one woman’s extraordinary ability and importance in the history of Australian decorative arts, it is a unique collection.