Mary Abbott Roberts, who also exhibited under her maiden name of Mary Abbott, was born in Quirindi in rural New South Wales and studied in Sydney at the Sydney Commercial Arts School and the Julian Ashton Art School. She was best known as an academic portrait painter and regularly exhibited in the Archibald Prize throughout the 1950s.
Mary Margaret Abbott was born in Quirindi in rural NSW in 1916. She was first educated at Quirindi Intermediate High School before moving to Sydney to study art. In 1932 she enrolled in Sydney Commercial School in Bathurst Street, where she was taught by Miss Maude Russell. In 1935 she continued her studies while becoming a pupil-teacher at the school.The following year she began to study art at the Julian Ashton Art School, but after one term travelled to London. Here she worked as a jewellery designer for Ciro Pearls while studying at the Chiswick Polytechnical College.In the summer she visited Paris and the collections of the Hague in Amsterdam. On her return to Sydney she continued her studies at Julian Ashton while working as a fashion designer for Spencers, as well as undertaking freelance illustration work. In 1941, as a part of the concerted national war effort, she joined the Australian Women’s Land Army, working on farms close to Sydney so that she could continue her studies at Ashton’s on Saturday afternoons. In 1943 she was one of the finalists in the New South Wales’ Travelling Art Scholarship. Although she was unsuccessful, her work was sufficiently impressive for Ashton’s to employ her as an assistant teacher the following year.Her salaried employment ended when she married Grantley Darcy Roberts in 1947, but she continued to work as an illustrator.
Mary Abbott Roberts had begun to paint portraits in the late 1930s, and in the 1950s this was the medium she focussed on. In 1954 she exhibited in the Archibald Prize for the first time. She was all successful in being selected for the exhibition in 1955 and in 1956.
In 1958 her husband was injured in a car accident and was transferred to Bathurst Technical College. Mary and their daughter Christine joined him the following year. She became active in the Bathurst Society of Music and Arts and also exhibited with local art groups in Orange and Cowra. She was also involved in restoration work for the Bathurst Historical Society and painted three large murals for the Acropole Restaurant in Bathurst. In 1960 she began teaching at Bathurst Technical College. Later she taught at Marsden Girls’ School and from 1965 to 1974 also taught at Orange Technical College. As with many women of her generation Mary Abbott Roberts’ work was little recognised for most of her working life. Her work came to the attention of feminist art historians Jude Adams, Barbara Hall and Jennifer Barber when she successfully exhibited in the 1975 Portia Geach Memorial Award. In 1977 her portrait drawing of Mona McDonnell was included in Project 21: Women’s images of women at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, an exhibition that emphasised the relative neglect of this particular generation of women artists.
In the introduction to her 1985 retrospective exhibition at the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery she wrote: “most certainly an artist requires inspiration and emotion, but basic qualities of composition, drawing and painting, should be the students first consideration, later developing versatility and flexibility.”