Also known as
Mary Edwell Burke,
Mary E. Burke
A painter and carver, Edwards has been remembered largely for her adversarial role in the Dobell trial of 1944. A flamboyant figure she lived later in Fiji and denied her earlier Australian 'Mary Edwards' work.
painter and carver, was born in Sydney on 19 June 1894, natural daughter of Henry Edwell (also the father of Bernice Edwell ) and Rose (?) Burke. Mary studied at East Sydney Technical College in the 1920s and subsequently designed and painted fabrics and scarves for sale. By 1927 she had occupied a studio in Paris, studied at Colarossi’s, been hung in the Salon and was called 'widely-travelled’. In 1929 she won second prize in the State Theatre Art Quest, a national acquisitive competition for paintings to decorate Sydney’s grandest new cinema, with a figure of 'pale unworldly loveliness’. The similarly pale and unworldly Heritage (1932, p.c.) was the first of a series of self-portraits, others being held at the Queensland Art Gallery and Art Gallery of SA. At Sydney by the mid-1930s her work was considered to exceed in excellence artists such as Margaret Preston , and she consistently won good reviews.
Mary Edwards exhibited with the Royal Art Society in the 1920s and with the Australian Watercolour Institute in 1935-45. In the mid-1930s she showed with the Macquarie and Lodestar Galleries. In 1936, at the Hotel Australia, she exhibited fifteen paintings of the Jenolan Caves, considered by the Sydney Morning Herald 's art critic to be so abstract that the viewer 'might be pardoned for thinking he was looking at an abstractionist picture by Kandinsky’. She appears to have then been living in Katoomba under the name of 'Maisie’ Edwards. She had already begun visiting Pacific islands, particularly Fiji, and subsequently executed many paintings of the native people of Fiji, Java, New Caledonia and Tahiti in an elaborate and colourful style admirably suited to the tropical subject matter.
For many years, however, Edwards has been remembered only for her adversarial role (with Joseph Wolinski ) in the trial over William Dobell 's 1943 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith. The notoriety of the case overshadowed her art and may have been partly responsible for her decision to call herself by her parents’ surnames, Edwell Burke. Her disillusionment with Australian artistic taste was further exacerbated in 1945 when her portrait of Dame Enid Lyons, painted for Parliament House, Canberra, 'for ultimate inclusion in a National Portrait Gallery’ (now Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery) was rejected as 'unsatisfactory’ by the Federal Government’s Historic Memorials Committee, which had commissioned it along with a portrait of Senator Dorothy Tangney by Tempe Manning (also rejected). New commissions were awarded to the Melbourne male artists, William Dargie and A.D. Colquhoun (husband of Amalie ). Mary moved permanently to Fiji.
Always a flamboyant character, Mary maintained a dramatic and eccentric presence late in life, invariably dressing in 'black cloaks and large hats’, as her friend and colleague at Macquarie Galleries the artist Treania Smith recalled. She was 'an apparition from the Bible’, said an acquaintance in Suva. Apart from one brief sojourn in Sydney, she continued to live in Fiji where she died on 19 January 1988, aged ninety-three. She had continued working almost until the end; an exhibition of ninety of her paintings was held at the Australian High Commission in Suva and Nadi in March 1987, although she called herself 'retired artist’ when she made her final will on 12 January 1987, leaving the bulk of her estate of $2473.49 to the Christian Scientists’ 'mother church of the first Church of Christ, Boston Mass.’ She was buried in Nasinu Cemetery (grave no. ND 236), but apparently without her desired 'simple grave stone… with a simple inscription in large letters the name in inverted commas of “Miss Mary” and in small letters of my name Mary Edwell Burke’.
Towards the end of her long life as an expatriate, Mary Edwell Burke wrote to the art journalist Terry Ingram claiming that she had not painted Heritage – one of several denials she made about her early Australian 'Mary Edwards’ work. Sheila and (Sir) Jim Cruthers say she denied painting the self-portrait they own too (see Joan Kerr Archive). Heritage was certainly sold as her work at Sotheby’s in 1999. In the face of death Mary Edwell Burke apparently wished to repudiate all traces of her younger self as Mary Edwards.