Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Allen, Mary Cecil (1893–1962)

by Frances A. M. L. Derham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Mary Cecil Allen (1893-1962), artist, writer and lecturer on art, known in the United States of America as Cecil Allen, was born on 2 September 1893 in Melbourne, second daughter of Professor (Sir) Harry Brookes Allen and his wife Ada, née Mason. Mary Cecil and her sisters Edith Margaret and Beatrice (Biddy) were born and brought up on the campus of the University of Melbourne in one of the houses provided for professors; they were educated by governesses, their parents, a fine library and travel. At May Vale's art class for children her work 'surpassed all others'.  

In 1910 Mary Cecil qualified for entrance to the faculty of arts at the university, but she preferred the Art School of the National Gallery of Victoria. Her course there, begun in 1910, was interrupted when in 1912-13 she went with her family to England, where she attended the Slade School of Fine Art. Back in Melbourne, this experience and her intellectual gifts made both her and her work conspicuous at the gallery school in 1913-16. A rapid-fire of words expressing ideas and theories in light and lilting cadences attracted a circle each morning until Mary Cecil bade them begone: 'We must work'. She became successful as a painter of portraits and landscape, and especially as a lecturer on art. Study of tonal impressionism with Max Meldrum in 1922 changed her vision and style.

Florence Gillies, an American visitor to Melbourne, was so impressed with Mary Cecil's lectures that she engaged her as a guide to European galleries; they left Australia in January 1926. After eight months, chiefly in Paris, she was invited to lecture in New York and thenceforth made her home in the United States. The Metropolitan Museum, Columbia University and many other institutions appreciated her gifts. 'She was able to increase one's ability to comprehend visually what had previously been puzzling', Marion Scott has commented. 'She did this by using words with great economy, words which were so lucid that they created no barrier between one's eyes and the work of Art'. Mary Cecil had golden hair, intensely blue eyes, and a good figure which she never lost. Not beautiful, she was often described as distinguished, graceful, vital, unforgettable.

In 1930 she arranged the first New York exhibition by Australian artists, at the Roerich Museum, New York City. The exhibition, opened in February 1931, attracted large attendances and much interest. She lectured with it, on tour.

In August 1935 she visited Melbourne until June 1936; the years since Mary Cecil's departure had seen little change in Melbourne's art but much in hers. Her exhibition at Gill's Gallery aroused a storm of protest; only loyal friends bought pictures, later confessing that they would not dare hang them at home. However, she lectured, led discussion groups; in teaching serious full-time studio painting and plein air landscapes she gave participants an understanding which acted as a ferment to local slow-moving conservatism. Only in the Bell and Shore drawing school did she find full appreciation.

Mary Cecil visited Australia again from January to September 1950, when she held an exhibition at Georges Gallery with good sales, and also from November 1959 to April 1960 when only one painting was left unsold after her exhibition at Australian Galleries. All these pictures were conceived and painted in the United States and brought with her. On both visits she lectured to capacity audiences. She also made sketches with elaborate written notes of colour and terrain; subjects included Alice Springs, Coober Pedy opal-mines, sheep-stations, Wilson's Promontory and mountain forests. Translated into pictures they sold well in the United States, but Australia acquired none of them.

From 1950 Mary Cecil lived and worked in the art colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts. In New York she had taught art at a famous private girls' school in 1930-44 and had her own art school in 1941-45. She held shows at the Roerich Museum, Delphic Gallery and American-British Art Centre, New York, and exhibited with group-shows at the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums and elsewhere. She lectured to many academic institutions, clubs and societies in New York and New England.

Mary Cecil Allen died at Provincetown on 7 April 1962. Neighbours who called to take her to early morning Communion at the Anglican Church found her seated in a chair—dead. Her death was recorded as 'sinus arrest, cause unknown'. Although still an Australian citizen, she was buried at her sisters' request in the Provincetown cemetery in sight of the Pilgrim Monument.

In 1962, the Lyceum Club, Melbourne, held a memorial exhibition. In 1963 a Mary Cecil Allen Memorial Lecture was established by the Art Teachers' Association of Victoria. Her publications include The Mirror of the Passing World (New York, 1928) and Painters of the Modern Mind (New York, 1929).

Select Bibliography

  • Woman's World, 1 Feb 1927
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Apr 1962
  • manuscript of book on M. C. Allen by Maie Casey, Frances Derham, et al (privately held).

Citation details

Frances A. M. L. Derham, 'Allen, Mary Cecil (1893–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/allen-mary-cecil-5005/text8321, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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