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Blaxland, Dame Helen Frances (1907–1989)

by Caroline Simpson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Dame Helen Frances Blaxland (1907-1989), conservationist, was born on 21 June 1907 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, sixth of seven children of (Sir) Robert Anderson, a Sydney-born businessman, and his wife Jean Cairns, née Amos, from Melbourne. Helen was educated at Bedales School, Hampshire, England; Frensham, Mittagong, New South Wales; and Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. On 8 November 1927 she married with Presbyterian forms Gregory Hamilton Blaxland (1896-1969), an engineer, at her parents’ home in New South Head Road, Double Bay. They lived first at Bellevue Hill, then at Woollahra in a nineteenth-century house, Brush (named after Gregory Blaxland’s farm). Significant patrons of mainly Sydney artists, they collected works by (Sir) Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, (Sir) William Dobell, Loudon Sainthill, Elaine Haxton, Paul Jones and others. The Blaxlands’ only child, Antonia, was born in 1929.

From the outbreak of World War II Mrs Blaxland worked (1939-51) for the Australian Red Cross Society, New South Wales division, often dealing with special appeals such as the raffle for the `Dream Home’ and flower festivals. In 1946 she published Flower Pieces, on the art of flower arrangement, with photographs of her work by Max Dupain and Olive Cotton. Collected Flower Pieces (1949) presented arrangements by her friends. She gave special attention to their settings, often including paintings as backdrops. In 1953-54 she served on the council of the National Art Gallery Society of New South Wales. In 1957 she advised the architect John Mansfield on the decor for Kirribilli House. She contributed to numerous publications on architecture, decorative arts, entertaining and food.

In 1959 Mrs Blaxland joined the National Trust of Australia (New South Wales), a small group of conservationists led by Annie Wyatt. Two years later she founded the women’s committee to raise funds for the trust. She introduced the lucrative idea of `house inspections’ and initiated the exhibition No Time to Spare!, which was shown at the David Jones Art Gallery in 1962 and later throughout the State for the New South Wales division of the Arts Council of Australia. On display were photographs by Dupain of early public buildings and houses.

Elected to the National Trust council in 1962, Mrs Blaxland was vice-president (1965-71), State representative (1969-71) on the Australian Council of National Trusts and an honorary life member from 1967. She had chaired (1964-71) the inaugural committee for Lindesay, Darling Point, a historic house which was given to the women’s committee as their headquarters. The Lindesay committee furnished the house in period style and held trust events there, notably annual antique dealers’ fairs and exhibitions of Australian decorative arts.

At Experiment Farm Cottage Helen Blaxland and K. Bernard-Smith had gathered in 1963 a collection of early Australian furniture for public viewing. In 1967 control of Old Government House, Parramatta, was vested in the National Trust by legislation; Mrs Blaxland was prominent on the Parramatta properties committee which presented to the public the home of the governors to 1855. She remained on the committee as honorary housekeeper—a self-chosen title—until her involvement with the trust ended when the Parramatta properties committee was abruptly disbanded in 1983.

In 1967 Helen Blaxland had been appointed OBE and in 1975 she was elevated to DBE. An honorary member (1970) of the Society of Interior Designers of Australia, she was also a foundation trustee (1970-89) of the National Parks and Wildlife Foundation (New South Wales), patron of the Eryldene Appeal (1971) for funds for Eben Gowrie Waterhouse's home and garden at Gordon, and a member (1958-67) of the Sydney Fountains Committee. In 1978 she became foundation chairman of the Australiana Fund, set up to acquire Australian furnishings for the four official Commonwealth residences and, in 1979, an inaugural member of the Official Establishments Trust.

Tall and elegant, with grey eyes and brown hair which turned early to white, Dame Helen was confident, forthright and decisive. She had difficulty pronouncing the letter `r’: when asked about seeking grassroots members for the National Trust beyond the Eastern Suburbs and North Shore of Sydney, she replied, `the only use I can think of for gwasswoots is for twamplin’ on’. She was an educator with great foresight who set a standard of excellence among all those who worked with her.

Dame Helen moved to the Silchester apartments at Bellevue Hill in the late 1960s and in 1983 to a cottage at Camden Park. Grieving after her daughter’s death four months earlier, she died on 17 December 1989 at Camden and was cremated. The Dame Helen Blaxland Foundation for the continued preservation of Experiment Farm Cottage, Old Government House and Lindesay was established to commemorate her. A portrait by Bryan Westwood is held by her family.

Select Bibliography

  • I. F. Wyatt, Ours in Trust (1987)
  • Sydney Morning Hearld, 19 May 1962, p 9, 14 June 1975, p 1
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 4 Nov 1979, p 170
  • C. Simpson, `Dame Helen Blaxland, DBE’, National Trust Magazine, Feb 1990, p 8
  • Bulletin, 17 June 2003, p 38
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Caroline Simpson, 'Blaxland, Dame Helen Frances (1907–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blaxland-dame-helen-frances-12222/text21919, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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