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Cowan, Theodora Esther (Theo) (1868–1949)

by Noel S. Hutchison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Theodora Esther (Theo) Cowan (1868-1949), sculptor, was born on 13 November 1868 at Richmond Villa, The Domain, Sydney, daughter of Jewish parents Samuel Cohen, a monetary broker from London, and his English-born wife Elizabeth, née Marks. Said to have 'dabbled in putty from the age of six', Theo Cohen was taught drawing and modelling by Lucien Henry at Sydney Technical College in 1887-88. On his advice, confirmed by Percival Ball, her parents took her to Florence, Italy, in 1889. There she was taught by Longworth Powers and privately by Professor Augusto Rivalta of the Accademia di Belle Arti. She received several commissions and in 1894 exhibited at the Ladies' Gallery, London. She returned to Sydney in the Prinz-Regent Luitpold with her mother and sisters on 27 July 1895. Working in the Strand Arcade, as Theo Cowan she soon made a reputation with her controversial bust of Sir Henry Parkes, and became active in the Society of Artists, Sydney—she was a council-member in 1897-98.

During 1897 Cowan gave classes at her studio and was invited to submit maquettes in the sculptures competition for the Victoria Markets. James Green, the critic, believed her work 'showed fertility of imagination, power of composition and executive ability'. Later she told Frank Dolman that 'There is a good deal of prejudice here against a woman sculptor. You see I am in the position of a pioneer'. She was commissioned by the trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales to produce marble busts of Frederick du Faur and Eliezer Levi Montefiore. In 1899 she showed her 'strikingly realistic' bust of (Sir) Edmund Barton at the Society of Artists' Spring Exhibition.

In September 1901 Cowan went to London and set up a studio in Grosvenor Street, where in 1904 she held a private view. She completed busts and statuettes of well-known people and executed a medal for the Hunterian Society. In 1906 she won first prize at the Society of Women Artists' exhibition at the Austral Club with her bronze Will-o-the-Wisp, and in 1908 a gold medal at the Franco-British Exhibition in London for the best piece of child portraiture. She exhibited at the Grafton, Doré, Chenil and Suffolk Street galleries.

Cowan returned to Sydney in June 1913 and set up at Darlinghurst, before moving in with her mother and sisters at their home, Osiris, 84 Berry Street, North Sydney. She now mainly exhibited with the Society of Women Painters, and taught privately. Much of her later work was poetic and mystical, using children as the basis for imagery. In the 1920s Cowan's artistic career tapered off, though she exhibited watercolours of the Solomon Islands at Swain's Gallery in 1925. She set up the short-lived Koala pottery in 1933. She also wrote occasional articles for the Sydney Morning Herald. In April 1949 she was made an honorary life member of the Women's Club.

Cowan died, unmarried, in hospital at Vaucluse on 27 August 1949 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her estate was valued for probate at £5047. In her prime she had a 'tall, stately figure, [with] dark handsome features … such as to impress the memory'. Showing a precocious talent in her early years, she suffered from the common antipathy to female artists, the failure to obtain a regular income from her work and a decline in her artistic powers as she aged. Her later years were spent in genteel penury.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Dolman, Ladies of Sydney (Syd, nd)
  • L. W. Matters, Australians Who Count in London … (Lond, 1913)
  • J. G. De Libra, ‘The fine arts in Australia’, Australasian Art Review, 1 July 1899
  • Studio (London), 22 (1901), 51 (1911)
  • A.A.A., 1 Aug 1904, 1 Oct 1906
  • Society (Sydney), 1 Apr 1922
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July, 19 Aug, 20 Sept 1895, 10 Mar 1913, 30 Aug 1949
  • Sun (Sydney), 30 Aug 1949
  • Theo Cowan papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Mary Gilmore's newsclippings (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Noel S. Hutchison, 'Cowan, Theodora Esther (Theo) (1868–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowan-theodora-esther-theo-5793/text9827, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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