Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Craig, Sybil Mary Frances (1901–1989)

by Dianne Reilly

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

Sybil Mary Frances Craig (1901-1989), artist, was born on 18 November 1901 at Southgate, London, only child of Australian-born parents Matthew Francis Craig, architect and surveyor, and his wife Winifred Frances, née Major. The family returned to Melbourne and Sybil was educated at a small St Kilda school. She recalled a childhood in a `suburban bohemian household’ frequented by musicians and artists. The Craigs resided first at Brighton, and after 1914 at Caulfield, in a house designed by Sybil’s father, which remained her home for the rest of her life. In 1920 she began private art tuition with John Shirlow. She then studied (1924-31) at the National Gallery of Victoria’s school of painting with Bernard Hall, William McInnes and Charles Wheeler. A beautiful young woman with Titian hair, she was painted by Rupert Bunny in 1928. Her enthusiasm for design drew her to classes with Robert Timmings at Melbourne Technical College in 1935.

Craig’s first solo exhibition, at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1932, included subjects ranging from still lifes to portraits. Accomplished in oils, watercolours and pastels, Craig also applied her talent for design to line-drawings for book-plates and emblems. She was a foundation member of the New Melbourne Art Club and, during the 1930s and 1940s, exhibited with the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors, the Victorian Artists Society, and the Twenty Melbourne Painters. Between 1936 and 1951 she maintained a Collins Street studio; numerous seascapes reflected the time she spent at the family’s beach house at Canadian Bay on the Mornington Peninsula. Yet her life remained centred at home, particularly as she began to withhold her more innovative works—or `exercises’—from sale, doubting their quality but, as `an advantaged child’, also lacking (she later conceded) the stimulus to `earn a living’.

In March 1945 Craig became an official war artist, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial (under pressure to appoint modernist artists) to record work at the Commonwealth Explosives Factory at Maribyrnong. Her admiration for women munitions workers is evident in the seventy-nine works held by the AWM. Describing herself as an `instinctive’ artist, Craig was becoming more exploratory in her media and style. Her second solo exhibition was held at Georges Gallery in 1948. Thirty years later Jim Alexander, director of the Important Woman Artists Gallery, East Malvern, persuaded her to present a retrospective (1978) of her work. It inspired renewed critical appreciation and the purchase of several paintings by major public galleries. Another exhibition was held in 1982.

A diminutive woman with a remarkable memory and a keen sense of fun, Sybil Craig remained, according to Mary Eagle, `devastatingly direct’ and `almost overwhelmingly vital’. In 1981 she was awarded the OAM. She died on 15 September 1989 at Surrey Hills and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. Her work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, the NGV, the State Library of Victoria, the Art Gallery of South Australia, and Victorian regional galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • Lip, 1978-79, p 16
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 June 1932, p 5
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Apr 1978, p 17
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Apr 1982, p 27
  • B. Blackman, inter­view with S. Craig (transcript, 1987, National Library of Australia)
  • Craig papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Dianne Reilly, 'Craig, Sybil Mary Frances (1901–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/craig-sybil-mary-frances-12363/text22213, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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