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Geach, Portia Swanston (1873–1959)

by Andrée Wright

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

Portia Swanston Geach (1873-1959), artist and feminist, was born on 24 December 1873 at 28 Swanston Street, Melbourne, fifth surviving child of Cornish parents Edwin Geach, warehouseman and later draper, and his wife Catherine, née Greenwood. She studied design in 1890-92 and painting from 1893 to 1896 at the Melbourne National Gallery schools. As a student she 'rode through the Gippsland wilds en cavalier in national costume'. Late in 1896 she won a scholarship to the schools of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where she studied for four years. She also worked in Paris and exhibited in England, Paris and New York.

Back in Melbourne, Portia held an exhibition in January 1901 in her Collins Street studio, including a portrait of Donald Macdonald. Portraits became her specialty and she later painted Edith Cowan and (Sir) John Quick. She also painted murals and was a member of the Victorian Artists' Society. About 1904 her family moved to Sydney, where in 1914 she exhibited mainly oils and watercolours of the shores of Sydney Harbour and Victorian rural scenes, with some portraits.

On her return to Sydney from a visit to the United States of America in 1917 Portia, influenced by a meeting of a housewives' association she had attended in New York, founded and was president of the New South Wales Housewives' Association. It aimed to educate women in the principles of proper nutrition and to aid them in their struggles against profiteering and rising food prices. In 1928 she reorganized the association as the Housewives' Progressive Association. For many years she was also president of the Federated Association of Australian Housewives. In the Sydney Morning Herald and over the radio she frequently expressed her views on such subjects as buying Empire goods, the use of preservatives in foodstuffs, the date-stamping of eggs, the marking of lamb and the high price of milk and bread.

Active on the committee of the National Council of Women of New South Wales, Miss Geach was a delegate to the International Council of Women's conference in Washington in 1925. She believed in equal pay for men and women and the right of women to hold public office. In 1926, while overseas, she exhibited at the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Paris.

In 1938 the Housewives' Progressive Association was incorporated under the chairmanship of Eleanor Glencross; Portia became a director. Their rivalry led to the expulsion in 1941 of Portia and four others, who alleged that the association had been working in co-operation with the Meadow-Lea Margarine Co. Pty Ltd. In 1947 she formed the breakaway Progressive Housewives' Association and was president until 1957. She also served on the council of the Australian Women's Movement against Socialization from 1947.

Comfortably off, Portia was diminutive and always fashionably dressed. She lived in the Astor Flats, Macquarie Street, enjoyed frequent overseas holidays, and belonged to the Women's Club, Sydney, and the Lyceum Club, Melbourne. With a strong personality, she fought for better conditions for women in the home and campaigned against the closed front that she claimed had faced her when she had tried to exhibit her paintings. She died at her home on 5 October 1959 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her estate, valued for probate at £56,582 in New South Wales and £9744 in Victoria, was left to her sister Florence Kate, who died in 1962 and provided in her will for an annual £1000 prize, known as the Portia Geach Memorial Art award, for a portrait by a woman artist.

Select Bibliography

  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), Mar 1901
  • Wireless Weekly, 29 Apr 1938
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1896
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 10 Jan 1901
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 July 1914
  • Progressive Housewives Association, Portia Geach—the Champion of the Housewife (no date, copy at State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Andrée Wright, 'Geach, Portia Swanston (1873–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/geach-portia-swanston-6292/text10849, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 September 2016.

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

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