This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012
Lilian Daphne Mayo (1895–1982), sculptor and art advocate, was born on 1 October 1895 at Balmain North, Sydney, younger child of English-born parents William McArthur Mayo, commercial traveller, and his wife Eliza Mary (Lila), née Saxelby. Early in Daphne’s childhood the Mayo family moved to Brisbane where her father became superintendent of the Mutual Life & Citizens Assurance Co. Ltd and her mother a well-known naturalist and nature writer. Daphne attended the Eton High School for Girls, Hamilton (later St Margaret’s Church of England Girls’ School), and probably the Brisbane Central Girls’ State School, ending her schooling in 1910 on account of chronic asthma. In 1911–13 she undertook a diploma in art craftsmanship at the Brisbane Central Technical College, studying under the art master R. Godfrey Rivers and specialising in modelling under L. J. Harvey. In 1914 she was awarded Queensland’s first publicly funded travelling art scholarship, sponsored by the local Wattle Day League. When her departure overseas was delayed by the outbreak of World War I, she attended Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School and worked with the Ipswich monumental mason Frank Williams to gain experience in stone carving.
Arriving in London in 1919, Mayo attended the Royal College of Art briefly and worked as an assistant to the sculptor John Angel before entering the Sculpture School of the Royal Academy of Arts in December 1920. On graduation in December 1923 she was awarded the school’s gold medal for sculpture, which carried with it the Edward Stott Travelling Studentship to Italy. She travelled to Rome with a fellow art student from Brisbane, Lloyd Rees, to whom she had recently become engaged, before continuing her studies. She was planning to stay abroad, until her brother’s death in November 1924 from a war-related illness caused her to return to Brisbane. She arrived back home in June 1925 and, resolved on an independent career, broke her engagement with Rees.
Fêted as ‘Queensland’s girl sculptress’, Mayo received large public commissions, including the Brisbane City Hall tympanum (1927–30), the Queensland Women’s War Memorial in Anzac Square (1929–32) and relief panels for the original chapel at Mount Thompson Crematorium (1934). These works, ornamenting Classical Revival buildings, called for conventional treatment and were carved in situ with the help of assistants. For the largest work, the City Hall tympanum, she created a pageant of colonial conquest, ‘The Progress of Civilisation in the State of Queensland’. Her contract fee of ₤5750 was reportedly the highest yet received by an Australian woman artist. To mark her success she purchased land on the crest of Highgate Hill, near her childhood home; she moved her City Hall studio to the site and added a cottage.
Mayo possessed a sharp intellect and firm convictions. Her tiny frame belied enormous energy and commitment as she undertook extraordinary physical labours and zealously promoted art in Queensland. In 1929, with her friend the painter Vida Lahey, she founded the Queensland Art Fund, which purchased works (mostly contemporary British) for the Queensland National Art Gallery (later Queensland Art Gallery). In 1930 she organised Brisbane’s first important loan exhibition for almost a decade, bringing over one hundred pictures from southern States. In 1932 she was instrumental in obtaining for the gallery its first major endowment, the Godfrey Rivers Trust (in memory of her former teacher), enabling it to acquire contemporary Australian art. Initially, in 1933 and 1935, works were obtained through biennial prize exhibitions organised by Mayo. William Dobell’s ‘The Cypriot’ was a notable acquisition in 1943; Mayo continued as ‘buyer’ for the bequest until 1966. She suspended her sculptural work in 1934–35 to lead a successful public appeal for the £10 000 needed to secure a large bequest for art in Queensland left by the wealthy Brisbane businessman, John Darnell, a seemingly impossible task during the Depression. In 1936 she and Lahey established the State’s first art reference library. For her public work in Queensland the Society of Artists (Sydney) awarded her its medal in 1938.
In 1938–39 Mayo travelled in Europe and North America to observe recent developments in art. On her return she moved to Sydney in search of a more stimulating artistic environment and to undertake a major commission for the east doors of the new Public Library of New South Wales building (1940–42). Opening a studio in lower George Street, she also worked speculatively on smaller modernist sculpture intended for domestic settings, and experimented with ceramics. She took part in the Society of Artists’ annual exhibitions until 1958 and, in 1946, with Lyndon Dadswell and Arthur Fleischmann, staged the Three Sculptors exhibition. In 1949 the National Gallery of Victoria’s Felton Bequest acquired her truncated torso of an athlete, ‘The Olympian’. However, little other speculative work sold and she was forced to depend again on public commissions. These included a war memorial for The King’s School, Parramatta (1948–52), a portrait bust of Sir Thomas Blamey for the Australian War Memorial, Canberra (1957–58), and ‘The Jolly Swagman’ statue for the western Queensland town of Winton (1959). Becoming fatigued by the physical labours of sculpture, she sought relaxation in the gentler art of painting, taking lessons from E. A. Harvey at the East Sydney Technical College and also from Roland Wakelin.
In 1959 Mayo was appointed MBE. Returning to Brisbane, in 1961–65 she undertook her last major commission, a statue of Sir William Glasgow. Having been appointed (1960) the Queensland Art Gallery’s first woman trustee, she resigned in 1967 with Professor R. P. Cummings, voicing her disapproval of its administration. In retirement she remained in Brisbane while maintaining her Sydney studio. She was Australia’s best-known woman sculptor of her generation. Never married, she died on 31 July 1982 at Brisbane and was cremated with Uniting Church forms.
Daphne Mayo’s work is represented in public collections throughout Australia. The Queensland Art Gallery, the University of Queensland and the Museum of Brisbane hold painted self-portraits; the latter also has a portrait of her by Mary Edwards. Mayo was honoured by the naming in 1988 of an art studio at St Margaret’s School, and from 2003 by an annual visiting professorship in visual culture at the University of Queensland. The university held a retrospective exhibition of her sculpture in 1981, followed by a larger exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery in 2011.
Judith M. McKay, 'Mayo, Lilian Daphne (1895–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mayo-lilian-daphne-14954/text26143, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 September 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012