Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mort, Eirene (1879–1977)

by Margaret Henry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Eirene Mort (1879-1977), artist, was born on 17 November 1879 at Woollahra, Sydney, third child of Canon Henry Wallace Mort, Queensland-born Anglican clergyman, and his wife Kate Macintosh, daughter of Robert Isaacs; her father was a nephew of Thomas Mort. Eirene attended St Catherine's Clergy Daughters' School, Waverley, and studied painting with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo and Albert Fullwood. In 1897 she travelled alone to London where she completed courses at the Grosvenor Life School, the Royal School of Art Needlework and the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, gaining its art-teacher's certificate.

Returning to Sydney in 1906 Eirene Mort set up a studio with her lifelong friend Nora Kate Weston. Pre-Raphaelite philosophy appealed to her and the activities of the studio, which became one of Sydney's earliest centres for professional design and applied art, were influenced by William Morris. That year she was a founder of the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales and was a vice-president until 1935. She helped to organize and publicize the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in 1907: her many exhibits included 'fine embroideries and bold decorative designs' for every branch of applied art. She also wrote and illustrated articles for the Sydney Mail and Art and Architecture and designed the cover of Alfred George Stephens's Bookfellow.

Visiting England again in 1909, Eirene Mort studied mediaeval art, illustration and illumination, and etching with Luke Taylor. On her return she made many etchings using historical and rural subjects. She illustrated Florence Sulman's A Popular Guide to the Wild Flowers of New South Wales (1913, 1914). The well-designed and botanically accurate drawings were later used by A. B. Blombery in A Guide to Native Australian Plants (1967, revised 1977). In 1914 Eirene Mort taught Sydney Ure Smith the etching process and in 1927 exhibited a series of etchings of the Canberra district.

In the 1920s her many bookplates revealed her knowledge of heraldry, her skills in etching, woodcuts and pen-drawing, her love of Australian subjects and her individual sense of humour. Eirene Mort was a founder in 1921 and council-member of the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society, honorary treasurer of the Australian Ex Libris Society and a member of the Australian Bookplate Club. She was also a founder of the Australian Guild of Handicrafts. A respected teacher of art, she served as principal of the Women Painters' Art School and taught at such schools as Abbotsleigh, Kambala, and Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Darlinghurst, and later at Frensham, Mittagong. She wrote and illustrated several books about Australian fauna and flora for children, and, at the request of the Department of Education, The Story of Architecture (1942). She lived at Greenhayes, Mittagong, from 1937 and continued to teach until she moved to Bowral in 1960.

Unmarried, Eirene Mort found time in her busy life to maintain contact with her large extended family, becoming its focal point and historian until she died at Bowral on 1 December 1977; she was cremated. The scope of work and the variety of media that she mastered are impressive. Contemporary reviews praised her skilled craftsmanship, her attention to detail, and her witty and inventive use of Australian motifs. She constantly sought to improve the quality of Australian design.

Select Bibliography

  • Bookfellow, 1, no 1, Jan 1907
  • Art and Architecture, 4, no 5, Sept-Oct 1907
  • Art in Australia, no 9, 1921, s 3, no 5, Aug 1923
  • Sydney Mail, 11 Sept 1907
  • P. A. Starr, Wielding the Waratah—Eirene Mort. A Study of an Artist/Craftswoman's Training and Working Experiences from the Period 1879 to 1910 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1980)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Henry, 'Mort, Eirene (1879–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mort-eirene-7665/text13409, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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