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Muskett, Alice Jane (1869–1936)

by Suzanne Edgar and Dorothy Green

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

Alice Jane Muskett (1869-1936), artist and author, was born on 28 April 1869 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, only daughter of English parents Charles Muskett, bookseller, and his wife Phoebe, daughter of Arthur Charlwood, printer and bookseller. After Charles died in 1873 Phoebe carried on the business. In 1885, with Alice, she followed her son Philip, medical practitioner, to Sydney. Next year she died.

From this time Alice was the second pupil of Julian Ashton, who was persuaded to provide Sydney's first life-class for women. He recognized her ability, 'refined and sensitive nature' and beauty: his 1893 study in oils shows her in class with light auburn hair, high-necked white dress and pince-nez. She exhibited annually from 1890 with the Art Society of New South Wales (council-member, 1894) and with the professional breakaway Society of Artists, Sydney, from its first exhibition in 1895.

In 1895-98 Alice Muskett studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and wrote a lively description for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. In 1896 she exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français and her work was included in the 1898 Exhibition of Australian Art in London. Her 1898 'Study of Roses' and 'In Cumberland Street' (Sydney, 1902) were bought by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In Sydney Alice also published verse and short stories. She was a committee-member of the revived Society of Artists in 1907. In 1909 David Souter called her 'probably the most talented of our women painters', noting her preference for a decorative, imaginative approach in which design dominated subject. She lived with her brother Philip, also unmarried, in Elizabeth Street. He wrote widely-sold books on infant health and diet and medical guides that featured women's diseases and their reproductive functions. He died following a nervous breakdown on 9 August 1909. Next year Alice Muskett went abroad, visited the exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts and wrote a tart account for Art and Architecture—British art did not impress her.

Back in Sydney by 1912, she was active in the Society of Women Painters and shared a studio with Florence Rodway. During World War I she worked at a soldiers' canteen in London, returning to Sydney in 1921. In 1928 she endowed the annual Philip Muskett prize at Ashton's Sydney Art School to encourage landscape painting.

As 'Jane Laker' (her maternal grandmother's name) Alice published a novel, Among the Reeds, in 1933. It had been written and set in Sydney in 1913 and, like her short stories, seems partly autobiographical. Her fiction suggests a love affair which came to nothing: there is a recurring renunciatory theme, or perhaps she lost a lover in the war. Among the Reeds is remarkable for its feminist point of view; it depicts conflict between Bohemian, artistic values and middle-class conventions and the dilemma faced by women of 'Jane's' class in choosing between marriage and a career. The narrator advocates her version of rights for women: to learn a trade, craft or profession; to enjoy everyday happiness or one big ecstasy; to have a room of her own; at least once to be made love to; and to know the joy of payment for work. The style is anecdotal and discursive but shows flashes of psychological insight, and reveals the author's 'engaging and vigorous' personality. The book evokes a lively sense of the city and of the 'North Shore line'.

The Depression eroded Miss Muskett's finances. From the late 1920s she rented rooms at Neutral Bay. In 1933 she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died on 17 July 1936 at Cremorne; she was cremated and her ashes buried in Philip's grave in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. Her many small bequests included books to neighbourhood children and £50 to Ashton 'for use during illness'. Ashton made three portraits of Alice: his 1893 study and 'The Coral Necklet' are in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Will Dyson's wash drawing of a diminutive, dainty Alice is in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Ashton, Now Came Still Evening On (Syd, 1941)
  • C. Ambrus, The Ladies' Picture Show (Syd, 1984)
  • Art and Architecture, 6, no 2, 1909, 7, no 4, 1910
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, May 1935
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 7 June 1873, 28 Aug 1909
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 17 Apr 1896
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 Feb, 2 Mar, 22 Aug, 12 Sept 1896, 27 Aug 1898
  • Town and Country Journal, 1 Sept 1909
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Sept 1928
  • Lambert family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • H. M. Green papers (privately held).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and Dorothy Green, 'Muskett, Alice Jane (1869–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/muskett-alice-jane-7717/text13517, 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

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