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O'Connell, Michael William (1898–1976)

by John McPhee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Michael William O'Connell (1898-1976), artist, was born on 7 August 1898 at Dalton, Lancashire, England, son of Patrick O'Connell, inland revenue officer, and his wife Mary Cecilia, née Macnamara, headmistress of a Roman Catholic school for girls. He was a descendant of the Irish patriot Daniel O'Connell. He began to train as a priest, a vocation he abandoned. Enlisting in 1916, he served in France, where he was taken prisoner, and at this time began to make sketches, his first artistic efforts.

O'Connell arrived in Australia in 1920, intending to go on the land, but after two days at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Farm School, New South Wales, tried various occupations, including photography, while attempting to make a living from art. Exhibitions of his water-colours were held at the Athenaeum Gallery in Melbourne in 1921 and 1922. Settling in Melbourne, he worked at landscape gardening and the construction of concrete garden ornaments, which he exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria of which he was an active member and councillor.

In the early 1920s he built his own house, Barbizon, at Beaumaris. The large open-plan cruciform house, constructed with O'Connell's home-made concrete blocks, was destroyed by a bushfire in 1947. About 1924 he met London-born Ella Moody, née Evans-Vaughan (1900-1981), an embroiderer and printmaker who was secretary of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria. In 1929 they visited Britain and Italy where O'Connell studied old masonry. After their return, late that year, they began to collaborate in the production of hand-printed textiles, using novel Australian-inspired designs. Michael learned the techniques of cutting and printing with linoleum blocks from Ella and throughout their partnership she did much of the work on all levels of design and production. After her divorce in February they married on 4 April 1931 in Melbourne, and visited England in 1932-33. O'Connell was then associated with Cynthia Reed and Frederick Ward in an interior decorating business in Melbourne. Through writing and radio talks he became a leading advocate of simple modern design for furnishings and interiors.

In March 1937 the O'Connells returned to England and purchased land at Perry Green, Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, where they built their house, The Chase. They continued to produce printed textiles identified as Mael Fabrics, a combination of their names and a recognition of Ella's contribution. Soon after the birth of their son in 1943, the couple separated.

O'Connell's fabric designs were printed by the Edinburgh Weavers and London department stores, Heal & Sons and Harrods. He also made large fabric hangings, such as the backcloth for St Martin's Church, Manchester, which were widely exhibited.

O'Connell died on 9 December 1976 at The Chase. His textiles represent a unique aspect of the decorative arts in Australia. His work influenced and inspired both amateurs and professionals in the field of fabric-printing, and in England was central to the modernist revival of the British textile industry. He is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Seymour, Textile Murals Designed and Hand Printed by Michael O'Connell, exhibition catalogue, Georges Gallery (Melb, no date)
  • Exhibition of Linocuts, catalogue, Everyman's Lending Library, 5-16 Apr 1932 (Melb, 1932)
  • C. McGegan, Michael O'Connell 1898-1976, exhibition catalogue, The Gallery, Whiterock House, Over Haddon (Over Haddon, Eng, 1977)
  • J. McPhee, Australian Decorative Arts in the Australian National Gallery (Canb, 1982)
  • E. Macmillan, The Primrose Pottery Shop, catalogue (Melb, no date)
  • Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria, Recorder, no 2, June 1929, no 3, Sept 1929, no 5, June 1930, no 8, Apr 1931, no 12, Apr 1933, no 13, Oct 1933
  • Home (Sydney), Oct 1932
  • Manuscripts (Geelong), no 8, Feb 1934
  • Art in Australia, 67, May 1937
  • Decoration, July-Sept 1938
  • Studio (London), Dec 1950
  • Australian Connoisseur and Collector, 2 (1982).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John McPhee, 'O'Connell, Michael William (1898–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnell-michael-william-7873/text13683, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 7 December 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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