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Shillito, Phyllis Sykes (1895–1980)

by Christopher J. Kent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Phyllis Sykes Shillito (1895-1980), designer, was born on 28 April 1895 at Halifax, Yorkshire, England, daughter of George Sykes Shillito, a 'thick wire drawer', and his wife Elizabeth, née Sealey. Phyllis left Rishworth School in 1907 and enrolled in art and design at Halifax Technical College five years later. On completing full-time studies, she remained at the college as a student and part-time teacher (1915-18). In 1917 she gained first-class honours in the examination of the City and Guilds of London Institute. Noel Lecurer, a colleague, wrote that her 'intense love for the subjects she has studied has enabled her to gain a good store of ideas in Design; a fund of material in historic ornament; and a thorough grasp of all the underlying principles of Art, both pure and applied . . . As a teacher she possesses the qualities of patience and tact'. She taught at Winchester School of Art in 1919-22, and lectured (from 1922) in design and craft at the Liverpool City School of Art where she was the only woman on a staff of fifteen.

On 3 March 1923 Shillito sailed with her parents in the Osterley for Brisbane, to visit her brother John. She stayed there for two years and taught part time at Brisbane Technical College. On 4 August 1925 she began teaching at the Darlinghurst branch of Sydney Technical College (East Sydney Technical College from 1935), having gained permission from the Public Service Board to continue painting and to hold solo exhibitions. In April 1930 Shillito showed 'a small but very creditable collection of water colours', with a few etchings and drawings, at the Beaux Arts gallery, Melbourne. Her paintings included studies of 'Old English and French provincial towns', as well as Australian scenes—'Cliffs, Bondi' and 'The Dry Creek'. In May 1933 she showed her work at the Sedon Galleries, Melbourne. She drew the illustrations for Coral Fish, Diamond Snake, The Brolga, Penguin, Shark, Sea Horse and many other Australian fauna for Nelle Grant Cooper's books of rhyme for children, More Australians (1935) and (with Dorothy Wall) Australians All (1939). Shillito also produced numerous bookplates, among them one for Captain Francis de Groot in which she depicted the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Following a request from the superintendent of technical education, Shillito established the diploma of design and crafts at Darlinghurst. Four students qualified in 1936. At first the course included graphic and mural design, relief carving, textile design and use of colour; in the 1940s and 1950s it evolved to incorporate interior, industrial and fashion design. Textile design and colour courses strengthened during this period, while others from the 1930s were abandoned or moved to different schools.

Promoted to head teacher (art) in 1940, Shillito was appointed lecturer in art (1947), senior lecturer (1954) and acting-head of the school of women's handicrafts (1958). The Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme gave impetus to her teaching. Design courses were popular with war widows and many returned servicemen and women. Frequent reports in the press told of the success of these mature-age students and the careers that they were establishing. Several of her former students were employed to teach the expanded number of classes.

Shillito centred her life on promoting an awareness of good design. In addition to working through her students, she wrote for magazines and newspapers; she also published Sixty Beach and Holiday Homes (1954) and a chapter, 'Colour Tuning', in Clive Carney's International Interiors and Design (1959). From time to time she appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Commission's television programme, 'Woman's World'. She compered a fashion parade in January 1960 and demonstrated how to design and cut dress patterns in August 1961.

In 1960 Miss Shillito retired from the Technical College. She opened the Shillito Design School at 36 Grosvenor Street, Sydney, in 1962. In an interview she said that its curriculum borrowed progressive ideas from fashion schools at Ulm and Munich, Germany, and in Stockholm and Paris. When outlining her school's objectives, she affirmed that students would learn 'basic design and basic colour drawing . . . A student who has mastered the basic principles . . . can design anything from a dress to a kitchen stove'. Of those who satisfactorily completed three years of study, a number went on to make a significant contribution to Australian life. Phyllis Shillito died on 13 March 1980 at Bondi and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. J. Kent, Phyllis Shillito, 1895-1980: A Review (M.Design thesis, University of Technology, Sydney, 1995), and for bibliography.

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Citation details

Christopher J. Kent, 'Shillito, Phyllis Sykes (1895–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shillito-phyllis-sykes-11683/text20879, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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