This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976
Margaret Thomas (1843-1929), artist, sculptor and author, was born at Croydon, Surrey, England, daughter of Thomas Cook, a shipowner. She came with her parents to Melbourne in 1852. Taught by C. Summers, she was the first woman to study sculpture in Victoria and was later described by D. B. W. Sladen as 'the first Australian-bred sculptor of eminence'. Her work was first shown when the Victorian Society of Fine Arts held its initial exhibition in December 1857; she lived at Richmond and continued to exhibit regularly. Her oil paintings and drawings as well as her popular medallion portraits and busts were noted by Melbourne critics. She also had a bust and plaster figure accepted for the London International Exhibition, 1862. Commenting on her work shown at the Fine Arts exhibition of January 1863, James Smith wrote that her 'essays in sculpture betoken the diligent exercise of no ordinary plastic skill, and contain the promise of future excellence'; the Illustrated Melbourne Post, 3 January 1863, acknowledged her 'persevering industry … true poetic feeling … undoubtedly spiritual element … innate love of the beautiful … refined delicacy of pure taste …', but suggested that her hand required discipline.
About 1867 Thomas left for England and soon decided to continue her studies in Rome and Paris. Returning to London in 1870, she received a studentship next year at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she had the distinction of being the first woman awarded a silver medal for modelling at the academy schools. Between 1868 and 1880 she exhibited eleven times at the academy (six of her portraits were hung in 1874), seventeen times at the British Institution and five times in other galleries. She paid tribute to Summers in her monograph A Hero of the Workshop … (London, 1879); her memorial bust of him for the shire hall at Taunton, Somerset, brought further commissions to commemorate famous sons of the county, including Henry Fielding.
Thomas was a colourful artist, skilled in realistic portraiture. Mainly a traditionalist, she was an admirer of Turner and was influenced by neo-classicism. According to Sladen her portraits were so successful that she was able to retire and devote the rest of her life to travel and book-writing. She had a comprehensive knowledge of the picture galleries of the Continent; she published in London in 1906 a lively dissertation on How to Judge Pictures and in 1911 How to Understand Sculpture. An intrepid traveller, she wrote and illustrated A Scamper Through Spain and Tangier (1892), Two Years in Palestine and Syria … (1899) and Denmark, Past and Present (1902). She accompanied Rev. John Kelman (1864-1929) through the biblical lands and her sixty-seven coloured paintings for his book, From Damascus to Palmyra (London, 1908), included also scenes in Baalbek, Armenia and Lebanon.
Thomas's verse was published in English, American and Australian periodicals, including the Australasian; seven of her poems appeared in Sladen's Australian Poets, 1788-1888 (London, 1888) as well as other anthologies. A volume of rather erotic love poems, Friendship, Poems In Memoriam (London, 1873) was dedicated to her friend Henrietta Pilkington; she published another book of verse, A Painter's Pastime, in 1908. She never married and for some years before her death, aged 86, on 24 December 1929 she lived at Norton near Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Among her more important works in Australia are an oil painting of Summers and a plaster medallion of Sir Redmond Barry, both in the historical collection of the La Trobe Library, Melbourne.
Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Thomas, Margaret (1843–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-margaret-4707/text7803, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 1 February 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976