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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Beckett, Clarice Marjoribanks (1887–1935)

by Rosalind Hollinrake

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Clarice Marjoribanks Beckett (1887-1935), painter, was born on 21 March 1887 at Casterton, Victoria, daughter of Joseph Clifden Beckett, bank manager, and his wife Elizabeth Kate, née Brown. Her grandfather was John Brown, a Scottish master builder who had designed and built Como House and its gardens in Melbourne.

Clarice was a boarder at Queen's College, Ballarat, until 1903, before spending a year at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School. She showed artistic ability, and after leaving school took private lessons in charcoal drawing at Ballarat. As a genteel young lady she had her 'coming out' there and spent her spare time sketching, reading, listening to music and writing verse. In 1914-16 she took lessons in drawing from Frederick McCubbin at the Melbourne Gallery School but then chose to study under Max Meldrum. Constantly encouraging, though often fiercely critical, Meldrum regarded Clarice as a very gifted artist; in later years he confided to one of her contemporaries his belief that he had helped to break the shell around her abnormally shy personality.

In 1918 Joseph Beckett retired and settled in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris. Here Clarice spent the rest of her life as an artist. She took subject-matter from what would seem commonplace to others, such as a strip of wet tar-sealed road, bordered with telegraph poles. Her preferences were for the diffuse light of early morning; delicately restrained sunsets; dusk; misty days with a glimpse of a tram or T-model Ford; lights glowing in the fog. Whilst her contemporaries were revelling in the effects of broad sunlight, she was seeking to reinterpret her own restricted environment in subtle relationships of shape, colour and composition. She painted swiftly and compulsively, never reworking and seldom signing her canvases. The brushwork was flat, the paint thinned and smoothed into the canvas. Her output was prolific: many boards were painted on both sides, sometimes with another canvas stuck on top of the first or second painting. She exhibited usually with Meldrum's other students; very few of her paintings were sold in her lifetime. She regarded herself as a realist and remained loyal to Meldrum's teachings, though not his literal practice; for years she would take her works for his appraisal, and most of her canvases bear his assessment, A, B or C, on the back.

When in the late 1920s Clarice became more enmeshed in household duties and the nursing of frail parents, her painting time became limited, but she still managed to wander the cliffs of Beaumaris with her home-made cart filled with painting equipment. She quietly enjoyed summer camps at San Remo with a small gathering of Justus Jorgensen's students. In these last years her work flourished and developed; she used colour to reinforce form and there was a daring release of design. In 1934 her mother died: on 7 July next year Clarice, exhausted, died of pneumonia in a hospital at Sandringham. She was buried in the Cheltenham cemetery.

A memorial exhibition, assembled by her sister and father, was held at the Athenaeum Gallery in May 1936. In 1971 a major exhibition of her paintings was mounted at the Rosalind Humphries Galleries in Melbourne; a group of these was purchased for the National Gallery, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • Homage to Clarice Beckett 30th Oct–20th Nov 1971 (exhibition catalogue, Rosalind Humphries Galleries, Melb)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 May 1936
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 5 May 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 May 1936
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 23 May 1936
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 June 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Jan 1975.

Citation details

Rosalind Hollinrake, 'Beckett, Clarice Marjoribanks (1887–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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