Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Portia Mary Bennett (1898–1989)

by Melissa Harpley

This article was published:

Portia Mary Bennett (1898-1989), artist, was born on 28 January 1898 at Balmain, Sydney, daughter of William Albert Bennett, a mariner from London, and his wife Portia Bohannah Australia, née Booth, who was born in New South Wales. Captain Bennett was a harbour pilot who drowned while his daughter was still young; Portia was to have a lifelong fascination with water and boats. Educated at Fort Street Girls’ High School, in 1914-16 she attended the Royal Art Society of New South Wales’s school, where she was taught by Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo. In 1915-18 she trained at the Teachers’ College, Sydney, and studied art under May Marsden. Awarded a third-year scholarship in 1917, she also took classes at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. Fellow pupils included Dorrit Black, Rah Fizelle and Grace Crowley.

In 1919-20 Bennett taught at Chatswood Intermediate and Darlington Public schools; in 1921-25 she was on the art staff at the Teachers’ College. She exhibited with various groups, and in 1925 held a joint exhibition with Fizelle at Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd’s gallery. On 26 August 1925 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, she married William Henry James Wallace (d.1988), a marine engineer, and moved to Brisbane. She stopped painting until 1932, when the growing family of James-Wallaces (as they now styled themselves) settled in Perth. There she met Muriel Southern and Florence Hall, both of whom she had known at Ashton’s. In 1933 the three women (with another local artist, Margaret Johnson) showed paintings, drawings and craft work in a Perth gallery, and next year Bennett’s work was included in an exhibition, Women Artists of Australia, held in the Edu­cation Department Gallery, Sydney.

A founding member (1933) of the Perth Society of Artists, Bennett exhibited regularly with the society, as well as in smaller group exhibitions. She often stated modestly that her art was a hobby, and that her primary roles were those of wife and mother of four children, but she did nevertheless manage to make time for her painting. Her preferred medium was watercolour and, as she did not have a studio at home until late in life, she mainly painted out of doors. Many of her works feature boats moored on the Swan River, or are landscapes painted from sketches made on family holidays. Her favourite subject, however, was the rapidly growing city of Perth, and in particular the play of light on the city’s built form. In the 1940s and 1950s she painted a highly regarded series of large, detailed images of the centre of Perth, featuring many buildings that have since been demolished. While these works focus on the architecture of the city, she was also interested in the everyday lives of people who passed through it, and often included vignettes of men and women going about their daily business.

In 1951 Bennett won the PSA’s watercolour prize for `Morning’, and next year the (Sir) Claude Hotchin prize for best watercolour for `The Dinghy’. She continued to paint until the last few months of her life, and held solo exhibitions in 1953 and 1973. The University of Western Australia held a retrospective exhibition in 1986. Survived by her two sons and two daughters, she died on 1 May 1989 in her home at Nedlands and was cremated. A survey exhibition of her work opened at Hawks Hill Gallery, Perth, three weeks later. Her work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Holmes à Court collection, Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gooding, Western Australian Art and Artists 1900-1950 (1987)
  • M. Harpley, Beyond the Image (1990)
  • J. Kerr (ed), Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book (1995)
  • West Australian, 18 May 1989, p 5
  • Bennett biography file (Art Gallery of Western Australia).

Citation details

Melissa Harpley, 'Bennett, Portia Mary (1898–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wallace, Portia
  • James-Wallace, Portia

28 January, 1898
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 May, 1989 (aged 91)
Nedlands, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.