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Frances Mary Burke (1904–1994)

by Nanette Carter

This article was published:

Frances Mary Burke (1904–1994), textile designer and homeware retailer, was born on 10 January 1904 at Spottiswoode (Spotswood), Victoria, youngest of three children of Francis Henry Burke, tailor’s presser, and his wife Frances Veronica, née Brown, a former tailoress. The family moved to Brunswick and Frances junior was probably educated at a local Catholic school. Following training at the Mount St Evin’s and Homœopathic hospitals, she qualified as a registered nurse in 1927. In the early 1930s she set up house with Frances Mary ‘Fabie’ Chamberlin, a fellow nurse.

After her mother died in 1932, Burke received a small inheritance. Abandoning nursing, she began studying art at the National Gallery of Victoria’s school of drawing and at the Melbourne Technical College (MTC), winning scholarships in 1934, 1935, and 1936. In 1936 she worked as an office manager for an advertising agency and attended George Bell’s art school. Fellow students included (Sir) Russell Drysdale, Peter Purves Smith, and Maie (Lady) Casey.

In 1937 the fashion director for the Georges department store, Pierre Fornari, lamented the lack of locally produced fashion textiles with an Australian character. Burke responded by showing him her sketchbook of simple modern motifs based on Indigenous Australian and Pacific Island artefacts she had seen in the National Museum of Victoria and art galleries. From these Fornari commissioned designs for a range of resort wear. With her fellow MTC student Maurice Holloway, Burke established Burway Prints to screen-print her artwork onto linen. Before long they were engaged by the Myer Emporium Ltd to produce textiles for its select Rocke of Collins Street furniture range and interior decoration service. In 1942 Holloway retired from the partnership to establish the printing workshop Textile Converters. He and Burke continued to collaborate, with Burway (later Frances Burke Fabrics Pty Ltd) concentrating on design and marketing. 

During World War II Burke’s career flourished; imported European fabrics were scarce and buyers turned to her as an alternative source. Her range incorporated striking abstract designs based on garden flowers and native flora, in vibrant colours and intense earthy tones. Although there was more demand for fashion fabrics, she preferred furnishing textiles as they could be printed to order, minimising inventory and allowing popular patterns, like Tiger Stripe, to remain in production for decades. In the early 1940s she was commissioned by Maie Casey to design textiles for use in the first Australian legation in Washington headed by her husband, R. G. (Baron) Casey. She later created Bengal Tiger, a design that was made into a suit Casey wore for her husband’s investiture as governor of Bengal in 1944.

Reproduced on Japanese and subsequently Indian cotton rather than linen, Burke’s designs were increasingly selected by a new generation of architects. A pattern inspired by Aboriginal art, Rangga, was used by Roy Grounds in 1940, and Guilford Bell commissioned prints with local flavour for Ansett Transport Industries Ltd’s Hayman Island resort in 1948. The next year Robin Boyd and Richard Haughton James used her textiles throughout the ‘House of Tomorrow’ at the Modern Home Exhibition in Melbourne. Other notable commissions included designs for Government House and the Civic Theatre in Canberra, the State Library of Victoria, and six hospitals in Melbourne. Her fabrics were sold at Marion Hall Best’s shop in Sydney.

In 1948 Burke had opened a shop, Good Design (later NEW Design Pty Ltd), selling her textiles, modern homewares, and furniture by designers including Grant Featherston and Clement Meadmore. She traded successfully at various addresses until 1967. After World War II she travelled regularly to the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Europe, Japan, and Taiwan. On her return her views on trends in domestic design were widely reported in magazines and newspapers. She keenly promoted design as a professional practice in Australia, becoming a founding member (1947) of the Society of Designers for Industry and a council member (1958–66) of the Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia. Active in Melbourne’s art community, she was also a foundation member (1938) of the Contemporary Art Society and president (1968–71) of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria.

An energetic short-statured woman with bright blue eyes and blonde hair, Burke has been described as having an assured manner and a commanding voice. Marjorie Tipping recalled her as a ‘forthright, outspoken, business woman who … could be utterly charming’ (Oswald Jacobs 1997, 55). After her retirement in 1970, she continued her involvement in the profession, chairing (1980–83) the course advisory committee for textile design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She had been appointed MBE in 1970 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by RMIT in 1982. Survived by Fabie, she died on 14 October 1994 at Kew and was cremated. The contents of her studio were donated to RMIT University and formed the nucleus of a textile resource centre that was named after her in 1998.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Bogle, Michael. Design in Australia 18801970. Sydney: Craftsman House, G+B Arts International, 1998
  • Carter, Nanette. Savage Luxury: Modernist Design in Melbourne 19301939. Bulleen, Vic.: Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2007
  • Eagle, Mary, and Jan Minchin. The George Bell School: Students, Friends, Influences. Melbourne: Deutscher Art Publications, 1981
  • McPhee, John. Australian Decorative Arts in the Australian National Gallery. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1982
  • Oswald Jacobs, Robyn. Frances Burke Fabrics. Melbourne: RMIT, 1996. Exhibition catalogue
  • Oswald Jacobs, Robyn. ‘A Study of the Work of Dr Frances Mary Burke MBE, Textile Designer, With Particular Reference to the Development of Printed Textile Design in Australia.’ MA diss., RMIT University, Melbourne, 1997
  • Sumner, Christine. ‘Early Australian Silkscreen Printing.’ Textile Fibre Forum 27 (1990): 22–23
  • Victorian Public Record Office. VPRS 283, P0002, Unit 6, Case No. 1918/242

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Nanette Carter, 'Burke, Frances Mary (1904–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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