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Frances Alexandra (Frankie) Derham (1894–1987)

by Margaret H. White

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Frances Alexandra Mabel Letitia (Frankie) Derham (1894-1987), artist and art educator, was born on 15 November 1894, at Malvern, Melbourne, daughter of Irish-born parents Joshua Thomas Noble Anderson, engineer, and his wife Ellen Mary, née White-Spunner. Her father’s work often took the family to remote locations, limiting Frankie’s access to formal schooling. Educated by governesses, she first attended art classes when the Andersons moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1902, and continued them while living in Belfast, Ireland, after 1905. Three years later the family settled at Narbethong, near Healesville, Victoria. Frankie completed her Merit certificate at the local school and assisted her father with drafting. Impressed by her ability, he encouraged her to further study: in 1911 she enrolled in the National Gallery schools, Melbourne, also taking courses at the Eastern Suburbs (Swinburne) Technical College, where she qualified as a teacher and taught briefly. On 10 July 1917 at St Mary’s Church of England, Caulfield, she married Alfred Derham, a medical student.

People who influenced Frankie Derham’s art included Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, for whom her father was consulting engineer, and Mary Cecil Allen and George Bell, with whom she studied. During the 1920s while raising four sons—among them (Sir) David Derham—she became an active member of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria (vice-president, 1928-31). While lecturing in art (1928-64) at the Melbourne Kindergarten Training College, Derham also joined the Nursery School Committee in 1931 and later taught at the Associated Teacher Training Institution (1949-61). Her commitment to `child art’ developed after 1935 when she accepted an invitation from Margaret Lyttle to teach at Preshil school.

Increasingly associated with `progressive’ education, Derham was an energetic advocate for the value and significance of art in children’s lives. After 1937 she worked with Christine Heinig towards establishing the Lady Gowrie child centres, advising on their design and the materials to assist in developing `visual thinking’. Following correspondence with the anthropologist Charles Mountford and the artist Rex Battarbee, in 1938 she visited Hermannsburg mission in the Northern Territory (and later Aurukun, Queensland) to study the art of Aboriginal children. Her awareness of Indigenous culture complemented modernist themes developing in her own art. Derham frequently exhibited a rapidly growing collection of children’s art, and became a foundation member (1956) and president (1959-61) of the Art Teachers Association of Victoria, Australian delegate (1960, 1963) to congresses of the International Society for Education Through Art, and visiting lecturer (1963) at Columbia University, New York. Her practical guide Art For the Child Under Seven (1961) was widely used by parents and teachers through seven editions to 2003.

As a `courageous and indefatigable’ pioneer of creative art education (according to Bernard Smith), Derham remained a prominent speaker for the cause into her retirement. For her community service, particularly in establishing an emergency housekeeping service during World War II, she was appointed MBE (1950). She was a foundation (1968) and life (1984) member of the Advisory Council for Children with Impaired Hearing. In 1976 her collection of nearly ten thousand children’s drawings and paintings was acquired by the Australian National Gallery. Survived by two sons, Frances Derham died on 5 November 1987 at Kew and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. Exhibitions of her art work were held at the Jim Alexander gallery, East Malvern (1986), and the Lyceum Club (1970, 1982, 2003). The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Ballarat Fine Arts Gallery hold samples of her prints.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. L. Cumpston and C. M. Heinig, Pre-School Centres in Australia (1945)
  • B. Smith (ed), Education Through Art in Australia (1958)
  • M. White and C. Stevenson, Drawing on the Art of Children (1997)
  • Childhoods Past (1999)
  • P. Alexander (ed), Frances Derham in Retrospect (2003)
  • Australian Journal of Early Childhood, vol 18, no 1, 1993, p 3
  • Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria, Recorder, June 1929, p 8
  • S. Lunney, interview with F. Derham (transcript, 1975, National Library of Australia)
  • B. Blackman, interview with F. Derham (transcript, 1984, National Library of Australia)
  • F. Derham papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Margaret H. White, 'Derham, Frances Alexandra (Frankie) (1894–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 April 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
  • Anderson, Frances

15 November, 1894
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


5 November, 1987 (aged 92)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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