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Dorothy Harriette Dunckley (1890–1972)

by Kate Evans

This article was published:

Dorothy Harriette Dunckley (1890-1972), actress and make-up artist, was born on 27 February 1890 at Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, daughter of John Fraser, a bank clerk from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Mary Charlotte, née Crook, late Francis. The family moved to Perth where Dorothy attended Mrs Elizabeth Messer's school and passed the senior public examination in 1906. Having studied (1909-10) at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, she returned to Perth and worked as a typist. On 19 October 1919 at St John's Anglican Church, Fremantle, she married Major Charles Gilmour Dunckley, a farmer. They lived on a station at Bruce Rock; their only child was stillborn. After her husband died in 1924, she was secretary of the Perth Repertory Club.

Dorothy Dunckley appeared in two films made in Sydney for Ken Hall's Cinesound Productions in 1932-33, On Our Selection and The Squatter's Daughter, as well as in Paulette McDonagh's film, Two Minutes Silence (1933). She spent eighteen months in 1933-34 in the United States of America, mainly at Hollywood, investigating make-up, interior decoration, lighting and clothes for Cinesound. Back in Sydney, she skirmished on stage with Cecil Kellaway in Wild Violets (1936). In May 1939 she appeared in Robert Sherwood's satire, Idiot's Delight, the opening production at D. N. Martin's new Minerva Theatre, Kings Cross. Kathleen Robinson acquired the Minerva in 1941 and began Whitehall Productions; Dunckley was a regular player—from Mrs Eynsford Hill in Pygmalion to Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. As an older woman, she worked consistently in character roles and in radio farce, but she was fast acquiring a reputation for her skills as a make-up artist.

While they were playing in Roberta in 1934, she had persuaded Madge Elliott to give up her pink-and-white make-up and concocted the honey-coloured base which she used thereafter. In the 1940s Dunckley gave Aileen Britten false eyelashes for her opening night in French Without Tears. Dunckley advertised 'Glamour by appointment . . . Creative makeup for—Social engagements, day or night, screen tests, stage, still photography, hairstyling, manicure', and virtually quit the stage in 1949 to concentrate on her business.

Aware of the discomfort of using commercially available greasepaint, Dunckley made (and marketed) her own creams, rouges, eye-shadows and eye-lashes in her Macleay Street home. It was 'more like an alchemist's den than a flat', and generally in turmoil, the telephone ringing constantly. Her advice ranged from the impact of lighting on body-paint to the best way of changing hair colour. In 1952 she devised body make-up for (Sir) Anthony Quayle (then touring as Othello with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre company), visited Fiji as part of the make-up team for the Warner Bros' film, His Majesty O'Keefe, and had to limit her appearances in radio serials because of her commitments to the New South Wales National Opera. She spent two months in 1955 at Columbia Broadcasting System, New York, studying television make-up for Hall. In 1962 she had the role of an elderly vagrant in the Australian Broadcasting Commission's television play, Fly By Night.

A warm and lovable eccentric, Dunckley was said to walk down Macleay Street—fair-haired, blue-eyed, often wearing a beret-style hat—with her mind preoccupied by her cosmetic business. When she received greeting cards, she returned them unopened and endorsed 'And the same to you'. She died on 7 March 1972 in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst; her body was bequeathed to the University of Sydney for medical research.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Laurie, The Australian Theatre Story (Syd, 1960)
  • A. Simmonds, Plumb Crazy/Gwen Plumb (Syd, 1994)
  • Woman's World, 1 June 1934, p 74
  • Bulletin, 30 Dec 1936
  • J. C. Williamson Ltd Magazine, 13 May 1939, pp 13, 15
  • Stages, 1, no 4, 1947
  • Theatre Review, 1, b 1, Aug 1952, p 2, Sept-Oct 1952, pp 13, 35
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 13 July 1955, p 23
  • Theatreland, 1, no 1, Sept 1955, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Apr 1934, 1, 6 July, 3 Aug 1952, 25 Aug, 4 Dec 1955, 18 June 1962, 9 Mar 1972
  • Metropolitan Theatre scrapbook, 1947, and Minerva Theatre programmes, 1939-46 (Dennis Wolanski Library and Archive of the Performing Arts, Sydney Opera House)
  • J. Lewis papers, 1947-50 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kate Evans, 'Dunckley, Dorothy Harriette (1890–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Fraser, Dorothy

27 February, 1890
Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia


7 March, 1972 (aged 82)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.