Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Alice Evatt (1898–1973)

by Barbara Dale

This article was published:

Mary Alice Evatt, with her husband, H. V. Evatt, by Jack Hickson, 1960

Mary Alice Evatt, with her husband, H. V. Evatt, by Jack Hickson, 1960

State Library of New South Wales, 07951

Mary Alice Evatt (1898-1973), art patron, was born on 15 December 1898 at Ottumwa, Iowa, United States of America, daughter of Samuel Sheffer (d.1929), manufacturing chemist, and his wife Alice Maud, née Holt. One year old when she reached Sydney with her parents, Mary Alice grew up at Mosman; her childhood was happy and carefree, her nature optimistic and gregarious. Educated at St Hilda's Grammar School, from 1918 she studied architecture (passing only in drawing) then arts at the University of Sydney where she met Bert Evatt (d.1965), a tutor at St Andrew's College. They were married on 27 November 1920 at the Congregational Church, Mosman, and were to adopt a son and daughter. Mrs Evatt was of middle height and medium build, with titian hair, blue eyes and a manner that charmed. A devotee of the socialist writings and ideas on art of William Morris, in 1925 she campaigned for her husband when he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Balmain for Labor. They lived in the electorate until 1930; she organized a women's co-operative in 1929 which produced cheap clothing for needy families.

Encouraged by Bert, in the early 1930s Mary Alice attended classes in modernist painting run by Grace Crowley and Rah Fizelle. She became a close friend of Crowley and her circle which included Ralph Balson and Frank and Margel Hinder. In 1936 she attended the George Bell school in Melbourne; among her fellow students were (Sir) Russell Drysdale, Sali Herman and Maie Casey. She also met John and Sunday Reed, and became friends of the experimental painters Moya Dyring and Sam Atyeo who was to introduce the Evatts to Picasso in Paris in 1946. To this period belong her paintings, 'Seated Figure' and 'The Footballers'. Abroad in 1938, she studied at André Lhote's studio in Paris; in New York the Evatts met modernist painters. At home they supported the Contemporary Art Society. Mary Alice bought pictures and drawings from struggling young artists such as Drysdale and (Sir) Sidney Nolan (often giving them away to friends and relations, local councils and art galleries). At the (Melbourne Herald) Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art (1939) she acquired a portrait by Modigliani, together with works by Soutine, Léger and Vlaminck.

Her husband's entry into Federal parliament (September 1940) and cabinet office (October 1941) propelled Mary Alice into the public arena. In March 1942, at Prime Minister Curtin's request, she went with Bert on his mission to Washington. On her return, Curtin praised her 'courage and patriotism' in accompanying Evatt. She proved an able public speaker, and her contacts with women's organizations and the press raised the American public's awareness of Australia. She was a good cook and keen gardener, growing her own herbs as well as Australian native plants, unfashionable at that time.

In March 1943 Mrs Evatt was the first woman to be appointed a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. She joined forces with the moderates Sydney Ure Smith and (Sir) Charles Lloyd Jones against entrenched conservatives like Sir Lionel Lindsay. In January 1944 she voted for awarding the 1943 Archibald prize to (Sir) William Dobell for his controversial portrait of Joshua Smith. On visits to the U.S.A. in 1944 and 1945 she represented the gallery in discussions with the Carnegie Trust, New York, about postwar exhibitions. She was, according to Bernard Smith, a 'very effective, outspoken and shrewd member of the [gallery] Trust', and promoted travelling art exhibitions to country areas. During overseas trips she maintained contact with developments in the art world and was a persuasive advocate for modern Australian painting. Her donations to the Art Gallery included a sculpture by Zadkine and 'The Bicycle', a painting by Léger (in memory of her husband). She continued to serve on the board until 1970.

Survived by her daughter, Mary Alice died on 16 June 1973 at McMahons Point, Sydney, and was buried with Anglican rites beside her husband in Canberra cemetery. In 1975 John Coburn gave one of his paintings, 'Facade', to the Art Gallery in her memory; in 1990 the H. V. Evatt Memorial Foundation established the annual Mary Alice Evatt art award at the University of Western Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dutton, The Innovators (Melb, 1986)
  • P. Timms and R. Christie (eds), Cultivating the Country (Melb, 1988)
  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors (Melb, 1991)
  • K. Buckley, B. Dale and W. Reynolds, Doc Evatt (Melb, 1994)
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Feb 1968
  • M. Pratt, interview with M. A. Evatt (transcript,1973, National Library of Australia)
  • Evatt papers (Flinders University Library)
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales, minutes of meetings of Board of Trustees and Annual Report, 1943-75
  • private information.

Citation details

Barbara Dale, 'Evatt, Mary Alice (1898–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 May 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

Mary Alice Evatt, with her husband, H. V. Evatt, by Jack Hickson, 1960

Mary Alice Evatt, with her husband, H. V. Evatt, by Jack Hickson, 1960

State Library of New South Wales, 07951

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sheffer, Mary

15 December, 1898
Ottumwa, Iowa, United States of America


16 June, 1973 (aged 74)
McMahons Point, 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.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.