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Catherine Hardess (1889–1970)

by John McPhee

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Catherine Hardess (1889-1970), artist and designer, was born on 18 November 1889 at Flemington, Melbourne, second daughter of George Henry Hardess, schoolteacher, and his wife Ann Emma, née Taylor, both Melbourne born. Educated at Ballarat and Prahran, in 1919 Catherine was appointed to teach fine art in the girls' school at Swinburne Technical College. Taking leave in May 1923, she travelled to London and studied (1923-25) painting, drawing and ornamental design at the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1926 she returned to Swinburne and continued to teach there until 1934 when she took leave without pay and again sailed for England. She eventually resigned from Swinburne in 1937.

While in England, Hardess worked with Osborne Robinson, costume and decor designer at the Northampton Repertory Theatre, and was subsequently appointed designer at the Tunbridge Repertory Theatre, Kent. She was joined in London in 1935 by Edith 'Mollie' Grove (b.1909) whom she had met at Swinburne. Grove, who was to be her business partner and companion, completed a diploma with the Kensington Weavers. The two women shared a 'studio' life and travelled together. On their way back to Australia in 1939, they visited Scandinavia, Russia, Poland, Hungary and Greece, looking at craft and educational institutions.

They arrived in Melbourne in August and prepared for an exhibition of the fabrics they had woven in London and in their basement studio in Queen Street. Held at the Hotel Australia and opened by (Sir) Robert Menzies in March 1940, the exhibition featured tweeds, dress fabrics, furnishing materials, floor rugs and accessories. Their business was registered as eclarté Pty Ltd, the name being derived from the French clarté, prefixed by an additional 'e'(always with a lower case). At about this time Hardess chose to be known as Hardress, perhaps to make her surname sound less Germanic, formalising the change in 1954.

The business prospered, soon employing ten and later thirty-five weavers. Melbourne department stores, including Georges Australia Ltd and Henry Buck Pty Ltd, sold clothing made from eclarté fabric, and four new ranges were made available each season. Although more expensive than many imported fabrics, eclarté materials were preferred by the fashion conscious, by those wishing to support Australian industry and especially by Australian couturiers. In 1960 one of eclarté's fabrics won a gold medal at the first Australian Wool Bureau fashion awards. Official gifts were commissioned from eclarté, including lengths of fabric for Queen Elizabeth II as a gift from the Wool Bureau.

In December 1951 eclarté had moved to a larger building at Dandenong which was opened by Menzies, whose government—through the Wool Bureau and the Institute of Management—encouraged and supported the enterprise shown by the two women. Hardress said of their approach to business: 'There is still room in this modern age for the joy and satisfaction of craftsmanship and creative work in happy surroundings. And it can be made to pay. We have proved it'.

Despite large commissions throughout the 1950s, the recession in the textile industry and the difficulty of maintaining the production of high quality, hand-made textiles caused eclarté to scale down its operations and move in 1957 to smaller premises, an old mill at Heathcote. Before resuming work there, Hardress and Grove investigated modern weaving techniques and factory production in Britain.

On their return in 1958, they decided to concentrate on the production of furnishing fabric, co-operating with architects such as Robin Boyd and (Sir) Roy Grounds, and the designer Fred Ward. Experimenting with a wide variety of weaves and yarn, Hardress sought inspiration for her colour combinations in the Australian landscape, especially its flora. She worked closely with clients, designing individual fabrics to complement each interior as well as the view from the windows.

Local commissions were received from Ormond and St Hilda's colleges and the faculty of commerce at the University of Melbourne, the John Batman Motel and the Shell Building, and from the Academy of Science, University House and Parliament House, Canberra. Large projects required work to be carried out by more mechanized textile mills. Ensuring the quality of the finished product raised further problems and in 1962 a series of economic setbacks forced the liquidation of eclarté. Hardress died on 4 October 1970 at Lower Plenty, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Craft Australia, Spring 1985, no 3, p 57
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 May 1937, 14 Aug 1939, 11 Dec 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1940, 20 Sept 1953
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1951, 5 Sept 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1951, 27 Sept 1952
  • private information.

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Citation details

John McPhee, 'Hardess, Catherine (1889–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 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

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