Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Packer Harris (1891–1978)

by Ruth Tuck

This article was published:

Mary Packer Harris (1891-1978), teacher of art, was born on 30 July 1891 at Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, England, daughter of Clement Antrobus Harris, professor of music, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Packer, both Quakers. Mary was educated at Morison's and Perth academies, Perthshire, Scotland, and (from 1909) at the Edinburgh College of Art (Dip.Art, Scottish Art Teachers' Certificate, 1913). In 1915 she went to a large school at Buckie, Banffshire, as art mistress and from 1918 held a similar post at the Ayr Academy. Her elder brother Antrobus, a musician, was killed in the trenches in Flanders, Belgium, in 1916. After emigrating to Australia, her younger brother John had joined the Australian Army Medical Corps; he was badly wounded at Gallipoli. John persuaded Mary and her parents to join him in South Australia in 1921.

Next year Miss Harris was appointed to teach at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts; the job was poorly paid and she felt forlorn during her early years in Adelaide. Gradually gaining in assurance, in 1930 she was asked by the Education Department to teach English literature and the history and appreciation of art at the Girls' Central Art School, a new institution within the School of Arts and Crafts. From these classes came a series of plays—often based on the lives of artists—which were written, acted and presented by her students, with costumes and settings devised from the materials and gardens at hand. She also taught at The Wilderness School and lectured (1937-46) at the National Gallery of South Australia. Meanwhile, she continued to produce refreshing watercolours, prints, batiks, tapestries and illuminations. Although criticized for her 'muzzy mysticism', she was a constant exhibitor and encourager.

In 1939 Harris organized an art exhibition in Adelaide, 'The Testament of Beauty'. Contributors included Ivor Francis, David Dallwitz and herself. Three years later, in an effort to revitalize the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, some of her students were among those who presented the 'Adelaide Angries' exhibition which was one of the factors that led to the formation of the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia. Harris retired in 1953. A leading member of Adelaide's Lyceum Club and of the Society of Friends, she dressed soberly and was an ardent pacifist, a visionary and a vegetarian.

Harris published Art, the Torch of Life (1946), The Cosmic Rhythm of Art and Literature (1948) and an autobiography, In One Splendour Spun (1971). In the garden of Bundilla, her home and studio at Walkerville, and on the banks of the adjacent River Torrens, she arranged sculptures, mostly of Aborigines, by William Ricketts. The place became a haven for her students, one of whom, Ivor Francis, recorded 'the sense of purpose and happiness her inspired teaching and guidance brought me. What more can one ask of life than to have had a good teacher?' Harris died on 26 August 1978 at Walkerville and was cremated. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds five of her works.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Biven, Some Forgotten, Some Remembered (Adel, 1976)
  • R. Biven, Mary Packer Harris 1891-1978, exhibition catalogue (Adel, 1986)
  • South Australian Homes and Gardens, 1 Dec 1948
  • Ivor's Art Review, 1, no 3, 1957
  • Kalori (Adelaide), Dec 1968, Mar 1972
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3, 9 Apr 1946, 4 May 1954, 4 Dec 1963, 11 Oct 1977, 28 Aug 1978, 31 July 1979
  • Australian, 31 May-1 June 1980
  • Harris papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • L. Arnold, Now in Retirement (ABC radio interview with M. P. Harris, 1969, State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ruth Tuck, 'Harris, Mary Packer (1891–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 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]


30 July, 1891
Middlesbrough, Middlesbrough, England


26 August, 1978 (aged 87)
Walkerville, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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