Australian Dictionary of Biography

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May Marsden (1876–1968)

by Bernard Smith

This article was published:

May Marsden (1876-1968), artist and educationist, was born on 6 May 1876 at Church-Stoke, Montgomeryshire, Wales, daughter of Joseph Marsden, engineer, and his wife Charlotte Priscilla, née Kniveton. May studied art at Wirksworth, Derbyshire, under Fred Simmonds, and at the Derby Central School of Art. After gaining a teacher's certificate from the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, London, in 1897, she taught at Wallasey Grange School for girls, near Liverpool.

In 1913 Marsden came to Sydney with her parents. She initially taught at private schools, and then in public ones. Alexander Mackie, who had been introduced to her by Julian Ashton, appointed her a lecturer in art at Teachers' College, Sydney, on 11 October 1915, a post she was to hold until January 1941. During most of her life in Australia she lived in the family home in Harden Road, Artarmon, with her sister Grace, and their brothers Albert and Philip; Bert managed the Anthony Hordern & Sons' Fine Art Gallery. May had shown her paintings at Derby, Leicester and Liverpool before arriving in Australia; in Sydney she exhibited with the Australian Water-Colour Institute. She spent holidays with her sister and brothers in the country, and some of her paintings were of landscapes around Canberra, Tidbinbilla and Cobbity. She also drew and etched. Four of her works, 'Magnolias', 'Pyrmont Bridge', 'View from Wollstonecraft' and 'Heber Chapel, Cobbity' form part of the University of Sydney's collection.

May Marsden was an inspiring teacher for whom art was a significant aspect of civilized life. With the enthusiastic support of Mackie, she transformed the corridors of the new Teachers' College (built in 1920) into art galleries replete with old-master reproductions and original Australian prints, drawings and paintings. There she regaled her students, gathered in devoted little packs, with her love of visual beauty and her highly informed taste, often to the amusement of less aesthetically inclined passers-by who regarded her as eccentric. She organized sketch clubs for her pupils and became a patron of the Teachers' College Art Club. A champion of the autonomy of art, she chose Clive Bell's maxim, 'The one good thing society can do for the artist is to leave him alone—give him liberty', as the epigraph for the catalogue of the club's first exhibition (1938).

By introducing her students to modernism and modernist artists such as Eleonore Lange, Marsden played a key role in changing the way art was taught in the State's public schools. As a teacher she was influenced by the English art educational reformer William Ablett, and at Teachers' College strongly advocated innovative methods. She encouraged several generations of her students—including 'Rah' Fizelle, James Gleeson and Bernard Smith—to assist in reforming art teaching in New South Wales schools which, until the 1940s, was conducted on extremely conservative lines. Miss Marsden died on 12 July 1968 at her Artarmon home and was buried with Anglican rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Smith, The Boy Adeodatus (Melb, 1984)
  • Art and Australia, 15, no 3, Autumn 1978, p 249
  • teachers' records, Department of Education (New South Wales) Archives, Sydney
  • private information.

Citation details

Bernard Smith, 'Marsden, May (1876–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 May, 1876
Church-Stoke, Montgomeryshire, Wales


12 July, 1968 (aged 92)
Artarmon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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