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Kathleen Rennie McArthur (1915–2000)

by Susan Davis

This article was published online in 2024

Portrait of Kathleen McArthur, by Lina Bryans, 1960s

Portrait of Kathleen McArthur, by Lina Bryans, 1960s

Estate of the Artist. Courtesy of Alexandra Moreno

Kathleen Rennie McArthur (1915–2000), artist, conservationist, and author, was born on 11 June 1915 in Brisbane, third of five children of Victorian-born Daniel Edward Evans, engineer, and his Queensland-born wife, Catherine Mary (also known as Kathleen or Kit), née Durack, of the pioneering pastoralist family. The daughter of two prominent families, her father having co-founded the Queensland engineering firm Evans Deakin & Co. Ltd, Kathleen grew up in Cardington, a sprawling Queenslander on six acres (2.4 ha) at Coorparoo, Brisbane. From 1934 the family also had a holiday home at Caloundra, a coastal town north of Brisbane. She attended Coorparoo State School and was one of the first students at the nearby Loreto Convent in 1928, where she enjoyed sport and elocution and was head girl. Leaving secondary school early, she attended classes at the Brisbane Polytechnic and led the life of a socialite before opening a book lending club and working at the department store Finney Isles & Co. in the book section.

In 1937 Evans became engaged to Malcolm Hugh McArthur, a New South Wales-born army officer, who was stationed in Brisbane. They married on 22 June 1938 at Cardington with Catholic rites. She subsequently accompanied him on postings in India, Perth, Canberra, and Melbourne before buying a house at Caloundra in 1943. The house was named Midyim, the Aboriginal name for the sand berry plant (Austromyrtus dulcis), a word shared by her ‘laundress’ and later friend Sylvia Fox (née Dalton), an Aboriginal woman who grew up at Minjerribah/North Stradbroke Island. McArthur's marriage became strained after World War II and Kathleen was granted a divorce in 1947 when evidence emerged that her husband had been unfaithful. She subsequently visited Britain and her sister in Kenya with her three children: Catherine, Alexandra, and Hugh.

McArthur started painting wildflowers in earnest around 1950. Though principally a self-taught artist who learnt in the field, she honed her skills by studying books and the work of other botanical artists. A seminal year of learning occurred in 1953, when she created a monthly record of native flowers in bloom across the region. The content generated was to influence her art and writing for decades. She went on to campaign for small pockets of wallum country to be designated as wildflower reserves. During these years she also developed a close friendship with Judith Wright, with whom she shared wildflowering experiences and a deep love of the environment. Both women became increasingly involved in conservation and activism.

By the end of the 1950s, McArthur’s wildflower paintings were being sold and exhibited in Queensland and interstate. In 1959 she published her first book, Queensland Wildflowers, which comprised text and her own illustrations. Her art and activism were motivated by a desire to change attitudes towards coastal environments and make Queenslanders ‘wildflower conscious’ (McArthur 1959, 2). ‘The wildflowers of a nation play a big part in its culture,’ she wrote. ‘What is not recognisable will not be saved. So, with great urgency let us get to know our wildflowers’ (McArthur 1959, 1). Across her lifetime she published ten books and hundreds of newspaper articles. She also donated plant and bird specimens to the Queensland Herbarium and the Queensland Museum.

In 1962 McArthur co-founded the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (vice-president 1962) with Wright, David Fleay, and Brian Clouston, initially to support publication of the magazine Wildlife (later Wildlife Australia). She also established the Caloundra branch of the WPSQ (later Wildlife Queensland Sunshine Coast and Hinterland Inc.), where she served as secretary (1963–75) and education officer (1975–85) while editing their monthly newsletter (1963–85). The branch became a staging ground for grassroots activism. One major conservation initiative was the Cooloola postcard campaign, which sought to protect the high dunes and coloured sands that were threatened by sand mining and pastoral lease applications. In 1969 McArthur coordinated a nation-wide campaign targeting the Queensland government and conservative premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Soon after, the premier agreed to establish a national park, though ongoing campaigning was required before Cooloola National Park (later Great Sandy National Park) was gazetted in 1975.

Well into the 1980s McArthur advocated for the protection of coastal environments, including Pumicestone Passage, a narrow waterway between Bribie Island and the Queensland mainland, which was added to the Register of the National Estate in 1992. As well as travelling to other parts of Queensland for wildflower painting and bird watching, she ran a native plant nursery at Midyim, gave talks at schools, and established a local wildflower festival in 1967 (later the Sunshine Coast Wildflower Festival). She also launched a lunch-hour theatre program in Caloundra in 1976 and continued to produce monthly playscripts until 1996, even as she struggled with declining health and memory. In 1994, in recognition of her contribution to conservation in Queensland, a species of spider, Ozicrypta mcarthurae, was named after her. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by James Cook University of North Queensland in 1996, and in her later years she contributed to a biography written by Margaret Somerville, which was published posthumously. On 23 August 2000 she died from cancer at St Mary’s Nursing Home in Caloundra, and was buried in Caloundra cemetery. She was survived by her children.

McArthur was fair-skinned, with a slim build, piercing blue eyes, and dark hair that whitened with age. She was known for her great determination and commanding presence, and demonstrated leadership and commitment with her ability to research issues and argue a case. Her lifestyle was informed by the desire to live in harmony with the environment, and she treasured her independence. In 2002 she was chosen as the Sunshine Coast Daily’s Citizen of the Century, and a memorial scholarship was established at the University of the Sunshine Coast. The following year the Currimundi Lake Conservation Park was renamed in her honour.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • McArthur, Kathleen. Bread & Dripping Days: An Australian Growing Up in the 20’s, illustrated by David Bromley. Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1981
  • McArthur, Kathleen. Living on the Coast. Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1989
  • McArthur, Kathleen. Looking at Australian Wildflowers. Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press, 1986
  • McArthur, Kathleen. Queensland Wildflowers: A Selection. Brisbane: Jacaranda Press/Kathleen McArthur, 1959
  • Somerville, Margaret. Wildflowering: The Life and Places of Kathleen McArthur. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2004

Additional Resources

Citation details

Susan Davis, 'McArthur, Kathleen Rennie (1915–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcarthur-kathleen-rennie-33448/text41818, published online 2024, accessed online 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Portrait of Kathleen McArthur, by Lina Bryans, 1960s

Portrait of Kathleen McArthur, by Lina Bryans, 1960s

Estate of the Artist. Courtesy of Alexandra Moreno

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Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Evans, Kathleen Rennie
Birth

11 June, 1915
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Death

23 August, 2000 (aged 85)
Caloundra, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (pancreatic)

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.

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