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Charles Pearcy Mountford (1890–1976)

by Philip Jones

This article was published:

Charles Pearcy Mountford (1890-1976), by unknown photographer, 1947

Charles Pearcy Mountford (1890-1976), by unknown photographer, 1947

National Archives of Australia

Charles Pearcy Mountford (1890-1976), anthropologist, was born on 8 May 1890 at Hallett, South Australia, son of South Australian-born parents Charles Mountford, farmer, and his wife Arabella, née Windsor. He attended public schools at Hallett, Georgetown and Moonta, and began working for his father at the age of 10. After the family moved to Adelaide, 'Monty' (as he was nicknamed) took a job as a tram conductor in 1909 and began correspondence courses in mechanics and engineering at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. Appointed an electrical mechanic with the Municipal Tramways Trust, he moved to the Postmaster-General's Department in 1913. At the Methodist Church, Thebarton, on 18 March 1914 he married Florence Julge Purnell, a 23-year-old clerk; they were to have two children.

In 1920 Mountford was promoted senior mechanic and sent to the Darwin Post Office. Contact with Aborigines at the Kahlin Compound sparked his interest in their ceremonies and lore. He also began to investigate the region's natural history. Returning to Adelaide, he experienced personal loss with the death of his wife in 1925 and consoled himself by making tracings of Aboriginal rock-carvings near his parents' Peterborough farm. In 1926, with Norman Tindale of the South Australian Museum, he published a paper on the carvings; in 1928 he spoke on the subject at the conference of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mountford and his father had become foundation members (1926) of the Anthropological Society of South Australia. Encouraged by its president Frederic Wood Jones, he surveyed engravings around Panaramittee and Mount Chambers Gorge. On 28 October 1933 at the Gartrell Memorial Methodist Church, Rose Park, he married Bessie Ilma Johnstone, a 42-year-old civil servant. In 1935 he was appointed secretary of a board of inquiry to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, at Hermannsburg and Ayers Rock. Later that year he joined Tindale, C. J. Hackett, a physical anthropologist, and E. O. Stocker, a cine-photographer, on an expedition (under the auspices of the University of Adelaide's board for anthropological research) to the Warburton Range, Western Australia. He worked as stills-photographer and art recorder, and returned with many photographs and over 400 crayon drawings depicting sites and dreaming-tracks.

After accompanying the board's expedition to the Granites, Northern Territory, in 1936, Mountford joined another to Nepabunna Mission, Flinders Ranges, South Australia, in 1937. He revisited Nepabunna several times: his photographs, recordings, and notes on mythology, material culture and social customs constituted an unmatched ethnographic record of the Adnyamathanha people. In 1938 he went with (Sir) Archibald Grenfell Price's expedition to Mount Dare station to investigate an alleged sighting of the remains of Ludwig Leichhardt's party. An accomplished Workers' Educational Association lecturer in ethnology, Mountford had published several scientific papers and a series of newspaper articles, and completed two years as an honorary assistant in ethnology at the South Australian Museum. In the P.M.G.'s Department, he had also conducted successful research into the corrosive effects of electrolysis on underground cables.

In mid-1938 Mountford took a year's leave from the department to work as acting-ethnologist at the museum. He planned a camel expedition from Ernabella to Ayers Rock to examine the art of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara. Adolphus Elkin dissuaded the Carnegie trust from funding Mountford's project on the ground of his amateur status, but he was supported by the board for anthropological research and private sponsors. The four-month expedition in 1940, with Lauri Sheard and the cameleer Tommy Dodd, resulted in a detailed survey of the art and mythology of Ayers Rock and the Olgas. Mountford's exhibitions of photographs, his book, Brown Men and Red Sand (Melbourne, 1948), and his prize-winning film of the same name became springboards for his later career. In 1942 he travelled through the MacDonnell Ranges, documenting the art of sacred objects and recording the journey in his film, Tjurunga. He also made another influential film, Namatjira the Painter, which accompanied his illustrated book, The Art of Albert Namatjira (Melbourne, 1944).

Mountford's ease as a speaker and enthusiasm as a presenter of his films and photographs led to his engagement as a lecturer by the Commonwealth Department of Information. His tours (1945, 1946) of the United States of America brought Aboriginal art to the notice of an international audience and made him influential friends. Invited to apply to the National Geographic Society for an ethnological research grant, he led a N.G.S.-funded field-trip to Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, in 1948. He published a detailed account of the region's art and produced three more films. Collections of bark-paintings gathered on this trip were distributed among the country's art galleries and museums, influencing future acquisition policies. He went on further expeditions to Arnhem Land (1949), to Yuendumu, Northern Territory (1951), and to Melville Island (1954).

In the 1950s and 1960s Mountford published several books based on his journeys and photographs. They included The Tiwi (London, 1958), which recorded their ceremonial and artistic life, and Winbaraku (Adelaide, 1967), which documented the Central Australian dreaming-track of the 'Mulga Snake' Jarapiri. Mountford retired from the Commonwealth Public Service in 1955 and was appointed O.B.E. that year. Supported by the Nuffield Foundation, he entered St John's College, Cambridge (Dip.Anthrop., 1959), wrote a thesis on Aboriginal art and inspected museum collections in Europe. His final expeditions to survey rock art in the regions of Port Hedland, Western Australia, and Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, were undertaken in 1963 and 1964 respectively.

The thesis which Mountford submitted at the University of Adelaide (M.A., 1964) was subsequently published as Ayers Rock, Its People, Their Beliefs and Their Art (Sydney, 1965). He and the artist Ainslie Roberts became widely known for their joint publications—The Dreamtime (1965), The Dawn of Time (1969) and The First Sunrise (1971)—dealing with Aboriginal mythology. In 1973 Mountford donated his manuscripts and his collection of 13,000 photographs to the State Library of South Australia. Concentrating his efforts on an illustrated analysis of Central Australian Aboriginal art and mythology, he worked from his office in the museum and, at the age of 86, completed his magnum opus, Nomads of the Australian Desert (1976). The book contained images of restricted Aboriginal subjects and was withdrawn from sale soon after publication.

Mountford had been presented with the Australian Natural History medallion (1945) by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and the Franklin L. Burr award (1949) by the National Geographic Society; in 1955 the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia awarded him its John Lewis gold medal and the Queensland branch awarded him its Thomson gold medal; he won the Sir Joseph Verco medal (1971) of the Royal Society of South Australia, and received an honorary Litt.D. (1973) from the University of Melbourne and a D.Litt. (1976) from the University of Adelaide. His tallish, stooped figure and his courteous manner belied that combination of physical energy and scepticism of the academic establishment which had underpinned his life's work. Survived by his wife, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 16 December 1976 at Norwood and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Lamshed, 'Monty' (Adel, 1972)
  • People (Sydney), 11 Oct 1950, p 24
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, no 7, Jan 1977
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Apr, 17 Dec 1976
  • Mountford-Sheard Collection of Ethnology (State Library of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Philip Jones, 'Mountford, Charles Pearcy (1890–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 July 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

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