Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ellen Nora Payne (1865–1962)

by Mary Dufour

This article was published:

Ellen Nora Payne (1865-1962), woodcarver, was born on 7 January 1865 at Westfield, Westbury, Tasmania, twelfth of fourteen children of Thomas William Field, farmer and politician, and his wife Elizabeth, née Lindsay. Educated at home and from 1878 at the Ladies' Grammar School, Hobart Town, Nellie enjoyed a happy childhood. An Anglican, she formed a lasting attachment to St Andrew's Church, Westbury, which she was later to write about and furnish with her carvings, and where on 6 January 1887 she married Charles Alexander Payne (d.1925), an English medical practitioner.

The Paynes lived in Hobart until 1891 when they moved to Melbourne where Charles set up practice in Richmond and Ellen took her first lessons in woodcarving from Robert Prenzel. Visiting England in 1899, Dr Payne decided to pursue his medical career there with a brief appointment as personal physician to the Duke of Teck. In 1900, in Kent, Ellen established a studio and Charles a small psychiatric hospital.

Keen to continue her training, Ellen enrolled at the School of Art, Goldsmiths' College, University of London, graduating in woodcarving, design and associated crafts. Her design master Amor Fenn praised her technical knowledge, describing her work as 'energetic and strong in temperament'. Between 1901 and 1906 she also attended the South Kensington School of Art, taking courses in painting, clay modelling, leather work, copper work and embroidery. Returning to Tasmania in 1906, she submitted a china cupboard in the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work, 1907. Much-acclaimed, her entry was awarded numerous prizes.

From 1908 the Paynes lived permanently in Hobart. Over a period of forty years, working within the shadow of the two great wars, Ellen carved no fewer than thirty-four dower chests for relations and friends. More significantly, she fulfilled numerous requests from churches, schools, private firms and institutions for carved memorial and patriotic objects. Using Tasmanian blackwood, cedar, European oak, walnut and mahogany, she adopted a style which reflected the contemporary revival of medieval forms as well as the fashionable Art Nouveau.

During World War I Mrs Payne conducted private classes in woodcarving and volunteered as an instructor in handicrafts for disabled returned soldiers. Items of her work were presented to members of the royal touring-party in Tasmania in 1920-21 and, at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, England, in 1924, she received a commemorative medal for her blackwood screen commissioned by the Tasmanian government. In 1938 she completed the magnificent 'Seven Sisters' chancel screen for St Andrew's Church, Westbury, in memory of her seven dead sisters, and next year a coat of arms for Parliament House, Hobart.

A tall, good-looking woman possessed of great patience and physical strength, Ellen Payne continued to work until her early nineties, completing her last major work for the church, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, London, in 1953. Survived by a son and daughter, she died peacefully in Hobart on 31 January 1962; her ashes lie in the cemetery at St Andrew's. Her younger son Alan Field (1896-1925) was Tasmanian Rhodes scholar for 1917.

Select Bibliography

  • British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924-25, Official Catalogue (Lond, 1924)
  • R. O. Atkinson, Ellen Nora Payne (Launc, 1975)
  • K. Fahy et al, Nineteenth Century Australian Furniture (Syd, 1985)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Nov 1907
  • E. N. Payne papers (privately held).

Citation details

Mary Dufour, 'Payne, Ellen Nora (1865–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Field, Ellen Nora

7 January, 1865
Westbury, Tasmania, Australia


31 January, 1962 (aged 97)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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.