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Rachel Mary Roxburgh (1915–1991)

by Megan Martin

This article was published:

Rachel Mary Roxburgh (1915-1991), artist, educator, conservationist, and architectural heritage campaigner, was born on 21 September 1915 at Point Piper, Sydney, eldest child of Sydney-born parents John Norton Roxburgh, bank inspector, and his wife Norah Marjorie, née Carleton. Rachel was educated at Ascham School, Darling Point, gaining her Intermediate certificate in 1932. Having studied art at East Sydney Technical College and the Adelaide Perry Art School, she exhibited with the Contemporary Group and the Society of Artists, and at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. In 1940, early in World War II, she organised a loan exhibition of works by Australian and international artists in aid of an ambulance fund organised by the Sydney Artists’ and Journalists’ Fund. She later served as a member of a Voluntary Aid Detachment before qualifying as a nurse at Sydney Hospital.

After the war Roxburgh lived and worked in London for ten years. She studied drawing at the Central School of Art; travelled and sketched in France, Italy, and Spain; and painted in Cornwall. She sent pictures back to Australia in 1949 for an exhibition of Sydney artists working abroad and had a painting hung in the annual London Group exhibition for 1953. She worked as an assistant to the textile designer Michael O’Connell, and took on commissions for painted mural decoration through the furniture retailer, Heal’s.

Roxburgh had a modest income from a family trust, which she further supplemented by casual work making period costumes for productions at the Old Vic theatre, private nursing, dressmaking, and teaching art as therapy in rehabilitation hospitals. About 1950 she had begun to consider pottery as a possible livelihood and later enrolled at the Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts, winning the annual prize for pottery in 1953. She worked part-time at the Kenneth Clark Pottery in West London.

On her return to Australia in 1956 Roxburgh had a solo exhibition of paintings at the Bissietta Art Gallery, Sydney. She became a member of the newly formed Potters Society of New South Wales, exhibiting in its inaugural group show at the Macquarie Galleries in 1958. She sold pots through the fashionable interior decorating firm Marion Best Pty Ltd and later through the David Jones Art Gallery. For more than twenty years she taught art and pottery at a number of schools including East Sydney Technical College, Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, and the Abbotsleigh and Ravenswood schools for girls. Roxburgh continued to exhibit her pots until the late 1970s but in the 1960s her driving passion became the preservation of historic buildings, catalysed by the doomed campaign to save The Vineyard, Hannibal Macarthur’s fine Greek Revival villa at Rydalmere, Sydney.

She joined the National Trust of Australia (NSW), becoming a member of its council (1961-67) and executive (1961-63). Roxburgh served on the trust’s historical and architectural survey committee, working to identify and classify the colonial architectural heritage of New South Wales. She also joined the women’s committee, founded to raise funds for the trust. It was a natural vehicle for her considerable talent for campaigning. She was the chief organiser of No Time To Spare, the landmark exhibition in  1962 of the trust’s newly released ‘A’ list of buildings, and was the key figure in a huge and successful campaign to raise funds for the restoration of St Matthew’s Church of England, Windsor, designed by Francis Greenway. The trust made her an honorary life member in 1968. Her passion for Australia’s early colonial buildings and commitment to increasing public understanding of their significance turned Roxburgh into a writer. Her major work was Early Colonial Houses of New South Wales (1974). This was followed by Colonial Farm Buildings of New South Wales (1978) and by other books and articles.

In 1968 Roxburgh moved to Moss Vale, converting an old barn, once part of the historic Throsby Park property, into a residence. She was appointed chairman of the Throsby Park Advisory Committee following the State government’s purchase of the property in 1975. An office holder of the National Parks Association, she was active in the campaign to save the south-east forests and she served on the National Parks Advisory Council (1981-84). Roxburgh was elected to the Wingecarribbee Shire Council (1977-80) on a platform of planned development. She was the shire’s first elected female councillor and was awarded the British Empire Medal (1979).

As a young woman Roxburgh had been a competitive equestrienne and a keen surfer. In later years she was an ardent bushwalker, observing birds and studying wildflowers. She was a woman of strong convictions, rarely given to compromise, and was described as ‘patrician in bearing and manner, she was undaunted by politicians, municipal officers and bureaucrats’ (Schofield 1991, 45). Roxburgh never married.  She died of leukaemia on 13 April 1991 at Lumeah Nursing Home, Castle Hill, Sydney, and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Fahy, Kevin. ‘Rachel Roxburgh (1915-1991).’ National Trust Quarterly, July 1991, 11
  • Graham, Flora. ‘Rachel Roxburgh.’ National Parks Journal, August 1991, 21
  • Schofield, Leo. ‘Leo at Large.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1991, 45
  • Simpson, Caroline, Annette Fielding-Jones Dupree, and Betty Winn Ferguson, eds. Ascham Remembered 1886-1986. Sydney: Fine Arts Press, 1986
  • Simpson, Caroline. The Power of Four. Talk given for the Friends of the S. H. Ervin Gallery, National Trust Centre, Sydney, 3 April 1995.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Megan Martin, 'Roxburgh, Rachel Mary (1915–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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