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Sophia Elizabeth Steffanoni (1873–1906)

by Annette Butterfield

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Lewis Steffanoni

Lewis Steffanoni (1835-1880), illuminator and embroiderer, and Sophia Elizabeth Steffanoni (1873-1906), artist, were father and daughter. Lewis was born on 14 September 1835 at Holborn, London, son of Luigi Guiseppe Steffanoni, upholsterer, reputedly an Italian nobleman, and his second wife Sophia Elizabeth, née Samweis, who was Jewish and German-born. The family business at Holborn catered to the upper and middle classes with gilding and coats of arms in gold bullion embroidery. Lewis made badges and flags for the Royal Navy. He migrated and reached Sydney on 9 November 1852 in the City of Poonah, travelling first class—with forty-eight needlewomen in steerage.

Living at Mrs Murphy's boarding house at the Rocks, Steffanoni ran his own business producing illuminations, testimonials, addresses and gold, silver and silk embroidery while working as a clerk in the advertising department of the Sydney Morning Herald. When the wedding of the Prince of Wales was celebrated in Sydney in 1863, Steffanoni painted transparencies for the five front windows of the Herald building. Portraits of the royal couple and Britannia were backlit by 600 candles, and cauldrons on the roof spouted flames—one of the outstanding 'manifestations of loyalty in the city'. He painted many such transparencies as well as oil and water-colour landscapes and seascapes, including 'the Weatherboard Falls', which he exhibited at the 1870 Intercolonial Exhibition in Sydney.

On 15 April 1869 at Pitt Street Congregational Church Steffanoni married John Fairfax's niece Sarah Ann Reading (1844-1916), who had been born at Warwick, England. Sarah's widowed mother took Lewis into partnership in the family import business, which became Reading, Son & Steffanoni. The firm made regalia, flags, badges, vestments and trappings for regiments, yacht clubs and Masonic and ecclesiastical organizations, as well as governors' uniforms and numerous elaborate illuminated addresses. Sophia was born on 8 May 1873 at Pitt Street, second daughter and third of five children.

At a meeting to form a New South Wales Academy of Art in April 1871, Steffanoni became the third member after Edward Reeve and E. L. Montefiore and joined a general committee to draw up the rules, which opened full membership to women. Steffanoni served on the council of the academy in 1871-76, designed the catalogues for the first two exhibitions and collected the paintings at the shop for each exhibition until 1875. He worked towards establishing an art training school; two Italian instructors Achille Simonetti and Giulio Anivitti were appointed. In September 1871 Steffanoni introduced (Sir) James Reading Fairfax, his cousin by marriage, to the council of the academy to fill a vacancy. This led to the Fairfax family's long philanthropic association with the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. An alcoholic, Steffanoni died of epilepsy on 29 May 1880 at Wynyard Square, Sydney, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His wife, two sons and three daughters survived him.

With five children under 9, Sarah Steffanoni took over the failing business, concentrated on embroidery and operated from a rented house, where she also took in boarders. Sophie went to Fort Street Model School. In 1886 her embroidery was exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. She attended Sydney Girls' High School in 1887-88, a contemporary of Ethel Burwell and Louise Mack, then joined the family business as full-time designer and embroiderer. In 1891 she won the prize for water-colour painting at the National Juvenile Industrial Exhibition. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, United States of America, in 1893 she exhibited an Australian Coat of Arms in gold bullion, winning a medal. (This piece was to be exhibited posthumously at the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in Melbourne in 1907.) In 1891-93 she probably attended the Art Society School, where Tom Roberts was a tutor, and was a private student of W. Lister Lister.

From 1895 to 1903 Sophie's pictures featured regularly in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Art Society. She spent several summers painting in Tasmania with Kate Cowle—who later married Gustav Weindorfer—and in Melbourne with Jane Sutherland. In 1901 Sophie's work in the R.A.S.'s Federation Exhibition received favourable reviews: 'In her sea pieces this artist is always attractive; the glint of sunlit waves and spray, the turgid, rough water, the rich-hued rocks, the distant cliffs, the wonderful skies are all painted with a hand that never errs'. By 1903 her reputation was established and her painting, 'Paradise Hill, Blackheath', was depicted in the Sydney Mail with others by Fred Leist, Sydney Long, George Collingridge, Dattilo Rubbo and Lister. In the early 1900s ill health confined her to her home in North Sydney, where she died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 1 November 1906. She was buried with Congregational forms in Rookwood cemetery.

Sophie's mother Sarah ran the family embroidery business until her death in 1916, when it was taken over by Sophie's sister Alice (1875-1956). The Mitchell Library, Sydney, holds an illuminated address made by Lewis Steffanoni, apparently the only one of many to survive. The family holds most of Sophie's paintings.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Kerr (ed), The Dictionary of Australian Artists (Melb, 1992)
  • J. Kerr (ed), Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book (Syd, 1995)
  • A. Butterfield, ‘Lewis Steffanon--1835-1880’, Australian Antique Collector, Jan-June 1992, p 59
  • A. Butterfield, ‘Sophie Staffanoni (1873-1906--Sydney Woman Impressionist’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol 2, no 1, 2001, p 27
  • Sydney Mail, 8 Apr 1903, p 859
  • family information.

Citation details

Annette Butterfield, 'Steffanoni, Sophia Elizabeth (1873–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 May, 1873
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 November, 1906 (aged 33)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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