Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Margaret Thomas (1842–1929)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published:

View Previous Version

Margaret Thomas, self-portrait, c.1881

Margaret Thomas, self-portrait, c.1881

reproduced by kind permission of North Hertfordshire Museum Service, England

Margaret Thomas (1842-1929), artist, sculptor and author, was born on 23 December 1842 at Croydon, Surrey, England, daughter of Thomas Cook, a shipowner. She came with her parents to Melbourne in 1852. Taught by C. Summers, she was the first woman to study sculpture in Victoria and was later described by D. B. W. Sladen as 'the first Australian-bred sculptor of eminence'. Her work was first shown when the Victorian Society of Fine Arts held its initial exhibition in December 1857; she lived at Richmond and continued to exhibit regularly. Her oil paintings and drawings as well as her popular medallion portraits and busts were noted by Melbourne critics. She also had a bust and plaster figure accepted for the London International Exhibition, 1862. Commenting on her work shown at the Fine Arts exhibition of January 1863, James Smith wrote that her 'essays in sculpture betoken the diligent exercise of no ordinary plastic skill, and contain the promise of future excellence'; the Illustrated Melbourne Post, 3 January 1863, acknowledged her 'persevering industry … true poetic feeling … undoubtedly spiritual element … innate love of the beautiful … refined delicacy of pure taste …', but suggested that her hand required discipline.

About 1867 Thomas left for England and soon decided to continue her studies in Rome and Paris. Returning to London in 1870, she received a studentship next year at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she had the distinction of being the first woman awarded a silver medal for modelling at the academy schools. Between 1868 and 1880 she exhibited eleven times at the academy (six of her portraits were hung in 1874), seventeen times at the British Institution and five times in other galleries. She paid tribute to Summers in her monograph A Hero of the Workshop … (London, 1879); her memorial bust of him for the shire hall at Taunton, Somerset, brought further commissions to commemorate famous sons of the county, including Henry Fielding.

Thomas was a colourful artist, skilled in realistic portraiture. Mainly a traditionalist, she was an admirer of Turner and was influenced by neo-classicism. According to Sladen her portraits were so successful that she was able to retire and devote the rest of her life to travel and book-writing. She had a comprehensive knowledge of the picture galleries of the Continent; she published in London in 1906 a lively dissertation on How to Judge Pictures and in 1911 How to Understand Sculpture. An intrepid traveller, she wrote and illustrated A Scamper Through Spain and Tangier (1892), Two Years in Palestine and Syria … (1899) and Denmark, Past and Present (1902). She accompanied Rev. John Kelman (1864-1929) through the biblical lands and her sixty-seven coloured paintings for his book, From Damascus to Palmyra (London, 1908), included also scenes in Baalbek, Armenia and Lebanon.

Thomas's verse was published in English, American and Australian periodicals, including the Australasian; seven of her poems appeared in Sladen's Australian Poets, 1788-1888 (London, 1888) as well as other anthologies. A volume of rather erotic love poems, Friendship, Poems In Memoriam (London, 1873) was dedicated to her friend Henrietta Pilkington; she published another book of verse, A Painter's Pastime, in 1908. She never married and for some years before her death, aged 86, on 24 December 1929 she lived at Norton near Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Among her more important works in Australia are an oil painting of Summers and a plaster medallion of Sir Redmond Barry, both in the historical collection of the La Trobe Library, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • D. B. W. Sladen (ed), A Century of Australian Song (Lond, 1888)
  • H. A. (Mrs A. Patchett) Martin (ed), Coo-ee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies (Lond, 1891)
  • L. Fisher (ed), By Creek and Gully (Lond, 1899)
  • A. Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts, vol 7 (Lond, 1906)
  • W. Moore, Studio Sketches (Melb, 1906)
  • D. B. W. Sladen, Twenty Years of My Life (Lond, 1915)
  • E. W. Syme, ‘Women and art’, Centenary Gift Book, F. Fraser and Nettie Palmer eds (Melb, 1934)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1863
  • W. Moore, ‘From my scrap book’, New Triad (Sydney), 1 Nov 1927.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Thomas, Margaret (1842–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Margaret Thomas, self-portrait, c.1881

Margaret Thomas, self-portrait, c.1881

reproduced by kind permission of North Hertfordshire Museum Service, England

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cook, Margaret

23 December, 1842
Croydon, Surrey, England


24 December, 1929 (aged 87)
Norton, Herefordshire, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.