Australian Dictionary of Biography

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May Vale (1862–1945)

by Joyce McGrath

This article was published:

May Vale (1862-1945), artist, was born on 18 November 1862 at Ballarat, Victoria, second of twelve children of William Mountford Kinsey Vale, stationer, and his wife Rachel, née Lennox, both London born. In 1872 the family moved to Melbourne where May attended Honiton College, St Kilda. During her father's appointment to London in 1874-78, she went to school there and also attended the Royal School of Art at South Kensington. Back in Melbourne, she studied at the National Gallery schools (1879-86, 1888-89) under George Folingsby and Frederick McCubbin. At Mayfield, built for Georgiana McCrae and purchased by William Vale in 1886, May gave her first art lessons.

In 1890 she returned to London and studied under Sir James Linton for two years, then attended the Académie Julian in Paris for six months. On her journey home she painted David Syme's portrait; in 1892 she took a studio in Swanston Street and undertook commissions; in 1895 she moved to Flinders Buildings and set up an art school. A member (1883) of the Buonarotti Society, Vale was a councillor (1900, 1903-04) of the Victorian Artists' Society and foundation member (1888) and councillor (1901-02) of the Yarra Sculptors' Society. Some of her major works were illustrated in that society's 1902 exhibition catalogue. That year she moved to Elizabeth Street. In 1906 Vale again went to London where she studied enamelling at the Chelsea Polytechnic and attended the Burbeck Institute; she also revisited Paris and the Académie Julian. Her pictures were shown in the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work (1907) and at the V.A.S. in 1908. On 20 August at the register office, Chelsea, she married Alexander Gilfillan, a mining engineer and a friend of her youth when they had both been members of the Congregational Church.

Arriving once more in Melbourne, she exhibited in 1909 and 1910, and showed her first enamels with the Yarra Sculptors. In an interview published in Southern Sphere (1910) she rightly claimed to be a pioneer of landscape and portraits in enamel, a difficult medium in which she excelled. During World War I she held exhibitions at the V.A.S. (1915) and Besant Hall (1916) before spending time in New South Wales. She returned in 1917 and exhibited work painted there, mostly small panels of the Illawarra Ranges and the south coast.

In 1918 she exhibited for the first time with the Women's Art Club. With the exception of 1922, she exhibited annually throughout the 1920s at the Athenaeum, or in her Oxford Chambers studio where she also held classes. Working in the Australian 'impressionist' tradition, over the next decade she enjoyed painting excursions from her cabin at Diamond Creek. After her husband's death in Singapore in July 1940, May went to live at her brother's house at Black Rock and twice exhibited there during World War II. Although not obtrusive, her personality was vibrant and animated. Pleasant in appearance, with brown hair and eyes, she was robust and independent in attitude. She died on 6 August 1945 at Black Rock and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. She is represented in the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and regional galleries at Castlemaine and Warrnambool.

Select Bibliography

  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970?)
  • J. Burke (ed), Australian Women Artists (Melb, 1980)
  • Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria, Annual Report, 1870-1889
  • Southern Sphere, 1 Dec 1910, p 37
  • Buonarotti Club minutes (State Library of Victoria)
  • Artists files, indexes and newsclippings (State Library of Victoria)
  • packet 7 and miscellaneous correspondence, 1872-75, and of National Gallery of Victoria, 1871-72 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • family information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joyce McGrath, 'Vale, May (1862–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gilfillan, May

18 November, 1862
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


6 August, 1945 (aged 82)
Black Rock, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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