Mary Harris (1891–1978) [by Charles Stevenson]

Mary Harris’s ministry in meeting was a weekly treasure. Not only because of her magnificent Scottish lilt, but because of the poetry she shared. She inspired many an attender to purchase that poetry to read more – Tagore, John Masefield, Robert Browning, Francis Thompson, Wilfred Owen, … Whatever the theme in meeting for worship, Mary Harris could enliven it by quoting some relevant poem. She would speak passionately, too, about her deep and sincere concerns: anguish for the plight of Aborigines, capital punishment, the insanity of war, torture and imprisonment. She not only wrote and worked tirelessly for justice and peace, it was her life.

Mary Harris at ‘Bundilla’ with
a William Ricketts’ sculpture

She rode her bicycle to meeting, from her home in Walkerville Terrace. She was always dressed in Quaker grey. She seemed to have her own special seat in meeting, near the front on the left hand side. She knew intimately, and warmly, all the Friends of the meeting. She spoke passionately about those who had gone before, breathing life into mere names. Many would receive her letters of encouragement, for Mary Harris was a prolific writer, not only to individuals, including her friends across the world, but to the newspapers. Countless letters appeared in the Advertiser, the News and the South Australian Farmer, signed ‘Mary P. Harris’ on the subjects of war and justice.

Having obtained a doctorate in art at the Edinburgh College of Art, Mary Harris taught in several Scottish schools. She arrived in Adelaide with her parents in 1921 and the following year took up a position as lecturer in the history and appreciation of art at the Adelaide School of Art and Crafts. She taught there for thirty years. For a decade from 1937, Mary Harris lectured at the National Gallery of South Australia. Her two books Art the Torch of Life and The Cosmic Rhythm of Art and Literature are a lasting memorial to her teaching and insights. So were a generation of her students. The Australian Dictionary of biography gives an insight into Mary Harris’s unique ability:

In 1930 she was asked by the Education Department to teach English literature and the history and appreciation of art at the Girls’ Central Art School, a new institution within the School of Arts and Crafts. From these classes came a series of plays—often based on the lives of artists—which were written, acted and presented by her students, with costumes and settings devised from the materials and gardens at hand.

She organized many important art exhibitions, and was enthusiastic not only about paintings, but about woodcuts, tapestry, needlework, and prints. She was a great encourager. One of her students, Ivor Francis, said ‘the sense of purpose and happiness her inspired teaching and guidance brought me. What more can one ask of life than to have had a good teacher?’

’The Hidden Splendour’
by Mary Harris

From 1952 Mary Harris’s home and studio Bundilla, (meeting place of waters) in Walkerville, became a haven for many. Her home was full of art work, by herself, her students, and others. In her garden sanctuary were many sculptures of Aborigines, the work of William Ricketts, her ‘Brother Billy’ whom she enthusiastically supported. She was proud of a gum leaf on which he had written her a message from his studio in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. She was proud too of the crack in the stained-glass of her front door ‘That was done by the Mayor of Walkerville. He left in such a rage’, she said with a gleam. She had incensed him by her unswerving sense of right, and by her opposition to the construction of a high rise building nearby on the site where Hans Heysen had once painted.

Although she came from a long line of Quakers, Mary Harris herself only became a member in 1929, having been profoundly influenced by Friends, particularly Annie Wilton. Most Friends of her era hung one or more of Mary Harris’s paintings in their homes – of the iman at the Islamic Temple in West Adelaide, Humbug Scrub, animals, gardens – which always reflected about some deep issue about which she felt strongly.

She bequeathed her cottage to the Walkerville Council, but they refused the bequest, perhaps because of the small size of the cottage. She had the reserve next to her home named The Howie Reserve, in appreciation of the Principal of the School of Arts and Crafts. It was subsequently renamed The Mary P Harris Reserve.

Mary Harris was an absolute pacifist and a vegetarian. Her autobiography In One Splendour Spun was an affirmation of her ideals, and her appreciation of beauty in all its simplicity. Published and produced by Fred and Barbara Whitney, it deals with her forthright opposition to war, her campaigns against the H Bomb tests in the Pacific, and against the Vietnam War; it also outlines the many ideas, encounters and incidents of a long and full life.

Charles Stevenson

‘Testimony to the Grace of God in the Life of Mary Packer Harris’, Minutes of Religious Society of Friends South Australia Regional Meeting October 1979
Who’s Who in Art p. 253.
Advertiser (Adelaide) 20 June 1922, 21 May 1923, 21 May 1924, 9 Apr 1946, 4 May 1954, 4 Dec 1963, 11 Oct 1977, 28 Aug 1978, 31 July 1979
Australian, 31 May-1 June 1980.
Australian Dictionary of Biography 1890-1964.
Harris, M, ‘Art the Tortured Life’ in Lionel Lindsay, Addled Arts, 1942.
Harris, M, In One Splendour Spun: Autobiography of a Quaker Artist, Published by the Author, 1971.
Harris, M, Art the Torch of Life, Rigby, Adelaide, 1946.
Harris, M, The Cosmic Rhythm of Art and Literature, Frank Cork, Adelaide 1948

A print by Mary Harris

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