Faded remnants of a lost interior

 

An important collection of furnishing textiles from the 1930s finds a new home in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.

In Melbourne in the early 1930s some of the most interesting new interiors featured hand-block-printed textiles designed by a young artist named Michael O’Connell (1898–1976). Printed on linen, silk or cotton, O’Connell’s abstract, geometric or figurative designs were used for upholstery, curtains and wall-hangings.

An artist–craftsman

Michael O’Connell came to Australia following his demobilisation from the British Army at the end of World War I. In the 1920s he began making concrete garden pots and garden furniture, collaborating with garden designer Edna Walling to create a formal courtyard garden for an exhibition at the Bourke Street rooms of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Society. In 1930 O’Connell began to design and print textiles and soon established a design practice that was new to Australia: the artisanal production of modernist printed fabrics by an artist–craftsman.

O’Connell’s reputation quickly spread beyond Melbourne. First his designs were published in the Australian magazine The Home. Then, in August 1933, he had a prestigious solo exhibition at Farmer’s department store in George Street, Sydney, and two months later his wall-hangings were featured in the annual exhibition of the NSW Society of Arts and Crafts. His furnishing textiles began to appear in the homes of Sydney’s tastemakers, including Mrs John Fairfax’s house in Bellevue Hill and the Woollahra residence of interior designer Marion Hall Best.

Fragment of Sirens wall-hanging, Michael O’Connell, c1931, linocut on linen. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. © Estate of Michael O’Connell. All rights reserved

A patron of advanced taste

One of O’Connell’s most important clients at this time was Maie Casey, wife of Richard Casey, newly elected member of the House of Representatives for Corio in Victoria, later Governor of Bengal in India and Governor-General of Australia. The Caseys moved to Canberra in 1932 and set up house at Duntroon. Maie Casey, known for her advanced taste, furnished her house with O’Connell curtains and wall-hangings alongside austere timber furniture by Fred Ward and ultra-modern Thonet tubular steel dining chairs.

O’Connell left Australia in 1937. The Caseys moved to Washington in 1940. The Duntroon interior was dismantled but, fortunately, not entirely lost. The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) has recently acquired three fully constructed wall-hangings, and a fragment of another, from the estate of Lady Casey.

The O’Connell/Casey textiles are a valuable addition to the CSL&RC’s significant collection of provenanced Australian furnishing textiles, a collection we continue to build in part with the generous support of Sydney Living Museums Foundation donors.

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About the Author

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Megan Martin
Head, Collections & Access
Megan is the head of Collections & Access at Sydney Living Museums. She has a particular interest in the working of the historical imagination, in teasing out the meanings of objects in museums collections and in crafting the stories that can be recovered/discovered through a close reading of those items of material culture.

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