Ethel Anderson: the writer who influenced art in Australia from her Turramurra home
Transnational artist and writer Ethel Anderson (née Mason, 1883–1958) left her mark in Turramurra through her boundary-pushing support of 20th-century Australian modernist artists.
From her Turramurra home ‘Ball Green’, Anderson cultivated her influence on Sydney’s modern art scene. She generously hosted artists, even clearing furniture for exhibitions to gather public support for their work. She also established the Turramurra Wall Painters Group in 1927. It was from her Turramurra home, too, that she wrote extensively on modern art alongside penning her own prose and poetry.
Born in England, Anderson soon returned, with her parents, to their fifth-generation Australian home. Anderson recalled her childhood in, “a Sydney so quiet, and so small.” In her young adulthood, British army officer, Austin Thomas Anderson, proposed to Anderson on their first meeting. They married in Bombay, India and spent the following years in now-Pakistan. According to her daughter, Bethia, “No marriage was ever happier than theirs.”
Anderson began to pursue art, first in Cambridge and then Worcestershire, while living in England following the outbreak of World War One. Although not engaging in formal training, Anderson integrated into Britain’s modern art scene. She joined the Cambridge Group and began painting murals for churches.
After an intellectually pivotal decade in England, Anderson moved with her husband and daughter to Turramurra with the intention to continue her devotion to the arts on home soil.
At Ball Green, she opened her doors to artists and writers. In exhibitions and writing, Anderson championed modernist painters like Dorrit Black, Roland Wakelin, Roy de Maistre and her neighbour Grace Cossington Smith. She continued to paint murals, including frescoes in St James, Sydney.
Anderson’s writing practice began in high school and continued throughout her years in India, England, and Australia. According to one academic, through writing, Anderson, “entered into the discourse on modernism in art, diluting its masculinity.” She was published widely in publications such as Art in Australia, Home, Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Quarterly, and the Atlantic Monthly (USA).
“As she got older,” her daughter later reflected, “the written word, which had always charmed her, became her absorbing passion… she read without ceasing, prose as well as poetry, working with concentration, absorbing knowledge, a pencil and a cap of paper always in her hands.”
In the last 18 years of her life, Anderson published eight books. After her husband's passing, she generated essential income through writing. Between 1950 and 1955, she wrote short stories for the Bulletin. She published these as a collection, At Parramatta, at the age of 73.
In 1958, two years after publishing At Parramatta, Anderson died in her Turramurra home in the presence of her daughter.
Posthumously, Anderson has been recognised as a woman disrupting a male-dominated art world, pushing modern art forward in Australia and asserting that art also belonged in everyday suburban environments. Angela Smith, in her 1991 essay, argued that although Anderson was ‘virtually ignored until the 1980s,’ her writing gives insight into Australia’s 19th and 20th gender roles and cultural life.
The State Library of New South Wales houses a collection of material relating to Anderson's life and work, including documentation of her work with the Turramurra Wall Painters.