painter, cartoonist, illustrator and craftworker, was born in Melbourne on 7 August 1869, the eldest surviving daughter of John Thomas Meeson, headmaster of Hawthorn Grammar School, and Amelia née Kipling. The Meeson family was constantly on the move between 1876 and 1896, living in London, New Zealand and Melbourne, and Dora was mainly educated at home. In the late 1880s she drew four crude watercolours over two pages of Australian Aborigines (NLA). One page shows three Aborigines wearing cloaks in their wirly (top) and two Aboorigines fishing from a bark canoe (bottom); the other depicts a large group of Aborigines in the bush (top) and three portrait busts (bottom). All seem to have been copied from photographs.
Dora studied at the Christchurch School of Art (NZ), then at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, where an unconfirmed story states that she was outright or equal first in the 1896 National Gallery Travelling Scholarship competition but withdrew in favour of George Coates , her future husband. She studied intermittently at London’s Slade School of Art in 1896-98 then in Paris at the Académie Julian in 1898-99. In 1898 her Portrait of M’selle M… was hung at the Old Salon and she became secretly engaged to Coates. In 1900 the Meeson family returned to London. Dora married George there three years later.
In their early struggling London years, Meeson and Coates did numerous illustrations for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and for Dr Henry Smith’s Historian’s History of the World . A move to Chelsea in 1906 led to Meeson adopting the Suffrage cause. She became a founding member of the Women’s Freedom League (Kensington Branch), a member of the Women’s Council of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, and a member of the Artists’ Suffrage League. For the last she illustrated booklets, designed political posters and postcards and painted the Commonwealth of Australia’s Suffrage Banner, “Trust the Women Mother As I Have Done” (oil paint on green hessian), which was made for and carried at the head of the ANZWVC Contingent in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession on 17 June 1911 – the biggest procession of all. (Myra Scott noted in 2002 that it had not been carried in two earlier processions as generally believed.) Held by the Fawcett League until 1988, the banner was sent to Australia by the National Women’s Consultative Council for the Australian Bicentennial. It was on loan to Parliament House, Canberra until 12 June 2002 – the Centenary of the Enactment of the Commonwealth Franchise Act – when the National Women’s Consultative Council officially handed it over to Australia.
Dora Meeson Coates’s design won the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)/ Artists’ Suffrage League poster competition in 1907 and was published by the NUWSS in 1908. In it 'Mrs John Bull’ holds an empty dish labelled 'Votes for Women’ while six boys – 'Primrose League’, Trade Unions’, 'Liberal Federation’, 'Women’s Liberal Association’, 'S.D.F’ and 'I.L.P’ – clamour for more soup from a large bowl labelled 'Political Help’. She says: “Now you greedy boys I shall not give you any more until I have helped myself” (ill. Tickner, p.17: the only copies known to Tickner were in the Communist Party Archives, London, and the Library of Congress, Washington – none is known in Australia). She also helped illustrate two (rare) booklets published by the Artists’ Suffrage League: TheA.B.C. of Politics for Women [Politicians] (c.1909) comprising verse by Mary Lowndes and line drawings by Lowndes, C. Hedley Charlton and Meeson (e.g. 'S then stands for Suffrage/ The question of the hour;/ Its suffering at present/ But by and by its power’, illustrated in Completing the Picture ), and Beware! A Warning to Suffragists (1909) with words by Cecily Hamilton illustrated by Meeson and Lowndes. It is unknown if copies of these booklets are held in Australia.
In September 1909 Meeson’s cartoon 'Miss Wales: “Do justice to the women, David”’ was the first cartoon to appear in Common Cause , the organ of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (published 1909-20). Signed 'D. Meeson Coates’, it depicts a woman in traditional Welsh costume with hand outstretched towards David Lloyd George who holds papers titled 'BILL/ FOR THE/ ENFRANCHISEMENT/ – OF – / WOMEN’. A paragraph headed our 'Our Cartoon’ inside explains:
This week, for the first time, we include a cartoon in the number. Wales has been so consistently Liberal for many years that we trust the Welsh to back the Chancellor in supporting women’s claims, when once they understand that the interruption of meetings from whence he has suffered is not the policy of any but a very small section of Suffragists ( Common Cause 1/25, 30 September 1909, 310).
The image was repeated as the cover of Common Cause on 3 November 1910 with a new caption. 'Miss Wales’ now says: “I am ready, David. I have helped you. When are you going to help me?”
Companions in Disgrace , a favourite pro-suffrage image of a woman graduate with a male convict (more unexpected as a suitable British topic) initialed 'D.M.’, was published on 29 December 1910. The Artists’ Suffrage League was acknowledged as printer and publisher and the image with accompanying verse by 'C.H.'had evidently first appeared as a 'comic’ postcard:
“Convicts and Women kindly note,
Are not allowed to have the vote;
The difference between the two
I will now indicate to you.
When once the harmful man of crime,
In Wormwood Scrubs has done his time,
He at the poll can have his say,
The harmless woman never may.”
Meeson’s cartoons predate May Gibbs ' contributions to Common Cause . In 1912 she was a member of the London-based Australia and NZ Women Voters’ Committee and during the war was Australian representative in London of the British Dominions Women Suffrage Union. While George served in the Royal Army Medical Corps at Wandsworth Hospital, Dora helped found the Women’s Police Service. (She appears left front in an Imperial War Museum photograph, 'Women Police Volunteers Drilling in Hyde Park, London, 8 December 1914’.)
Meeson Coates was a founding member of the Society of Mural Decorators and Painters in Tempera. In 1920, with other former members of the Artists Suffrage League, she painted a frieze showing women’s work in wartime in the hall of Danecourt at Danehill, near Brighton, home of Mrs William Corbett. In 1919 she became the first Australian woman member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters. Her war paintings include Leaving for the Front (BFAG), Members of the QMAAC in the Cookhouse at the RFA Camp, Charlton Park (Imperial War Museum) and Embarkation of the Last W.A.A.C.s’ Transport of the A.I.F. Wounded Leaving Southampton (AWM). She exhibited her paintings in Australia in 1913 and 1928 and had a major touring exhibition with her husband in 1921. Meeson was awarded a Honourable Mention at the 1923 Paris Salon.
An ardent feminist who sought financial independence, Meeson became the principal breadwinner by painting a broad range of popular subjects for the market, including sentimental topics, studies of children, tourist souvenirs and rural scenes. In her Thames River paintings, e.g. The Thames at Chelsea (1916, GAG), she attempted to break down the social barriers that limited women artists to domestic subjects by appropriating subject matter usually the preserve of male artists – marine painting – and her pictures show scenes of the smog-laden industrial waterfront where women’s presence was normally considered unacceptable. Mindful of East End poverty, she also recorded the vulnerability of working men to storms and accident. A group of 'social conscience’ paintings aimed to draw attention to official discrimination against underprivileged women, women war-workers and women artists. Dora Meeson died on 25 March 1955.
Scott, MyraNote: Heritage biography Kerr, JoanNote: additional material