painter, illustrator and teacher, was born on 10 February 1926 at Mount Gambier, South Australia, daughter of Stevenson George McGilchrist and Jean Leslie, née Mitton. As a child she and her sister were encouraged by their parents to engage in creative activities. Like many young girls, McGilchrist dreamed of being a ballerina. She attended classes and danced with Les Ballets Contemporains in Adelaide and later in Melbourne with the Modern Dance Company. Paralleling this interest were the Saturday art classes which she began at the age of ten at the SA School of Arts and Crafts and where she continued part-time studies until 1946. In that year she graduated with an Art Teacher’s Certificate from the Adelaide Teachers College but broke her teaching bond in 1948 when she failed to return from a holiday in Melbourne where she had gone to dance.

Dance eventually gave way to painting as McGilchrist undertook further part-time art studies at the Melbourne Technical College (RMIT) in 1952-55. In 1951 she held her first solo exhibition and began to exhibit regularly. The following years saw her organising the first painting therapy group at Kew Mental Hospital, designing sets and costumes for the Ballet Guild and sharing the Adelaide Advertiser prize for Contemporary Art. In 1958 she was awarded the Helena Rubinstein Mural Prize; her mural was installed at the Women’s University College in Melbourne. Throughout the 1950s she exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society and served on their Council.

A scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service and a grant from the Art Gallery of NSW’s Dyason Bequest enabled McGilchrist to pursue postgraduate work in Munich at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste (1960-61). This trip led to exhibitions in Munich and London. On her return, she established a painting school for adults (1964-77). She also taught in educational institutions at tertiary level. During the 1960s McGilchrist completed designs for postage stamps and for the Australian Ballet. Exhibitions of her paintings were mounted in most capital cities; a survey of a decade’s work was shown at the Benalla Art Gallery in 1969.

In 1970, as guest artist at the Perth Festival, she was the subject of a thirty-minute ABC television documentary on her retrospective exhibition at the University of WA. In 1978 she won first prize in the Caltex 'The Master’s Choice’ Art Award. The following year she was commissioned by the Victorian Ministry of the Arts to decorate a tram.

The advent of feminism and the women’s art movement in the mid-1970s had a profound effect on McGilchrist. She was a founding member of the Women’s Art Register and worked as the Registrar’s co-ordinator from 1978 to 1987. Her contributions to this area and to contemporary art were recognised when she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1992.

McGilchrist, who has held around forty solo exhibitions including a comprehensive retrospective at the Caulfield Arts Complex in 1995, and participated in numerous important group shows, is represented in institutional and public galleries as well as private collections in Australia, UK, Israel and USA.

In 1953-54, my sympathy and identification with the `dispossessed’ (perhaps the product of a rootless childhood and a marriage that didn’t offer me a sense of final belonging or true bonding) led me to establish art `classes’ (`art therapy’ was not yet a word to describe such activity) at Kew Mental Hospital in Melbourne, at the invitation of Dr Cunningham Dax, then Director of Mental Hygiene, an Englishman with a special interest in psychotic art and the potential value of pictorial expression as an aid to diagnosis and treatment of certain mental illnesses.

My function was simply to provide a sympathetic presence and to organise materials. Teaching as such was out of the question as most of the patients were too ill to be reached in this way; it was also preferable for diagnostic purposes that the patients should be allowed to express themselves without interference from a teacher. It was also no disadvantage that I had no special knowledge of psychiatry-though by this time I had become engrossed in the works of Freud, Jung and Adler.

I worked for about eighteen months at the hospital, one session per week on a voluntary basis. (My husband, George, supported me on humane grounds as well as financially.) There was rich material indeed, of a heart-breaking kind. The `dispossessed’-or `possessed’-were concentrated there in hundreds, perhaps thousands. Kew Hospital was a prison where patients who had been classified as `incurable’ were collected, waiting for death to release them. A series of works on what I saw and experienced at Kew was inevitable.

One of the inhumane practices at the hospital was to remove `troublesome’ or `dangerous’ patients from the wards and put them into the `airing court’ to cool off. The hospital was understaffed, the conditions primitive. The airing court was an area closed off like a tennis court with high cyclone netting fences. One had to pass it on the way to the front entrance of the hospital. It was a week-end tourist attraction! Because of my own feeling of being trapped in an unhappy marriage, I could easily identify with those patients who were taken out of one prison into another, a Kafka-like situation where there is no escape, least of all from the prison of mental illness.

As a painter, I was beginning to come to grips with the notion of composition. The arm of the figure is extended as a compositional line beyond the barrier of the fence and into the pathway surrounding a garden bed. The grotesque tree, seeming to sprout out of the patient, provides a diagonal `stop’ at the right side of the painting; this is counterbalanced on the left by the sloping walls of the building. Windows have been lined up horizontally with the patient’s eyes. The administrative building has colourful windows in contrast to the black sightlessness of those of the hospital itself and to the equally prospectless quality of the patient’s eyes.

(These comments by the artist were transcribed by Sandy Kirby from the Erica McGilchrist folders held in the Women’s Art Register, Carringbush Library, Melbourne. Slight editorial changes were made with the artist’s permission.)

Kirby, Sandy
Date written:
Last updated: