painter, printmaker, illustrator and author, was born at Mosman, Sydney, on 3 December 1900, daughter of Herbert Joseph Birmingham, a doctor who was also a black-and-white artist, author of children’s books, a strict disciplinarian and a devout Catholic. Herbert’s wife was an alcoholic whom he had left behind in their native Ireland and Karna’s mother was Birmingham’s live-in maid, Kahn Marie Nielsen, a Danish woman who had previously born Herbert a son, Herbert Joseph junior. Karna was educated at Loreto College, Kirribilli. Encouraged by her father, she studied under Julian Ashton at Ashton’s Sydney Art School in 1914-20. Because 'of a lack of faith in myself & my Father’s dinning it into me from childhood that I’d never make a go of painting’, she decided 'to stick to my pen-and-ink’. Birmingham taught at Ashton’s in 1921, the year she and Olive Crane were mentioned in the Sydney Mail as young artists 'with ambitious ideas’. Birmingham was Hon. Sec. for an exhibition by 10 women held in Sydney, which sold well and received positive criticism. The following year Home reproduced her photograph by Judith Fletcher and called her 'one of the cleverest black-and-white young Australians’.
In the 1920s Birmingham exhibited with the Society of Artists alongside her friends Anne Dangar , Isabel Huntley and Grace Crowley . In 1922, for instance, Crowley exhibited a good pencil drawing of a head of an elderly woman while Birmingham showed a 'Pen drawing’ of a little girl by the edge of a river. For financial reasons, however, Birmingham was obliged to seek full-time employment and from 1922 worked at Farmer Bros. department store as a commercial artist, ticket writer and window dresser. In a letter to Mary Eagle dated 8 September 1976, she recalled: ' ...it was like being turned out of the Garden of Eden. “Commercial Art!” said one of my student friends [Dangar] “ I thought you were going to be a real artist!”’ She continued to exhibit with the Society of Artists and the Society of Women Painters in the 1920s and participated in the first exhibition of work by the Younger Group of Australian Artists, held at Anthony Hordern’s gallery in 1924. The Birthday , a story she wrote and illustrated, was published in the sophisticated art student magazine Undergrowth May-June 1927; her linocut of a tailor mending the wing of a small female angel appeared there in 1928.
Karna illustrated several children’s books, including her own Skippety Songs (Sydney, 1934), two editions of Amy Mack’s Scribbling Sue (Sydney, 1923 & 1925), The Fantail’s House (1928), The Flower Fairies (1928), The Gum Leaf that Flew (1928) and three editions (1924, 1925, 1928) of Amy Mack’s Bushland Stories ( Joyce Dennys illustrated the first edition, c.1921). Karna also illustrated Teens (1923, 1924, 1925 & 1927 edns) by Amy Mack’s sister, Louise. William Moore called her as an illustrator with a 'distinctive imaginative outlook… whose studies of children are very well drawn’.
In 1938 Karna contracted trachoma, a contagious disease of the eyes, and did not paint or draw again until 1974. She had married Robert Turvey in 1930 who, according to Terry Birmingham, drank himself to death. In 1949 she married again. She and her second husband, Arthur Alva Livingstone, ran a strawberry farm at Gosford then moved to Narooma where they had guest cabins. After Arthur shot himself in 1958, Karna moved to Turrumurra. According to Butler, she had a large house and studio there and, despite continuing problems with her eyesight, painted until the year before she died at Neutral Bay Nursing Home on 5 July 1987. Terry Birmingham says she lived in a small two-bedroom house and that her 'studio’ was the garage. According to her nephew, a friend moved Karna into the nursing home only days before she died.
Birmingham’s pen drawings, The Quince Tree and Creepers , were purchased for the Art Gallery of NSW in 1920. The Quince Tree was reproduced in a special Society of Artists Pictures number of Art in Australia that year. A collection of Karna’s papers, mainly of the 1920s-30s, remains in private collection. It includes over 20 drawings, largely of people and cats, albums and framed photographs, a collection of verses called Tinpot and two semi-biographical, manuscript novels. Birmingham also produced many exquisitely drawn bookplates; her own was given to the DAA by Mary Eagle.
IMAGES: mysterious b/w illustration (ML); Myra Cocks’s bookplate (NGA); In the Wake of the “Cheerio” 1937, linocut cover of book (NGA, ill. Butler SBD 1991, 25); 'The Quince Tree’ (AGNSW); Undergrowth linocut. Her (Four Children Fleeing from a Bat) n.d. (1920s), ink and watercolour 30.1 × 21.5 cm, Dixson Galleries, SLNSW, is clearly an illustration to a children’s story though no book using it has been located. Karna Birmingham illustrated several books for children, including her own Skippety Songs (1934) and Scribbling Sue by Amy Mack (1928). Other illustrations tend to be less intricate, suggesting that this was an early work made before her eyesight began to fail. Yet all her known illustrations are well drawn, lively and unsentimental. Even her 1920s bookplate for Myra Cocks , which shows cherubs attending the artist, is by no means saccharine; it is as much a joke about Cocks’s youthful angelic looks and far from angelic behaviour as a reference her penchant for illustrating fairy tales.
Other images establish a quite sinister atmosphere with minimal means, including a pen-and-ink illustration (ML) of three adults in early Victorian costume standing in a doorway, a woman with a warning finger to her lips facing a man shielding a young dishevelled woman from the view of anyone inside the house. Birmingham’s ability to create atmosphere, whether of pleasure, distress or the up-and-downs of contemporary childhood life, is as evident in this delicate drawing as in her 'lovely fluid line’ drawings for the 1920s reprint of Louise Mack’s Teens (first published in 1897), admired by Marcie Muir. As Muir comments, 'given greater opportunity, she would have been an outstanding children’s illustrator’.