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decorative arts

Michael O‘Connell (1898–1976) Pioneer of Australian printed textile design In his 1934 History of Australian Art, art critic and historian William Moore wrote of Michael O’Connell’s hand block-printed textiles: ‘The range and variety of his designs show that he has rare powers of invention; and his sense of colour is very evident. One gets more stimulus from a display of his fabrics than from many an exhibition of pictures.’1 Harriet Edquist

Michael O’Connell, Pan with pots, c. 1930, linocut on linen. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Reproduced courtesy the Estate of Michael O’Connell

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While a survey of modern painting in Melbourne in 1934 will tend to confirm Moore’s opinion, today references to O’Connell have almost vanished from the histories of Australian art and his impact in Melbourne has never been examined in detail. Born in Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire in 1898, O’Connell fought on the Western front in World War One before moving to Melbourne in 1920. For three years he eked out a living as a photographer and watercolour artist, holding exhibitions at the Athenaeum Gallery and elsewhere. With money his mother had provided for agricultural studies (which he never undertook) he bought a block of land in the relatively undeveloped coastal suburb of Beaumaris where he pitched a tent and established what he called his ‘camp,’ painting and growing flowers for sale in the local shops. He began to build Barbizon in 1923, his small radical house constructed from concrete blocks which O’Connell manufactured himself, soon developing craft expertise in concrete which flowed into the making of concrete pots, plaques, tiles, masks, planters and garden furniture such as bird baths, fountains and sundials as well as small figurative works. It was this work that provided him with the income that his watercolours had not. For years his ‘garden furniture’ formed the centrepiece of the annual exhibitions of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria of which he became a

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antiques, art deco, art nouveau, art, bronzes, ceramics, collectables, furniture, textiles, works of art