Portrait of Sybil Craig and her cousin in the garden
of her home, Melbourne, 1939
Birth date: 18 November 1901
Birth place: Enfield, England
Death date: 14 September 1989
Death place: Melbourne, Australia
Sybil Mary Frances Craig was the third woman to be appointed as an official war artist, following the appointments of artists Stella Bowen and Nora Heysen. Born in England in 1901, she moved to Australia the following year with her parents. Encouraged by her family to study drawing, in 1920 she attended classes with John Shirlow who introduced her through reproductions to French avant-garde artists such as Matisse and Gauguin. In 1924 Craig continued her study at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and for several months took private classes with George Bell. Individual expression was encouraged in these lessons and she became associated with a group of Modernist artists including Sam Atyeo.
Craig held her first solo show at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1932 and her works showed the influence of George Bell through her use of colour, pattern and simplicity. She exhibited with the Melbourne Society of Women Painters from 1933, and was a founding member of the New Melbourne Art Club. During the war years Craig continued to exhibit and also attended meetings with the Women Painters’ National Service Group which organised activities and funding for the war effort.
In 1945 Craig was approached by the Australian War Memorial to accept the appointment of official war artist. Her appointment, along with other modern artists such as Donald Friend and Sali Herman, was in response to a call from the Australian artistic community for appointments to reflect contemporary artistic trends.
Sybil Craig, Impression: workers and capping machine, 1945
Encouraged by her parents, she accepted and began duty 1 March. Based in Melbourne, working for fourth months at the Commonwealth Ordinance Factory at Maribyrnong, she became the first female artist to paint women working in the munitions factories. As she was working in a civilian factory, Craig was able to retain her civilian status and was not required to wear a uniform. She enjoyed the company of the female workers and admired their use of the heavy machinery designed for men.
Craig’s official paintings and drawings were relatively small in size, probably because she carried her canvases and materials on the tram on her way to the munitions factory. Inspired by the industrial scenes that surrounded her, Craig continued to experiment and explored her interest in colour and design, capturing the variety of often dangerous tasks the women performed. Impression: workers and capping machine depicts civilian women working in the detonator section of the Commonwealth Explosives Factory within the repetitive environment of the industrial space. According to Craig, this was one of the most colourful sections of the factory.
Craig’s appointment concluded on 1 September 1945 at the war’s end, and she continued to work in Melbourne after the war up until the late 1950s when she dedicated herself to taking care of her parents. She is remembered for her lively paintings filled with colour and light.