Heliodore “Dore” Hawthorne was born in the inner-city suburb of Newtown, the ninth child of ten. A day job designing patterns in an embroidery factory enabled her to take evening classes at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. Teachers such as Grace Crowley influenced Hawthorne greatly by exposing the young artist to European modernism. During the 1920s, Hawthorne co-edited the publication "Undergrowth: a magazine of youth and ideals", which was an important forum for budding modernists and anti-establishment writers. Long-held friendships with Crowley and Dorrit Black, coupled with an early association with the Studio of Realist Art (SORA), saw Hawthorne develop into a quiet yet dedicated exponent of modernism in Australia.
Hawthorne’s lack of financial means seemed to suit her lifestyle: she was frugal, had a strong social conscience, and abhorred materialism and commercialism. It was more than just the need to earn a living that saw her respond to the call for factory workers in Australia during the Second World War. Between 1942 and 1945 Hawthorne fitted precision gauges to components of the Bren gun at the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow, New South Wales. She also sketched her fellow workers, the machines and buildings, her lodgings, and the town.
Early 1945, noted art historian and critic Bernard Smith visited Lithgow with the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition "150 years of Australian art". Then an education officer, Smith saw some of Hawthorne’s sketches and encouraged her to exhibit them. War’s end saw Hawthorne and many others retrenched as the need for munitions manufacture abated and positions were made available for returning servicemen. Now unemployed, she turned her attention to making 40 oils and watercolours. The exhibition of her "Factory Folk" series was opened by Smith on 12 November, 1945, at the Littleton Hostel, Lithgow. It was then exhibited at SORA in Sydney between 18 February and 2 March 1946.
Each painting in the series is signed “Brendorah”, a conflation of the Bren gun she worked on during the war and the phonetic spelling of her first name. These paintings depict non-heroic workers – or “operatives”, as Hawthorne called them – caught up in the treadmill of munitions production. She designed the accompanying catalogue, adapting the motif of the Bren gun for a linocut front-cover design. Each work is listed with pithy descriptions that capture the minutiae of factory work, the living conditions, the idiosyncrasies of the workers, and the role of the machines. Hawthorne was a keen observer, and these works are humorous reflections on the factory that had been her home and the people who had been her family, for three years during the war.
Like many of her contemporaries, Hawthorne never married. Unlike many other Australian women modernists, Hawthorne never travelled overseas. Hawthorne’s "Factory folk" series is a pictorial diary of the life of factory workers, and provide us with insight into the Australian home front, how hard munitions manufacture must have been and the dedicated support back home of those serving overseas.