Making connections: creative characters rediscovered

Donna Braye, 20 February 2013 · # ·

It’s funny how once you have a specific focus on a particular subject you somehow develop antennae that pick up other relevant bits and pieces that like a jigsaw fit into place and tell a story. In the course of working on this project I have rediscovered some great characters.

Leon Maxwell Gellert 1892-1977

Moore, May, 1881-1931. Portrait of Leon Gellert, c. 1920. nla.pic-an11253492

I recently came across a book of poetry Songs of a Campaign published in 1917 by Leon Maxwell Gellert. For a long time I had been considering ways of doing an exhibition on Gellert, a significant character in the inter-war world of art and design in Sydney who happened to live in Mosman.

So discovering Songs of a Campaign gave me a focus and in a sense permission to research Gellert. So I read Gavin Souter’s beautifully written biography of Gellert, A Torrent of Words. This book is a goldmine: full of information and observations about Gellert and Sydney of those inter-war years.

Gellert was co-editor of Sydney Ure Smith’s influential and at times controversial Art in Australia and of the innovative interiors magazine Home. He also wrote a few books, was literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and wrote columns for various newspapers. A column in Smith’s Weekly, “The Man in the Mask” was about crimes and another in the Sunday Telegraph “Something Personal” about the ‘goings-on’ in his Mosman street, Burran Avenue. These local stories were later published in the 1950s as collected works Week after Week and Year after Year.

In A Torrent of Words Souter recounts the story of Gellert and his wife, Kathleen, coming across their home while strolling along the beaches at Balmoral with Elioth Gruner. Looking up they spied two cliff top houses which turned out to be owned by artist Harry J Weston. Weston sold the smaller cottage, ‘White Lodge’, to the couple where they lived for the rest of their married lives.

The poems in Songs of a Campaign were based on Gellert’s experiences during the First World War. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force 10th Battalion within days of war being declared he started writing on the troop ship and continued at Gallipoli during quiet times while his Battalion was in reserve. Declared medically unfit in 1916 Gellert returned to Australia, completed his collection and in 1917 published Songs of a Campaign.

Often described as Australia’s Rupert Brooke, in looks and writing style, Gellert’s sensitive and chilling poems captured the imagination, inspiring empathy in those who remained at home. His evocative descriptions of not only the events at Gallipoli but the feelings, despair and doggedness of those brave soldiers fueled a sense of national pride.

Songs of a Campaign won the University of Adelaide’s Bundey Prize for Poetry and went into three editions with the final illustrated by his friend, Norman Lindsay. Over the years some of his works have been quoted at Anzac Day services and even set to music.

Harry John Weston 1874-1955

Colour lithograph, signed ‘Harry J. Weston’ and stamped ‘W. A. Gullick Government Printer Sydney’. Source:

I was aware of Harry J Weston’s work as an artist and illustrator for a number of Australian books by authors such as Steel Rudd, his postcards, as a contributor of cartoons and caricatures to the Bulletin and designer of covers for Lone Hand.

In the early 1900s Weston published a book of caricatures All’s Well with the Fleet with 12 brilliantly coloured lithographs featuring sailors in various forms of trouble! We have four of these in the Local Studies Collection. He was also a successful poster artist with such clients as Tooth & Co, Dunlop Rubber, Boomerang Brandy and later QANTAS.

In Victoria Weston had a successful poster and advertising career, and was part of Melbourne’s booming artistic community, active in such societies as The Melbourne Prehistoric Order of Cannibals. When he came to Sydney he established one of this city’s early advertising companies Weston & Burke and worked for the Bulletin. However, it was not until I read Gavin Souter’s fantastic A Torrent of Words that I discovered Weston lived in Mosman.

Weston, Harry J (Artist). AWM ARTV08838 1916; AWM ARTV01121 1915.

Imagine my delight when I also learnt of his unique and significant contribution to the First World War effort. Weston designed a series of Australian recruitment posters to encourage enlistments which had dropped after the first burst of patriotism at the start of the war. His background in commercial art and in particular his skill in poster art made him the perfect choice for what was unashamedly pure propaganda.

With leading lines such as ‘Yes or No which?’, ‘Fancy not wantin’ to go Bill!’ and ‘Liberty or slavery you must choose!’ these vibrant yet seemingly simple recruitment posters were designed to instill a sense of national pride, a sense of doing the right thing for your country and your ‘mates’. In an interview after the war Weston said his maxim was Australian posters for the Australian people and this approach is clearly displayed in the imagery he used of bushfires and sport.

Marie Louise Hamilton Mack 1870-1935

Louise Mack, writer, August 1897 / photographer J. Hubert Newman SLNSW

Louise, as she was known, was the first female war correspondent.

I can’t recall how I came across this fact or even how I found a copy of her book A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War although I knew of the Mack sisters (see Mosman Voices) and had included Amy in a design exhibition a few years back called Mosman & Friends: Bush flora and fauna in the decorative arts. Amy had written a series of books with the aim of raising awareness of Australia’s native landscape. Louise had “borrowed” sixteen pages from Amy’s A Bush Calendar and used them as a letter from home in her book The Romance of a Woman of Thirty.

Amy lived in Mosman and Louise came to live in the leafy suburb in her later years after a life time of adventure, travelling, writing and lecturing. After purchasing a copy of A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War for the Local Studies Collection I read Nancy Phelan’s biography of her aunt, The Romantic Lives of Louise Mack. You can hear Nancy Phelan talk about this book in a 1990 recording at Mosman Voices.

Louise was a charming, mercurial Bohemian and an engaging storyteller. A school friend of Ethel Turner’s, she wrote her first three novels while in Australia, and a column ”A Woman’s Letter” in the Bulletin. In 1901, like so many Australians at the turn of the century, she moved to London and wrote An Australian Girl in London which resulted in an offer of a job at the London based newspaper Daily Mail. A successful columnist, Louise also wrote serialized romances some of which were later republished by the company we know as Mills and Boon.

In 1914 after spending six years in Italy she returned to London in time to be sent to Belgium to report on the German invasion of Antwerp for the Daily Mail and the Evening News. On her first attempt Louise, along with other journalists, was sent back to England. However, a determined Louise returned to Belgium, disguised herself as a maid and somehow managed to move around Antwerp and see first hand the damage inflicted by the invading troops, reports of which she sent back to the papers.

1914 ‘GERMAN FIENDISHNESS.’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 18 September, p. 7, viewed 20 February, 2013,

However, once the wire was down Louise was unable to send news reports and instead kept a journal recording the atrocities she saw and heard of in those early days.

By 1915 Louise was back in England and had written and published A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, an account of the impact of war on a country, its people and on herself. Louise donated the bulk of profits from book sales to The Red Cross to help in their work with Belgian refugees.

The same year she returned to Australia and spent the rest of the war years travelling around the country speaking on her wartime escapades and the horrors experienced by an invaded country. Clearly a charismatic speaker her talks were publicised in the major and local papers ensuring high attendances and she was regularly interviewed and quoted. The main aim of these lecture tours was to raise money for the Australian Red Cross and to seek recruits.

You can read A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War online.