MAGICAL TREASURE TROVE

One of the Pixie O’Harris “lost” paintings found in an abandoned storeroom at Taree’s Manning Hospital

In the jumbled storage area that used to be the nurses old quarters in Manning Rural Referral Hospital,
Taree, a forgotten collection of twenty five murals has been re-discovered.

They were painted by esteemed children’s artist and author, Pixie O’Harris.

For many, the memories of growing up and being read the stories of Marmaduke the Possum, and countless fairy stories all whimsically and delicately illustrated by Pixie, is nostalgic.

These are pictures perfect for a sick or lonely child in hospital to see and forget where they were and how they feel.  

Pixie was honoured for the many children’s murals she painted in schools, hospitals, day nurseries, and orphanages.

She grew up in South Wales and came to Australia as little girl with her family. It was her mischievousness on board the ship travelling to her new land that earned her the nickname “Pixie”. She was born Rhona Olive Harris. But Pixie stuck.

Curator Sue Mitchel consults with Conservator Tracey Golds on restoration and cleaning

What makes this collection of her work so valuable, as well as the quantity, is that they were painted on large boards. Easier to transport from her studio in Sydney, but it meant they have survived being painted over as happened to many others in hospitals  during renovations or demolition.

The collection is significant culturally and as well as historically.

Taree gynaecologist and obstetrician, Dr Philip Walkom, recently retired, remembered them hanging in the hospital and noticed some of them being taken down and was told they were going into storage. As an art patron and aficionado, he contacted the then Director of the Manning Regional Art Gallery, Sue Mitchell, wondering what they could do with the collection.  

‘We publicised it, and many people reported their memories of the murals but neither the hospital or the Gallery came up with a plan to reintroduce the works to the community and they disappeared off everyone’s radar,’ said Sue, who is now the curator of the exhibition.

However Penny Teerman saw the article and filed it away in her memory.  ‘I didn’t grow up in Australia. I’m from the UK so had never seen or heard of Pixie O’Harris or seen her work. But I thought oh, this sounds interesting…and having grown up in the 50s, I loved the look of those paintings. A few years went by and then because I was a heritage volunteer with the GTCC Council we started a project to check out things in storage all over the place. After the council merger there was a new heritage office starting with a grant stream, so Janine (Roberts) who has a teaching background volunteered and I looked into getting some funding for our Midcoast Stories heritage project  and I just happened to mention the Pixie O’Harris pictures as it had popped back into my mind as its was  bit of a mystery.’

Says Janine Roberts, ‘So I went up into the old, run-down storage area, which had been used off and on as offices, and went on this treasure hunt to pull out what paintings we could find. They were done by Pixie for the re-opening of the refurbished hospital in 1957.  Pixie and her brother Olaf, who was also an artist and helped with some of the paintings, came for the opening.  Anyway, we found 14 paintings, but when Penny and I searched through old newspapers and such we found that twenty five had been done.’

Adds Penny, ‘The Taree community raised 2000 pounds through the Hospital Auxilliary (now called the Pink Ladies) to commission these beautiful paintings.’

‘So when we went back to collect them, we discovered they’d found the rest of the collection! It was like Christmas,’ said Janine.

‘Gallery Director Rachel Piercy was enthusiastic so we decided to ask the hospital if they could be taken to the Manning Art Gallery to be conserved and exhibited so the community could see the whole beautiful collection,’ said Sue. ‘The surfaces are robust, but need cleaning. I knew we had an art conservator living in the area, Tracey Golds, a  top Australian conservator who has worked at the National Gallery of Victoria, The National Archives and has lectured in conservation at Australian Universities.’

Along with some fine art volunteers the paintings are being brought back to their original vibrancy under Tracey’s watchful eye and guidance. The volunteers have been working for months, nearly every Saturday at the Gallery; Pat Land, Faye Collier, Sue Finlayson, Alan Green, Ellie Marks have learned conservation techniques and helped revive the paintings under Conservator Tracey Golds.

‘It’s a great community story,’ says Sue.

‘The receipt books are still around. It may have been Pixie’s idea, to cheer up hospitals’ childrens’ wards,  starting back as far as 1939, so people would have an opportunity to see her work in hospitals and the equivalent then of early childhood centres.’

Adds Penny, ‘Pixie spent an extended time in hospital when her two daughters were born and that’s where the idea came from. Possibly they thought, well, Taree is going to have this lovely new hospital so they wanted to be up with the times. Maybe some of the doctors had seen them in other places and thought it a good idea.’

Adds Sue, ‘Nearly everyone I talk to locally about them has had some connection or remembers seeing them at the hospital. And Pixie O’Harris is such a loved name. Her illustrations are up there with May Gibbs and Ida Outhwaite.’

Says Janine ‘It would be nice when they’re all exhibited to have a book for people to record any anecdotes about the pictures.  It’s a great opportunity for intergenerational interaction. Many people who are grandparents remember the little elves and pixies from when they were little so could bring along another generation to see these.’

The exhibition will be at the Manning Regional Art Gallery in January 2020. They hope it will be very child accessible and for locals, it may bring back memories and nostalgia for a gentler, kinder, time without screens and social media. When kids roamed the bush and the river and fired up their imagination by climbing trees and went fishing or sat watching the river and placid cows in green fields.  

Editor’s note: I still have my Pixie O’Harris books given to me by my grandparents when a tiny girl in Wingham. I was very devoted to Marmaduke and spent time collaring in the black and white sketches – very poorly. Decades later I interviewed Pixie in her home for television, and I took along my book and shamefacedly asked her to overlook the colouring in and sign my book.  She hugged my book saying “What a loved book!’ And signed it …   “After many years…”

Signature in Di’s treasured book

DM

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