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Obituary: Dame Eileen Mayo

John Gainsborough
Wednesday 05 January 1994 00:02 GMT

Eileen Rosemary Mayo, artist: born Norwich 11 September 1906; DBE 1994; married 1936 Richard Gainsborough (marriage dissolved 1952); died Christchurch, New Zealand 4 January 1994.

EILEEN MAYO was a meticulous artist and designer who worked in almost every available medium. She spent her working life in England, Australia and New Zealand.

After studying, briefly, at the Slade in 1924, she enrolled for evening classes in drawing, printmaking, historical costume and calligraphy at the Central, while spending all her spare time in London museums and galleries. Her distinctive hand and assured draughtsmanship stemmed from this intensive groundwork; her earlier anatomical studies at the Slade were vital to the conviction of her animal drawings, illustrations and prints. But it was a hard time financially; her father had died suddenly in 1921, and her mother and two sisters had emigrated to New Zealand. She did obtain some commissions for advertisements, book-jackets and posters, while still studying, and an introduction to Laura and Harold Knight provided an opportunity to model for them, and she became a protege of the artists. A very striking and beautiful young woman, she also posed for Dod Proctor and Duncan Grant.

Mayo's first real break came in 1928 when her linocut Turkish Bath, exhibited in a mixed show at the Redfern, was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was the start of her long association with the Redfern Gallery as a prolific printmaker.

She travelled extensively, spending time as a family tutor in Germany in 1931, and sailing round Africa in a German cargo boat between 1934 and 1935. She returned to London in 1936, to more study at the Chelsea Polytechnic with Robert Medley and Henry Moore. In the same year she married Dr Richard Gainsborough, later helping him run his extensive country practice in Sussex throughout the Second World War while continuing to work on her book The Story of Living Things and their Evolution (1944), for which she prepared over 1,000 illustrations.

Eileen Mayo was a perfectionist in all she did, in her detailed preliminary drawings, woodcuts, lithographs on the stone, and tempera. Her first tempera works in the Forties meant sacrificing the family egg ration for the essential albumen. By 1946 she had works in the Royal Academy and in an Arts Council touring exhibition, and had completed two further books on animals for Pleiades Books. Later she became intrigued by the intense discipline demanded by tapestry design, and one of her tapestries, Echinoderms, was woven at the Dovecote Studios in Edinburgh.

In 1948 she designed the magazine Art News and Review (later Arts Review) published by her husband after he retired from medicine, but after further travelling and study in France their marriage broke up, and Eileen left London to be near her family in Australia in 1952. She was stimulated by the natural history of Australia, and she taught, exhibited and worked for both Qantas and the New South Wales Tourist Bureau. In 1962 she moved again to join her mother in New Zealand, while still carrying out Australian commissions for stamp designs and decimal coinage. She received invitations from the New Zealand Treasury to design decimal coinage there and she fulfilled several commissions for first-day covers and stamps for the New Zealand Post Office, including the Captain Cook bicentenary stamps in 1969, and for the Unicef and Antarctic Treaty anniversaries. Meanwhile her printmaking continued unabated, and she was an invited printmaker in exhibitions in Lugano and Tokyo. A retrospective exhibition of her work, organised by Margaret McKean-Taylor under the aegis of the National Library of New Zealand, is at present touring New Zealand.

Eileen Mayo devoted her life to her art. In 1985, due to severe arthritis, and much to her chagrin, she had to stop. Her last works were silkscreen prints, which she found the easiest medium to use with decreasing mobility, insisting, as always, that they be sold at affordable prices. She was created a Dame of the British Empire in the 1994 New Years Honours list.

(Photograph omitted)

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