Phyllis McLachlan: from watercolours of dancers to life as a naval wife

The idea of an illustrated cover for a popular magazine now seems as dated as a crinoline or plus fours.

Of course there’s still the elegant artwork of The New Yorker, of design magazines, in the refreshingly different Frankie, and the occasional illustration for the cover of Vogue.

But a century ago, magazine covers were all about artwork, and not just any drawing, but intricate, delicately coloured watercolours or sketches that mirrored the trends of the times – from art nouveau tendrils to art deco swirls.

In Australia, the well-designed magazines, The Triad, The Home and The Queenslander were always in the market for good illustrators such as Phyllis McLachlan, whose artwork has recently been offered for sale by the Joseph Lebovic Gallery in Sydney. The gallery has at least two of her works for sale, both watercolours, one titled, Dancer, Paris, and the other Cabaret Dancer, Paris, both dated 1925, and both for sale at $1350.

Robert Woodley at the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales recently told me about another McLachlan work in the library’s collection, entitled Ballet, 1926. It was purchased from Douglas Stewart Fine Books in October last year.

As Anna Pavlova toured Australia in 1926, the watercolour could be inspired by her visit.

Pavlova wore a similar Russian headdress to the one worn by the figure in the red dress, at the lower right of her painting. (The photo is from Victor Dandre’s book on Pavlova.)

More puzzling is the fact that the women in McLachlan’s 1926 ballet artwork have their breasts exposed. Perhaps Isadora Duncan had an occasional wardrobe malfunction but a ballet dancer in the early 20th century?

McLachlan, born in 1905, was the daughter of a prominent Sydney solicitor, Alexander McLachlan and his wife who lived in Elizabeth Bay and later Double Bay. She left school at 16 to study art with Thea Proctor at the Julian Ashton School.

A brief biographical note on the State Library of NSW’s website goes on to say that “she first exhibited her watercolours at a Society of Women Painters’ exhibition in Sydney in 1922. In 1924, she held her first one-woman show at the Fine Art Gallery. She was best known for her cover designs for The Home and Triad magazines”.

In June 1925, a press report in Australia wrote that McLachlan was soon to be presented in Court in London so her Russian ballet group might have been one of a number of watercolours McLachlan completed in Europe.

Five years after her European journey, she married Lieutenant-Commander John Collins in Sydney.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “John Collins, of HMAS Australia, son of the late Dr Collins and Mrs Collins, of Melbourne, was celebrated yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Church, Darling Point. Naval uniforms were worn, and the bridegroom’s brother officers formed an arch of steel as the bridal couple left the church. Canon Langley performed the ceremony”.

The couple spent the years 1931 to 1935 in England before returning to Sydney. Their daughter, Gillian, was born in 1936.

In 1938, McLachlan designed costumes for the Royal Australian Navy’s tableau for the sesquicentenary celebrations at the Sydney Showground. Twenty-five of these ink and watercolour costume drawings are also at the Mitchell Library.

McLachlan died in 1998.