LEANNE SANTORO writes on six acquisitions of South Australian woodcarver Maud Baillie (née Golley)

The Gallery is thrilled to have recently acquired six works by the South Australian woodcarver Maud Baillie (née Golley). Born in 1884 and raised on remote Wedge Island, off the coast of Port Lincoln, Baillie was self-taught and worked in extremely difficult conditions. Despite having no formal training, Baillie designed and constructed her furniture, using wooden pegs instead of nails and screws, and carved extremely detailed and elaborate designs with basic tools. She used blackwood and other timbers, including wood washed ashore from shipwrecks. Her family were largely self-sufficient and almost the only inhabitants of the island. Baillie took as her most common motifs objects found on the island – grape vines, rope, flowers and seashells.

In 1904 the Governor of South Australia, Sir George Ruthven Le Hunte, visited Wedge Island and saw Baillie’s hand-carved furniture, including Chiffonier, made when she was just twenty years old and carved primarily with a pocket knife. Highly elaborate, the work includes high-relief carved-rope edging, shell borders, door panels depicting vines and grapes, native birds, decorative bows, stars, and – reflecting the vogue of the time – a coat of arms, in recognition of Australia’s recent federation. Two small seated lions, one on each side of the Chiffonier, provide an incongruous and intriguing detail.

The governor was greatly taken by Baillie’s skill, as The Register noted:

So impressed was His Excellency with the talent displayed by Miss Maud Golley, who had never had a day’s tuition in the art to which she had devoted attention, and whose family are about the only dwellers on the island, and so pleased was he that one so situated should spend her leisure in reproducing the beautiful forms of things around her, that he sent the young artist a complete set of carving tools in order that she might work with greater ease

Somewhat ironically, Baillie’s family claimed that she preferred working with her pocket knife and had soon abandoned the gift of tools.

Baillie exhibited two pieces of furniture in the ground-breaking Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work held in Melbourne in 1907. She also exhibited in the Adelaide iteration of the exhibition, at which she was awarded a special prize. Baillie’s family moved to the mainland in 1911, living at North Shields, and in 1914 she undertook her only commission, a large chair for the local priest, Father Patrick Kelly. Baillie married in 1922 and, while she never pursued a professional career as a woodcarver, she continued to make work for personal use. She also painted and was a skilled seamstress, making clothes for herself and her family.

Baillie’s work came to curatorial and scholarly attention in the mid-1980s and Chiffonier was subsequently exhibited and published in a number of books. More recently, local researcher Jodie Vandepeer has published articles on Baillie in Australiana magazine.

The Gallery’s recent acquisitions, generously funded by Helen Bowden, also include a chair, a cabinet with glass doors, a display cabinet with a drop-down bureau drawer, a carved frame containing a photographic portrait of Baillie, and a painting by the artist of her home on Wedge Island. The Chiffonier and chair are currently on display in the Elder Wing.

Leanne Santoro is Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 37.

1 ‘An island artist’, The Register, Adelaide, 11 September 1906, p. 6.