Born: 1876 Melbourne
Elsie's parents were Sidney Hake and Charlotte Hemsley. She was one of seven living children and the youngest of six girls. Sidney and his brother, Charles, came to Australia together from Devonshire. Charles was a photographer and became a member of an expedition to the Northern Territory and took some of the first photographs ever taken in the Territory. In 1863, in Adelaide, Sidney married Charlotte Helen Helmsley, who had come from Kent. Their first three children were born in South Australia and at the time of Elsie's birth, the family was living at Emerald Hill (South Melbourne). Both Elsie and her sister Dora showed an early interest in art and on a few occasions, both attended Art Classes held at the St. Kilda Town Hall. They were only eleven months apart in age. Elsie's first professional tuition took place at "Fairelight" Girls' School, where she took drawing classes with Jane Sutherland. When Jane realised that Elsie and Dora were serious, she invited them to participate in her classes in town and to experience drawing from life. They considered themselves most fortunate to have been put on the right road by a wonderful teacher.
In 1894, Elsie enrolled at the Gallery School of Design and was transferred to the painting class in 1897 along with Dora, who had
been at the School of Design since 1895. They studied under both Fred McCubbin and Bernard Hall. Max Meldrum was the recipient of the National Gallery School Travelling Scholarship in 1897 and according to Elsie's daughter, Nancy White, Elsie was second with her painting "Welcome News". From 1899 to 1901, Elsie and Dora had a studio in Collins Street, Melbourne. In the first term of 1901, Elsie had a free studentship at the Gallery School. Her contemporaries at the time
were Alice Bale, Jo Sweatman, Hugh Ramsay, George Bell, Violet Teague, Ada Plante, Jane Sutherland, etc. She was a member of the Victoria Artists' Society and exhibited with them from 1902 until 1921. She was also a member of the Twenty Melbourne Painters.
In 1901, Elsie married widower Arthur Barlow. Arthur, quite a deal older than her, had lost his first wife and daughter to an "infection" (thought to be diphtheria). He worked as an associate to Sir John Madden and was later to become a Police Magistrate. He was also a cousin of George Bell.
In 1904, Elsie and Arthur had a son, Basil. Daughter Nancy was born in 1906 and in 1907, after moving to Ballarat, their second daughter Betty was born, who died some months later. Despite the move and the sadness, Elsie took part in an showing at the Women's Work Exhibition that same year. In 1909, they lived in Maryborough and in 1912 they moved to Castlemaine. In October of 1912, Elsie made history by putting on the first Solo Exhibition by a woman in Castlemaine.
There was no gallery, so she used the Mechanics' Institute in Barker Street (now the Library). She hung ninety paintings. The locals
were amazed by the collection, many commenting" it looks like a
real Art Gallery". The CastlemaineMail stated " lovers of art and
lovers of Castlemaine may ask themselves, is Mrs. Barlow more fortunate in finding Castlemaine, or is Castlemaine more fortunate in finding Mrs. Barlow." Elsie's exhibition precipitated the establishment of the Castlemaine Art Gallery. A meeting was held at the Barlow home for those people interested in the formation of an art gallery for Castlemaine. A short time thereafter, the Castlemaine Progress Association received a proposal from a Lieutenant-Colonel F.S. Newell (the Gallery's first President), putting before them the suggestion of an Art Gallery. The meeting resolved "to cordially support the proposal" though in the long term unable to assist financially due to their own deficit problems. Some days later, a column in the Castlemaine newspaper stated " ... so Castlemaine is to have an art gallery? I understand our Police Magistrate's popular and clever wife, Mrs. Barlow, is the originator of the happy suggestion". A public meeting was called and Arthur Barlow represented Elsie. He stated, "she was a terror for work but no good at addressing meetings." On August 20, 1913, the first Committee of the Art Gallery was formed and a constitution adopted. Elsie was Vice-President. Elsie convinced fellow artists to donate their works as a nucleus of the collection, to which she contributed two of her own paintings. A large Exhibition was organised to raise funds. It was known as the Loan Exhibition of Fine and Applied Art. It was held at the Castlemaine Town Hall in October of 1913. Apart from the paintings and drawings, there was also a large array of metalwork, jewellery, embroidery, I;ace, fans and fine furniture. Elsie herself was also noted for her tapestries, pokerwork and as a decorator of lids on small tins .
It was obviously the right time for a fundraiser, as again the Castlemaine newspaper stated, " ... I do not know of any town in the State that is so flush of money as Castlemaine." The event was a huge success, with Elsie having worked with tireless energy as both an organiser and steward. The beginnings of the Castlemaine Art Gallery collection was first housed in a room at the Town Hall. Then for a short time in a shop provided by the Leviny Family. From 1915, it was housed more permanently in a room above the Post Office. The Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, is situated in Lyttleton Street and was officially opened on April 18, 1931 by Lord Somers, Governor of Victoria.
During the First World War, Elsie produced a booklet of etchings containing landscapes and wildflowers. The booklets were enclosed in parcels to soldiers at the front. She received many letters of gratitude for "a little bit of home".
In 1916, the Barlow family moved back to Melbourne. Arthur died in 1917, leaving Elsie with two young children. In 1919, she set up a studio in the Dunklings Building in Melbourne and in June of 1919 she held a very large exhibition consisting of 76 paintings and six pen drawings and later that year exhibited with the Bendigo Art Society. In 1920, she sent Nancy to board at Clarendon College in Ballarat and Basil attended Caulfield Grammar School. Elsie is acknowledged as the first woman to paint snowscapes. From time to time, she would visit her friend Mrs. Gulliver (May Vale) at Sassafras. These she did, not by painting in snow, but by leaving the paper in its natural state and during a record fall in 1922, she persisted in weathering the outdoors to do fourteen sketches, which resulted in eye strain and frostbitten feet. One of her snowscapes was hung at the Wembley Exhibition in England (1923 or 1924), resulting in the work being reproduced in the "London Illustrated News". Over the ensuing years, Elsie moved to varying parts of the State, including Camperdown and Lorne. Her grand-daughter, Joan Morris, recalls as a small child visiting her at Lorne where she lived alone with her two Cocker spaniels and as always, committed to her art and craft. Dear self-sufficient Elsie Barlow, committed artist and crafstwoman, who derived so much personal pleasure from flower arranging, died in 1948 of Pernicious Anaemia at "Holmby", a nursing home in Cheltenham.
Enid Apperly, the eldest child of Rose Hake (one of Elsie's older sisters) recalls her Aunt Elsie with fond affection and described her as having a zest for life and a mischievious twinkle in her eye. Elsie was a spontaneously warm person and would always greet her friends and relations with a genuine hug and cuddle, a memory that Enid has never forgotten. Elsie deserves recognition and tribute for her contribution as one of the founders of The Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historic Museum, which, in mid-1977, and Duvance Galleries in March 1978, recognised the skills of Elsie Barlow by honouring her with retrospective exhibitions of her work.
Sources: Grand-Daughter, Joan Morris
Niece, Enid Apperly.
Secondary Source: J. McGrath
Castlemaine Art Gallery & Historical Museum.