Objects of Substance- Libellum Motif

A Grammar Ornament: A frieze, a teacher, and a very rare book

Evelyn (Lesly) Marsland (IV B) 1934

The Libellum Society, whose name derives from the Latin word meaning, ‘little book’, is the Girls Grammar book club that for the past 22 years has met weekly to preview the new fiction and other titles purchased by the Beanland Memorial Library, as well as provide an opportunity to organise participation in writers’ festivals, book launches, literary events and writing competitions. The Club was established in 2001 by teacher librarian, Robin Farr, and when Kristine Cooke, former Director of Library and information Services, assumed the role as coordinator in 2008, the student members selected the name for the club. Alexandra Markey (12G), leader for the group in 2008, led the girls to promote a competition to design a bookmark for the library to celebrate the fifty years anniversary of the library on its site. The competition produced a bookmark designed by Shiromani Singh (11G) which would later become the club’s logo. Shiromani adapted a frieze design entitled, ‘The Junior’ by Evelyn (Lesly) Marsland (1936) from the 1934 School magazine. Shiromani’s design combined the original black and white frieze drawing with computer art.

Shiromani Singh’s (2009) design for the Libellum Society, 2008

Researching the Libellum Society frieze design led to a serendipitous discovery of a 1928 art book in the School’s collection, and the revelation of an inspirational art teacher and artist whose legacy leaps from its pages. Frieze or tile design was for over forty years an integral part of the Girls Grammar curriculum and a reflection of the evolving trends in Western art and modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. (Martin, 2017) Frieze illustrations first appeared as ‘original designs’ in the Girls Grammar bi-annual magazine in 1933, so Lesly’s was one of the very early designs. Evelyn’s mother, Charlotte Marsland (nee Hyde 1913) attended Girls Grammar, and Evelyn was still a ‘junior’ in form IV B when she created the frieze; perhaps she was feeling the weight of her position.

Frieze design is a technique of ‘ornamentation’ which has its origins in Classical Antiquity and enjoyed a renewed interest in the nineteenth century. (Martin, 2017) The frieze or ornament ‘is decoration or embellishment [that provides] additional detail added to an object, interior or architectural structure which serves no other purpose than to make it more interesting, arresting or beautiful.’ (Grant, 2011) English architect, graphic designer and theorist of ornament, Owen Jones, saw the divine in the ordered structures evident in nature. His achievements include the decoration of the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851. (The University of Melbourne, 2023) Jones, like many of his English contemporaries, was concerned by the poor quality of British design and having gained his inspirations for design from his travels in Europe and the Middle East, and the Great Exhibition, saw the potential of ornamentation offered by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. (Zaczek, 2000) The pinnacle of his work was the publication of his book The Grammar of Ornament: A Visual Reference of Form and Colour in Architecture and the Decorative Arts (1856) which was always meant to be just that, a textbook about the principles of the language of ornamentation – structured, patterned, natural, decorative. (Martin, 2017) Owen’s book was hugely influential of the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century and informed the work of artists such as William Morris (1834 – 1896), and architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), as well as Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s first art teacher, Vera Cottew. (Zaczek, 2000) Vera Cottew was an artist and art teacher who commenced as a Visiting Mistress of Drawing at Girls Grammar in 1925 after spending three years as an Art teacher at Somerville House. She dedicated the next twenty-two years of her career to her Grammar girls. (Lilley K. M., 1926) Shortly after her employment, Cottew acquired her own copy of The Grammar of Ornament, a 1928 reprint of the 1910 edition, A3 in size, leather bound with a gold leaf gilded edge, containing 100 chromolithograph plates. It must have been very exciting to have such a magnificent book that had been described as ‘beautiful enough to be the hornbook of angels’. (Zaczek, 2000) Cottew used it with passion passing on Owen’s aesthetic language to her young students in her drawing classes.

A colour plate from Vera Cottew’s copy of “The Grammar of Ornament”. Indian No 4, Plate LII

Chinese No 3, Plate LXI

Reflections of Owen’s dynamic colour plates are evident in the students’ geometric friezes and Grecian themed designs published as a full page (page 17) in the 1933 school magazine. In the following year, Cottew taught the girls how to find patterns in nature, using this as the inspiration for their designs. Joan Clowes’ (III D) ‘flying fish’ design and June Jean Parnell’s (III D) circular floral motive reveal this instruction.

Joan Clowes (III D) December 1934, page 20

Jean Parnell (III D) June1934, page 20

By 1934, Cottew was clearly having success with her students: Irene Hingston (III C) reveals a sophisticated peacock like pattern, as does Evelyn Lesley Marland’s drawing of the Grammar girls sitting studiously beside their tower of books that are topped with ink wells and paper.

Irene Hingston (III C) December 1934, page 20

Evelyn (Lesly) Marsland (IV B) December 1934, page 14

Grammar girls in action appeared as a theme in later frieze designs which displayed the girls in their sports tunics participating in dance [Judith Clowes (III E) 1938] or in formal school uniform leisurely reading [Patricia Lahey 1939] or demonstrating gymnastics routines [Colleen.J. Gregg (IV A) 1942]. Like the revelation of an ancient Roman mosaic, the Grammar students’ tiles provide a window into the past, confirming the school uniforms of their era, hairstyles and their activities.

Judith Clowes (III E) June 1938, page 19

Patricia Lahey June 1939, page 35

Colleen Juanita Gregg (IV A) December 1942, page 29

The designs also reveal the influential art movements of their day, such as the Art Deco movement of the 1930s and 1940s evident in Betty Nobbs’ (IV A) gothic cityscape. Other tiles were more whimsical, featuring playful images of rabbits, ducks [Betty Young (III B) 1938] and Australian wildlife. One wonders if the task set was to create a frieze that would be the ornamentation for a child’s nursery. Frieze design appeared to generate significant interest evident in Gloria Levy’s (VI) 1944 magazine article where she explained the steps to ‘ornamentation’, commencing with drawings of natural objects, stylising and then arranging into a pattern. (Levy, 1944)

Betty Nobbs, (IV A) December 1938, 39

Betty Young (III B) June 1938, page 34

After 1930, ‘Drawing’ became known as Senior Art and from 1934 the lower Forms took Junior Art. Vera Cottew was a beloved teacher and Head Mistress Kathleen Lilley noted in the ‘Confidential Book’: “Appointed July 1925. Teaches freehand drawing, design, painting, and the history of art… doing excellent work, from which her pupils get much pleasure… Miss Cottew misses no opportunity for encouraging her pupils – takes large groups to see new buildings, and art exhibitions, to illustrate her lessons given in the art room”. Frieze design continued to be included in the Art Curriculum with the tiles becoming quite psychedelic by the 1960s and 1970s. The last tile appeared in the 1974 school magazine, reflecting a mandala design rather than a tile.

Anna Torenbeek (IV B) 1971, page 39

Vera Cottew’s dedication reflected her personal pursuit as a practicing artist. She is recorded in the 1941 Meanjin papers as delivering a presentation on ‘Recent Aspects of Australian Art’ at the July meeting of the Queensland Authors and Artists’ Association. (Meanjin Papers, 1941) Old girl and Australian poet, Gwen Harwood (nee Foster, 1937) remembered her childhood teacher with fondness, referencing her art teacher’s sculpture room and still life arrangements in her poetry. (Golsby-Smith) By her final year at Girls Grammar – 1947 – Cottew had progressed to position of assistant Mistress and was also teaching at the Teachers’ Training College in Brisbane.

Studies in still life, Senior Art class, 1939

Vera Cottew with students Ethel Holyoake, at the stairs of the Western Building, 1939.

In the annual report of 1950, Kathleen Lilley reported, ‘I also record with deep regret the death of Miss Vera Cottew, who was from July 1926 to February 1948 a valued member of our teaching staff and a kind, good colleague. Miss Cottew has bequeathed to the School some of her Art Books which we will treasure for her sake as well as for their own value.” (Lilley K. M., 1950) The Courier Mail praised Cottew’s legacy noting that ‘she gave public exhibitions of her paintings, which were also exhibited in The Courier-Mail Art Panel…Many of her pupils hold prominent positions in Queensland's secondary schools, and several are completing their art training overseas.’ (The Courier-Mail, 1950) Gwen Harwood paid tribute to her teacher penning the poem, “Nightfall: To the memory of Vera Cottew”.

Vera Cottew’s signature in her copy of “The Grammar of Ornament” gifted to the School.

Of the Cottew bequests, the most magnificent is her book, The Grammar of Ornament. Quite serendipitously, this incredible text was recently found in the Beanland Library collection not having been borrowed for many years. Inside the front cover we were delighted to discover Vera Cottew’s signature. The first students to enjoy this rediscovery were members of the Libellum Society whose club logo is a direct representation of Cottew’s dynamic contribution to the Creative Arts at Girls Grammar. The book is now valued at $1200 but its historical value is far greater. It has been almost 100 years since Vera Cottew began educating Grammar girls and instilling in them a deep appreciation of the relationship between nature and artistic expression. Such a rich history has been revealed in the layers of the student designs, the imagination of a dedicated teacher, and the wonderful book that she left behind.

2023 Libellum Society captain, Charlotte Wilson (9G) holds Vera Cottew’s bequest, The Grammar of Ornament.

Rachael Christopherson Director of Library and Information Services


AbeBooks. (2023, July 28). The Grammar of Ornament: A Visual Reference of Form and Colour in Architecture and the Decorative Arts. Retrieved from AbeBooks: https://www.abebooks.com

Golsby-Smith, S. (n.d.). In her father's house: Gwen Harwood as a sacramental poet. JASAL , 1 - 13.

Grant, S. (2011, September 29). What is ornament, what is an ornament print and why do they matter? Retrieved from VAM: https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/engraved-ornament-project/what-ornament-what-ornament-print and-why-do-they-matter

Levy, G. (1944, December). Inventing a Pattern. Brisbane Girls Grammar School magazine .

Lilley, K. M. (1926). Brisbane Girls Grammar School Annual Report. Brisbane: Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

Lilley, K. M. (1950). Report for the Year 1950. Brisbane: Brisbane Girls Grammar School.

Martin, A. D. (2017, February 22). The Language of Ornament. Retrieved from NGV: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/the-language-of-ornament/

Meanjin Papers. (1941, June). News Reels. Meanjin papers . Brisbane, Queensland, Australia: Clement Byrne Christesen.

The Courier-Mail. (1950, October 30). Artist dead. The Courier-Mail , p. 6.

The University of Melbourne. (2023, August 1). The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones. Retrieved from Archives and Special Collections: https://library.unimelb.edu.au/asc/teaching-and-learning/objects/the-grammar-of ornament Zaczek, I. (2000). Introduction. In O. Jones, The Grammar of Ornament: A Visual Reference of Form and Colour in Architecture and the Decorative Arts (pp. 12 - 17). London: Bernard Quaritch.

Form VA with Miss Cottew in 1943

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