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Marian Clarke (1853–1933)

by Mungo MacCallum

from Sydney Morning Herald

Marian Clarke, 1913

Marian Clarke, 1913

Abbotsleigh Archives

On the morning of Sunday, the 2nd of July, Marian Clarke, loved and esteemed by all who knew her, passed quietly away at the age of eighty-one, more than half a century after her first arrival in Australia. When still a new-comer, she opened at St. Leonard's a private school, which in 1888 she transplanted to Parramatta, and thence in 1898 to the more commodious premises of Abbotsleigh, at Wahroonga, with which well-known institution, now under the control of the Church of England, her name as its foundress and for long its headmistress is chiefly associated. During all these changes her reputation for teaching and management had been steadily growing, and additions to the original building at Abbotsleigh soon became necessary. This was to be expected, for few have been so highly and variously qualified for her profession as she. The successes of the school in the Public examinations were the least of her claims, but at the back of these was the sound and thorough instruction, of which they were one comparatively inconsiderable result. And it was not mere instruction; it was education in the best sense of the word. It extended far beyond the study of text-books prescribed in a syllabus. She encouraged her girls to read on their own account, and having herself a loving familiarity with high-class literature, was able to show them their way among good books, which she lent them to peruse. She did more. She was one of the very few who know how to read aloud, which she made a practice of doing, and with her expressive voice and sympathetic rendering, gave her young listeners not only keen enjoyment at the time, but a clue to the appreciation of literary excellence. This initiation included, besides English masterpieces, specimens of French and German, for such as were studying these languages, and some of her old pupils consider that when interpreting the spirit of foreign authors she was at her best. She had a similar delight in painting and music, and in dealing with them contrived to impart something of her own enthusiasm, and give good guidance and advice to those who were taking them up. It must not be supposed, however, that the atmosphere of Abbotsleigh was merely or mainly aesthetic.

In all subjects, whatever their nature, she saw to it that the grounding should be accurate, and in none could the preparation be scamped, even if drudgery were involved. Those who failed to reach the standard expected of them, awaited their appearance before her with fear and trembling, for with the warmest of hearts she had the sharpest of tongues, and being herself exceptionally conscientious and painstaking, she was not very tolerant in others of slackness and negligence, for which she may sometimes have mistaken genuine incapacity. But we are told, her severity "left no sting," for it was only one side of her goodwill and eagerness for the progress and proper equipment of her young charges. Her kindly concern for them is shown by her efforts to keep in touch with them after they had left her, and her readiness to help and counsel them in the perplexities of later life. Generally their gratitude to her has grown with their respect in after years, when experience has shown them how much they owed her, and owed her morally as well as intellectually. Miss Clarke was a woman of deep though unobtruded religious feeling, which found expression in her own conduct and character, and made her recognise the vast importance of them for all. She never wearied of insisting by precept and example on the duties of straight-forwardness, courage, and sincerity, one of her recurrent admonitions, uttered with penetrating earnestness, being, "Let your yea be yea, and your nay nay"; and she encouraged her girls to aid in charitable objects with their contributions, their work, and even their recreations of her own generous benevolence, numbers have reason to know, but she was saved from all sentimentalism by a quaint vein of realism, a shrewd insight, and an amused perception of humour.

This last trait would naturally not be much in evidence before her pupils, but in intimacy it was very conspicuous, and made her a most entertaining companion. One could not be long in her society without being struck by her vivacity, which gave her talk a certain electrical quality, and with its sparks and flashes kindled the alertness of those with whom she conversed. But she was fully charged not only with vivacity but with an extraordinary general vitality, which was apparent in all that she said or did. Yet when she retired from Abbotsleigh, a little more than a score of years ago, probably few of her closest friends guessed how intense and enduring that vitality was; still less, though it was; obvious that it must seek some new outlet, could they foresee what that outlet would be, or at least how large and remarkable. Apart from the impression made by her personality, they knew her as a most capable and efficient educationist who seemed to be bound up in her profession, and they can hardly have suspected that but for the pressure of circumstances she might never have adopted it. She did well in it, as in everything to which she turned her hand, but with the wisdom that comes after the event, one can now see that it was not in that direction that her original tastes and aptitudes pointed. In her spare hours and vacations she always loved to visit and sketch beautiful or attractive scenes. That was her favourite relaxation, and now when she resigned she would have more of it. Painting, with travel to supply the subjects, was to interest and occupy her well-earned leisure, and probably this was all she at first contemplated. But even her preliminary programme was soon interrupted. Shortly after her return to Europe the war broke out, and no one can imagine Miss Clarke disregarding the call for all such service as was in her power to render; so for years she was busily engaged in war work, especially in the management of a hostel for nurses who were recuperating from the fatigue and strain of their duties at the front, and not till 1919 was she again at complete liberty to give her wishes effect. Thereafter she spent much of her time in Austria, Africa, Spain, and, above all, in France and Italy, where she applied herself to serious study of her art under distinguished masters. And now a strange thing happened. Hitherto that art had been a hobby; now, when she was well over sixty, it became the serious business of her life.

The results show the genuineness of the gift she had never before been in a position to cultivate systematically. The sketches she had made in the old days of her residence in Australia showed certainly a true feeling for Nature, but in technique and execution they do not rise much above mediocrity, while those of her St. Martin's Summer are admirable in all respects. This is no mere friendly compliment from one who knows nothing about the matter. It is proved by the acceptance of several of her pictures by the Salon, the first of them when she was seventy-one years old, the last a few months ago. Others she exhibited and sold in England, characteristically devoting proceeds to philanthropic purposes, for she had "a hand open as day to melting charity." But those she brought with her, when she returned to Sydney, some three years ago, were a revelation to her warmest admirers, and astonished them by the progress she had made to artistic mastery. That she should turn her belated opportunity to such brilliant account, that when her life was so far advanced, she should set herself to attain, and actually did attain, excellence so outstanding, it is this that stirs one's wonder. There is, so far as the present writer knows, no other instance of such a palingenesis. If she could do so much to realise her instinctive ambitions, when with most who live so long, the brain is weary and the hand has lost its cunning, what might she have achieved had she been free to follow her bent in her youth and in her prime?

That was not to be, but there are compensations. As things are, she will be remembered chiefly as the moving spirit of Abbotsleigh; soon, even as such, she will be little more than a name to the younger generation; after a while her very name will be forgotten. But her influence lasts in the lives of those who learned from her and will last in the lives of those who learn from them. Non omnts morietnr.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Marian Clarke

Citation details

Mungo MacCallum, 'Clarke, Marian (1853–1933)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Marian Clarke, 1913

Marian Clarke, 1913

Abbotsleigh Archives

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1853
Neithrop, Oxfordshire, England


2 July, 1933 (aged 80)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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