Excerpt from “Ellen Nora Payne-Woodcarver of Tasmania” by Russell Atkinson
THE LAST YEARS of the Great War and those which immediately followed were years of intense activity for Mrs. Payne, whose skilful hands were always busy.
Her work was in constant demand, and at this time there was a need that had never arisen before – a popular need for appropriate objects to commemorate those who had voluntarily sacrificed their personal safety and self-interests to the service of their country, and especially to those who had sacrificed their lives.
For people believed in the cause for which those young men had fought, and were intensely proud of, and grateful to, their soldiers, sailors and airmen. Their pride had little to do with the war itself, or its rights and wrongs; it was directed at the men they all knew, recognising the honour that those men had, by serving their country at such a time and in such a way, brought upon their group and upon themselves.
So those who could not serve felt that the least they could do was to honour the names and the memories of those who had served – ‘done their bit’ was the popular phrase – by handing them down to posterity. The requests for rolls of honour, or, more specifically, honour boards, swelled into a flood, and Mrs. Payne’s resources were strained to the utmost.
The requests came from churches, clubs and schools, from private firms and municipalities; and she designed and carved them all – all, that is to say, that she could undertake, for she had to refuse many orders.
If she were ever tempted to settle upon one or two uniform designs in the interests of haste she showed no sign of yielding. That was not her way. Every board was separately designed and carefully thought out. Her designs were intended always to suit the prevailing sentiment, and, rather than trying to assert her individuality as an artist, she usually submitted designs and motifs and legends which, she was aware, would satisfy the mood, temperament and predilections of the particular public each honour board was intended for. She regarded this as that community’s right, and was always prepared to accede to requests, or to interpret them sympathetically; so when one request specified ‘angles’ as part of the design, she correctly interpreted the order and included two impressive angels with outspread wings.
Whenever such celestial beings were called for, the artist had an adventitious aid in the person of a little maid, who was always ready to down duster and mop in order to pose as an angel. And afterwards she took an immense pride in showing off the finished work as ‘ours’.
Some of the honour boards completed about this period were elaborate and quite impressive. Among them were boards for the University of Tasmania, the Hutchins School, the Tasmanian Club, the Launceston Church Grammar School, the Australian Mutual Provident Society, All Saints’ Church, Hobart, the Hobart Town Hall, the Clarence Municipality (Bellerive), Roberts & Co., and A. G. Webster Limited.
Some of these contained hundreds of names, and Mrs. Payne carved or painted every one, for she regarded that labour as her special contribution to the honouring of those men.
The designs, too, were all hers, with the exception of the great honour roll for the Hobart Town Hall. That was designed by her friend and colleague Mr. Louis Dechaineux, head of the Hobart Technical College, amateur painter and artist of considerable repute.
Unquestionably, the most ambitious of. her honour boards were those she wrought for the University of Tasmania, the Hutchins School (referred to later), the Hobart Town Hall, St. Andrew’s Church, Westbury, and the Launceston Church Grammar School.
The University board, which was unveiled by General Sir John Gellibrand on September 13, 1924, has been described as one of the most beautiful war memorial screens in Tasmania. It consists of three panels, each bearing the names of University men who saw active service during the Great War. The central panel bears a carved wreath, which extends down both sides to embrace the carved names of those who fell. This board, which is made of polished blackwood, was the gift to the University of the Hon. Tetley Gant, M.L.C.
Other important honour boards completed about this time were those which recorded the names of district men who enlisted from the municipalities of Kentish, Bothwell, Glamorgan and Westbury; from the congregations of Sassafras Methodist Church; St. Stephen’s, Sandy Bay; and Christ Church, Longford and from former pupils of the State School at Kimberley, on the North-West Coast, and the church at Lower Barring-ton, in the same district.
The cedar honour roll carved for Roberts & Co., Hobart, had not been long installed in the offices of that firm when a fire in the building partly destroyed it. The firm appealed to Mrs. Payne, who thereupon restored the burnt part and recarved it so cleverly that it no longer showed any sign of having been damaged.
Geoffrey had now returned from the war with the rank of major and the distinction of a mention in despatches. He had settled down in Hobart and had been elected president of the Hobart Naval and Military Club. At his request, his mother designed and carved, as his gift to the club, a presidents board, to bear the names of all those who had been, and would subsequently become, president of the club. It was a handsome piece of work, which the club gratefully accepted.
Besides being at pains to devise a fresh and appropriate design for each honour board she was asked to carve, Mrs. Payne was often considerably exercised in her mind about the inscription or legend that was to figure on it. Occasionally, those who ordered the board nominated their own inscription, but mostly it was left to Mrs. Payne’s taste and judgment; and since she had ruled against repetition, there came times when even her fertile brain was at a loss for a suitable text.
It is remembered in the family that during one of these minor crises, when an apt legend was needed for the honour board which the Longford Mothers’ Union was presenting to the church, Geoffrey’s little daughter Phyllis, then aged 12, came forward with the suggestion that the wording on such a board might be, ‘The mothers gave their sons, and the sons gave their lives’. This was thought to be singularly apposite, and was adopted.
Into this board, which has a central motif of Mother and Child, Mrs. Payne put some of her most delicate carving, and it was presented to Christ Church, Longford, on the occasion of its diamond jubilee. The Rev. T. J. Gibson dedicated it on March 7, 1937.