State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 65 Autumn 2000

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Millie Gibson photographed c. 1934 for the Argus. Black-and-white silver gelatin photograph, photographer unknown. Photograph courtesy of Helen Brown.

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Millie Gibson Blooms Again

IT HAS often been stated — although perhaps not quite often enough — that Edna Walling was only one of a small crowd of professional landscape designers active in Victoria in the first half of the twentieth century.1 The recent publication of yet another glossy Walling monograph has the unfortunate side effect of pushing her equally talented contemporaries even further into the shadows of undocumented history. The discourse of Australian garden history is strewn with the detritus of half-remembered landscape designers: Olive Mellor, Hilda Kirkhope, Nerine Chisholm, Hilda Dance, Mabel Younger and countless others. In the narratives of Edna Walling and Ellis Stones, these other designers are invariably relegated to the status of mere footnotes, or are simply dismissed as copyists.2
One name, more than any other, warrants elevation alongside — or even above -those of Walling and Stones. Mrs E.M. Gibson (1887-1974), Walling's elder by a decade, commenced both her horticultural studies and her journalistic pursuits well in advance of Walling. Gibson, moreover, was an early (and hitherto uncredited) mentor to Walling, greatly assisting the younger designer on one of her first commissions.3 In later years, Walling even approached Gibson, unsuccessfully as it turned out, with the notion of forming a professional partnership. Far from being a protege or pasticheur, Gibson was a progenitor and a pioneer.
Mrs E.M. Gibson, known to her close friends as Millie, started life as Emily Matilda Grassick. Born in Dublin on 3 November 1887, she was the eldest daughter of James Grassick, a shipping engineer from Aberdeen who had crossed the North Channel with his wife, also named Emily, after the birth of their first child five years earlier.4 By the turn of the century, the Grassick family of Dublin had further increased to a total of nine members. But, as family folklore has it, all but one were afflicted with tuberculosis in rapid succession, and it fell to the future Mrs Gibson, then in her late teens, to nurse her ailing parents and siblings to recovery.5 Two of her brothers succumbed, and her two eldest surviving brothers decided, with the conventional wisdom of the day, that a change of climate would be beneficial. The eldest son, also named James, left for Sydney in 1906, and his brother Will followed a year later.6 Within a few years, the two men had well and truly settled in Australia — James as an orchardist in Queensland, and Will as an engineer in Melbourne. They each married a local woman in 1911, thereby affirming their intention to remain in this hemisphere indefinitely.
The respective marriages of the Grassick boys in 1911 seem to have been the ultimate incentive to their ailing family in faraway Dublin, who migrated to Australia that same year. Millie, along with her parents, younger brother and two younger sisters, arrived in Victoria via Fremantle, settling in Bendigo. This new life, however,
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was tragically cut short, when Millie's parents both died, within six months of each other, in 1913. The four freshly orphaned children, aged between 16 and 26, moved to Melbourne to live with their brother Will, who had himself been widowed earlier that same year. Millie enrolled in a horticultural course at Burnley College, then only recently opened to female students, thereby embarking upon a career in landscape design that would span six decades.

Millie Grassick conforming to Dublin fashion. Silver gelatin photograph. Photograph courtesy of Vincent Grassick.

Armed with the Certificate of Competency in Horticulture, Millie left Burnley in 1916 and sought local employment, turning to her engineer brother for professional contacts. As fate would have it, one of Will Grassick's first jobs in Melbourne had been as structural consultant to architects Alec Eggleston (1885-1955) and Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) on the rear extension of Collins House in Collins Street, around 1914.7 Griffin, of course, was the famed American architect who had only recently arrived in Australia, along with his equally talented architect wife, Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), to implement their prize-winning design for the new Federal capital at Canberra. Griffin, who was then by far the most progressive and well-known landscape architect in practice in Australia, would have been the obvious choice for the young and impressionable Millie Grassick, who subsequently gained a position in his architectural office.8 In this way, she became not only one of the first local professionals to be employed with the Griffins, but also the first woman, and the first (and indeed the only) qualified landscape architect.9
Millie's time in the Griffin office remains largely undocumented, but one can all too easily imagine the scope of her education under these two very distinctive and knowledgeable American designers. The two largest private undertakings in their office at that time both had substantial landscape components: the gardens of Newman College at the University of Melbourne, and the laying-out of the Mount Eagle residential estate in Heidelberg. Griffin himself, of course, was largely preoccupied with his work on the Federal Capital project, and much of his private practice was under the able control of his wife. Being herself of Irish origin, the redoubtable and explosive Marion Mahony Griffin would have quickly taken the
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softly-spoken Millie Grassick under her wing. As the most prominent of a very small number of female architects then in practice in Melbourne, Marion would also have been a vital role model.10 Another influential figure associated with the Griffin office at that time was the mural artist Bertha Merfield (1865-1921), who worked closely with Marion on the remodelling of the Café Australia, in Collins Street, around 1916.11 A consummate landscape painter with a particular fondness for native trees, it was Bertha Merfield who taught Millie Grassick to design.12

Millie working in the field. Silver gelatin photograph. Photograph courtesy of Helen Brown.

By the start of 1918, Millie had returned to Burnley College, this time as a lecturer in garden design. She held this position until 1922, when she travelled to England to further her own education and experience. Even there she found that opportunities were limited. Recalling the situation in the 1920s, Dame Sylvia Crowe, one of Britain's most distinguished landscape designers, noted: ‘At that time, there was no course on the subject, and there were really only two practitioners: one was Thomas Milner, up in the north, and the other was Edward White, in London’.13 White (1873-1952), later the first president of the Institute of Landscape Architects, was the principal of Milner White & Son, a firm descended from the nineteenth-century gardening practice of Thomas Milner, a colleague of Sir Joseph Paxton, the architect-gardener now best remembered for the Crystal Palace.14 By the 1920s, the prestige of this practice was at its peak, receiving commissions for the landscaping of vast country estates at a rate of three or four per week.15 Employment positions were highly sought-after, and involved the payment of a costly premium. Even the young and brilliant Sylvia Crowe could afford to work in White's office only for a short time.16 Millie Grassick, through means as yet undetermined, also managed to obtain a position. Once again, one can only speculate on the scope of education that she would have received in this office, working on English country estates, to say nothing of an extraordinary range of overseas projects that included the grounds of the Parliamentary Buildings in Ottawa, the Royal Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, and the Djurgurden in Stockholm.17
Thus, within only a decade of her graduation, Millie Grassick had worked in the offices of two leading landscape architects in as many hemispheres, emerging well
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taught in the current British, American and Australian trends in garden design. On her return to Melbourne in 1924, this new knowledge was put to ideal use when she was invited by the Argus newspaper to write their new weekly horticultural column. Her first contribution, which predated Edna Walling's first foray into print by over a year, was lauded by readers, several of whom immediately wrote to the editor to congratulate the pseudonymous ‘Culturalist’ on his [sic] success!18 The amateur gardeners of Victoria continued to write in to the column for over two decades, and Millie was reputedly deluged with over 100 letters each week. Such was its success that she was subsequently invited to write a second column for the sister publication, the weekly Australasian. And as if this were not enough, Millie also contributed the occasional feature article under her own name, including an obituary for Gertrude Jekyll in 1932, and a full-page spread describing a visit to the garden of famous rose-breeder Alister Clarke at Bulla. Millie's readers were clearly impressed by her efforts, and not least of all Clarke himself, who later named a rose after her: the Mrs E M Gibson, noted for its ‘very fine, extra dark red blooms’.19
Perhaps not surprisingly, the scope of Millie's journalistic pursuits left her little time to devote to actual landscape design, and it remains unclear whether or not she did, in fact, formally practice in the inter-War period. If one disregards the gardens of her own residences — of which more will be said later — only two private landscaping projects have been identified to date. One of these was a residential garden in Canterbury for a fellow member of the Lyceum Club, which Millie had joined in 1922, and the other was providing advice to her brother, Frederick, on the landscaping of the grounds of a suburban school. Both of these projects date from the early 1930s, and both appear to have been undertaken as personal favours, rather than as professional engagements. Certainly towards the end of that decade, Millie found herself actually having to turn down prospective commissions that she was offered. In 1939, another Lyceum Club colleague approached her to design the garden of her new house in Vermont, but Millie passed the job onto her sister, Nancy Grassick, a sculptress and avid garden lover. A few years earlier, Millie's brother Frederick had wanted her to landscape the grounds of his new house in Ivanhoe. His widow, Winifred Grassick, recalls that Millie was keen to undertake the project, but the sheer volume of her work for the Argus absolutely precluded it.20 Once again, Millie unselfishly suggested a suitable replacement — this time, a young landscape designer by the name of Edna Walling.
It was while caught up on her journalistic pursuits that Millie Grassick met Ernest George Muller Gibson (1882-1944), agricultural editor of the Australasian. They married in 1934, a year after the death of Gibson's first wife, and acquired a farming property in Somerton. Here the new Mrs Gibson and her husband established a vast garden (since destroyed) with over 200 species of roses.21 Their plans to give up journalistic hackwork and retire to the farm were dashed on Armistice Day 1944, when Ernest collapsed and died while working in the paddocks. His widow sold the farm and went to live with her sister Nancy in Camberwell. Although nearing the age of 60, Millie no longer entertained any thoughts of retiring. She returned to her earlier
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Landscape design for nurses'home, Gippsland Base Hospital, Sale, 19? Pen and wash on paper. La Trobe Picture Collection.

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Above: A recent photograph of Helen Brown (daughter of Millie Gibson) in a private garden in the Melbourne suburb of Canterbury, designed by her mother in the 1930s. Photograph courtesy of Simon Reeves.

Right: A rock pool in the grounds of Burnley College, built by students under the direction of Millie Gibson in the 1940s. Photograph courtesy of Simon Reeves.

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vocation of teaching, and held horticultural classes at Tintern Girl's Grammar in Hawthorn and at Brighton Technical College before returning to her alma mater in the late 1940s to instruct returned servicemen. Coinciding with this was the gradual rebirth of her professional practice as a landscape designer. By 1953, when she retired from Burnley College, Millie Gibson had become a much sought-after practitioner of her art. Whether engaged by the large and distinguished architectural firms, the innovative sole practitioners, or by government departments, Millie had her hand in a dazzling array of landscaping projects, both large and small — from a migrant hostel in Williamstown to a church hall in Box Hill South — which carried her practice well into the 1960s.
Millie's career was clearly a remarkable one, but despite its pioneer status, its breadth of scope, and its sheer longevity, that career remained largely undocumented, unknown and unsung until relatively recently. Part of this, it must be said, can be ascribed to Millie herself. Unlike her friend Edna Walling, Millie had a disarmingly modest and unassuming personality, and eschewed self-promotion. Her extraordinarily successful newspaper column, for example, was written under a pseudonym, and even her letterhead and signature were in the similarly uninformative (and ungendered) form of ‘E M Gibson’. This professional humility, which gained her immense respect and many commissions, has nevertheless made it difficult to pick up the research trail decades later. But the greatest hurdle in an appreciation of her career has been the lack of documentation. When an elderly Millie entered a retirement home in 1967, she was compelled to reduce her possessions, and — every historian's worst nightmare — she arranged for the destruction of the records of her career, resulting in the incineration of half a century of drawings and correspondence.
The successive deaths of many of Victoria's pioneer landscape designers in the 1970s — including Edna Walling, Ellis Stones and Olive Mellor as well as Millie herself — coincided, ironically, with a burgeoning interest in their life-work. Millie, however, was one of many who were neglected in favour of the more accessible and dominating personalities of Walling and, to a lesser extent, Stones. An early exception was an undergraduate dissertation on Millie undertaken in 1981 by Janet Scott at Burnley College.22 With historian's hindsight, this can deservedly be considered as important and pioneering research — including, as it did, information gleaned from interviews with many of Millie's friends and relatives, now long since deceased — although by Scott's own admission, it was far from definitive. Subsequent writers have become increasingly aware that Millie's contribution to the development of landscape design in Victoria was indeed substantial, yet little new research has been undertaken, with most scholars drawing heavily on Scott's dissertation. Despite the increasing desire to document Millie's life and work, the paucity of information has led to writers reaching the same dead end that Scott herself did.23 Writing of Millie in 1988, landscape historian Jane Shepherd concluded grimly that ‘we are left with only the hearsay that she was a designer of some note’.24
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That is no longer the case, with the recent discovery of a cache of original Millie Gibson drawings in the Picture Collection of the State Library of Victoria. In the early 1990s, the library acquired the archives of Stephenson & Turner, comprising a huge collection of architectural drawings spanning over 70 years of the Melbourne-based firm's national and international practice. With no funding available for sorting, the truckloads of drawings were crammed into the Library's offsite warehouse in Laverton, where they languished — unloved, unsorted and unavailable to the public — for over three years. Funding finally became available towards the end of 1997, and the huge task was entrusted to two young architectural historians employed elsewhere in the Library, one of whom — the present author — happened to have commenced research on the life of Millie Gibson a year earlier.
Millie's long and prolific association with architects Stephenson & Turner began in 1949 when the firm — then one of the largest in Melbourne — was riding the crest of a wave of post-War economic recovery. One such project was a design for one of the first elderly person's homes in Australia, to be built on the outskirts of Geelong. The architects, who had rarely felt the need to engage a landscape designer in the previous three decades of the firm's existence, were now pressured to do so by the client. The principal of the firm, the redoubtable Sir Arthur Stephenson (1890-1967), quite logically contacted Tom Kneen, then principal of Burnley College, who, in turn, quite logically recommended two of his design lecturers: Millie Gibson, and the considerably younger Hilda Dance. Despite an age difference of some 30 years, the two women were engaged jointly to prepare a landscaping masterplan for the huge site at Geelong. Their elaborate proposal ran the entire gamut of garden styles, from the Picturesque naturalism of clumped trees and irregular lakes, to a formal sunken garden consisting of, as Millie described it, ‘a central lawn with small pools at either end, surrounded by natural stone and concrete paving (coloured to the brick of the building) inset with beds of dwarf planting and planted vases’.
Needless to say, the architects and the project's Grounds Sub-committee were unanimously enthusiastic over the proposed landscaping, but it was the paying client — the Hospitals and Charities Commission — that had the final word. They reported, somewhat uncharitably, that they would not allow funding for consultants engaged in ‘this type of work’. The architects made repeated pleas, even offering to cover the cost of the consultant's fees at their own expense, but to no avail. The entire project was eventually shelved in 1952, and the site at Geelong remained vacant except, incongruously, for a fashionable Moderne boiler house that the architects had completed in 1949. The grandiose landscape proposal, however, lives on in the recently discovered drawings. Although a mere pencil sketch, the breathtaking originality of the scheme shines through, without the seductive artistic licence of an Edna Walling watercolour.
The ultimate failure of Millie's first large-scale landscaping project did not dissuade the architects from retaining her and Hilda Dance for several subsequent commissions, starting with the garden of the new nurses’ home at the Gippsland Base Hospital in Sale. This time, the building proceeded, and the garden was duly laid out:
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a simple configuration of paved pathways and lawns, edged with clumped plantings and sinuous flower beds. The landscape has since been greatly altered, and little, unfortunately, remains of their work at Sale. But the original watercolour drawing — one of the more beautiful of those recently found — remains as an invaluable record of the ideal garden as it was perceived through the eyes of its creators.
It seems that Millie Gibson and Hilda Dance were on the cusp of forming a full-blown professional partnership, but the latter married in 1951, and all but gave up her promising career as a landscape designer. Millie, then aged in her mid-sixties, was more than happy to continue alone with Stephenson & Turner, and she rapidly established herself as the firm's regular — and only — landscape design consultant. One former member of the office recalls that whenever new jobs came in, Sir Arthur Stephenson would duly remind the project architect: ‘…and don't forget, old chap, get Mrs Gibson in!’25 And indeed they did. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, she busied herself with huge landscaping projects for Stephenson & Turner, including a car factory in Clayton, an oil refinery in Altona, a hospital in Healesville, a nylon-spinning plant in Bayswater, and a hosiery mill in her old home town of Bendigo.
Millie's last-known project was the garden of St Hilda's
Millie Gibson on Gardening
Nothing more truly reflects the greatness of a nation than the home life of her citizens. The love of gardening and a desire to cultivate the soil is a natural inheritance of the human race, and these instincts are most strongly developed in the homemaker. The advance of civilisation has ever been marked by a development of horticultural art. The awakening love of Nature and of spontaneous life as expressed in writings and paintings soon found expression in gardens. The garden art of old times was largely a corollary of architecture, and was developed along formal and conventional lines. The modern trend is to endeavour to interpret Nature in the making of landscape. Both types of gardens are highly expressive of aesthetic feeling, and garden art, like painting or music or literature, develops along national lines. Gardening is a practical means of expressing the art sense. Plant life and plant colours provide the living material used by the artist to portray upon canvas the wondrous beauties of Nature. The painter's work may also represent individuality, imagination, and the suggestion of ideas. The gardener's art consists in the skilful use of the wealth of material provided by Nature to present an artificially made landscape.
Only those who have attempted the development of this art can fully appreciate the delights of gardening. There is no hobby or outdoor occupation that is invested with such a wealth of pleasurable anticipation. From the time of sowing the seeds until cutting the blossoms or gathering the fruit delightful expectation never flags. Even the failure and disappointments, which are inevitable, simply inspire one to fresh effort, and a fuller sense of satisfaction is experienced when realisation is attained in the face of many difficulties.
[An extract from ‘The Garden’ by ‘Culturalist’, Argus, 31 October 1924, the first weekly column written by Millie Gibson.]
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Millie Gibson's ambitious but unrealised proposal for landscaping the grounds of Geelong Old Folks'Home, 1949. La Trobe Picture Collection.

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College for Women at the University of Melbourne, which she completed in 1964. Her long and multi-faceted career had thus come full circle from her very first job, working on the gardens of nearby Newman College with Walter Burley Griffin almost 50 years before. Fittingly, her final design featured a combination of native and exotic species that had characterised her work throughout her long career: some of her own recurring favourites, including wattles, flowering cherries and hybrid tea roses, as well as the Eucalyptus citriodora, the favourite tree of her erstwhile employer, Walter Burley Griffin.
The completion of the St Hilda's College gardens marked the end of Millie's 15year association with Stephenson & Turner. She herself was then in her late seventies, and two of her long-time colleagues, landscape contractor Eric Hammond (1898-1992) and project architect Ellison Harvie (1902-1984), were both in their sixties. Sir Arthur Stephenson, Millie's employer and early champion, also died soon afterwards. It was indeed the end of an era. In 1967, Millie resigned as co-convener of the Lyceum Club's Garden Circle, and moved from her house in Glen Iris into the recently-opened War Widows’ Home in Lisson Grove, Hawthorn. Here, just across the river from Burnley College, she spent her last years. Mrs E.M. Gibson, a pioneer landscape designer, journalist and educator, died on 4 May 1974 at the age of 87 years, outliving Edna Walling by seven months.
The recently rediscovered drawings from Millie Gibson's time with Stephenson & Turner represent only a small piece of this remarkable woman's career. With the year 1999 marking the 25th anniversary of her death, much research still remains to be done. The documentation from her pre-War career, and that of her post-War work with other architectural firms, still waits to be unearthed. Her gardens, too, still remain to be visited, recorded and, one hopes, restored. But on a broader level, the rediscovery of some drawings represents an incredible coup for the very much underdocumented field of landscape history in Victoria. Fittingly, these rare drawings by Millie Gibson will be a perfect complement to the State Library's holdings of drawings by Edna Walling and Ellis Stones.
Simon Reeves
The author would like to thank the countless friends, relatives and former colleagues of Millie Gibson, whose enthusiasm and recollections have greatly assisted his research. Particular thanks are due to her daughter Helen Brown, her sister-in-law Winifred Grassick, her stepson John Muller Gibson, her nephew Vincent Grassick, and her niece Cecilia Zindler. The encouragement of Dr Phillip Goad and Christopher Vernon is also much appreciated, as is the assistance of Rowan Wilken and Matthew Bartlett.
Simon Reeves graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1998 with the degree of B Arch (Hons). He was engaged on the Stephenson & Turner project in the first half of 1998, prior to which he worked in the now-defunct Building Project Office at the State Library of Victoria. He is currently employed in the office of conservation architects Allom Lovell & Associates.
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1

William Southgate Porter, Fairmount Waterworks, 1848, International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.

2

Trisha Dixon and Jennie Churchill, The Vision of Edna Walling, Hawthorn: Blooming Books, 1998, p. xii.

3

Interview with Helen Brown, 26 May 1997.

4

Interview with Vincent Grassick, 2 January 1999.

5

Ibid; interview with Helen Brown.

6

Interview with Cecilia Zindler, 3 December 1998.

7

Alec Eggleston, ‘Reminiscences of a Septuagenarian’, unpublished typescript, 1955. Courtesy Robert Eggleston.

8

E.M. Gibson, ‘Statement of Qualifications’, undated typescript (c. 1949). Copy in author's collection.

9

Other women who worked for the Griffins, including architect Louise Lightfoot, perspective artist Bertha Merfield, and secretaries Kathleen ‘Cappy’ Mahady and Vera Doyle, did not enter the office until at least the early 1920s.

10

Julie Willis, ‘Women in Architecture in Victoria’, PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 1997, passim.

11

Jeff Turnbull and P.Y. Navaretti, The Griffins in Australia and India, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1998.

12

‘Statement of Qualifications’. loc cit.

13

Quoted in Sheila Harvey (ed.), Reflections on Landscape: The Lives and Work of Six British Landscape Architects, Aldershot [UK]: Gower Technical Press, 1987, p. 13.

14

Alison Hodges, ‘A Victorian Gardener: Edward Milner (1819-1884)’, Garden History, vol. 7,1977, passim.

15

I.W. Leigh, ‘Milner White and partners’, Landscape Design, 156,1985, p. 13.

16

Quoted in Harvey. loc cit.

17

Leigh. loc cit.

18

‘To the Editor of the Argus’, Argus, 3 November 1924, p. 11.

19

‘Rose Forum’, Australian Rose Annual, 1940, p. 114.

20

Interview with Winifred Grassick, 30 September 1996.

21

Letter from John Muller Gibson, 15 June 1997.

22

Janet Scott, ‘Emily M Gibson’, Amenities Dissertation, Dip App Sci, Burnley Horticultural College, 1982.

23

Janet Scott and John Patrick, ‘Emily Gibson: Writer, Lecturer and Landscape Designer’, Australian Garden History, VIII, 1, July-August 1996, p. 10; Margaret Hendry, ‘Portrait of a Visionary’, Landmark, June 1997.

24

Jane Shepherd, ‘Early Women Landscape Architects: Olive Mellor and Emily Gibson’, Transition, Winter, 1988, p. 63.

25

Interview with James Melville, 25 May 1997.