Brownie Downing brought to life the magic of childhood, and generations of children and adults to come, both in Australia and overseas will remember her for that. She earned a name in the Australian art world through her sketches, porcelain items, watercolours and children books. Downing’s achievement is quite intriguing. Starting with Aboriginal Australia, which at first she had just an idealized knowledge about, it became her favourite and the most successful part of her career. She was great at capturing the simple, innocent and naive nature of children and wildlife in ways any culture can relate with. This career-defining quality was developed earlier in her career when she lived in remote northern suburbs in Sydney. The experience stayed with her and gave flavour to all her works, even when the entire other half of her life was lived overseas.
Brownie was born Viola Edith Downing and grew up in a house surrounded by bush reserves in the then outer suburban Balgowlah. There, she started drawing from the age of 3, sketching the children, animals, flowers, and trees she saw around her. Her father, Frank, has huge interests in Aboriginal culture and had books around the house with pictures and descriptions of tribal life. Downing was committed more to her own creativity than her school work, but nonetheless, graduated from Manly High School. She immediately enrolled at the Sydney Technical Art School. After her education, she worked as a commercial artist, drawing children’s fashion from 1942 until 1944, when she joined the Women’s Auxiliary for the balance of the war. In 1947, she enrolled to study an arts course at Julian Ashton’s art school, and at the same time, began to build her career.
Brownie Downing painted prolifically and had many originals sold. Some of her works were printed and marketed all over Australia. She made some Aboriginal studies which became an immediate success. In the 1950s, Downing created designs for Christmas cards, pottery, and pictures. Ronald Parsons, her first husband, helped in the marketing, making the work to translate into commercial success. The Aboriginal characters have compelling charm, and each time they were displayed on items such as porcelain dishes, wall plaques, miniature tea sets, people loved it and immediately it was immensely popular.
Brownie married Ronald Francis Parsons at Bristol, England in 1951. They had three children, namely Michelle Frances MANSFIELD, Charles Francis PARSONS and Beau. She also had a son, Tim Mansfield (aka Jack Hamersley).
Brownie’s Travels and Work of Art
Brownie left Australia in 1958 for extensive travels. The travels helped her to be able to create a portfolio of paintings of children of many different nationalities.
She even once lived in France where a petition was written against her in 1960, asking to close down her business, ‘Brownie Downing Productions Pty. Limited’ at 43 Rue Hippolyte Guis, Haut-De-Cagnes, Cagnes-Sur-Mer, Alps Mmes, France”.
Brownie never held an exhibition of her original works in Australia, but her work currently can be found in several Australian museums.
Brownie was in the habit of sending her catalogues to her son Tim, who as of then was living in Sydney. He, ever willing to promote his mother’s profile and work, did the needful. Like she said:
“In my hey-day on the Australian market, my work had no publicity, simply because it didn’t need it. However, every year at the Sydney Show Ground Thelma Lander of ‘Gift Fair’ had a large display of my work on the show. This was until her death in 1964. It is all so long ago. Yet it is amazing how people still write to me wanting to know where they can obtain my work.” –Brownie Downing, 1987
Brownie initially produced Porcelains in Japan, and then England (through Weatherby and Sons). The name of the Japanese company who did her work is not yet known. JH Weatherby and Sons produce a limited quantity of aboriginal designs which sold well. JH Weatherby and Sons predominantly produced vase-shaped pottery, while the Japanese produced a collection of other kinds but most predominantly ballerina artwork.
The silkscreen process was used to transfer-printing the Brownie Downing’s Australian Piccaninny drawings on the nursery ware, but the quantity issued is not known (they are said to either still being used, or have probably mainly disappeared). An earthenware body was used, while further developments in the process of transfer will give out colours and appearance as almost painted. While the work appears thoroughly Australian in aspect, the nursery ware clearly written to have been made in England by J.H. Weatherby & Sons Ltd, and Gift Fair of Sydney, who was the sole agent in Australia and New Zealand. The ware to be made in England means that the promoters made this plan to suit their purposes.
GIFT FAIR had their office at St. James Buildings -109 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, N.S.W. “AGENTS – DISTRIBUTORS: We require a live-wire representative for the district of Canberra and surrounding towns to handle our gifts, novelties, and souvenirs of Brownie Downing and other famous lines. Apply in writing advising of territory covered, etc., to: GIFT FAIR 109 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, N.S.W.” was the content of posters around Australia, four years after Brownie had left Australia and had wound up ‘Brownie Downing Productions Pty. Limited’.
Brownie Downing wrote quite a number of books. Her first book, Tinka and His Friends, was published in 1960 with 60,000 copies sold, winning her Daily Telegraph Children’s Book of the Year award. The book tells the story of an Aboriginal boy, Tinka, and Shelley, a little blonde girl who desperately wanted to grow pigtails. The Shelly character was based on her only daughter Chele. Her other three children, Charles, Tim, and Beau, also appeared in her books which included: A Tale of Mischief, Tinka and the Bunyip, Children of the Dreaming and Topa the Little Peruvian.
Travelling, Writing, and Sculpting
Brownie travelled to Britain to promote her book. This was where she met her second husband and co-author, John Lattin Mansfield. They got married and the family began travelling the world for their work. For several years, they lead an almost nomadic lifestyle. In 1966, they moved into John’s ancestral estate on the River Liffey in County Kildare. After selling the property, they purchased a yacht named Voyageur and sailed around the Mediterranean for twelve years, spending only the first winter in Menorca. They finally settled in Palma, Mallorca in 1974. All along, Brownie kept up with her work and would paint up to 12 hours a day, frequently getting jobs to paint portraits of people’s children but often doing the job she likes best, which is just sitting someplace outdoors (probably in a café )and sketching the local children. The couple finally relocated to Andorra in the mid-80s, where Brownie died in 1995 at the age of 71 at her home in Pal in Andorra.
Brownie was popular for various categories of art she was involved in but was probably best known for the children’s story, “Tinka and His Friends”, which sold 60,000 copies in the 1950s and won The Daily Telegraph Children’s Book of the Year Award.