Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives by Helen O’Neill

Fraud, sham, or the definition of ‘reinvention’? I’ll get to that…

Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives by Helen O’Neill is unquestionably a beautiful book. I’d go so far as saying it’s one of the loveliest books I own.

My first edition is covered in red cloth, embossed with a striking crisp white print in Broadhurst’s signature floral pattern. The pages are thick, a matte varnish giving the numerous colour plates lustre. Full pages are devoted to Broadhurst’s designs, the colours popping. Yes, this is a book to own and cherish.

Broadhurst lead a colourful and mysterious life. Born in 1899 on a cattle station in outback Queensland, Florence had her sights set on great things from a young age. In her twenties, she was a singer, dancer and comedienne touring South East Asia and China, and then ran a finishing school for the Colonial-elite in Shanghai.

She moved to London, rebranding herself as a ‘French’ fashion designer. She married (twice) and returned to Australia as a ‘British’ society figure. Settling in Sydney, she became a landscape painter, a car salesperson, and finally (and most notably), a wallpaper designer and printer.

Broadhurst was known for her outrageous and colourful fashion sense (from her bright orange hair and matching false eyelashes to her boldly patterned kaftans and flashy jewellery) – she commanded attention. She was also known to be demanding, eccentric and relentless – although she had a small group of devotees, there was a high turnover of employees in her wallpaper business, with few willing to put up with her outrageous demands and unpredictable ways.

Broadhurst was bludgeoned to death in her studio in 1977. The murder was never solved, although O’Neill details compelling evidence that suggests she was a victim of serial killer, John Wayne Glover.

Interestingly, no one person knew ‘all’ of Florence. Many of those close to her didn’t discover significant details about her life – for example her true age, or that she was born in Queensland rather than into British society – until after her death. Some call it reinvention, some call it clever, and others use the word fraud.

While she left many questions unanswered, including whether she was actually the artist of her designs (her eyesight was very poor making the intricate wallpaper work near impossible), she did leave her mark on interior design in Australia and internationally.

Viewed today, the Broadhurst designs appear to demonstrate a remarkable awareness of ‘Australia-ness’ at a time when the nation was only beginning to come to grips with where its heritage lay.

Broadhurst produced hundreds of designs, many of which have become iconic – Japanese Floral, Solar, Turnabouts and Horses Stampede, to name a few.

Her style was varied and she drew inspiration from multiple sources. Her designs range from psychedelic and geometric prints that scream the sixties and seventies, to delicate Victorian florals and Asian-inspired bird prints.

…the images that emerged from the Broadhurst wallpaper studio as the years passed became emphatically more striking. That trend was definitely propelled by Broadhurst’s failing eyes says her son. ‘That is why [the colours] were so far out. It was her eyesight driving her. “I want it brighter, I want it stronger. I want to see it.”‘

Regardless of whether her wallpapers were done with her own hand, Florence had a knack for colour, predicting trends and marketing – skills that cannot be ignored.

Reading this book was a true pleasure. I relished the details of wallpaper printing (it’s a very complex art), and marvelled at how Florence got away with what she did – sorting the fact from the fiction was fascinating. My only quibble was the large portion of the book that O’Neill devoted to Florence’s death and the control of her designs since then – although her death and the rediscovery of her prints by current fashion designers is interesting, it is Florence’s nutso life that made for compelling reading.

4/5 Gorgeous.

19 responses

    • I think for those who haven’t heard of her, her death is the very, very interesting part of the story but I’m just amazed at all the other stuff that she got away with – just shows how life was different before the internet!

    • Now that you’ve read this, you’ll probably notice her prints around – they are used frequently by fashion designers and interior designers (a pity the wallpaper is still astronomically expensive because I would love a wall of groovy Turnabouts)

    • Gillian Armstrong made a documentary more than ten years ago but I haven’t seen it (- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLTzYhSXytY

      Her prints have been used extensively by current fashion designers (Stella McCartney and Kate Spade) and interior designers – her wallpapers are still in hotels and nightclubs around the world. I love the Japanese Floral print (next time I buy bedlinen, I’ll be splurging on something with that print).

  1. My favourite of the designs you’ve shown is the Stampede. Yes, how did she do that with failing eyesight. Another Australian who took herself from poor, backblocks governness to English lady, and lost a decade in the process, was Barbara Baynton. Penne Hackforth-Jones is her great granddaughter and has written a book about her.

      • I admire their grit. They were playing in a game where the rules were stacked against them. Women whose only career path is marriage can hardly be blamed for marrying – or reinventing themselves – up.

  2. I read a book by Lyn Hughes about 8 yrs ago called Flock. It was a fairly light read set in the Blue Mountains all about wallpaper. I enjoyed it quite a lot at the time, but the reviews for it were fairly average. Seeing this post brought it to mind though as I have developed a thing for the gorgeous designs of Broadhurst since then.

    • Last night I went to see – chose almost at random – Kusama – Infinity, which I thought would be about design but was in fact about an amazing artist of whom I had never previously heard Yayoi Kusma, about her work and her battles with depression and with the New York art establishment (not to mention the conservatives in her own home town). I hope this at least a little bit relevant to your post. If you get the chance, see the movie!

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