May 22, 2020

Florence Broadhurst: Enigmatic stylist, unsolved murder

Florence Broadhurst, one of Australia’s most remarkable creatives, continues to surprise. Acclaimed author, Helen O'Neill, recalls her own fascination with this doyenne of design.

The first time I heard her life story, told to me twelve years ago in only the sketchiest of details, I was stunned not only that her home country seemed to have forgotten her but that the world did not know.

Broadhurst’s tale, which I would tell in full in my illustrated biography of her, beggared belief. She had been born in 1899 to a poor farming family from near Mount Perry in rural Queensland. She had a strong contralto voice, singing her way out of the bush and then, using the name ‘Bobby’ Broadhurst, out of the country as part of a vaudeville troupe that spent the Roaring Twenties touring Asia.

In Shanghai she changed tack and launched her first business – the Broadhurst Academy finishing school where the daughters of wealthy British ex-pats could learn everything from elocution to the Charleston from her and her ‘expert’ staff. By the 1930s Broadhurst had reinvented herself again – this time becoming the chic Madame Pellier, a French couturier based in London who claimed to be a ‘genuine dress artist’ engaged by the famous and rich.

In the 1950s, back in Australia, a whole new Florence emerged. This time she masqueraded as an aristocratic English woman visiting the colonies to recuperate from the ravages of World War II. She painted landscapes, claimed to know the British Royal family, and happily likening her modest artistic style to that of the great impressionists and Leonardo da Vinci.

Broadhurst embedded herself in Sydney’s high-end social scene as a businesswoman, public speaker and charity fund-raiser, at one point even announcing that she wanted to be Australia’s ‘Ambassadress’. When her landscapes failed to impress she moved her on to portraiture, concentrating on images of people she considered significant.

That did not work out either, and in desperation, as her marriage broke down and her business endeavours faltered, she launched what would become her defining venture – a Sydney wallpaper business.

During the Sixties and Seventies, Florence Broadhurst produced a stunning kaleidoscope of hand-printed wallpapers from bespoke, hand-drawn designs. She took the colours of the time and magnified them but it is the sheer range of images in her design archive that continues to surprise. They range from conservative European tapestries to interlocking geometrics, romantic florals, psychedelia and charming Chinoiserie.

Broadhurst designs are still available today. Pic  Florence Broadhurst's design library

Yet however dynamic the wallpapers were, Florence Broadhurst seemed more startling still: a tiny woman with bright red hair, a penchant for false eyelashes and dramatic clothes. She did as she pleased, picking up younger boyfriends and living life to the full. She was difficult to ignore yet somehow easy to take for granted.

On October 15, 1977, the 78-year-old was brutally murdered in her Paddington wallpaper showroom. Despite an intense police investigation, her assailant was never found. Then an even stranger thing happened. Florence Broadhurst and her designs were somehow forgotten, disappearing from view.

‘Did I think there could be a biography in this woman?’ I was asked, back in 2003. I answered immediately, before I had even had a chance to see the images, then being gradually restored by Signature Prints, the Sydney business that held what was left of her designs and silk screens.

‘If what you are telling me is true, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been one already,‘ I said. ‘Could there a book on this woman? Yes indeed.’

Much has happened since then. Fashion designers such as Akira Isogawa and Nikki Zimmerman have incorporated her patterns into their own creations. Interior designers have used her designs everywhere from Melbourne to London, Fiji and Los Vegas. She has developed a celebrity following, with people such as Elle Macpherson, Mark Jacobs, Gwyneth Paltrow and Courtney Love are all believed to own examples of her work.

When my biography came out in the USA it caught the eye of Deborah Lloyd, creative director and president of the luxury brand Kate Spade which went on to make Broadhurst designs a key part of its entire 2012 range, stocked in every store. Lloyd even emailed me to say, ‘Thank you so much for writing the book that started this love affair’.

Broadhurst’s reach continues to grow as Signature Design Archive, a company that evolved from Signature Prints, finds new partners to license her work across the globe. Already you can sleep with Broadhurst (there is a range of bed linen), eat with her (on specially designed crockery), and even take garden with her using trowels made using her designs, and her trajectory shows no sign of stopping.

Florence Broadhurst is back for good and looks set to travel further perhaps even she ever imagined.


Helen O’Neill is the author of
Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives
published by Hardie Grant Books, $65.

No comments:

Support Traveloscopy - Support Responsible Travel.

Traveloscopy is a freelance journalism enterprise supporting the tourism and travel industries. We aim to encourage people to travel thoughtfully and responsibly and also support sustainable initiatives within the travel sector. You can help us cover our operating costs, even if in just a small way.

Last 30 Days' Most Popular Posts