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Lempriere, Dora Elizabeth (1873–1958)

by Les Hetherington

Dora Elizabeth Octavia Lempriere (1873-1958), patron of the arts, was born on 20 May 1873 at ‘Doonside’, Burnley Street, Richmond, Victoria, to Scottish-born parents, building contractor David Mitchell and his wife, Isabella Ann (née Dow).

The fifth of seven surviving Mitchell children, with her younger brothers she was partly raised by older sisters Anne and Isabella after their mother died in 1881[1]. From 1882, with Isabella, Dora attended Presbyterian Ladies College, East Melbourne.[iv] Dora’s eldest sister, Helen, later Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), however, had the greatest impact on her life.

Dora was identified as having ‘represented’ the ‘Australian diva’ as early as Melbourne Cup day 1892.[v] In December 1896 when Madame Melba was ill while on tour in the United States of America, she asked Dora to join her. With their brother, Ernest, Dora accompanied Melba on her travels in North America, England and France, not returning to Melbourne until September 1898. For a time in late 1897 she studied French in Paris.[vi] With Dora ‘less amiable’ than Ernest, according to Melba’s granddaughter, Pamela Vestey, ‘there was some sisterly friction’. Charles Mitchell’s daughter later wrote of them that ‘these women (Aunts Nellie, Anne and Dora) … were like absolute tyrants. … not like any other Australian women anyone ever knew!’.[vii] ‘However’, Pamela Vestey continued in her account, ‘Dora was delighted with the wealth of art to be found in London and Paris, and Nellie enjoyed showing her sister all the sights.’[viii]

Dora again travelled with Madame Melba in France and England from March 1900 until October 1901, together with her sister, Isabella, and Isabella’s two children. Encouraged by Madame Melba, Dora took up singing lessons (she was said to possess an excellent soprano voice), and for a time after her return to Melbourne continued her singing training at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.[ix]

On 18 July 1906, in Melbourne, Dora Mitchell married Charles Algernon Lempriere. Madame Melba provided ‘a very handsome trousseau … accompanied with an equally handsome cheque’[x]. The son of the late William George Lempriere and grandson of Tasmanian colonial official and painter, Thomas James Lempriere[xi], Charles Lempriere was a businessman and company manager. He had trained as an engineer, visiting Germany between 1896 and 1898 to complete his studies. A keen horseman, he participated in both hunting and polo events. The couple lived initially at Murrumbeena and then for several years in Toorak.[xii] Their only child, painter, sculptor and lithographer, Helen Dora Lempriere (1907-1991), was born on 12 December 1907.[xiii]

During World War I Charles Lempriere served in New Guinea and Melbourne.[xiv] In 1916, on the death of her father, Dora Lempriere inherited one seventh of an estate valued at just under £300,000, to be held in trust from which the Mitchell siblings would derive an ongoing income until their deaths, when the remainder would pass to their children.[xv] Throughout, the Lemprieres remained in contact with Madame Melba, in Australia and Europe, visiting her in London in 1913.[xvi]

After the war and his demobilisation, Charles Lempriere took up grazing, moving his family to a property, ‘Greenmeadows’, near Yea, northeast of Melbourne, where he became involved in local government and social and sporting bodies.[xvii] The Lempriere home at Yea, reported Table Talk in 1925, reflected ‘the excellent taste of its chatelaine’. [xviii] Consistent with her good taste and earlier interest in Europe, the Lemprieres supported a number of local artists: over the years Janet Cumbrae Stewart painted Dora Lempriere while Florence Rodway, Bess Norris Tait and Archibald Colquhoun painted Helen.[xix]

In February 1923 the Lemprieres again left for Europe. Charles returned the following September, but Dora and Helen not until the beginning of January 1925[xx] - they had a long time spent in pleasant wanderings from one fascinating continental corner to another with a flight to the old land now and then’.[xxi]

After her return Dora Lempriere divided her time between Yea and Melbourne, visits to the city coinciding with the Melbourne spring racing carnival, hunt events and social and charitable occasions.[xxii] At least once, in May 1927, the Lemprieres were again staying with now Dame Nellie Melba at her Australian home, Coombe Cottage, at Coldstream in the Yarra valley.[xxiii]

Around 1928 Dora Lempriere purchased three blocks of land, totalling 17 acres, including a house[xxiv], that had belonged to David Mitchell at Cave Hill, Lilydale, a few kilometres from Coldstream. By 1931 both she and her daughter were electorally recorded as living at Montrose, on the south side of Lilydale, the former on ‘home duties’ and the latter as a ‘student of art’. In the same year Dora Lempriere ceased to be electorally recorded at Yea, while her husband’s name remained on the roll there.[xxv]

Her niece later wrote that ‘Aunt Dora and Uncle Charles … couldn’t live together’[xxvi], but the reason for the move may also have been pragmatic. Around 1929 Helen Lempriere began studying art under Archibald Colquhoun at his studio in Little Collins Street, Melbourne. Some time later both Dora and Helen were students at Justus Jorgensen’s Queen Street studio, before Helen went on to study with Jorgensen at his artist’s colony, Montsalvat, Eltham, less than 30 kilometres from Lilydale.[xxvii] The need for Helen to be close to the location of her studies, the opportunity to purchase some of the old Mitchell estate, and its proximity to Dame Nellie’s Coombe Cottage may have prompted the move. The property was referred to in newspaper reports as ‘The Shack’ and ‘Towri’, Lilydale.[xxviii]

Unfortunately, Dame Nellie became ill in early 1931 and went to Sydney for medical treatment. Both Dora and Helen Lempriere were at her Darlinghurst hospital when Dame Nellie died there on 23 February. Dora Lempriere was among those who accompanied the body back to Lilydale for burial. Dame Nellie bequeathed her a diamond and pearl ring, said to be the first piece of jewellery she purchased after becoming ‘Melba’, and to Helen Lempriere a Hans Heysen drawing.

In September 1938 Charles Lempriere also died, aged 63. He had informed his daughter in 1933 that his will split his estate, bequeathing the bulk to her and leaving his wife the proceeds of a life insurance policy[xxix]. The financial independence her inheritance gave Helen Lempriere enabled her to move permanently to Montsalvat, in which she subsequently invested her time, talent and money.[xxx] Her mother appears to have supported her daughter’s move. Jorgensen’s son, Sigmund, recounts a story that once when Dora Lempriere visited Montsalvat for dinner she was so horrified at the toilet facilities she offered to pay to have a new one built. Jorgensen accepted the money but spent it instead on bluestone for other buildings.[xxxi] In 1943 Dora Lempriere was still electorally recorded as resident at Montrose, but after her daughter married in 1945 and re-settled in Sydney she moved to 11 Barry Street, Kew.[xxxii] Helen Lempriere subsequently accompanied her husband to Paris in 1950, after which Dora Lempriere travelled to the United Kingdom several times, possibly also visiting her daughter.[xxxiii] She died aged eighty-four on 3 March 1958 at Studley Park Private Hospital, Kew and was cremated at Springvale Cemetery, Melbourne.[xxxiv]

Reportedly a strong-willed and independent woman, Dora Lempriere had nevertheless supported both her sister and daughter in their artistic careers, though her own appears to have faltered in the early 1900s, prior to her marriage. A supporter of local painters, a supportive companion to the family-minded Melba in the late 1890s and early 1900s and long-term her close sister, her knowledge of European art and her ‘excellent taste’ would have influenced her daughter Helen’s developing creative temperament in the 1920s and 1930s.

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 2016

Citation details

Les Hetherington, 'Lempriere, Dora Elizabeth (1873–1958)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/lempriere-dora-elizabeth-18520/text33896, accessed 13 December 2019.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mitchell, Dora Elizabeth
Birth

20 May 1873
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

1958
Australia

Cultural Heritage
Education