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Agnes Theodora (Dora) Sweetapple (1899–1987)

by Chris Cunneen

Agnes Theodora (Dora) Sweetapple, artist and jeweller, was born on 11 February 1899 at Coonamble, New South Wales, second of four children of Edmund Henry Burkitt, medical practitioner, and his wife Amy Theodora, née Hungerford (1874-1956). Born in Wiltshire, England, in 1867, Edmund Burkitt had come to Sydney about 1886 and taught at The King’s School, Parramatta. In 1896 he graduated in medicine at the University of Sydney. Except for four years in the Australian Army Medical Corps in World War I, when he served overseas, he practiced at Dubbo from 1900 to his death in 1925.[1] He was, as well, prominent in the town’s sporting and social activities and an alderman. Dora’s younger sisters were Muriel, who married Dr John Howell Halliday, and Marion, later Lady Hall Best. All three were ‘active practitioners, teachers and patrons in the promotion of twentieth-century design in Sydney’[2].

Dora Burkitt (or ‘Doy’, as she was known) was educated at Dubbo High School and at ‘Westwood’, Mrs Mary Lavinia Conolly’s school at Point Piper, Sydney.[3] She studied at the University of Sydney from 1917, where she resided at the Women’s College[4] and won a ‘blue’ in tennis, before graduating BA in 1920. In 1920-21 she was assistant mistress, at Frensham, Mittagong, teaching Latin, then studied silversmithing with Rhoda Wager and trained at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. On 21 February 1927 at St James’s Church[5] she married Harold Algar (known as ‘Bim’) Sweetapple (ChM, MB, University of Sydney 1921). They had a daughter and two sons and lived at 5 Wiston Gardens, Double Bay, in a house designed by Leslie Wilkinson. Born in 1898, after working as a general practitioner at Rose Bay, from 1932 Harold spent two years, with Dora and their elder son, in Britain. He worked for his Mastership of Orthopaedic Surgery at Liverpool University and qualified FRCS Edinburgh 1933. Returning to Sydney, he became a leading orthopaedic surgeon, a keen golfer and yachtsman and served in World War II. He died in Sydney on 2 August 1947.[6]

From about 1938 Dora taught art and embroidery at ‘Fairfield’, Eula Broinowski’s private preparatory school in Bellevue Hill.  In the late 1940s supported only by a war widow’s pension, Mrs Sweetapple needed to work, so taught occasionally at Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School, Darlinghurst. She also took in boarders and conducted groups of art enthusiasts and students on tours of art gallery exhibitions. From about 1948 she ran an art school, and was director of the Double Bay Studio of the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW[7] where, with Margaret Oppen, and Ann Rees, she trained young women to be interior decorators, fabric printers and dress designers. From 1950 Dora was director of the Design School, Edgecliff,[8] leasing the ballroom of a ‘picturesque old residence’[9], ‘Merioola’, at 21 Rosemont Avenue.[10] Artists such as Lyndon Dadswel, Desiderius Orban, Justin O’Brien, Donald Friend and others occupied other parts of the premises. A post-impressionist painter herself, Dora was close to Thea Proctor, Roland Wakelin and Grace Cossington Smith and painted regularly with them. Dora was also a fine jeweller and silversmith and contributed art criticism to the Sydney Morning Herald.

From 1938 she also had a pivotal role in the flourishing interior design business of her sister Marion, not only in contributing her own art work, such as stylish murals, but also in organizing suppliers and selecting and displaying local art and craft. She managed Hall Best’s second shop, in Rowe Street, Sydney, from its opening in 1949 to its closure in the early 1960s.[11] Through her teaching and her sister’s shop, Dora ‘had a pivotal role in nurturing the growth of young artists such as Ann Gyngell and Marea Gazzard. Her influence extended through her contribution to art criticism in Sydney.’[12]

Dora Sweetapple was a staunch Anglophile and a devout Anglican, worshipping at Christ Church St Laurence.  Closely involved in the Blake Prize for religious art from its beginning in 1950, she served on the organizing committee for several years and as a judge in 1958.[13] Described as ‘enduring, firm and gentle, essentially serious, but never losing her sense of humour’[14] and always stylishly dressed, she was tall, with curly, brown hair, and wore glasses. She is remembered by her family as a loving parent and as an absent-minded driver of her Morris Minor motorcar, a keen gardener and occasional smoker.

In 1961-62 Dora Sweetapple travelled to the United States of America and Europe.[15] Her reports on the preservation of historic domestic architecture in USA were published in the Sydney Morning Herald (2 December 1961, p. 12, & 2 June 1961, p. 2).

On 14 April 1966 at the Register Office, Wiltshire, England she married a widower, Captain John Henry McNeile (b.1892). She attended Bath Art School while living in the village of Bromham, near Devizes, where she helped restore her husband’s historic home, ‘Nonsuch House’. After McNeile’s death in 1978 Dora returned to Sydney. She died there on 22 October 1987 and was cremated.[16] Two sons survived her. A memorial service was later held at Christ Church.

Michaela Richards, The Best Style; Peter Halliday, ‘The Burkitt Ladies’, Hungerford and Affiliated Families Society Journal, Vol 10, No. 2, November 2009, pp. 30-40; Design and Art Australia Online (DAAO), accessed 12 December 2011; information from Dr and Mrs W. E. Sweetapple, Sydney. 

[1] Obituary SMH, 18 November 1925, p.16.

[2] Design and Art Australia Online (hereafter DAAO), accessed 12 December 2011.

[3] For Westwood school see advertisements Brisbane Courier, 2 July 1904, p. 10, and SMH, 1 October 1910, p. 19.

[4] Rosemary Annable, Biographical Register of the Women’s College within the University of Sydney, volume 1 (1995), pp. 60-61.

[5] SMH 26 March 1927, p. 14.

[6] SMH 4 August 1947, p. 7; Medical Journal of Australia, January 17, 1948, pp. 86-87.

[7] SMH 12 January 1949, p.9.

[8] SMH, 22 August 1950, p. 11.

[9] SMH, 31 January 1950, p. 9.

[10] SMH, 19 September 1951, p. 13.

[11] Michaela Richards, The Best Style, pp. 63, 64 & 71

[12] DAAO.

[13] SMH, 25 February 1958, p.6

[14] Peter Halliday, ‘The Burkitt Ladies’, Hungerford and Affiliated Families Society Journal, Vol 10, No. 2, November 2009, pp. 30-40

[15] SMH, 6 August 1961, p. 75.

[16] SMH 24 Oct 1987, p. 127.

Original Publication

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Sweetapple, Agnes Theodora (Dora) (1899–1987)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Dora Sweetapple, 1960

Dora Sweetapple, 1960

Australian Women's Weekly, 3 August 1960, p 12

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Burkitt, Agnes Theodora

11 February, 1899
Coonamble, New South Wales, Australia


22 October, 1987 (aged 88)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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