MAG&M Collection Stories:

Taking you back to the 1910s

Seen as an escape from the city, Manly in the early twentieth century was advertised as ‘seven miles from Sydney, a thousand miles from care’. A number of artists including Ethel Carrick Fox and Percy Spence captured the beachside destination.

Created within a few years of each other, Summer is Here - Manly and Manly Beach with Lady Lifesavers both depict people amongst the surf and the sand, however the playful compositions reveal much about issues of gender and morality at the time.

Spence’s 1910 watercolour marks a historically significant moment, as one of the first artworks to show women as lifesavers. After surf bathing during daylight hours was legalised in 1903, the Manly Women’s Rescue and Resuscitation team formed in 1910 as one of the first in Australia. In Spence’s image, the women are doing a ‘line and reel drill’ which they performed in front of 20,000 people at a surf lifesaving competition two years later. Despite this, women were still excluded from competing for the bronze medallion until 1980, a requirement to qualify as a lifeguard.

In the early 1900s, the issue of public decency was of top concern and by-laws against mixed bathing were in place to ‘protect’ the morality of Australian society. In Carrick Fox’s painting, crowds of people gather on the sand, complete with umbrellas, deckchairs and modest clothing. Interpreted as a reflection on male and female roles at the time, most women clothed from head to toe, sit passively on the sand with their children while the men are free to surf. This reflects Carrick Fox herself, a talented artist who spent the majority of her career in the shadow of her artist husband, Emmanuel Phillips Fox. In recent years, Carrick Fox has been recognised for her important contribution to the story of Australian art.


1. Red parasol, c.1915, cotton fabric with wooden handle. Gift of Anne Jones 1990. (M0013)

2. Ethel Carrick Fox (1872-1952), Manly, Summer is here, 1913, oil on canvas, 81 x 102cm. Gift of the artist 1934. (A0053)

3. Two piece swimsuit, c.1920, woollen. Lasker & Lasker. Purchased through The Vintage Clothing Shop 1990. (M0027)

4. Percy Spence (1868-1933), Manly Beach with Lady Lifesavers, 1910, watercolour on paper, 18 x 27cm. Purchased 1975. (A0402)

5. Tunic sailor style swim suit with pleated skirt, 1910s, silk. Gift of the David Jones Collection 1993. (M0920)

6. Promenading at South Steyne, Manly, c.1912, photograph. ( P0401)

7. Family Group at Manly Beach, c.1920, photograph. (P1529)


Thanks to Meg O’Donnell, 2020 University of Sydney Museum & Heritage Studies intern, for her research and writing on our collection.