Marie (Mollie) Compston Horseman

(also worked under the name of Vanessa)
Born Rochester, Victoria 1911
Died Blue Mountains, New South Wales 1974

By Lindsay Foyle

Mollie Horseman worked hard all her life. But she also enjoyed herself and made people feel comfortable in her company. On one occasion, she invited some of her more bohemian artist friends over for dinner. The evening was a great success, with great conversation and laughter and went on until the early hours. Only the next morning did Molly find the dinner she had prepared still in the oven. Everyone was having such a great time they totally forgot the food.

Mollie Horseman was born in Rochester, Victoria on 9 December 1911, the daughter of Frederick Ernest Horseman (1882-1966), a farmer, and his wife Katherine Marie Compston (née Miller), who were migrants from Yorkshire, England. Mollie grew up in Melbourne. When she was 13, her parents amicably separated and she was taken by her mother to Sheffield, England, and then to Germany. While Katherine managed a canteen on the Rhine for the British Army, Mollie (as she was always known) was enrolled at a finishing school for young ladies. As Mollie spoke no German and her teachers lacked any English, she mainly communicated by drawing pictures of castles. Her two years in Germany was not wasted, when she returned to Australia she could dance the Charleston and speak a little German. She also understood she liked drawing.

On returning to Australia Horseman was briefly employed by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969) and his second wife, Rose (1885-1978), as a governess, for their two daughters. On one occasion when a model failed to arrive Mollie was used as a substitute. A considerable feat, as she was tall and slender and Lindsay’s models tended to be more rounded. Lindsay was impressed with Horseman’s drawing skills and recommended she attend the National Art School. For financial reasons, she did not complete her course at East Sydney Technical College but during her studies she was influenced by Rayner Hoff’s (1894-1937) artistic style.

In 1929, she joined Smith's Weekly at the same time as Joan Morrison (1911-1969). They called themselves 'The Smith's Sisters' and occasionally drew cartoons jointly. Horseman married William Longford Power, an articled clerk, on 2 September 1931 at the North Sydney registry office. They had one son, Roderick Packenham, before they divorced in May 1938.

Horseman next married Nelson Illingworth (grandson of the sculptor Nelson Illingworth) on 8 June 1938 at the Mosman Presbyterian Church. They had one son and three daughters before the marriage ended in divorce.

In the early 1940s the family moved to Brisbane, where Horseman freelanced, drawing comic strips for Frank Johnson Publications as well as contributing cartoons to Man magazine, The Australian Woman’s Mirror and Rydge's Business Journal (for whom she created "The Tipple Twins two secretaries who regularly created office havoc).

Horseman moved back to Sydney in 1946 and in the 1950s found work at Sydney production unit of The Courier-Mail in York Street. It has been established in 1950 by Keith Murdoch, mainly employing ex-Smith’s Weekly journalists and cartoonists. Their work was syndicated to newspapers all over Australia and overseas. For a time in the early 1950s Horseman was part of the Northwood artists group. It was made up by a small group of friends who would go on painting excursions around Sydney Harbour and north-western Sydney. Lloyd Rees (1895-1988) was there and so too was fellow cartoonist Stewart McCrae (1919-2008). He said Mollie was a great support for him when he was starting out.

Mollie created the strip Girl Crusoe and after Jean Cullen (1921-1953) suicided took over her comic strip about the teenager 'Pam' which ran in The Sunday Mail and ‘The Clothes Horse’ in The Sydney Morning Herald. Both were also syndicated to newspapers in Australia and South Africa. These became her best known works and ran for over 11 years.

An active member of the Sydney Black and White Artists’ Club (now known and the Australian Cartoonists Association) at their annual ball in 1956, Horseman was 'smocked' (presented her with an artist's smock decorated by fellow members) and later that year, she was voted Sydney Savage Club 'Cartoonist of the Year'.

Horseman moved to the northern Sydney beach side suburb of Avalon in 1957 with her five children, where she lived for a decade. At a local jazz club on Saturday nights she would play the lagerphone; made from beer bottle tops attached to a broomstick, which is struck against the floor while upright or shaken to provide sound.

Often credited with being on the staff of Everybody’s magazine in the early 1960s. Horseman was not, but she was a valued contributor to the magazine. Her illustrations included full-page colour cartoons, often containing sexy girls. Most were signed "Vanessa" as she had other commitments which would not have approved of her using her own name.

In 1963 Everybody's hailed her (somewhat inaccurately) as 'Australia's only woman cartoonist', although she was definitely the one of the better known.

The following year she was the only female cartoonists to attend an exhibition, Fifty Years of Australian Cartooning organized by the Sydney Journalists’ Club with work of 140 cartoonists, which nine were women.

Horseman was back in Brisbane in 1967, illustrating books for Jacaranda Press. After a few years she moved to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney in New South Wales. There she lived in an old cottage in Glenbrook, where she continued to freelance and paint landscapes in oils as a hobby. In 1973, she was hit by a car. This was followed by a stroke that deprived her of speech and the use of her right hand. Undaunted she taught herself to draw with her left and produced small abstracts with coloured pens.

Horseman died on 7 May 1974 in the Blue Mountains Hospital, Katoomba, and was buried in the churchyard of St Thomas's Church of England, Mulgoa, New South Wales.

Mollie Horseman entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2019.

Further reading