ELLIOTT, MONA (1872-1964) (F&G)

Full Birth Name: Mona Isabella Lawton
Married Name & Dates: Mrs Robert Anderson Elliott (1901-1928)
Profession: Photographer
Professional Years: 1917 to 1921
Where Practised: Mona Elliott Studio, Ruthven St, Toowoomba, QLD


A Triumph in Photographic Art: The Mona Elliott Studio



Mona Isabel Elliott, at the height of her career as a professional photographer, was a contemporary of Australia’s top independent female photographers, including the Agar sisters, Bernice and Alice, and Trissie and Elsie Deazeley, all of whom were local to Toowoomba, a major regional city located south-west of Queensland’s capital Brisbane.

However, with her various roles in Queensland’s Arts and Crafts movement, Mona’s cultural influence went beyond photography and reached into the homes and social lives of all Queenslanders. Her objective, as quoted in the Brisbane newspaper the Telegraph on 11 March 1941, was to “stimulate a love of beauty along the lines of creative art … in the development of the cultural side of life in our city.” This was something Mona Elliott strove for throughout her creative life.

Early life

Mona was the first of eleven children born to Samuel Henry Lawton (1846-1922) and Martha Jane Fleming (1848-1926). She was born on 18 September 1872[1] in Drayton, a town in Queensland’s Darling Downs region, which, at that time was a thriving hub for the region’s agriculture, and the likely reason why her forebears moved to the area. Mona’s father, born on the Isle of Man, worked as a warehouse manager, and her mother was the daughter of John Fleming, a butler, and Irish-born Isabella Barker, a cook, who originally resided in Sydney and had moved to Queensland in the early 1850s.[2]

Mona’s aspirations towards an artistic career began to show in 1889 when, as a 16-year-old, she won first prize for pencil drawing at the annual School Prizes presentation.[3] Over the next few years, she continued to receive awards and prizes for her works, and then directed her talents into a career as a primary school teacher in Art,[4] and was promoted and transferred regularly around the district. In 1896 she was transferred from Toowoomba North State School to Drayton State School to teach the third Grade.[5]  She continued to teach Art after her marriage to Robert Anderson Elliott in 1901,[6] and did so up until the impending birth of their first child Keith Robert Elliott in December 1905.[7] Their second child, Robert Neville Elliott, was born in 1907.[8]

Before and after their children were born the Elliotts moved around Southern Queensland for work purposes and between 1904 and 1913 had lived in Newtown, Toowoomba, Drayton, and Warwick. While in Warwick in 1911 Robert was in partnership with H.C. Rowland as “Rowland and Elliott”, a drapery business.[9] However, after a few years,  the business closed and the partnership was dissolved.[10]   This was due to pressure from creditors, the inability to collect monies owed, and poor trade due to the bad seasonal weather in and around Warwick. First, the Elliotts were forced to auction off their home in Warwick.[11] Six months later the lands they had purchased in Drayton in 1908[12] were seized after failure to make payments on the mortgages.[13]

The outcome was the Elliotts sold their home, its contents and any other investments to pay the debts. They returned to Toowoomba in need of greater financial security, and it was here that Mona established herself as a professional photographer.

Photographic career

Mona’s success as an award-winning amateur photographer no doubt encouraged her to embark on a professional photographic career. In the Photographic Section of the 1915 Toowoomba Royal Agricultural Show,[14] Mona won:

  1. First prize with between 6 and 12 mounted photographs in Seascape photography
  2. Second prize with between 6 and 12 mounted photographs in Landscape photography

Similarly, in May 1916 at the Toowoomba Royal Agricultural Show,[15] she won:

  1. First prize with between 6 and 12 mounted photographs in Seascape photography
  2. Second prize with between 6 and 12 mounted photographs in Landscape photography
  3. First prize in the Most Effective photograph.

But it was in August at the 1916 Toowoomba Flower Show[16] that Mona’s competence as a professional photography became apparent with success in a broader range of photographic subjects:

  1. Second prize in Landscape photography
  2. Second prize in Seascape photography
  3. First prize in Child Studies photography
  4. Second prize in Flower Study photography
  5. First prize in Best Picture
  6. First prize in Home Portraits
  7. Second prize in Home Portraits

When local photographer W.T. Schaefer closed his photographic studio[17] Mona seized the opportunity to make it her own. The fact that it was right next door to her husband’s new business, The Buttonhole Fancy Costume Company, most likely swayed her decision to open her own studio. Both the costume company and the studio were on Toowoomba’s Ruthven Street, a main thoroughfare of the town, and centrally located between Union and Herries Streets, and almost opposite the Town Hall. It’s also possible that Mona had been working with Schaefer in some capacity—perhaps as a retoucher, colourist or camera operator—prior to his closing.

The Mona Elliott Studio opened to the public on 10 February 1917 (Fig.1). At this time Toowoomba had other successful women photographers who no doubt provided inspiration as well as competition. These included the Deazeley sisters, Trissie and Elsie of T&E Deazeley and Deazeley’s Toowoomba, as well as Alice and Bernice Agar at the Bain Studio. However, as an Art Photographer Mona evidently intended to provide a different kind of portrait.


Feb 10 1917 DDG mona advert
Figure 1. Darling Downs Gazette, 10 February 1917.


Even though Mona was now working professionally she continued to exhibit her work at the local Royal Agricultural Show. At the April 1917 Show[18] twenty-six of her works were on display and included many portraits of locally significant people: Dr. Thomas Price, famed for draining the swamps around Toowoomba and eradicating the town’s mosquito problem; Mr. T.H. Boddington, the town’s Post Master; Australian cricketer John Rosser; Superintendent E.J. Llewellyn from the Ambulance Corp and Mr. Garnet Agnew, the well-known artist from The Queenslander magazine.. Also included were portraits of her husband in costume as the Beggar from Kismet and portraits of the stage and screen actor Vera Pearce.

A review published in the Darling Downs Gazette the following July showed that Mona’s style and technique was highly appreciated and considered masterful and a triumph in art photography. The review claimed that the work coming from The Mona Elliott Studio was “one of the best in the State” (Fig. 2).


Figure 2. Darling Downs Gazette, 21 July 1917
Figure 2. Darling Downs Gazette, 21 July 1917


More praise for Mona’s work came later in 1917 from three theatrical stars—Violet Collinson, Ida Leggatt and Ada Reeve—she had photographed when they toured through Toowoomba. Each of them requested more copies, with Leggatt stating publicly that  “[the portraits] are the best we have ever had taken” and Reeve related that the portraits were “entirely to my satisfaction” and requested “will you kindly do me another 50”.[19]

Contact with the theatrical profession was fostered by Mona’s participation in local theatre, performing mostly as a soloist. But when Mona and Robert married, their involvement with local theatre went beyond performance and in 1909 took over the running of The Drayton Musical and Dramatic Company.[20]  Over the years Robert became more involved producing shows as well as negotiating with prominent companies such as J.C. Williamson[21].

Mona’s career as a photographer continued for another four to five years, during which time she regularly received praise for her work. It was after her father’s death in 1922 that her studio closed. With her extended family situated in Toowoomba and Brisbane Mona, with her immediate family, travelled between the two locations until 1924. The Elliott’s then sold their home “Milrae” on Hill Street in Toowoomba and moved to Brisbane, residing first at “Besant” on Wickham Terrace, and soon after moved to 196 Bowen Terrace.

Mona’s life comes full circle

In Brisbane Mona’s life had come full circle and devoted wholeheartedly to Queensland’s Arts and Crafts movement. Painting and drawing had been a big part of her life growing up in Drayton, and after the death of her husband from a heart attack in 1928,[22] as a resident of Brisbane, a decidedly more cosmopolitan city than the town of Drayton, she was able to better explore those early passions.

For 15 years, more or less, Mona became a regular participant in exhibitions, displays and art classes. And by 1938, at the age of 66, Mona was elected President of the Queensland Arts and Crafts Society,[23] a role she relished and which she held for three terms until 1941.


Table Top Mountain, Toowoomba, QLD.  Mona Elliott.                                                    Photographic reproduction: Hilary Waudhaugh.  Photoria Collection


Four years later she was an inaugural member and first chairman of the Half Dozen Group,[24] a community-based arts society. Mona also convened the Art Coterie[25] within the Brisbane Women’s Club and was an elected council member of the Royal Queensland Art Society in 1941.[26]

As Mona’s responsibilities in the Brisbane’s art world increased, her standing was such that her movements were often reported in the social pages of daily newspapers. Mona was well regarded for both her artistic work as much as for her promotion of the Arts in Queensland.

Mona’s death

In 1954 Mona moved in with her eldest son and daughter-in-law with whom she remained for the last decade of her life. Her death[27] was the result of a two-week battle with bronchitis complicated by existing heart trouble. Mona had also endured dementia and, sadly, was incapable of recalling her life as a mover-and-shaker in worlds of both art and photography in Queensland.

Mona Isabel Elliott died at the age of 91, surrounded by her family, at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in South Brisbane.





[1] Birth Certificate. Mona Isabella Lawton. No. 5036/3370, 1872. Births in the District of Toowoomba in the Colony of Queensland.

[2] Marriage Certificate. Martha Jane Fleming and Samuel Henry Lawton. No 57/3496, 1872  Marriages Solemnized in the District of Brisbane in the Colony of Queensland.

[3] ‘School Prizes: For Boys’ and Girls’, Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General Advertiser, 26 January 1889, pg 4;  ‘The Toowoomba Show: School Prizes’, The Brisbane Courier, 27 January 1893, pg7; ‘The Show. The Drayton & Toowoomba Agricultural and Horticultural Society. Thirty-second Annual Exhibition: First Day: Art Section’, Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General Advertiser, 20 January 1894, pg 3.

[4] ‘Official Notifications’, Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 23 May 1891 pg 2.

[5] ‘Education Department’, The Brisbane Courier, 25 February 1896, pg 6.

[6] Marriage certificate.  Robert Anderson Elliott and Mona Isabel Lawton. No 417/605. Marriages Solemnized in the District of Drayton and Toowoomba in the State of Queensland.

[7] Birth Certificate. Keith Lawton Elliott. No 1906/C/3245. Births Registered in the District of Drayton and Toowoomba in the State of Queensland.

[8] Birth Certificate. Robert Neville Elliott. No 1907/C/4015. Births Registered in the District of Drayton and Toowoomba in the State of Queensland.

[9] ‘A New Firm’, Warwick Examiner and Times, 7 January 1911, pg 5.

[10] ‘Dissolution of Partnership’, Warwick Examiner and Times, 10 Dec 1913, pg 6.

[11] ‘Auctions: Saturday Next 20th December, On the Premises by Public Auction. Household Furniture and Effects‘, Warwick Examiner and Times, 17 December 1913, pg 8. The auction of the Elliott family home in Warwick is advertised.

[12] Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM83708, Land purchase by the Elliotts; Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM1054021 Insolvency record for Robert Anderson Elliott; Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM1063835, Insolvency record for Robert Anderson Elliott

[13] ‘In the Supreme Court of Queensland. Thomas Brown and Sons Limited, v. Robert Anderson Elliott.’ The Brisbane Courier, 8 July 1914, pg 8. Details of the auction of the Elliotts’ land.

[14] ‘R.A. Society’s Show: The Awards: Fine Art Section: Photographs’, Darling Downs Gazette, 15 April 1915, pg, 3-4.

[15] ‘Prize Schedule: Fine Arts’, Darling Downs Gazette, 4 May 1916, , pg., 2

[16] ‘Flower Show. Aids “Do without Week”. The Awards: Photographic Competition’, Darling Downs Gazette,  22 August 1916, pg 4

[17] ‘To Whom It May Concern’, Darling Downs Gazette, 15 July 1916, pg 8. An advertisement by W T Schaefer to notify the public he is closing his business.

[18] “Mona Elliott – Art Photographer”, Darling Downs Gazette, 25 April 1917, pg 5.

[19] “Mona Elliott Studio”, 28 November 1917, Darling Downs Gazette, , pg, 4.

[20] ‘District News: Drayton’, Darling Downs Gazette, 7 June 1909, pg 5

[21] ‘J.C. Williamson’s Companies’, Warwick Examiner and Times, 14 August 1911, pg 5; ‘“Duncan McClure”’, Darling Downs Gazette, 2 June 1915, pg 4; ‘Steele Rudd’s New Play. “On Grubb’s Selection”’, Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette, 8 January 1923, pg 2.

[22] Death certificate.  Robert Anderson Elliott. No 5764/1928. Deaths in the District of Brisbane in the State of Queensland

[23] ‘Arts and Crafts Society’, Courier-Mail, 23 March 1938, pg 4; ‘Arts and Crafts Society to Encourage Student Members’, The Telegraph, 15 March 1939, pg 17; ‘Keeping in touch with the Beautiful: Arts and Crafts Society’s Report, The Telegraph, 12 March 1940, pg 16; ‘Arts & Crafts President, Mrs E.L. Harris Elected’, The Courier-Mail, 12 March 1941, pg 9.

[24] ‘Social and Personal : Handicraft Group, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 1941, pg 25.

[25] ‘New Art Group Formed’, Telegraph, 12 May 1941, pg 5

[26] ‘Art Society Election of Officers’, Telegraph, 13 March 1941, pg 12

[27] Death Certificate. Mona Isabella Elliott. No 64586/1964, Death in the District of Brisbane in the state of Queensland