Cornish, Elsie Marion (1870–1946)


by David S. Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Elsie Marion Cornish (1870-1946), landscape gardener, was born on 7 January 1870 at Glenelg, South Australia, daughter of Samuel Cornish, ironmonger, and his wife Agnes Maria, née Kirkpatrick. Educated in North Adelaide and self-trained in landscape design, Elsie began her career in the 1910s, progressively attracting a supportive group of clients. Her family residence, which also served as her plant nursery, was in Palmer Place, North Adelaide, and she inherited the property, which had once been occupied by architects Henry Stuckey and Edmund Wright. She drew on the ideas of Gertrude Jekyll and on Mediterranean traditions, including the use of cottage and northern Italian plants, sunken rock gardens, entry porches and walls, which she often planned, built and planted for clients. Major elements included a sense of formality and symmetry, features such as statues, terraces and water and a predilection for circular shapes.

Following contemporary English practices, her work displayed a respect for the local environment, similar to the ideas of Jocelyn Brown and Edna Walling, and attracted the patronage of the architect Walter Bagot and the friendship of Zara, Lady Hore-Ruthven. Cornish’s projects in Adelaide included entries in the annual Adelaide Royal Show model garden competition (1929-36); the grounds of Christ Church, North Adelaide (where she was a communicant);and the gardens of Isabel, wife of Sir Sidney Kidman, Sir George Brookman and Sidney Wilcox, and the Darling, Darian Smith and Reid families. She also advised Eva Waite on her Jekyll-inspired Broadlees garden at Crafers and helped to develop the garden at Stangate House, Aldgate, for her sister-in-law Gwenyth Cornish.

Miss Cornish’s two significant commissions were the University of Adelaide escarpment (1934-46) and the Pioneer Women’s Garden (1938-40). The exposed, sunny, northerly aspect and poor soils of the former prompted her to plant it with a mixture of tough but flowering succulents and Italian hillside species resulting in ‘a blaze of color . . . a real adornment not only to the University but also to Adelaide’. Despite protracted disputes with the city council about Cornish’s design and folkloric plant selections for the women’s garden, Adelaide Miethke, who chaired the centenary council, doggedly supported her proposal, claiming ‘it is probably the lack of a perfectly free hand, or trying to work in other peoples’ ideas which has detracted from the garden . . . in the eyes of the Council. All this must be said in fairness to Miss Cornish whose reputation as a Landscape Gardener stands high in the community’. Cornish also contributed ‘Her Garden’ to A Book of South Australia (1936).

She died on 20 October 1946 at her home in North Adelaide and was buried beside her family at St Jude’s Church of England cemetery, Brighton. Her estate was sworn for probate at £19,991. Cornish was regarded as ‘one of Adelaide’s best known landscape gardeners, and was responsible for the design and care of many of the city’s most beautiful gardens’.

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