Covering the Goulburn and Murray valleys

A magnificent 98 years for Benalla arts identity

Vale Pat Gardner, 1916 - 2014 whose last wish was for the Benalla ceramic mural to be listed by the National Trust.

LIBBY PRICE August 21, 2014 4:00am

The Benalla Mural. Pat Gardner's dying wish was that the Mural get heritage listing.


Patricia Gardner (Fairbairn nee Carnegie) was a formidable woman with an extraordinary capacity to rally and organise the community, particularly other women.

Born in Kew in 1916, she started school at Toorak College in 1924 and had a lifelong interest in the school including serving as president of the Old Girls’ Association.

Thus began a lifetime of leadership and community involvement. In 1935, at just 19 years old, Patricia was one of eight young women to establish the Lord Mayor’s fund.

Each worked on their own fundraising campaign, with Patricia taking a full year to organise a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall of six of the best young musical artists in Australia.

In 1937 she married George Anthony Fairbairn and moved to Woomargama in NSW where she started the local CWA branch and raised funds for the Holbrook hospital.

She had three children from her first marriage: Gay, Peter and Stephen.

In 1958 Patricia married Cecil J. Gardner, who had five children of his own: Felicity, Rosalind, Elizabeth, Andrew and Angela.

Patricia moved her family to join them in Benalla.

After the death of her husband in 1960 she ran the farm and reared eight children, and also stayed involved in the Benalla Agricultural Society through the C J Gardner Trophy for young Benalla and district riders.

Her godson Peter Gebhardt remembered her after Cecil’s death: ‘‘There she stood, feet firmly on the ground, chin up and head raised to the distant hills. Alone and indomitable. Alone and resolute. Alone and courageous. Not a hint of self-pity was there, no space and time for that.

‘‘She was, through and through, a Carnegie with a will like ironbark.

‘‘Tossed about by the circumstances of life, in which some cards didn’t fall her way, she never lost sight of the obligations to her own family and to the acquired one.’’

In 1973 Patricia threw herself into raising money to build the Benalla Art Gallery which opened in 1975.

She established the Gallery Activities Group which at its height had more than 600 members. Patricia travelled hundreds of kilometres visiting painters, potters, spinners and weavers, needle workers, china painters and woodworkers seeking their support for the gallery.

Many of the members such as the woodworking group still meet today.

In 1996 the Benalla council asked her to form a committee to revive the ceramic mural construction. Many famous artisans have contributed to the mural, as have local primary school children and it is considered one of the most significant artworks of its kind in Australia, having taken 28 years to complete.

In 1993 Patricia was pronounced Benalla’s Senior Citizen of the Year.

She was also made a life member of the gallery and in 2001 was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to the Benalla community through the Arts.

She delivered Meals on Wheels for many years and was known for her lamington drives to raise money for the Benalla Hospital.

She has been remembered as, ‘‘... an inspirational parent and her role in rearing and guiding her extended family after Cecil died was exemplary. She always spoke her mind forcibly and frankly and she expected nothing less in response.’’

Even in retirement as a resident of Cooinda Village, Patricia was a force to be reckoned with, always neatly dressed, often with hat, gloves, scarf and coat, and prone to give ‘fashion advice’ to others residents, such as, ‘‘Now darling, please don’t take offence but don’t wear that outfit again. It doesn’t suit and just isn’t you.’’

Patricia’s greatest wish was to see the Benalla Ceramic Mural declared a National Trust structure as one of only a few such ceramic buildings in the world.

She died in her sleep on July 16, 2014 at Cooinda Village.

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