Wilhelmina’s crafty miniature wax cows

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Model wax cow made by Wilhelmina Jurd (nee Gore). Powerhouse Museum collection, A10060. Gift of Lorraine Tilsed, 1984.

Model wax cow made by Wilhelmina Jurd (nee Gore). Powerhouse Museum collection, A10060. Gift of Lorraine Tilsed, 1984.

I know I’ve said this before but our collection continues to amaze me with its countless curious and bizarre objects. An example of this is the three intricate miniature model cows made of beeswax and calf hair. They’re a curious form of folk art devised by three sisters in the New England area of NSW in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The 10 cm high cows were made by Wilhelmina Jurd (nee Gore) and her sisters, Mary Jane and Martha, who grew up on the land. The girls used local materials at hand including river clay, beeswax from wild hives, the hair cut from young calves and the horns of sheep to make charming models of animals, primarily cows and calves, but also bullocks, sheep, dogs, horses and kangaroos which were all familiar to them on the farm.

Model wax cow made by Wilhelmina Jurd (nee Gore). Powerhouse Museum collection, A10060. Gift of Lorraine Tilsed, 1984.
A maquette from clay was initially produced then covered in papier mache made from wetted newspaper which was then covered in bees wax. Tiny strands of calf hair were then implanted into the softened wax in a series of layers. Canna Lily seeds or shoe buttons, if available, were used for the eyes, the tail was a longer length of hair rolled from the top and tied in a strip of brown paper for curling then pulled down gently until the correct length and amount of curl was achieved. The horns were carved from sheep horns, after the sheep had been slaughtered on the property. They were pared down to size with a pocket knife and finished off with Wilhelmina’s eye tooth, which eventually had to be gold capped. The ears were made separately, from beeswax and hair, and attached last with the tail and horns.

Four finely crafted cows were exhibited with success at international exhibitions including Sydney in 1879, London in 1886, Melbourne and Glasgow in 1888 and Chicago in 1893.

It’s not known what inspired the Gore sisters to produce the models. The insertion of calf hair into the wax is similar to the way the hair of expensive dolls was made at the time, while waxwork models of flowers, fruit and sweets was a parlour craft activity for English ladies in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps the girls saw an article about this in a women’s magazine. However, any reading matter on the farm was very scarce as they only received one newspaper delivered every three months.

When Wilhelmina married John Jurd in Armidale in 1886 she even described her occupation on their marriage certificate as a “modeller in wax”. Wilhelmina continued making the model animals, which included cows, horses and greyhound dogs, for family members and friends but apparently never for any monetary reward. Even in her 70s she was still enjoying this unusual craft as well as the more conventional embroidery, crocheting, patchwork quilts and knitting socks for soldiers. Some of her models were exhibited during the Second World at the David Jones department store in Sydney to raise money for the Red Cross. Her models also featured in a Cinesound Movietone newsreel shot by Ken Hall. Wilhelmina died in Sydney in September 1953 and these three cows passed to her granddaughter who donated them to the Museum in 1984.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Science and Industry

Pearson, M.M., ‘A Quaint Hobby : Modelling Miniature Cattle’ in “The Sydney Morning Herald” undated newspaper clipping c. 1941-2.

Young, Linda, “Mary Jane Gore” http://daao.org.au/main/read/2848

Young, Linda, “The Sydney International Exhibition 1879, University of Sydney MA thesis.

Young, Linda, ‘Bush Waxwork: The Gore Cows’ in “The Australiana Society Newsletter”, No.1 January 1984, pp.14-16.

Information supplied by Mrs Lorraine Tilsed, 1984