Frances Vida Lahey (1882-1968), painter, was born on 26 August 1882 at Pimpama, Queensland, daughter of David Lahey, Irish-born farmer and timber-miller, and his wife, Jane Jemima, née Walmsley. Educated at Goytelea School, Southport, she learned painting from Godfrey Rivers at Brisbane Technical College, then studied at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, in 1905-06 and in 1909 under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin. In 1910 she taught privately in Brisbane and consolidated an official association with the (Royal) Queensland Art Society begun in 1908.
In 1915 Vida Lahey went to London for family reasons and unofficially to further her studies but became heavily involved in war-work. On a visit to the Continent in 1919, she saw seventeenth century paintings in the Netherlands which probably helped to turn her eventually to still life. She studied briefly at Colarossi’s in Paris and returned to Australia in 1920. She began to exhibit regularly in all major Australian cities in 1923 and subsequently participated in exhibitions in Paris, London and the United States of America. Her early subjects included genre, landscape and portraits but still life, especially floral pieces in water-colour, became predominant. Most successful in water-colour, she believed that her still life work had developed its uses in a new way. By the mid-1920s she had won a firm place among Australian women artists and she was well regarded for her vivacious and sensitive treatment of light and colour.
Returning in 1927 from a short stay in Europe where she saw something of the modern movement, she established what became one of the three dominant studios in Brisbane. Her public involvement in artistic affairs helped to lift Brisbane from the cultural doldrums and make the 1930s one of its liveliest artistic periods. In 1929 she and her close friend, the much younger Daphne Mayo, were co-founders of the Queensland Art Fund. In its name, they helped to raise £10,000 in 1934-35 to secure the important John Darnell bequest for the Queensland National Art Gallery and to maintain the city council’s Randall Collection. For several years from 1936 she acted as custodian of the Q.A.F.’s art reference library. She was also on the gallery’s board of advice in 1923-30, was a member of the art advisory committee in 1931-37 and was a trustee of the Godfrey Rivers Trust.
In children’s art classes established at the Art Gallery in 1941 she applied her philosophy of a universal language of art, explaining her views in the University of Queensland Duhig lecture, ‘The rudiments of the language of art’, delivered by her in 1940. Her pamphlet, Art for All(c.1946), made an urgent plea to combat the ugliness and monotony of the modern world through imagination and a pleasing environment. Short, slight and very shy, Vida Lahey believed strongly in the dignity of labour and herself laid much of the brickwork around her St Lucia home, designed by her brother Romeo.
Aware of the need to record the history of local art, she began a catalogue of the Darnell Collection in 1948 and in 1959 published on behalf of the Art Gallery the only general history of Queensland art to date, Art in Queensland 1859-1959. Acknowledged by the Society of Artists’ (Sydney) medal in 1945 and appointed M.B.E. in 1958, Vida Lahey was a sensitive and pleasing painter but her main contribution lies in her role as teacher and public spokeswoman in a State not noted for its interest in culture. She died unmarried in Brisbane on 29 August 1968 and was cremated. She is represented in most State galleries and the National Gallery of Australia.