Decorated Tram No. 497 – Erica McGilchrist (1979)

Erica McGilchrist AO (1926-2014) was born on 10 February 1926 in Mount Gambier, South Australia. A painter, illustrator, dancer and teacher, she held her first solo exhibition in 1951, and studied art at the Melbourne Technical College (RMIT) from 1952 to 1955. Erica undertook postgraduate study in Munich at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste (1960-61). She held over forty solo exhibitions, and her work is represented in major Australian institutional and public galleries, as well as private collections in Australia, Israel, United Kingdom and United States.
A co-founder of the Women’s Art Register in 1975, she was its convenor from 1978 to 1987, and in 1992 was awarded the Order of Australia for her work with the Register and her contribution to Australian contemporary art. She died in Melbourne on 9 May 2014. A major retrospective of her works was held at Heide Museum of Modern Art from October 2013 to April 2014, and a book on her collected works by its curator, Linda Short, is expected to be released in early 2019. Conceptual artwork for her ‘Decorated Tram’ is also held by Heide Museum of Modern Art.
The text of this article is reproduced from ‘Notes from the Erica McGilchrist Slide Kit 5: Wall-Hanging, Embroidery, Decorated Tram (1959-1979)’ in the Collection of the Women’s Art Register, Melbourne.

In 1978 and 1979 eleven artists were commissioned by the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, in conjunction with the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, to decorate a tram. In the first year the chosen artists were Clifton Pugh (who first suggested the idea to the Melbourne City Council), Mirka Mora, Andrew Southall, Michael Brown, Les Kossatz and Peter Corrigan. The ‘second wave’ in 1979 were Craig Gough, Don Laycock, Gareth Sansom, John Nixon and myself. My turn came in mid-winter, 1979.

Erica McGilchrist's Decorated Tram No 497. Photograph courtesy David Featherstone Erica McGilchrist’s Decorated Tram No 497 in Swanston Street, 28 August 1979. A major objective of the original art tram project was to brighten the streets of Melbourne, as evidenced by the vibrancy of the colour palatte used by Erica for her tram. It is a startling contrast against the tram to the right, painted in the traditional M&MTB livery of green and cream.
Photograph courtesy David Featherstone.

The Ministry hopes to continue the project for several years until there are perhaps 50 or 60 artist-decorated trams [1]. Since the life-expectancy of the paint (sign-writer’s enamel) is about two to three years, given the stress put on it by weathering, pollution and regular washing, the early trams will be withdrawn from service as either the paint or the tram itself deteriorates beyond repair (the oldest models [2] were chosen for decoration). The Tramways Board supplied each artist with a blue-print to a scale of inch = 1 foot (1:24 scale). The dimensions of the tram are 48 feet long x 6 feet wide x 10 feet high (14.6 metres x 2.0 metres x 3.2 metres). Some artists, including myself, also chose to decorate the roof and panels inside the tram.

Although I was lucky enough to ‘see’ my tram immediately I was approached by the Ministry, there was still a thinking period to undergo before beginning the preliminary sketch. It went something like this:

A tram = a public vehicle (i.e. not only for the artistic elite).
  = a utilitarian (not precious) object. Not for sale. Belongs to public.
  = a symmetrical object.
  = a potentially dangerous object in urban traffic conditions.


  1. To design tram in such a way that it would (hopefully) be acceptable to general public, without making any concessions to my own aesthetic standards.
  2. To ensure maximum visibility and safety in design and colour scheme.
  3. To alleviate the dreariness of urban existence in a depressed and anxious community; to paint a ‘happy’ tram.
  4. To complete the painting of the tram in the allotted time of eight weeks. (It was finished in five weeks, working an average of 12 hours daily, five days a week; the preliminary design took an additional three weeks.)


By this time, I had become well and truly conscious of feminist issues in the arts, through my contact with the Women’s Art Register/Forum, which Lesley Dumbrell, Kiffy Carter (now Rubbo), Meredith Rogers and I founded in 1975, after the visit to Australia of the American art critic, writer and feminist, Lucy Lippard.

My long interest in migrants, decorative textile arts and the use of references to cloth, stitches, knots and threads dating back to 1967, plus my new awareness of the under-evaluation of women’s traditional work in the area of textiles and domestic activity, combined to make me ‘see’ my tram instantly in terms of feminism and anti-racism, immediately I was approached by the Ministry and asked if I would like to paint a tram.

The tram design is based on a patchwork quilt, with generalized references to ethnic art from unspecified countries. (Migrants at Preston Tramway Workshops Paint Shop, where I painted the tram, all saw elements of their own cultures.)

The most frequently occurring colours in ethnic art all over the world are the primaries, with some secondaries. I argued that, as this colour range is so wide spread, it must be the colours that ordinary people like. I like them too. Primaries and secondaries in the right proportions are usually perceived as bright and cheerful.

The colours I chose for my tram were bright scarlet, dark red, pink; light, medium and dark (navy) blue; bright yellow; pinkish orange and white. The emphasis was on yellow and white, because these colours are the most visible. It was important not to ‘camouflage’ the tram or to alter its optical shape or size; for this reason, the structure and symmetry of the tram were preserved in the design.

Dedication to women and to migrant peoples

The 2,500 stitches and about 60 knots [actually 2,352 stitches and 44 knots – ed.] painted around the edges of the painted shapes pay tribute to the textile arts traditionally engaged in by women, and until recently seen as an inferior art form, if acknowledged as ‘art’ at all. The folk-art style recognizes the varied, but often undervalued, contributions of migrants to Australian culture. Inside the tram is a formal dedication to the two mentioned groups, both of whom I love. It reads:

The decoration on this tram is in ‘folk art’ style, and represents patches of cloth stitched together. It pays homage to the contributions of women and of migrant peoples to our culture.

Ethnic art has influenced my work since 1950, in wall-hangings, paintings and embroidery; knots, stitches threads and references to cloth began appearing in my paintings in 1971, at first as symbols for the decay and (fruitless) repair of our damaged environment, and more recently as conscious feminist imagery.

No 497 returning to Glenhuntly Depot, August 1979. Photograph courtesy David Featherstone No 497 returning to Glenhuntly Depot, 25 August 1979. Glenhuntly Depot, where the tram was first assigned after it was painted by Erica, is only a few kilometres away from the artist’s long-time studio in Caulfield.
Photograph courtesy David Featherstone.

Each artist was encouraged to sign his/her tram. Mine is signed to the left of the left-hand door, near the bottom of the tram, on each side of the vehicle:

Artist: Erica McGilchrist
Assistant: Mark Scown (my then 19-year-old nephew, then doing a painting and sculpture course at RMIT.)
Preparation of tram: Preston Workshops

I was the only artist to acknowledge the incredibly warm and friendly cooperation of the men at the Tramways Workshops, most of them migrants.

Although the work was physically strenuous and the workshop very cold in the middle of winter, the friendliness of the men at the Paint Shop more than made up for these hardships, and it was a very happy five weeks, and I was almost sorry when it was over [3].

Erica McGilchrist, Melbourne, June 1980.

Card templates used by the artist. From the Erica McGilchrist Collection, Heide Museum of Modern Art Card templates used by the artist to produce the 2,352 stitches and 44 knots painted on No. 497.
From the Erica McGilchrist Collection, courtesy of Heide Museum of Modern Art.


Thanks to the following people for assisting our research on Erica McGilchrist’s art tram:

  • Caroline Phillips – Women’s Art Register
  • Mal Rowe – Moderator, Trams Down Under
  • Linda Short – curator of the 2013-14 Erica McGilchrist retrospective held at the Heide Museum of Modern Art
  • Mary Winter – Collections Volunteer at the Heide Museum of Modern Art

Biographical notes

The Age (2014), Death Notice – Erica McGilchrist, 13 May 2014

City of Glen Eira (2018), Erica McGilchrist

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (1992), Australian Honours Search Facility, Erica Margaret McGilchrist, 8 June 1992

Design & Art Australia Online (1995, 2011), Erica McGilchrist

Other sources

Letter dated 17 December 1986 from J.M. Morrison, Executive Director of the Victorian College of the Arts Foundation, to Erica McGilchrist.


[1] A total of 36 trams of the W2 and SW5 classes were painted by artists between 1978 and 1993 (ed.).

[2] The trams Erica refers to were W2 class trams, constructed between 1923 and 1931. Erica’s tram, No. 497, entered service in 1928, but was withdrawn from service in Melbourne in the mid-1980s. After passing through the hands of at least two different owners, it ended its days derelict on a rural property in Nambucca Heads, and was scrapped in 2011 or 2012 (ed.).

[3] After withdrawal from service, No. 497 was sold at auction in 1986 along with thirteen of the other art trams from the 1978-82 series, the funds raised above the reserve of $1500 per tram going to the Victorian College of the Arts Foundation. No. 497 realised $3500, and the Foundation granted the balance of $2000 to the Women’s Art Register at the behest of the Ministry (ed.).