Marjory Hinemoa Mills was born in Wellington on 11 November 1896, the fourth of five children of British parents Thomas Lewis Mills, a noted journalist, and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Huggins. Marjory went to primary school in Wellington but by 1910 had moved with her family to Feilding, where her father purchased and became editor of the local newspaper. She continued her schooling there, attending Feilding District High School.
At a young age Marjory was taught embroidery by her mother. She later took art classes on a Saturday morning where the tutor’s wife, a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework, London, gave her instruction in needlework. Her skill at drawing and embroidery gained her employment in the 1920s in Wellington as a designer of embroidery patterns for the sisters Mary and Margaret Alcorn, who ran a business in Lambton Quay. Mills had rooms upstairs and kept six staff busy in the workroom. In 1932 she became a foundation member of the New Zealand Women Writers’ and Artists’ Society.
Her job ended in the early 1930s when the business failed during the depression. Rather than being a setback, it seems that Mills took the opportunity to set out on her own. In 1934 she and a fellow embroiderer, Irene Esau, opened a needlework business in Palmerston North. Referring to themselves as art needlework specialists, they named the shop Millesa, an amalgam of their surnames. By 1938 Mills had moved back to Wellington and established her own needlework business in Kelburn Avenue (now Cable Car Lane). From there she sold embroidery supplies, designed original needlework patterns and taught embroidery.
Between 1927 and 1967 Mills exhibited paintings, drawings and needlework with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. At one exhibition her work – a large tapestry – was admired by Governor General Sir Bernard Freyberg; his wife, Lady Freyberg, subsequently became a keen customer. A stool top designed by Mills and worked by another vice-regal admirer, Lady Fergusson, remains in the collection of Government House, Wellington.
Mills specialised in original designs, sometimes incorporating New Zealand subjects, particularly flora, but more often using English flora arranged in a rococo manner, a popular theme for embroidery patterns from the 1930s. Her shop flourished until she decided in 1952 to sell her lease and travel to England to pursue a growing interest in watercolour painting. She had studied the subject at night classes at the Wellington Technical College and spent many weekends painting with groups in the Hutt Valley. During three years away she undertook a two-year course at St Martin’s School of Art, London, followed by a year travelling around England and Europe. While she was abroad her work was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours, the Society of Women Artists and the Imperial Gallery of Art.
Returning to Wellington, Mills opened a new needlework business in Farish Street. With business acumen, and through advertising on the radio and in newspapers and magazines, she built on her former reputation to become a household name in Wellington. In the early 1970s she again abandoned her business interests for painting and moved to Blenheim, where she and a fellow artist, Brenda Narbey, shared a house and taught watercolour painting. In 1974 the two women took a three-month painting trip to Italy, returning with a large body of work, which they exhibited in Wellington the following year.
Mills never married, and in 1981 she shifted to Dannevirke to be closer to her remaining family. She was made a life member in 1983 of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. In 1984 she damaged her right hand so badly in an accident in her home that it had to be amputated. However, determined as ever, she soon learnt to paint with her left hand and continued to embroider – in backhand. An exhibition of her watercolours was held in Dannevirke in 1986.
Marjory Mills died in Dannevirke, aged 90, on 22 May 1987. She was one of New Zealand’s leading embroiderers, a talented artist and a successful businesswoman.