Camden’s Phoebe Macarthur-Onslow, Sydney model, socialite, 'wild child' and aviatrix

Phoebe Atkinson led an unconventional life, which was one of great variety.

In the 1950s, as Phoebe Macarthur-Onslow, she was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Sydney.

Her face was recognisable to many Australians through her Sydney-based commercial modelling career, Black and White Committee parades and David Jones fashion appearances.

Ms Atkinson died on New Year’s Day in Camden surrounded by her family.

She was a great-great-great-granddaughter of the wool pioneer couple John and Elizabeth Macarthur, and had grown up very familiar with the family's historic Camden Park property, Macquarie Grove House.

She was educated at Frensham School, Mittagong, but did not like obeying rules.

She was once described as a "beautiful wild child with wild attitudes".

As a teenager, she won prizes for horse riding at gymkhanas of the Camden Show Society.

Her father, as the managing director of the family company Camden Park Estate Ltd, had built the Rotolactor, an innovative revolving milking facility at Menangle.

This was a popular Sydney tourist attraction in the 1950s and 1960s before it closed in the 1970s.

Phoebe and her two sisters, Annette and Pamela and their friends, used to work in season picking the fruit on the estate's orchard.

She was born in 1939 to Edward Macarthur-Onslow and Winifred Macarthur-Onslow nee Owen.

Edward was later Lieutenant Colonel Macarthur-Onslow DSO ED and mentioned in dispatches in World War II.

Phoebe Macarthur-Onslow grew up in a pastoral family that had its own private aerodrome, which is now Camden Airport.

She learned to fly before she could drive and gained her private flying licence at the age of 16. In 1957, the Australian Women's Weekly said: "Her pet hobby is flying – she is a member of a flying school and has been flying solo for 18 months. She is a skilled mechanic and looks after her own car, which she drives expertly."

This passion remained with her for life and she enjoyed social and recreational flights in her Grumman Tiger light aircraft.

Her life as a fashion model and mannequin developed in the 1950s and she appeared on the covers of colour magazines of the time. Gloria Kramer, wife of the American tennis champion and promoter Jack Kramer, was keen to arrange a film career for her and Macarthur-Onslow was invited to take a film test in Hollywood.

However, personal circumstances precluded this from occurring. At the age of 17, she went to London and quickly began to make her way in the London world of fashion.

In 1960, as she started to get her breaks in television, she met a handsome Indian poet and actor, Zul Vellani. After a "lightning romance" she went to Nairobi, Kenya, to marry Zul Vellani in Nairobi's main Ismaili mosque.

Sydney newspapers loved this story and featured it on the front pages of both the Sun and the Mirror tabloids of the time.

Macarthur-Onslow returned to Australia in July 1960 and in 1963 married the Australian novelist Hugh Atkinson and lived on Sydney's northern beaches.

They were described as "an exceptionally handsome couple, popular party goers and party givers, elegant, stylish and with impeccable social backgrounds".

A celebrated memory of that time is when, during the 1963 Australian Book Week festivities, the couple held a hugely successful literary party at their home at Church Point that lasted for five days, with guests including the writers Xavier Herbert, Morris West and Hal Porter.

The amusing details of this party, the several robust egos present and the various practical pranks played are recalled in Mary Lord's 1993 biography of Hal Porter.

Phoebe and Hugh Atkinson lived for years in the 1970s in Malta. Their house was a frequent and popular stopping-off place for expatriate friends.

Hugh wrote to fellow writer Porter in 1971, "we have a house looking down on Grand Harbour, with a guest room and bath, a walled garden now coming to something, two cats, a Pharaoh hound, a parrot, two tortoise, and wine at 2/6 a bottle...".

Porter found this invitation irresistible – as who would not? – and became a regular visitor.

Phoebe Atkinson returned to Malta in 1980 and lived there for a further five years, becoming Secretary of the Malta Yacht Club. She became involved with international and local yacht racing, even buying her own yacht to cruise the Mediterranean waters.

Phoebe Atkinson eventually returned home to Camden in 1986 and re-acquired the family property known as Macquarie Grove, which had been resumed by the Government during the Second World War.

It was here that she remained for the rest of her life, on the aerodrome that she loved and for the next 25 years she hosted the champagne breakfasts for the local balloon company in her garden.

Atkinson was well known for being lively company and brightening social gatherings.

With her love of music, she involved herself in the choir of St John's Anglican Church Camden, where she became the choir librarian.

She had a penchant for singing descants and would frequently decorate hymns by singing descants that she had learned.

She also joined the Macarthur Singers.

She was for many years the hard-working secretary of the Friends of Belgenny Farm group, working to preserve one of the earliest intact collections of farm buildings in Australia on the old Camden Park property, and she was awarded a lifetime membership for her commitment.

With her sisters Annette and Pamela, a memorial to their father was provided at the Camden Showground. The building was formally named the Edward Macarthur-Onslow Memorial Pavilion but became instantly known as 'Ted's Shed' and remains so.

The three sisters also funded the construction at the Mount Annan Botanic Garden near Camden of a unique granite stone 'Sundial of Human Involvement' in memory of their mother Winifred. 

Atkinson cared for her former husband Hugh in his last years before he died in 1994. She is survived by her sister Annette and her daughter Rachael Atkinson, grand children Arizona, Tobias and Phoebe and great-grandson Archie.

Her son Jason (Jake) died in 2008.

A private farewell will be followed by a memorial service to celebrate Ms Atkinson’s life at St Pauls Church, Cobbitty on Friday, February 2 at 11am.