‘Portrait of a Lady: Sir John Longstaff’, Shepparton Art Museum, 18 February—22 April 2012. Curated by Susan Gillberg.
Reviewed by Caroline Jordan
John Longstaff (1861–1941) was a tall poppy in the Australian art world of the early twentieth century. The boy from Clunes, an historic little mining town near Ballarat, won the inaugural National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship for his affecting narrative painting of a young wife reeling in shock on hearing of the death of her miner husband in Breaking the News (1887, Art Gallery of Western Australia) (Fig. 1). This early success set the tone for a stellar international career. Longstaff was a successful exhibitor where it really mattered—in the Salons of London and Paris—and was five times Archibald Prize winner at home. Longstaff was knighted in 1928 and in 1936 he co-founded the Art Gallery in Shepparton, where the family moved when he was twelve.
Despite his eminence and professional longevity, Longstaff is not as well known today as contemporaries such as Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, perhaps because he made his name with portraiture, not landscape. His Young Mother (1890, National Gallery of Victoria), a beautifully harmonious picture of his lovely young wife and baby, is much loved, and many will also be familiar with his grand subject pictures, the dramatic bushfire painting, Gippsland, Sunday Night, February 20th 1898 (Fig. 2) and the tragic Burke and Wills (1907, both NGV) (Fig. 3). Longstaff’s bread-and-butter work, however, was commissioned portraits done in a conservative academic style. ‘Brown paintings’ like these have not fared so well down the years, although between the wars they were lauded by the likes of Sir Robert Menzies, patron of the reactionary Academy of Art, and of anti-modernist National Gallery of Victoria Director J. S. MacDonald. In one of his typical pieces of critical invective, MacDonald contrasted Longstaff’s ‘sanity’ and ‘masculinity’ with ‘window-sill cactus-painting modernists’ (1).
But by the late 1970s it was cactus-painting modernists such as Margaret Preston who were back in fashion, leaving an artist like Longstaff looking dull by comparison. More recently, the tide of popularity has turned back somewhat in Longstaff’s favour, with the fortunes of older Australian portraiture revived by the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. But for a long time nobody knew what to do with all those dated paintings of forgotten luminaries. They were left to gather dust in gallery basements, as other, more deserving pictures were sent off to conservation for display on gallery walls.
Hence the brilliant surprise of this little gem of an exhibition, mounted to coincide with the relaunch of the Shepparton Art Gallery as the niftily-named ‘SAM’. Guest curator Susan Gillberg has had the inspired idea of assembling a collection of Longstaff’s portraits of women. ‘Debonair Jack’ was evidently much at ease with women. He liked them, and not just the young, pretty ones. He also painted mature, powerful women like feminist activist Rose Scott, celebrated opera singer Dame Nellie Melba and his own mother. One of the prettiest, in a winsome, melancholic way, was his wife Topsy, subject of his Lady in Grey (1890 NGV) (Fig. 4) and Young Mother (not in the exhibition), painted at the same time when he was a student in Paris. The two pictures are about as fashionably adventurous as he ever got, with their pale Whistlerian greys and touches of Japonisme. But Longstaff couldn’t sustain this interest in sophisticated colour or design for long. Backgrounds remain brown for the most part, and costume is either casually contemporary or has a whiff of the dress-up box. Longstaff rarely lets the dress dominate the woman, although a full length portrait of unprepossessing society hostess Mrs George Lansell is an exception: it is all about a shiny white satin gown as solidly constructed as a suit of armour. Generally, though, Longstaff keeps costume simple and flattering to enhance rather than compete with the sitter’s face: a filmy lace collar, a gleaming string of beads, a velvet hat squashed down low over the eyes.
Longstaff’s long career spanned five decades from the Victorian era to the beginning of the Second World War. Much of the fun of this exhibition is in the contrast of the formal, often full-length Victorian and Edwardian portraits that anchor the display with the smaller 1920s portrait busts of racy young moderns like Eve Gray (Fig. 5). Miss Gray, a bruised-eyed, full-lipped blonde of a certain period type that Longstaff appears to have favoured, was a photographic model who won a competition as the ‘Most Beautiful Woman in Australia’, as judged by Longstaff and fellow artists Julian Ashton, George Lambert and Lionel Long. As a result of the competition, Gray became a celebrity and her acting career took her back to England in 1924, where she appeared in a number of silent films. Another glamorous modern woman is Nina Murdoch, Longstaff’s biographer and a pioneer of print and radio (Fig. 6). Murdoch worked as a general reporter on the Sydney and later Melbourne Sun. In radio she managed the Children’s Corner on 3LO where she developed the famous Argonauts club. Then there is Edna Thomas, a Louisiana chanteuse who toured Australia with a repertoire of Creole and Negro songs, and Betty Roland, a left-wing journalist, playwright and author who went to Russia with her Italian lover in the 1930s and worked against Nazism.
You can see from this exhibition why Longstaff was in demand as a portrait painter. While never much of an innovator, he always knew what he what he was doing, and occasionally, he did a little more, tapping into the vital brushwork of his lifelong heroes, Velázquez and Hals. His best portraits hum with an appealing energy and affection for his subjects. This exhibition succeeds wonderfully in making a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. A single painting in the Horsham Gallery might hardly excite a second glance but a roomful of portraits hung attractively close together and carefully documented by Gillberg create a patchwork narrative about famous and forgotten Australian women of the early twentieth century that is hugely enjoyable. It would be wonderful to see this exhibition form the basis of a permanent loan collection for SAM.
SAM is a small museum compared to Bendigo or Ballarat but it is clearly on the up. Upstairs, Acting Director Ryan Johnston has presided over an intelligent rehang of SAM’s permanent collection, with its quirky emphasis on Australian ceramics and its signature work, a hyperrealist sculpture of a grey-haired woman holding a newborn by Sam Jinks. Well worth the day trip.
1. J S MacDonald, ‘The Art of Sir John Longstaff’, Art in Australia, Third Series, April, no. 37, 1931.
SAM Shepparton Art Gallery, open 7 days, 10am – 4pm.
© Caroline Jordan 2012
[NB Click on the thumbnails to view larger versions. Fig 1 is a link to the Art Gallery of WA website. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the link to the MAN website to view the show properly]