In mid May 1938 the then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, J. S. MacDonald, wrote disparagingly of the striking 1909 portrait Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer (fig. 1) by Augustus John (1878–1961), then on offer to the Gallery: ‘I say that this picture has changed hands several times since it became the ex-lord mayor’s property. It is on the town. Price need not be considered, as the painting is a bad one and its purchase should not be entertained’.1J. S. MacDonald, manuscript appraisal of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer, mid May 1938, Felton Bequest papers (digitised), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. By early June of that year, however, Melbourne’s Argus newspaper was announcing the acquisition of John’s work by the Felton Bequests’ Committee for £2500, noting that: ‘Few of John’s paintings are of such size and significance’.2‘£2,500 painting for Gallery. Felton purchase’, The Argus, 4 June 1938, p. 5. This paper is a preliminary investigation into how this major acquisition for the NGV came about, in the face of such opposition from the Gallery’s then director.

Augustus John

Augustus John was born in 1878 in Tenby, Pembrokeshire in the south-west of Wales. Both he and his older sister Gwen were drawn to art at an early age, and they attended the Slade School of Fine Art together from the mid 1890s. While John started out as a somewhat unexceptional student, legend attributes the emergence of his talent to a swimming accident in the summer of 1897 when he struck his head badly on a submerged rock. Whether this actually jolted free his creativity is questionable, but there is no doubt that after his return to the Slade for the 1897–98 term John suddenly exhibited an extraordinary talent, blossoming under the instruction of Henry Tonks, and developing a reputation as one of the finest draughtsmen then working in England.

A relationship with Gwen John’s friend Ida Nettleship led to marriage in 1901. Soon after, John accepted a teaching post at an art school affiliated with Liverpool’s University College, and he and Ida relocated to Merseyside. In Liverpool John befriended the novelist and essayist Mary Dowdall and her husband Harold Chaloner Dowdall, a prominent Liverpool lawyer.

‘We had a very nice dinner with the Dowdalls on Saturday’, Ida John wrote to her mother after first meeting the couple in 1901. ‘He is a lawyer, I think, with a taste for painting – and he has a little auburn-haired wife who spends most of her time being painted by different people’.3Michael Holroyd, Augustus John, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996, p. 98. Augustus John’s biographer Michael Holroyd has described Harold Chaloner Dowdall as ‘a pompous good-natured barrister, very loyal to the Johns but with a tendency to dilate, perhaps for an entire day, on the extreme freshness of that morning’s eggs at breakfast’.4Holroyd, p. 99.

Transformative for John was his meeting with the Irish linguist John Sampson, the University College Liverpool librarian, who was an expert on Welsh-Romany language and a passionate scholar of Romany life and culture. He aroused in John a love of the freewheeling Romany lifestyle, and encouraged the artist to master an English dialect of the language, and introduced him to numerous Romany elders.

Augustus and Ida were to have their first son, born in January 1902, six months before John’s completion of his Liverpool posting in July 1902. Back in London, John turned his hand to portraiture, quickly achieving success with paintings like Merikli, a portrait of Ida that was voted ‘Picture of the Year’ by the New English Art Club in 1902. The following year John met the second great love of his life, Dorothy McNeill, or Dorelia, with whom he was to pursue an affair until Ida’s death in 1907, following the birth of her fifth son with Augustus. Dorelia then became John’s primary partner and eventually his second wife. It was Woman smiling, 1908–9 (Tate, London), a portrait of Dorelia exhibited at the New Gallery in Regent Street in early 1909, that made John’s name in the London art world. Declaring John’s painting ‘the most formidable picture in the exhibition’, Roger Fry trumpeted in The Burlington Magazine: ‘Here at last Mr John has “arrived” in painting as definitely as he has long ago done in his drawings … This woman is essentially modern, but she belongs nonetheless to the fifteenth century’.5Roger Fry, ‘The exhibition of fair women’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 15, no. 73, April 1909, p. 17.  For C. J. Holmes, writing in the same journal:

The vitality of this gypsy Giaconda is fierce, disquieting, emphatic … In [his] subordination of material to force of expression, Mr John agrees with the modern rather than with the old masters. He sides with Manet rather than with Van Dyck, and his power and originality excuse this preference. Fortunately there are many mansions in the house of Art; and if a remarkable talent chooses one of them we should be content to let him have his place there, even if we think he might be somewhat better accommodated elsewhere.6C. J. Holmes, ‘Two modern pictures’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 15, no. 74, May 1909, p. 81. Holmes’s striking description of Woman smiling as a ‘gypsy Giaconda’ has sometimes mistakenly been attributed to Roger Fry, a confusion occasioned by the proximity of the two articles in The Burlington Magazine in April and May 1909.

Harold Chaloner Dowdall

The son of a Liverpool stockbroker, Harold Chaloner Dowdall was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Oxford, was admitted to the bar in 1893, and became a member of Liverpool City Council in 1899.7On Dowdall, see W. B. Tracey, Lancashire at the Opening of the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Biographies, Pike, Brighton, 1903, p. 298, and the obituary ‘His Honour H. C. Dowdall, Q.C.’, The Times, 22 April 1955. In 1908 Dowdall was appointed Lord Mayor of Liverpool, a post he held for the usual one-year term. It was at this moment that Dowdall’s and John’s paths came together again. As Holroyd noted: ‘It was the custom in Liverpool for members of the city council to raise a private subscription of one hundred guineas and to present the retiring Lord Mayor with a ceremonial portrait’.8Holroyd, pp. 287–8.

Dowdall later recalled:

It was like this. When I was offered the usual 100 guineas presentation portrait I suggested that I should give the commission instead of leaving that (as had been usual) with the asinine chairman of the Walker Art Gallery; and John liked the idea of doing it. We went to the colour-man together and he wanted a vast canvas and I think had in mind a whole group of mace bearers, etc., but I persuaded him to moderate the size.9Harold Chaloner Dowdall, letter to Sir Sydney Cockerell, 6 June 1938, quoted in Leonard Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, c. 1970, p. 155.

Dowdall apparently protested that his house was too small to accommodate such a grand composition, while John, though agreeing to downsize his vision, nonetheless purchased the largest canvas available.

According to Holroyd, John worked up a watercolour sketch on the first day of sitting, showing Dowdall holding his wand and sword of office in a kind of inverted ‘v’ with the mayor at its centre. Lunch was then served by Dowdall’s footman, Smith; and, noticing how the mayor and his aide shared such bonhomie, John then suggested including Smith in the painting as well.10Holroyd, p. 288.

John’s recollections, in his biographical notes of 1954, Chiaroscuro, further flesh out the tale:

When my old acquaintance Chaloner Dowdall was elected Lord Mayor of Liverpool I was commissioned by the Corporation to paint a ceremonial portrait of him. I stayed with the Dowdalls during the execution of the work. Each morning the Lord Mayor and I were driven to the Town Hall in the official carriage and pair. There, my model, having donned his cocked hat, furred robe, silk breeches, Chain of Office, etc., mounted the dais and, grasping his wand, faced me resolutely. To enrich the composition I added, without extra charge, the figure of his sword-bearer, Smith.11Augustus John, Chiaroscuro. Fragments of Autobiography, Readers Union, London, 1954, p. 114.

Tensions inevitably developed during the painting of the portrait, which stretched over two weeks, egged on by Dowdall’s inherent conservatism and John’s developing bohemianism. Between their first acquaintance in 1901 and their reunion in 1909, the life circumstances of John and Dowdall had diverged a great deal. Dowdall had risen to the pinnacle of Liverpool society, while John now pursued a very idiosyncratic and bohemian lifestyle, inspired by Romany travellers. He interrupted a caravan trip throughout the English countryside, in fact, in order to travel to Liverpool to undertake Dowdall’s commission.

In surviving correspondence, John goes from stating that: ‘It’s great sport painting jewels and sword hilts, etc. My Lord sits every day and all day and I’ve been working like a steam engine’, to complaining of how Dowdall could not remain still and assumed ‘such an idiotic expression when posing’.12Augustus John, letter to Dorelia McNeill, n. d. (August 1909); quoted in Holroyd, p. 288. The enormous portrait has been aptly described as ‘John’s most serious effort to come to grips with grand salon portraiture’, and echoes of both Diego Velázquez’s The Cardinal Infante Don Ferdinand of Austria, in hunting dress, c. 1632–34 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, fig. 2) and Édouard Manet’s A matador, 1867 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, fig. 3), resound within it.13Malcolm Easton & Michael Holroyd, The Art of Augustus John, Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, p. 16. While Dowdall’s and John’s friendship survived a number of increasingly tense sittings, the resulting portrait, with its mix of references to Velázquez and Manet, has a certain awkwardness that might also reflect this temporary crise d’amitié.

Despite his earlier friendship with Dowdall, John found that his ‘old acquaintance’ had developed a pomposity commensurate with his rise in social status. At the end of each day’s work on the painting, a struggle apparently arose between sitter and artist, concerning how the latter was expected to pass his evening hours:

The sitting over, it was my usual habit to go off on my own, to explore new aspects of the city or revisit old ones. I felt under no obligation to hurry back to the uneventful respectability of Sefton Park, and firmly withstood the pressure put upon me by Dowdall to return with him in state. I had had enough of stateliness for the time being and felt the need of a break, after which I would face my sitter’s features again with renewed courage. Not that I did not appreciate the claims of the Lady Mayoress … the most engaging character in Liverpool: but her husband’s new dignity had somehow lent him a weightiness of manner more appropriate, I thought, to the platform than the fireside. Lord Mayors, I decided, should be kept in their Town Halls or, if allowed out, encouraged to shed their responsibilities along with their insignia.14John, pp. 114–15. Dowdall’s residence was in the Sefton Park district of Liverpool. This district was named after the seat of the Earls of Sefton, and comprised land purchased from the 4th Earl of Sefton by Liverpool Borough Council in 1857. The NGV has a striking, if unfinished, portrait from 1846 by Edwin Landseer of the 3rd Earl of Sefton, Charles William Molyneux, and his wife and daughter.

Pompous he might have been, but Dowdall was also civic-minded. In 1909, for example, he was responsible for the founding of the Liverpool Charity and Voluntary Services, which involved bringing together the various charities operating in Liverpool and encouraging them to work collaboratively. This was perhaps of little concern to John, who became increasingly suspicious of Dowdall’s motives for requesting his presence at dinner every night during the painting of the portrait:

My friend’s craving for my company, it turned out, was due, not to any personal charm I might be credited with, but to his anxiety to keep an eye on me, lest my evening excursions be made the subject of comment in the town, and, as the police suggested, be held to prejudice in some way the dignity of his office. On learning this, my attendances at dinner became rarer still, and the hour of my return more incalculable, for the knowledge that I was under observation only provoked me to wander further afield.15John, p. 115.

Despite the tensions aroused by Dowdall’s dubious opinion of John’s nocturnal excursions, the sitter seems to have been pleased with his portrait in the end, even helping cover the extra costs incurred by the artist in creating such an extravagant composition. John later recalled: ‘Indeed, he even went so far as to supplement my honorarium with a generous contribution from his own pocket’.16John, p. 118.

Liverpool 1909

Harold Chaloner Dowdall was still lord mayor of Liverpool in September 1909, when he proudly opened the city’s thirty-ninth autumn exhibition of modern art, a mammoth display of 2300 works at the Walker Art Gallery.17‘Liverpool Autumn Exhibition’, The Times, 20 Sep. 1909, p. 6. John’s portrait was unveiled to the public at the exhibition; however, it met not with the success expected by artist and sitter, but with ridicule and derision. Michael Holroyd has documented how:

The reception given to the portrait when it was first shown that autumn was extreme. The press called it ‘detestable’, ‘crude’, ‘unhealthy, ‘an insult, ‘a travesty in paint’, and ‘the greatest exhibition of bad and inartistic taste we have ever seen’. The art critic of the Liverpool Daily Post (18 September 1909) felt able to describe it as ‘a work worse painted and worse drawn than any modern picture we can remember’, and suggested that it was ‘an artistic practical joke’ which gave Smith the grounds for legal action. Another critic (19 September 1909) detected moral danger in the canvas. It was, he declared, ‘an attenuated specimen of what Mr John chooses to call a man, over 20 heads in length, all legs, the pimple of a head being placed on very narrow shoulders and by his side, in a ridiculous attitude, a figure that I fancy I have seen before in a Punch and Judy show. All painted in rank, bad colour and shockingly badly drawn … The public have none too great knowledge of art as it is; to publicly exhibit the work is calculated to do immense amount of harm to the public generally and the young art students who go to galleries and museums for guidance and help.18Holroyd, p. 291.

The footman in John’s painting became a particular focus of attention in Liverpool in 1909, with people flocking to the Walker Art Gallery to view what had become known as the ‘Portrait of Smith’. Holroyd has documented how:

Letters of anonymous indignation were everywhere posted in haste, and feelings of fury, adulation and merriment were kept at a high level by all manners of Tweedledum cartoons, satirical verses and stories to the effect that Dowdell had commissioned a gang of burglars to make off with it, only to find that they had taken the valuable frame and left the canvas.19Holroyd, p. 292.

John himself later recalled that: ‘Unaccountable disturbances followed the exhibition of my picture, but in spite of public denunciation Chaloner Dowdall stood up stoutly for it’.20John, p. 118.

The critic for the Art Journal in 1909 paid John’s portrait a backhanded compliment that captured the conflicted reaction of the day to the work:

Mr John’s ‘the Right Hon. The Lord Mayor’ is the ‘picture of the year’. Not that it is popular – it is even disliked by many people. But the portrait, which some say is no portrait, is the problem picture of the exhibition, and if it does not touch the soul, it arouses the curiosity of the visitor’.21A. Yockney, ‘An autumn exhibition’, Art Journal, 1909, pp. 333–4.

As Pamela Fletcher has noted, by this time

on one level … to call a picture ‘a problem picture’ was simply to define it as bad art, and this usage is evidence of the extent to which the ‘problem picture’ had become identified with a negative aesthetic judgement.22Pamela M. Fletcher, Narrating Modernity. The British Problem Picture 1895–1914, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003, p. 112.

Given the painting’s obvious indebtedness to Manet, some of this negative reaction might have been, perhaps, an early instance of the xenophobia that greeted Roger Fry’s exhibition of late nineteenth-century French art at London’s Grafton Galleries in the winter of 1910–11 when, back at the Slade, Henry Tonks, for example, berated his newest promising student Stanley Spencer for being unduly and negatively influenced by French tendencies.23See Richard Carline et al., Stanley Spencer RA, Royal Academy of Arts and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1980, pp. 11, 21, 41; and Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Phaidon Press, London, 1992, p. 18.This sentiment was echoed in the American critic Thomas Craven’s bestselling Modern Art: The Men, The Movements, The Meaning of 1934, where he argued that ‘Manet was a painter of surfaces’ whose art was ‘ready material for shallow imitation’; and, along with Van Gogh and Gauguin, an ‘arch offender’ whose art was guilty of ‘emboldening the Bohemians to destroy everything in art except the pattern basis’.24Thomas Craven, Modern Art: The Men, The Movements, The Meaning, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1934, pp. 70–1, 144.

John’s painting was not as widely attacked when shown for a second time, at the forty-sixth exhibition of the New English Art Club in London during the winter of 1911–12. An account of that show published in The Studio in January 1912 argued, in fact, that:

It is not possible to add to a reputation so firmly established as Mr John’s by extravagant praise of his exhibits on this occasion, but we hope that his portrait of the Right Hon. Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool 1908–1909, will create a precedent in civic portraiture, which has been so strangely at a loss for a tradition since the eighteenth century. Mr John’s decorative skill was everything to him in this picture.25‘The New English Art Club’, The Studio, vol. 54, 1912, p. 308.

In his small contemporary art monograph on Augustus John of 1923 Anthony Bertram commented upon the artist’s success as a portrait painter:

Whatever the subject which comes under his brush, the significant thing is the painting of it. It is not of primary importance aesthetically that the painting expresses Mr John. The phrase ‘portrait-painter’ has an unpleasant, second-rate tang about it to-day. Most people would think it as inapplicable to Mr John as to Velázquez or Goya or Rubens. There are reasons for this attitude. The portrait painter, like the historical novelist, is divided between truth to his subjects and truth to himself. The artist and the historian in him hamper each other. Both, therefore, usually suffer. Further, the portrait painter, by the system of commissions, appears to be more in danger of hack work than any other artist, and frequently, although not necessarily, the result of hack work is that the artist, while he may retain the excellence of his craft, loses that indefinable quality which makes him more than a craftsman … this prejudice against portrait-painting, whether it be justified or not, was the cause of some timid foreboding among the admirers of Mr John’s work when he appeared to be spending much of his time and energy on it. And to be fair (and what is the value of an appreciation that is mere uncritical eulogy?) the least interesting of his mature work is to be found among his portraits. But on the other hand some of his most attractive pictures are portraits, and he has never allowed his feeling for composition, for colour, for form itself to be overweighted by psychological interest.26Anthony Bertram, Augustus John, E. Benn, London, 1923, pp. 13–15.

E. P. Warren

Following its exhibition at the New English Art Club in 1911–12, John’s portrait of Dowdall disappeared from public view. Holroyd noted that now ‘it was to prove something of a white elephant to the Dowdall family, following them from house to house in its atrocious gold frame and dominating their lives’.27Holroyd, p. 292. After the First World War, Dowdall moved to Melfort Cottage in the small hamlet of Boars Hill, south-west of Oxford.

When I came to this cottage there was no room for it, and with the cordial concurrence of the donors and of John I decided to sell it. Aitken would have liked it for the Tate but was not prepared to pay my price.28Harold Chaloner Dowdall, letter to Sir Sydney Cockerell, 6 June 1938, quoted in Cox, p. 155.

The National Gallery offered Dowdall £650 for the portrait, but they were outbid by a private collector, E. P. Warren, to whom Dowdall sold the painting in 1918 for £1450. John wrote to Dowdall at the time:

I’m glad you found the old picture useful at last and that it fetched a decent price. It was really too big for a private possession, of course, failing the possession of a palace to hold it. I don’t forget how well you acted by me at the time.29Augustus John, letter to Harold Chaloner Dowdall, 14 October 1918; quoted in Holroyd, p. 292.

A palace of sorts, however, is exactly where it then ended up.

Edward Perry ‘Ned’ Warren (1860–1928) was an American-born, Harvard and Oxford–educated art collector and patron of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A pioneer advocate of same-sex relationships, Warren, heir to a paper-mill fortune, lived a secluded but lavish life in a rambling eighteenth-century mansion, Lewes House at Lewes in Sussex, where the Dowdall portrait was hung in the company of mostly homoerotic Greek antiquities, as well as paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Filippino Lippi. Warren had a tangential connection to John, for the artist held his first one-man show in 1899 at London’s Carfax Gallery, which Warren had funded for John Fothergill, Arthur Bellamy and William Rothenstein in 1898. Upon his death in 1928 Warren bequeathed Lewes House and its belongings to his secretary Harry Asa Thomas, who sold much of the estate at auction the following year.30See Parks & Gardens UK, ‘Lewes House, Lewes, East Sussex, England’, 12 Nov. 2008, Parks & Gardens UK, <http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/5607?preview=1>, accessed 13 June 2018. Curiously, Thomas held on to the Dowdall portrait for another decade.

What E. P. Warren saw in John’s portrait remains open to speculation, as do Thomas’s reasons for retaining the painting himself. At Lewes House Warren had established a shrine to Hellenic same-sex love, where John’s portrait of Dowdall sat in an unexpected new context.31Warren’s biographer David Sox notes that: ‘We know nothing of Warren’s actual sexual exploits. Obviously he was a homosexual, but from all accounts there is no indication that he was a practicing one … “Greek love” seems quaint today, but the idea of essayist Walter Pater that the love of beautiful young men was connected with the spirit of Greek sculpture is at the heart of Ned Warren’s homoeroticism’. David Sox, Bachelors of Art: Edward Perry Warren and the Lewes House Brotherhood, Fourth Estate, London, 1991, p. 17. In his unfinished autobiography Warren wrote of his youth at Oxford in the 1880s, where he had been on the lookout for ‘affections between my own sex, real affections’, and eventually fell in love with his first partner John ‘Puppy’ Marshall.32Sox, p. 16. Could the evident affection of the footman Smith for his master Dowdall in John’s painting, a devoted gaze from one man upon another that was highly unusual in art at this time, have been the spark that prompted Warren to purchase this work in 1918?

John’s painting was seen publicly again in 1932, when Harry Asa Thomas loaned it to the Walker Art Gallery. On this occasion the art critic for the London Times pondered on the hostile reception to it a generation earlier.

At this time of day it is difficult to see why Mr John’s portrait was not popular on its first appearance. The Lord Mayor cuts a dignified figure, and the inclusion of the ‘Footman’, with sword of office, adds greatly to the effect of civic splendour, besides helping the composition.33‘Walker Art Gallery. Special autumn exhibition’, The Times, 7 Oct. 1932.

Despite such praise from The Times, the Walker Art Gallery declined to buy the painting.34Easton & Holroyd, p. 142.

Sydney Cockerell

On 29 April 1938 the Trustees, Executors and Agency Company Ltd, trustees of Alfred Felton’s will, mailed to the Felton Bequests’ Committee in Melbourne a copy of a telegram that had just been received from their London agents, conveying the following news from the NGV’s London-based Felton Adviser, Sir Sydney Cockerell (who was also director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge):

FELTON. AUGUSTUS JOHN’S FULL LENGTH PORTRAIT OF CHALONER DOWDALL AS LORD MAYOR OF LIVERPOOL WITH SWORD BEARER JUST COME INTO MARKET. PAINTED 1909. EIGHTY BY FIFTY-FOUR INCHES. THREE THOUSAND POUNDS. COCKERELL URGENTLY RECOMMENDS PURCHASE AS ONE OF JOHN’S PORTRAIT MASTERPIECES AND ONE OF THE FIRST HALF DOZEN ENGLISH PORTRAITS OF THIS CENTURY.35This, and all other Cockerell/John documents, unless otherwise specified, are held in the Felton Bequest papers, National Gallery of Victoria. On Sir Sydney Cockerell, see Stella Panayotova, ‘St Cockerellius: the director–collector’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 13, no. 4, 2007, pp. 387–420.

Cockerell’s summary report on the painting, and a black-and-white reproduction, were mailed out to Melbourne posthaste, arriving from London by 11 May.

In his report to the Felton Bequests’ Committee, dated 29 April, Cockerell argued the following regarding John’s portrait of Dowdall as Lord Mayor:

In my opinion one of the first half dozen masterpieces by this artist. Actually, I can recall only three portraits on a large scale by him that I should place on the same level and all three (The Smiling Woman, Suggia, and Sir William Nicholson) are in public galleries. It was painted in 1909 when he was at the height of his powers. It is a picture eminently suited to a public gallery and one that any gallery might be proud to acquire … [Acquisition recommended:] Very strongly.

At the time of Cockerell’s recommendation, the NGV already represented John with two family portraits of great quality, Robin, c. 1919–20 (the artist’s son, fig. 5), recommended by Felton Adviser Frank Rinder in 1920; and The artist’s daughter, c. 1927–28 (fig. 6), recommended by Felton Adviser Randall Davies in 1932. Executed upon a pale background, John’s Robin, as historian Ann Galbally has noted, revealed his strong interest in fifteenth-century Italian painting.36Ann Galbally, entry on Augustus John in Ted Gott et al., Modern Britain 1900–1960: Masterworks from Australian and New Zealand Collections, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, p. 55. This was the sort of thing that British critics of the day loved, who saw in contemporary artists’ references to Italian trecento and quattrocento forebears a new stream of healthy English creativity, based on the machismo of disegno, rather than French models that they pejoratively dubbed ‘decorative’. Rinder, however, had narrowly missed out on securing John’s bravura portrait Mme Suggia, 1920–23 (Tate Britain, London) for the NGV, while the Felton Committee had previously turned down John’s masterful portrait Sir William Nicholson, 1909 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, fig. 7), which Felton Adviser Sir Sydney Colvin had recommended for purchase in 1913.37John Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 343. Also see Cox, p. 75.

John was still such a celebrity in 1938 (he had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1928, for example) that Cockerell’s proposal to add another portrait to the NGV Collection would hardly have seemed surprising. The Felton Committee acted swiftly, approving the purchase of the work in principle on 5 May, before the reproduction of the painting even arrived in Melbourne. Such was the value of the Dowdall portrait, however, with an asking price of £3000, that the Felton Committee requested that the work also be approved by Britain’s National Art Collections Fund, which had recently begun advising on Felton purchases. This approval was delivered on 17 May 1938, along with a request from the NACF’s chairman, Robert Pitt, that the painting be placed on display at the Tate Gallery prior to its shipment to Melbourne.

J. S. MacDonald

Meanwhile, after studying the black-and-white photograph of the work sent across by Cockerell, around mid May 1938 the NGV’s director James Stuart MacDonald launched an extraordinary attack on the proposed acquisition. Indeed, as Leonard Cox argued in his 1968 history of the NGV, by expressing such opposition to John’s portrait and other works recommended by Sir Sydney Cockerell, MacDonald revealed that ‘at this stage his emotions were disturbed to such a degree as to suggest imbalance, and to set en train a state of affairs which was to terminate in his replacement’ (in 1940).38Cox, p. 153. To quote from MacDonald’s damning report:

This picture is available for us simply because others, including the ex-Lord Mayor of Liverpool, do not want it. This is not to be wondered at, as it is an unsatisfactory work. Artificially inspired by Goya and others it has all the appearance and spirit of a Spanish alcalde [magistrate] and his attendant, and is utterly un-English in character. It is ridiculously proportioned, the lord mayor being more than ten heads in height – the normal proportion being 7 and a half. Tonally, it is a jumble, the right arm, sleeve, sleeve-hanging and lining of the lord-mayor’s robe, the back hanging and the chair are in a hapless mix up. The face of the lord-mayor appears to be unshaven and is muddy in tone. ‘Smith’s’ face is a blur; his hands, the sword-hilt, the borders of his cape and his waist-coat do not resolve themselves. His legs, particularly the one advanced, are badly painted – put in anyway. This dual portrait has every sign of being painted to provoke argument.

Why does not the ex-Lord Mayor of Liverpool want this picture? Why does the corporation of the City of Liverpool not want it? If at £3,000 it is a good bargain, why does someone in England not want it?

Why, twenty-nine years after it was painted … is it allowed to escape the 400 millionaires of Great Britain and come, as a bargain, to us? Sir Sydney says it ‘formerly belonged to the sitter’. How long ago?

I say that this picture has changed hands several times since it became the ex-lord mayor’s property. It is on the town. Price need not be considered, as the painting is a bad one and its purchase should not be entertained.39J. S. MacDonald, manuscript appraisal of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer.

MacDonald became director of the NGV in 1936, and was a confirmed enemy of modernism in art, which he notoriously dubbed a few years later ‘putrid meat’ made by ‘degenerates and perverts’ and against which he took a stand, ‘refusing to pollute [the] gallery with this filth’.40J. S. MacDonald, report of suggested purchases from the Herald exhibition, 30 Oct. 1939; quoted in Eileen Chanin & Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts. The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1938, pp. 229–30. He was also virulently anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic.41See Roy Forward, ‘MacDonald: was he the worst?’, National Gallery of Australia Research Paper, no. 45, n. d., p. 1, available online at <https://bit.ly/2Jm00Je>, accessed 8 Aug. 2017. He frequently clashed with Sir Keith Murdoch, owner of the Melbourne Herald newspaper, a staunch advocate of modern art and an NGV trustee since 1933, who had become vice-president of the trustees in December 1937 and a member of the Felton Purchase Committee in April 1938, just as Cockerell proposed John’s painting for acquisition.

In 1935, when both the directorship of the NGV and the position of Felton Adviser became vacant, Murdoch championed his brilliant journalist (and from 1936 art critic) at The Herald, Basil Burdett – friend to Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, the Steins, James Joyce and other artistic and literary luminaries – for both positions. Despite Murdoch himself arguing after interviewing Sir Sydney Cockerell that ‘of all the men available in Britain he is the best, although not better than the best in Australia’,42Keith Murdoch, letter to Alfred Bright, President of the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 21 Aug. 1936; quoted in Cox, p. 143. For more on Basil Burdett see Chanin & Miller, pp. 167–71. Murdoch agreed to appoint the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, instead of Burdett, as Felton Adviser; he subsequently saw his nemesis MacDonald made director of the NGV, through manoeuvrings of power over which he had no control.43See Forward, p. 3.

In considering MacDonald’s opposition to John’s portrait of Dowdall, Murdoch and Burdett would have been all too aware of pronouncements from MacDonald, such as that published in The Bulletin in 1934, that declared:

Apologists for contemporary painting tell us that drawing is not necessary to good art. Almost always when there arises a comparison between works by moderns they extol that which has the lesser technical merit. Why? Because the contemporary movement is a feminine one and women rarely shine where workmanship is involved … they haven’t learned to paint in any numbers, though they learned to make patterns … Naturally they soon tire of their confections and decry them, thus justifying the substitution of new and equally silly assembling of materials and fabrics. This development has led to the emergence in numbers of what the Americans call ‘pansies’; and fine allies they make. These beings can trim a hat or tie a bow with any girl. Both can talk Art, using freely such terms as ‘third dimension’ and ‘significant form’, though neither can think nor express themselves ‘in the round’ nor in anything but insignificant form.44J. S. MacDonald, The Bulletin, 24 Jan. 1934, quoted in Forward, p. 8. See also Caroline Ambrus, Australian Women Artists: First Fleet to 1945: History, Hearsay and Her Say, Irrepressible Press, Canberra, 1992, p. 140. Ambrus quotes a supporter of MacDonald’s prejudiced views, Hattie Knight, who contributed this to The Bulletin three weeks after Macdonald’s diatribe: ‘Women snatch at novelties and innovations eagerly; they buy them, wear them, copy them and “arrange” them; are quicker to adapt themselves to violent changes of fashion than men. But it is men – decadent men, “pansies” even – who supply the ideas, paint decadent pictures and generally keep up the world supply of mischief and poison for women to play about with’. Hattie Knight, ‘Decadent art’, The Bulletin, 14 Feb. 1934, p. 5; cited in Ambrus, p. 141.

MacDonald’s words here echo uncannily Thomas Craven’s vehemently anti-modernist Modern Art: The Men, The Movements, The Meaning, published in the same year, which declared ‘the most offensive element in modern art’ to be ‘the gigolo and the homosexual playing on the vanities of bored women’ and thundered against the corrupting effeminacy of modernist French aesthetics from Manet onwards:

The effect of the Parisian system, in summary, is this:

Woman is the curse of the artist. She no longer inspires, she dominates him. The artist, being weak, impressionable, and incapable of self-discipline, in other words, Bohemian, inevitably acquires the tone and characteristics of the stronger personality, the prostitute.

The artist is losing his masculinity. The tendency of the Parisian system is to disestablish sexual characteristics, to merge the two sexes in an androgynous third containing all that is offensive in both. If you doubt the growing effeminacy of the artist, you have only to examine the performances of the modern École de Paris. The school is fundamentally sexless, from Picasso to Laurencin and Dufy. In exteriors, it often appears harsh and brutal, but the harshness is factitious – the acid face and dominating toughness of the professional woman. In essence, it is an emasculated art, an art of fashions, styles, and ambiguous patterns.45Craven, pp. 29, 356.

This is perhaps the ‘utterly un-English’ trait that MacDonald saw in John’s painting, the effeminate ‘decorative’ taint of French modernism.

Despite McDonald’s objections, however, Sir Sydney Cockerell proceeded to negotiate a discount price of £2500 for the work with Arthur Tooth & Sons, agents for Harry Asa Thomas. It was Keith Murdoch and not MacDonald who held sway with the Felton Purchase Committee, and so the painting was secured for Melbourne. Unfortunately, before the work’s dispatch to Australia, Cockerell decided that its original frame was ‘entirely inadequate and unsuitable for the picture’ and he ordered a replacement frame to be made for a modest £50.46Radcliffes & Co., letter to the Trustees, Executors and Agency Company Ltd of Melbourne, 25 May 1938. Felton Bequest papers, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Melbourne 1938

The arrival of Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer in Melbourne towards the end of June 1938 was an occasion for the usual flurry of press attention. Local newspapers showed the painting still in its protective packaging, and, later, being appreciated by the public when first placed on display on 25 August at the offices of Alfred Felton’s Trustees, 401 Collins Street.47‘Addition to Gallery’, The Argus, 24 Aug. 1938, p. 3; ‘Presented to Gallery’, The Herald, 26 Aug. 1938, clipping in NGV Press Clippings Album, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The Age remarked the following day upon how

a stream of visitors viewed the pictures … many people prominent in the Melbourne world of art … The example of Augustus John’s earlier days, Mr Chaloner Dowdall as Lord Mayor of Liverpool … attracted considerable attention.48‘News of the day: paintings on display’, The Age, 26 Aug. 1938, p. 10.

On the day of the viewing itself, however, an unsigned article in The Age speculated that:

It is over the ‘Mr Chaloner Dowdall as Lord Mayor of Liverpool’ [sic] that public opinion is likely to be most strained. It is quite understandable that this representation did not meet with the mayoral approval; for though the principal figure is forcefully painted and technically sound, there is a suggestion of veiled satire about the arrangement as a whole. This culminates in the Punch-like figure of the Mace Bearer, whose attitude would seem to infer a personal disapproval of the business in hand.49‘Purchases for Gallery. Three new paintings’, The Age, 25 Aug. 1938, p. 12.

Clearly taking the side of the gallery’s director J. S. MacDonald, The Age continued its negative press later that year, when a ‘Critical Review’ of purchases made for the NGV under the terms of the Felton Bequest argued that John’s portrait was ‘a clumsy, indifferently painted, and altogether undesirable work’. Astonishingly, this anonymous critic wrote in the same derogatory article that the Gallery’s early Rembrandt masterpiece, Two old men disputing, 1628, acquired two years earlier, ‘is not a good example of Rembrandt’ for ‘any merit the picture may have is so definitely mediocre as to excite wonder in the beholder’.
50‘Felton art bequest: a critical review’, The Age, 22 Nov. 1938, p. 10.

The art critics for other newspapers disagreed with this condemnation of John’s painting. Writing in The Sun, George Bell argued that John’s double portrait was:

an excellent example of the early work of the artist. The composition of the picture is very fine. The introduction of the mace bearer ascending the steps behind the central figure makes the design unconventional and caused its rejection by the city fathers of Liverpool. The faces are rather low in tone and full of character, and the painting is extremely capable without bravura.51George Bell, ‘Gallery’s new pictures praised’, The Sun, 25 Aug. 1938, clipping in NGV Press Clippings Album, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Basil Burdett, working for Keith Murdoch over at The Herald, not surprisingly gave the painting a resounding thumbs up. ‘The Felton Bequest, Sir Sydney Cockerell and the trustees of the National Gallery are to be congratulated on the purchase of the John’, he wrote glowingly:

It is a superb picture, masterly in its drawing and painting, magnificent in the richness of its colour – a first-class example of a great British master. This fine work is many miles from the average official portrait. It has no official heroics, no dwelling on the details of the baubles and trappings of office to secure effect. It is frank and straight-forward, as all John’s portraits are, as frank and as ruthless even as Goya’s portraits of the Spanish Bourbons.52Basil Burdett, ‘Felton Bequest buys a masterpiece. Augustus John work superb’, The Herald, 24 Aug. 1938, clipping in NGV Press Clippings Album, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Seemingly having been slipped a copy of MacDonald’s condemnation of the painting by the head of his newspaper, Keith Murdoch, and asked to rebut it fully, Burdett called John’s double portrait ‘a piece of rich, effective pictorial pageantry’.53A typed copy of J. S. MacDonald’s manuscript appraisal of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer is annotated ‘copy given to Sir Keith Murdoch, 11 June 1938’, Felton Bequest papers (digitised), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Praising every aspect of the work, he extolled how:

Broadly handled, it has nothing of academic triviality about it. It is vital and sure in every stroke … As a piece of painting it is a joy, so swift and accomplished, the colour so rich and sonorous. And it has a force and a dignity which few portraits attain, official or otherwise … this is one of John’s greatest portraits.

Burdett concluded by stating forcefully that: ‘If Sir Sydney Cockerell adds nothing more to our Gallery, he will have justified himself with this single purchase’.54Burdett, ‘Felton Bequest buys a masterpiece. Augustus John work superb’.

It would be two more years before Keith Murdoch saw J. S. MacDonald removed from his post as director of the National Gallery of Victoria and replaced by Daryl Lindsay, a man more open to modernist trends in art.55For Murdoch’s role in the removal of MacDonald from his post, see Shane Carmody, ‘“Vain, aggressive and somewhat quarrelsome”: the enduring impact of Sir Sydney Cockerell on the Melbourne collections’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 13, no. 4, 2007, pp. 441–2.

In the meanwhile, the NGV’s purchase of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer, that MacDonald found so un-English, so inadequate in draughtsmanship, tonal construction and facture, was a victory for those like Murdoch who wished to bring challenging and progressive art to Melbourne. The acquisition was vindicated resoundingly in John Rothenstein’s monograph on the artist, which appeared in 1944:

In other and more propitious times there would have been an honoured place for John among those who served the established order: he would have glorified God on the walls of churches, or have celebrated, on the walls of palaces, the triumphs of princes. Who indeed reveals in his official portraiture a higher sense of civic dignity than John? No better official portrait has been painted anywhere during the present century than his Judge Dowdall, as Lord Mayor of Liverpool [sic], which Liverpool rejected.56John Rothenstein, Augustus John, Phaidon Press, London, 1944, pp. 13–14.

Dr Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)

Notes

1

J. S. MacDonald, manuscript appraisal of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer, mid May 1938, Felton Bequest papers (digitised), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

2

‘£2,500 painting for Gallery. Felton purchase’, The Argus, 4 June 1938, p. 5.

3

Michael Holroyd, Augustus John, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996, p. 98.

4

Holroyd, p. 99.

5

Roger Fry, ‘The exhibition of fair women’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 15, no. 73, April 1909, p. 17.

6

C. J. Holmes, ‘Two modern pictures’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 15, no. 74, May 1909, p. 81. Holmes’s striking description of Woman smiling as a ‘gypsy Giaconda’ has sometimes mistakenly been attributed to Roger Fry, a confusion occasioned by the proximity of the two articles in The Burlington Magazine in April and May 1909.

7

On Dowdall, see W. B. Tracey, Lancashire at the Opening of the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Biographies, Pike, Brighton, 1903, p. 298, and the obituary ‘His Honour H. C. Dowdall, Q.C.’, The Times, 22 April 1955.

8

Holroyd, pp. 287–8.

9

Harold Chaloner Dowdall, letter to Sir Sydney Cockerell, 6 June 1938, quoted in Leonard Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, c. 1970, p. 155.

10

Holroyd, p. 288.

11

Augustus John, Chiaroscuro. Fragments of Autobiography, Readers Union, London, 1954, p. 114.

12

Augustus John, letter to Dorelia McNeill, n. d. (August 1909); quoted in Holroyd, p. 288.

13

Malcolm Easton & Michael Holroyd, The Art of Augustus John, Secker and Warburg, London, 1974, p. 16.

14

John, pp. 114–15. Dowdall’s residence was in the Sefton Park district of Liverpool. This district was named after the seat of the Earls of Sefton, and comprised land purchased from the 4th Earl of Sefton by Liverpool Borough Council in 1857. The NGV has a striking, if unfinished, portrait from 1846 by Edwin Landseer of the 3rd Earl of Sefton, Charles William Molyneux, and his wife and daughter.

15

John, p. 115.

16

John, p. 118.

17

‘Liverpool Autumn Exhibition’, The Times, 20 Sep. 1909, p. 6.

18

Holroyd, p. 291.

19

Holroyd, p. 292.

20

John, p. 118.

21

A. Yockney, ‘An autumn exhibition’, Art Journal, 1909, pp. 333–4.

22

Pamela M. Fletcher, Narrating Modernity. The British Problem Picture 1895–1914, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003, p. 112.

23

See Richard Carline et al., Stanley Spencer RA, Royal Academy of Arts and Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1980, pp. 11, 21, 41; and Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Phaidon Press, London, 1992, p. 18.

24

Thomas Craven, Modern Art: The Men, The Movements, The Meaning, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1934, pp. 70–1, 144.

25

‘The New English Art Club’, The Studio, vol. 54, 1912, p. 308.

26

Anthony Bertram, Augustus John, E. Benn, London, 1923, pp. 13–15.

27

Holroyd, p. 292.

28

Harold Chaloner Dowdall, letter to Sir Sydney Cockerell, 6 June 1938, quoted in Cox, p. 155.

29

Augustus John, letter to Harold Chaloner Dowdall, 14 October 1918; quoted in Holroyd, p. 292.

30

See Parks & Gardens UK, ‘Lewes House, Lewes, East Sussex, England’, 12 Nov. 2008, Parks & Gardens UK, <http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/5607?preview=1>, accessed 13 June 2018.

31

Warren’s biographer David Sox notes that: ‘We know nothing of Warren’s actual sexual exploits. Obviously he was a homosexual, but from all accounts there is no indication that he was a practicing one … “Greek love” seems quaint today, but the idea of essayist Walter Pater that the love of beautiful young men was connected with the spirit of Greek sculpture is at the heart of Ned Warren’s homoeroticism’. David Sox, Bachelors of Art: Edward Perry Warren and the Lewes House Brotherhood, Fourth Estate, London, 1991, p. 17.

32

Sox, p. 16.

33

‘Walker Art Gallery. Special autumn exhibition’, The Times, 7 Oct. 1932.

34

Easton & Holroyd, p. 142.

35

This, and all other Cockerell/John documents, unless otherwise specified, are held in the Felton Bequest papers, National Gallery of Victoria. On Sir Sydney Cockerell, see Stella Panayotova, ‘St Cockerellius: the director–collector’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 13, no. 4, 2007, pp. 387–420.

36

Ann Galbally, entry on Augustus John in Ted Gott et al., Modern Britain 1900–1960: Masterworks from Australian and New Zealand Collections, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, p. 55.

37

John Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequests, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 343. Also see Cox, p. 75.

38

Cox, p. 153.

39

J. S. MacDonald, manuscript appraisal of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer.

40

J. S. MacDonald, report of suggested purchases from the Herald exhibition, 30 Oct. 1939; quoted in Eileen Chanin & Steven Miller, Degenerates and Perverts. The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1938, pp. 229–30.

41

See Roy Forward, ‘MacDonald: was he the worst?’, National Gallery of Australia Research Paper, no. 45, n. d., p. 1, available online at <https://bit.ly/2Jm00Je>, accessed 8 Aug. 2017.

42

Keith Murdoch, letter to Alfred Bright, President of the Felton Bequests’ Committee, 21 Aug. 1936; quoted in Cox, p. 143. For more on Basil Burdett see Chanin & Miller, pp. 167–71.

43

See Forward, p. 3.

44

J. S. MacDonald, The Bulletin, 24 Jan. 1934, quoted in Forward, p. 8. See also Caroline Ambrus, Australian Women Artists: First Fleet to 1945: History, Hearsay and Her Say, Irrepressible Press, Canberra, 1992, p. 140. Ambrus quotes a supporter of MacDonald’s prejudiced views, Hattie Knight, who contributed this to The Bulletin three weeks after Macdonald’s diatribe: ‘Women snatch at novelties and innovations eagerly; they buy them, wear them, copy them and “arrange” them; are quicker to adapt themselves to violent changes of fashion than men. But it is men – decadent men, “pansies” even – who supply the ideas, paint decadent pictures and generally keep up the world supply of mischief and poison for women to play about with’. Hattie Knight, ‘Decadent art’, The Bulletin, 14 Feb. 1934, p. 5; cited in Ambrus, p. 141.

45

Craven, pp. 29, 356.

46

Radcliffes & Co., letter to the Trustees, Executors and Agency Company Ltd of Melbourne, 25 May 1938. Felton Bequest papers, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

47

‘Addition to Gallery’, The Argus, 24 Aug. 1938, p. 3; ‘Presented to Gallery’, The Herald, 26 Aug. 1938, clipping in NGV Press Clippings Album, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

48

‘News of the day: paintings on display’, The Age, 26 Aug. 1938, p. 10.

49

‘Purchases for Gallery. Three new paintings’, The Age, 25 Aug. 1938, p. 12.

50

‘Felton art bequest: a critical review’, The Age, 22 Nov. 1938, p. 10.

51

George Bell, ‘Gallery’s new pictures praised’, The Sun, 25 Aug. 1938, clipping in NGV Press Clippings Album, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

52

Basil Burdett, ‘Felton Bequest buys a masterpiece. Augustus John work superb’, The Herald, 24 Aug. 1938, clipping in NGV Press Clippings Album, Shaw Research Library, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

53

A typed copy of J. S. MacDonald’s manuscript appraisal of Augustus John’s Rt. Hon. Harold Chaloner Dowdall, Lord Mayor of Liverpool and his sword-bearer is annotated ‘copy given to Sir Keith Murdoch, 11 June 1938’, Felton Bequest papers (digitised), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

54

Burdett, ‘Felton Bequest buys a masterpiece. Augustus John work superb’.

55

For Murdoch’s role in the removal of MacDonald from his post, see Shane Carmody, ‘“Vain, aggressive and somewhat quarrelsome”: the enduring impact of Sir Sydney Cockerell on the Melbourne collections’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. 13, no. 4, 2007, pp. 441–2.

56

John Rothenstein, Augustus John, Phaidon Press, London, 1944, pp. 13–14.