Obituary: Bridget Whitelaw, 1950–2004


The death of Bridget Whitelaw at the age of fifty-four on 10 July 2004, after an illness lasting twelve relentless years, deeply touched all who knew her, not least her colleagues at the National Gallery of Victoria. She had worked in the Gallery as a curator for almost two decades, producing several groundbreaking catalogues and a number of important exhibitions, alternating substantial professional achievements with motherhood. In 1992, soon after her fourth child William was born, she was diagnosed with a rare muscle- wasting disease and left work immediately. It was a shock to everyone.   Bridget was born in London on 4 November 1950 and spent the first eighteen months of her life there. The family returned to live in London for five years from 1961, when her father, Robert James Whitelaw, held a senior Australian Government posting as Treasury Representative. Here, in her early to mid teenage years, Bridget went to the Camden School for Girls. She completed her schooling in Australia in Canberra and did her arts degree at the University of Melbourne. In 1973, following a brief period at the State Library of Victoria, she was appointed Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the NGV, working under Sonia Dean, with a special responsibility for drawings. She wrote her MA preliminary thesis on the Gallery’s collection of Lionel Lindsay’s drawings and sketchbooks, producing a complete catalogue and an analysis of Lindsay’s development as a draughtsman. During her time in the Prints and Drawings department, Bridget worked across the whole collection, including European as well as Australian material; two projects, however, stand out. The first was an exhibition of nineteenth-century Australian landscape drawings which opened in late 1976. This was accompanied by a catalogue – Australian Landscape Drawings in the National Gallery of Victoria 1830–1880 which documented 105 drawings including those by Glover, Von Guérard and Buvelot. The second major catalogue and exhibition came to fruition in 1980 and was devoted to Australian drawings from the Angry Penguins decades of the twentieth century – Australian Drawings of Thirties and Forties in the National Gallery of Victoria. Both catalogues led the way in the systematic publication of Australian drawings and prints in the NGV collection and were widely acknowledged as models of their kind.   In 1981 Bridget was awarded the Harold Wright Scholarship for the study of prints in the British Museum and went to London for six months with her six-year-old daughter, Claire. On her return Bridget’s life changed fundamentally when she met and married Simon Oldfield, an academic psychologist who became her true and lasting soulmate. Her second child, Sophie, was born and, soon afterwards in 1983 she was transferred from the Department of Prints and Drawings to Australian Art as curator responsible for the nineteenth-century collection.   The first results of Bridget’s new focus emerged in the Golden Summers project in which she was co-curator and co-author with Jane Clark. The 1985 Golden Summers exhibition and catalogue, devoted to Australian impressionist painting of the Heidelberg School was groundbreaking in its scholarship and the catalogue was a huge bestseller; the exhibition remains the most popular exhibition of Australian art ever staged. Following this, and following the birth of Tom, her third child, Bridget embarked on her next project, examining the art of one of the Heidelberg School painters, Frederick McCubbin. The research methodology employed in the McCubbin project differed in important respects from her earlier work as it incorporated the scientific study of the materials of painting in the conservation laboratory. Her partner in this research was John Payne – now Senior Conservator of Paintings at the NGV – who proposed such an approach and who has identified the collaboration with Bridget as the first sustained and focussed one of its kind in the area of Australian art undertaken at the NGV. It is worth adding that their collaboration may also be identified as forming part of an Australian vanguard in the approach to studying Australian art. The results of their investigation underpinned the analysis of McCubbin’s work presented in the catalogue, The Art of Frederick McCubbin,

1991, but the scientific aspect of the study was documented only later, in the 1993 issue of the Art Bulletin of Victoria and, subsequently, in the proceedings of a conference held at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU, Canberra: The Articulate Surface, 1996. By that time, however, Bridget had not worked at the gallery for some four years. In 1992, not long after the McCubbin exhibition had finished, Bridget’s illness was diagnosed.   Bridget Whitelaw was a woman of striking beauty – tall, sensuous and deeply maternal. Languid and graceful in her physical movements, she had great personal warmth and a great capacity for calm in the midst of crisis. Her perceptiveness and intelligence, however, were sharp and quick. One senses some of these qualities in her writing on art. She loved the intimate over the grand, preferring, in the end, Buvelot’s intimate corners of nature to Von Guérard’s impressive vistas. She responded keenly to the emotional resonance of McCubbin’s late painting, and to his subject matter which often featured women and children. After her confinement at home, she continued to read and devoted herself to her family, especially to the education of her children. She was stoic in her acceptance of the inexorable progress of her illness which, for twelve years, saw her go in and out of hospital.   Bridget is survived by her husband, Simon Oldfield; her children, Claire, Sophie, Tom and William; her siblings, Emma, James and Charlotte; and by her mother, Margaret. For her friends and colleagues, Bridget’s spirit survives in the enduring memory of her beauty, grace and fortitude.    Irena Zdanowicz, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, (1981–2001).