Eric Westbrook was born in London on 29 September in 1915. His father was a businessman in the textile industry and often took him to the Continent and would leave him in museums while on business. Eric often remembered these childhood experiences and his love of what he saw.
As a teenager he enrolled at various art schools including Battersea, Clapham and Westminster. He trained as a painter by day and worked as a telephone operator by night to support himself. During this time he was fortunate to have guidance from painters as different as Walter Sickert and Mark Gertler.
At nineteen Eric went to Paris to further his studies and spent much of his time in the public galleries. Although he gained some slight recognition as a scholarship winner, his leaning was to try and find an interpretive position in a gallery. He believed he could contribute in this area rather than as a practising artist. But the war intervened and after graduating from art school, he worked in intelligence liaison during the war years. Immediately following the war he was visiting art teacher for the London County Council and was then appointed art master at Ardingly College, Sussex. He later joined the Arts Council of Great Britain as one of four guide lecturers touring Britain with art exhibitions and during this period he inaugurated several army education schools in art and was an adviser to the YMCA Youth Clubs in Britain. At thirty Eric became Britain’s youngest gallery director when he was appointed to the Wakefield City Art Gallery in Yorkshire in 1946. As director he organised the first major retrospective of the works of British sculptor Henry Moore.
In 1949 he joined the Fine Arts Department of the British Council as chief exhibitions officer. It was here that he arranged exhibitions on British art that travelled to most European countries, a position which kept him touring Europe for several years. In Greece he met a professor of English Literature from the University of Athens who told him that the art gallery in Auckland was looking for a new director. ‘They flew me to New Zealand in 1952 for an interview. I took the job and they flew me back to England through America so that I could look over some galleries there’, he said.
Eric Westbrook spent four and a half very happy and busy years as director of the Auckland City Art Gallery. He carried out all sorts of experiments with exhibitions and extended the range of the gallery to cover the other arts including poetry readings, concerts and summer schools. He was also a lecturer and broadcaster. The Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand appointed him an honorary life member in 1959 in appreciation of his work as gallery director.
In 1955 Daryl Lindsay confirmed his intending retirement as director of the National Gallery of Victoria and it was suggested that Westbrook apply for the position. After an extensive period of time he was appointed and commenced duties on 1 January 1956, aged forty-one years. From the very start of his appointment, he spent much of the time restructuring the gallery and trying to improve and increase the number of staff as well as negotiating with a new Victorian Government. His work at this time included many lectures and he was a prominent speaker on radio, television and the public platform in many Australian states. ‘My aim is simply to make art more accessible, and if I can promote a wider appreciation of all forms of culture I’m not afraid of sticking my neck out’ (Walkabout, 1965).
In 1957 Eric obtained leave of absence to visit Europe for a brief period and was able to inspect museums in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. In 1960 he and architect Roy Grounds spent three months examining museums and other cultural buildings in Europe and America. Westbrook devoted more than a decade to the planning and growth of the Arts Centre and regarded this involvement as his most exciting and satisfying achievement. The opening in 1968 of the new National Gallery of Victoria was considered a high point of his career. He wrote about the NGV and its collection in the publication Birth of a Gallery (Macmillan, Melbourne 1969).
During a Carnegie Fellowship visit in 1965 to study and lecture in the United States, Westbrook was impressed by the voluntary guide services in museums. He thought that the guides helped to break down the barriers which often exist between people and the works of art they see for the first time. In 1967 he created the voluntary guide service which still thrives today.
He also lent support to the Victorian Public Galleries Group established in 1957 that was later to become the Regional Galleries Association of Victoria. In July 1973, after eighteen years as director of the NGV, Eric Westbrook was appointed by Premier Rupert Hamer as the first director of the arts in the state’s new Ministry for the Arts. The appointment was no surprise to anyone close enough to the Arts Centre development to know how Eric had worked toward the integration of the visual and performing arts in the planning of the St Kilda Road complex. He also significantly influenced decisions which led to the establishment of the Victorian College of the Arts.
Eric was honoured in 1974 by Monash University with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws and the French Government conferred upon him the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest award for achievements in the arts. In 1981 he was also created Companion of the Order of the Bath. In this same year the French Government conferred upon him the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.
In September 1980 he retired from the Ministry for the Arts and became a full-time painter, but continued to lecture for the Council of Adult Education. In 1985 and 1988 he had two solo exhibitions at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne and a touring exhibition of his Las Meninas Variations and Flinders Island Landscapes in three Victorian regional galleries in 1989–90.
In 1988 Eric and his second wife, the painter Dawn Sime, moved to Castlemaine where they lived in an 1860 stone house with a twin studio on a hill above the town. He continued his interest in gallery matters and was an honorary adviser to the Collections Committee of the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, a keen supporter of the development of Deakin University Art Museum, and was made a Chancellor on the NGV Foundation Board. Although mildly critical of architect Mario Bellini’s new vision of NGV International, arguing for restoration not renovation, he always believed that an art gallery must be judged finally by the quality of its collection.
In 1989 the Board of the Art Foundation of Victoria commissioned Melbourne sculptor Peter Schipperheyn to undertake a carving in Carrara marble of a portrait bust of Eric Westbrook in recognition of his long and distinguished career in the arts in Australia and his contribution as director of the National Gallery of Victoria.
His first wife, Ingrid (née Nystrom), died in 2003 and his second wife, Dawn Sime, died in 2001. Eric Westbrook died on 5 November 2005 and is survived by his daughter Charlotte and grandchildren Sophie and Henry who reside in England.
Peter Perry, Director, Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum, Victoria (in 2006).