LIONEL LINDSAY: Engraved in Art’s History

Old Essex Street, The Rocks - Photo by National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Brothers Lionel and Norman Lindsay were two of ten children, six boys and four girls, born to surgeon Robert Charles William Alexander and Jane Elizabeth (née Williams) Lindsay. Upon gaining a medical degree from the University of Glasgow, Robert sailed to Melbourne as a medical officer, arriving in June 1864. He and Jane, the daughter of a Wesleyan missionary, married in 1869 at Ballarat.

Lionel Lindsay – Photo by State Library of New South Wales

Five of the siblings became recognised artists; sons Percival (Percy) Charles (1870-1952), Lionel Arthur (1874-1961), Norman Alfred Williams (1879-1969), Ernest Darryl (1889-1976) and daughter Ruby (1885-1919).

The family influenced Australian art and opinion for around 80 years, from the 1890’s to the 1970’s. Their home Lisnacrieve, built in 1877, was regarded as somewhat bohemian by local residents. Jane’s father, Reverend Thomas Williams, had a substantial influence on the children. His own enthusiasm for books, as well as escorting them to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, would instill in them an enduring fascination with art.

First-born Percy was encouraged with his artistic interests by a local bank manager and amateur artist in his own right. Percy took drawing classes for a short period and in 1897, took on work illustrating for local publications. He was regarded as an adept artist, the Macquarie Galleries holding an exhibition of his etchings in March 1929. He died on 21 September 1952, his friends giving him three cheers at his funeral.

Daughter Ruby was the second daughter and seventh child. She attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in Melbourne while living with Percy. She found work drawing for publications including The Hawklet, The Bulletin and The Gadfly amongst others. She married fellow illustrator and cartoonist Will Dyson on 30 September 1909. They had a daughter in 1911 but Ruby died of influenza on 12 March 1919.

Ernest Daryl, popularly known as Daryl, was son number six and child number nine. His interest in art only developed during World War I when Will Dyson encouraged him to draw life in the trenches. Towards the end of the war, he was given the opportunity to spend time at the Slade School of Fine Art where he drew medical diagrams for facial surgery for wounded troops. He married author Joan à Beckett, best known for her book Picnic at Hanging Rock, on Valentine’s Day 1922. He remained true to the landscapes that were his forte, working in watercolour and oil. A number of exhibitions were held of his work and he was knighted for his service to Australian art in 1957. He died on Christmas Day 1976.

However, it was Lionel and Norman, second and third sons respectively, who of the family were the most influential in Australian art circles.

Lionel was born on 17 October 1874 in Creswick, Victoria, which had been a gold mining town in the 1850’s. All the brothers received their schooling at the local state school and at Creswick Grammar School. Lionel drew inspiration from Punch illustrator Charles Keene and taught himself to draw by copying illustrations from that renowned publication.

The Jester (self portrait) – Photo by National Portrait Gallery

Lionel’s childhood interest in astronomy saw him enter the Melbourne Observatory as a pupil-assistant under the then acting government astronomer Pietro Baracchi, but it was not long before he advised Lionel that his trainee’s calling was in art rather than science. Lionel returned to Creswick to begin his first formal art lessons, in watercolour, with English landscape artist John Miller Marshall. In 1892, Lionel began studying at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in Melbourne, where he shared a studio with portrait painter George James Coates. Whilst studying, he taught himself etching and engraving, which would become his forte. He was to become best known for his woodcuts of Australian animals and birds.

Lindsay was exposed to the etchings of Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Whistler, and Charles Méryon whose work he studied at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Lindsay did not think that etching was possible by an Australian until he came across a print made by John Shirlow at an exhibition. Shirlow is credited with being the first Australian to successfully create art in this medium. Lindsay realised that the genre was not beyond his reach; he taught himself from the book Etching and Etchers (1868) by Philip Gilbert Hamerton, using copper plate gathered from a junkyard with a knife-polishing machine for a press.

By now Lionel was the staff artist on The Hawklet, earning thirty-five shillings a week. This police gazette featured sketches of crimes and accidents from the previous week on its front cover, insight for which Lionel obtained by attending the theatre and the races, as well as visiting the morgue. He was employed part-time as an illustrator by numerous other bulletins, including The Free Lance, which he joined in April 1896. Work was not easy to find and he moved to Sydney and then Brisbane. He wrote for The Rambler, a weekly publication established by Norman and two of his friends, Ray Parker and John Elkington. However, their venture failed after only a few issues.

A consideration of the art of Ernest Moffitt by Lionel Lindsay. Melbourne, 1899 – Photo by National Gallery of Australia

Norman and his friend Ernest Moffitt shared a cottage for a few months in 1897-8, Ernest encouraging Norman to find and assert his artistic independence. Ernest died suddenly at age 27 in 1899 and the shock of his untimely passing resulted in Norman and Lionel drifting apart. Lionel wrote the first published monograph of an Australian artist in 1899, entitled Consideration of the Art of Ernest Moffitt.

Lionel returned to Brisbane where he worked for the Weekly Review, which also folded shortly. He went back to Melbourne where he obtained some part-time writing work. He had seen a production of Bizet’s Carmen and this together with having read Don Quixote at school, encouraged him to learn Spanish with one Rafael Paez, a Melbourne cork-cutter. Lionel was a quick learner, and having saved enough for the fare, sailed for Seville in 1902 where he lived with Paez’s family. In a nearby studio that he shared, he made drawings of the character Carmen and the contemporary architecture for his proposed project of an illustrated edition of the opera. Lindsay travelled to Britain to sell his concept but without success.

A friend invited Lionel to Florence, Italy, where he met and became engaged to Will Dyson’s sister Jean. Broke and unemployed, Lionel borrowed £75 to return to Sydney, where he and Jean married on 20 November 1903. Lionel landed a job as editorial cartoonist for the Evening News and as well as submitting freelance illustrations to The Bulletin at £4 per week.

He had spent a year practising etching and on his return to Sydney he began working seriously in the medium. Today, the area ‘The Rocks’ in Sydney is a vibrant art centre but in Lindsay’s day, it was a haven for criminal elements. Bubonic plague had broken out in 1900, and Lionel made drawings and etchings of the old buildings before the slums were demolished for the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This was after the method of French 19th century etcher Charles Méryon, who captured scenes of old Paris. Lionel also drew portraits of historically important houses of Sydney, many of which were later re-created as etchings. His forte was wood engraving, his most notable work being The White Fan (1935). Edition #100 of this work sold for A$1700 in November 1987 but for progressively less in ensuing auctions; A$1500 in November 1987, A$1400 in November 1998 and A$500 in August 2002.

The White Fan – Photo by National Gallery of Victoria

The Society of Artists in Sydney held an exhibition in 1907 at which Lindsay’s ‘Rocks’ works were presented, starting a trend for etching. His career expanded with his contributions to The Lone Hand, a monthly Australian publication established in 1907, sister magazine to The Bulletin. Both publications were known for their ‘black and white’ art. The New South Wales Bookstall Co. published twenty-six books between 1905-1919 that Lindsay illustrated. The Australian Painter-Etchers Society was founded in 1921 and Lindsay was elected president for the first three years.

He had been invited by the prestigious art dealer Colnaghi, by then located at 144/6 New Bond Street in London, to exhibit his work. Wanting to add to his portfolio, in 1926 he visited Sicily, Italy, Paris, and London before travelling to Holland and various cities in Spain. Lindsay contracted enteritis due to the heat and only recovered when the family rented housing in Monte Carlo, after finding French air was not conducive to his recuperation. While in Monte Carlo, he worked on copper plates from an aluminium press. By April 1927, he had sixty-seven etchings, dry-points and wood engravings to exhibit at Colnaghi.

Australian, Spanish and Italian landscapes, cityscapes and buildings constituted the extremely successful exhibition. After Lindsay became a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, he was invited to the Royal Academy of Arts’ dinner in 1927. As he proposed the toast to etching, he voiced his disapproval of modern art, stating that he believed it was a conspiracy of Semitic art dealers. He received great approval from his fellow attendees, especially from renowned English architect Sir Edward Luytens.

In a letter discovered by reporter Michael Duffy, Lionel wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1940, “The Australian public is as yet unaware that modernism was organised in Paris by the Jew dealers, whose first care was to corrupt criticism, originate propaganda and undermine accepted standards so that there should be ample merchandise to handle. It was Uhde, the Jew art critic who proudly boasted that three-quarters of the art dealers, critics and collectors were Jews.”

He had previously been a trustee of the National Gallery of New South Wales from 1918 to 1929 and was re-appointed from 1934 to 1949. In 1937, the Society of Artists granted him their medal for his contribution to Australian art, for which he was also knighted in 1941. This was prior to his controversial book Addled Art being published in 1942, which reiterated his belief that drawing was essential as a basis of fine art and which demanded patience and hand-eye coordination. He believed that these skills were being degraded with the advent of modern art. He panned artists including Matisse, Chagall, Dali, and Picasso amongst others. However, Cezanne and Degas were spared his contempt.

Old George Street Markets, York Street Side – Photo by Art Gallery of New South Wales

Lindsay’s work is most significant for his recreation of life in Sydney by the inclusion of people and animals in day-to-day settings. His Old George Street Markets, York Street Side (1914) sold at auction for A$700 in March 1995 and two hundred dollars less in July 1998. Arcadia Alley (1919) was auctioned for A$400 in April 1999 and a folio of etchings, dry-point, and aquatints comprising Kent Street, Old Essex Street, Bowden’s Corner and Cumberland Street (7) realised A$3200 in November 1992. Subjects of his work also included well-known Australian characters and the country’s iconic swagmen. His aquatint etching The Swagman (edition #8/25) sold for A$380 in March 2018. He also often depicted Spanish and Arabian architecture.

Lionel, Jean and their two children Jean and Peter lived in their house Méryon in Wahroonga from 1911. Lindsay died at age 87 in nearby Hornsby on 22 May 1961, leaving his autobiography Comedy of Life to be published posthumously. His work continues to be exhibited around Australia and in international institutions including the British Museum, New York Library, and Madrid’s Modern Gallery.