LONGSTAFF, Sir John (1862-1941)

LONGSTAFF, Sir John (1862-1941)
was the son of Ralph Longstaff, a storekeeper in the mining town of Clunes, Victoria, and was born on 10 March 1862. He was educated at Clunes state school, and as a child showed ability in drawing. He also experimented in painting and wished to become an artist, but his father did not approve and the boy was eventually sent to Melbourne and entered the office of Messrs Sargood, Butler and Nichol. He, however, joined the classes at the national gallery, Melbourne, where his talent was recognized by the director, G. F. Folingsby (q.v.), who aroused the interest of Mr Butler, one of Longstaff's employers. He eventually persuaded the young man's father to allow his son to give full time to the study of art. In 1886 the national gallery scholarship was founded, and in the following year Longstaff won the first competition with a picture called "Breaking the News". He went to Paris, studied first under Fernand Cormon, and began exhibiting in 1891 at the Royal Academy and at the Old Salon, where he obtained an honourable mention. His work was hung in good positions at the academy and salon many times during the coming years. In 1894 his picture, "The Sirens", became the property of the national gallery of Victoria under the terms of the travelling scholarship, and in 1898 this gallery purchased his large landscape "Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20, 1898". His excellent "Lady in Black" had been purchased by the national gallery at Sydney in 1896. Longstaff had returned to Australia in that year and during the next five years he executed many portraits. Among these may be mentioned especially the masterly study of Henry Lawson (q.v.), painted practically in one sitting of five hours and completed with a sitting of one hour the next day. This was commissioned by the proprietors of the Bulletin when Lawson was passing through Melbourne on his way to England, in 1900, but soon afterwards it was purchased by the Sydney gallery. In 1901 he was given the commission to paint an Australian historical picture for £1000 under the Gilbee bequest. One of its conditions was that the picture must be painted outside Australia, and probably on this account Longstaff returned to London in 1901.
In England Longstaff built up a sound connexion as a portrait painter and also did some teaching at an art school. He had much difficulty with his Gilbee bequest picture of "Burke and Wills" for which he chose a canvas 14 ft x 9 ft, but it was eventually completed and handed to the Melbourne gallery in 1907. He paid a short visit to Australia in 1911, and during the 1914-18 war did a series of pictures as a war artist now in the Australian war museum at Canberra. He established himself permanently in Australia in 1923 and commenced another series of distinguished portraits. He was at different times president of the Victorian Artists' Society, the Australian Art Association, and the Australian Academy of Art, but he was not anxious to take up administrative work though always interested in the work of promising younger men. In 1927 he became a trustee of the national gallery of Victoria and in 1928 he was knighted. He was painting as well as ever when 75 years of age, and looking much younger than his years, until an illness about this time led to a gradual deterioration in his strength. He, however, was able to attend a committee meeting of the trustees of the national gallery a few days before his death on 1 October 1941. He married in 1887 Rosa, daughter of Henry Crocker, and was survived by three sons and a daughter. Lady Longstaff had died about four years before.
Tall, handsome, debonair, and personally popular, Longstaff was wrapped up in his painting. He had great mastery of his materials and made few preliminary studies. No other Australian artist was so uniformly successful with his portraits, but a few seem especially notable such as the "Lawson" and the "Lady in Black" at Sydney, and the "Dr Leeper" and "Moscovitch" at Melbourne. His "Lady in Grey" in the Connell collection is a charming example of his early work. His "Sirens" is an excellent subject picture of its period, and during his last years he did a few good pieces of outdoor work such as the "Morning Sunlight" in the Melbourne gallery. Longstaff is also represented in the galleries at Perth, Bendigo, and Castlemaine, and at Canberra.
J. D. Fitzgerald, The Lone Hand, June 1908; W. Moore, Life, May 1911; W. Moore, The Story of Australian Art; Art in Australia, April 1931; The Herald, 27 November 1919; The Argus, 2 October 1941; Debrett's Peerage, etc., 1936; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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