Auction Highlight Spring 2015 Alexander Colquhoun

Joseph Brown, the doyen of Australian art dealers, was the founding adviser to many great collections of art. Wesfarmers and numerous other high profile collectors consulted him in the early years of their collections development and his mark is indelibly imprinted on their holdings.

His judgement was impeccable and he was instrumental in encouraging his clients and state collecting bodies to re-visit and buy Australian art. His enthusiasm generated energy and interest in a market that had languished for years and was considered to be a buyer’s playground.

Brown rarely made mistakes when cataloguing and his gallery’s well respected research staff could be exhaustive in their efforts to find previously unknown information. No stone was left unturned in the quest for provenance and his catalogues were always full of important information.

In his 1980 auction catalogue something went astray with this picture by Alexander Colquhoun, he catalogued the work as being by Alexander’s son Archibald. Perhaps Brown had relied upon the previous owner’s recollections of the author or maybe he had acquired the work from a local auction house without provenance.

Lot 38 Alexander Colquhoun - A Spring Morning
Lot 38 Alexander Colquhoun – A Spring Morning

When the painting was offered again in 2004 the error had not been corrected. It wasn’t until the work had been sold at the auction that the correct artist, title and exhibition history was uncovered. Alexander’s son would have been five years old when A Spring Morning was painted.

As it was revealed, A Spring Morning was exhibited at the Victorian Artists Society Exhibition of 1899 during the period known as The Golden Age of Australian Impressionism – when the Heidelberg School became famous. The painting was illustrated in the VAS catalogue and was priced at twenty guineas (£21) – artists were paid in guineas and tradesmen were paid in pounds.

The Heidelberg School remains the most admired and respected in Australian art and Alexander Colquhoun was a member of that group, though his prominence had remained largely unknown.

To correct the oversight, a survey exhibition – Alexander Colquhoun 1862-1941 Artist and Critic – was held at the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum in 2004. This exhibition caused Colquhoun’s importance within Australian art history to become better acknowledged. A Spring Morning was included in that exhibition.

The Castlemaine Gallery director Peter Perry noted that Colquhoun had been overlooked in the published histories of the Heidelberg School though his association with the founders was well known.

Colquhoun, Roberts, Streeton, Abrahams and McCubbin were all members of the Buonarotti Club which was a Melbourne institution considered to be instrumental in the development of the Heidelberg School.  As an advocate of bohemian ideas the membership was composed of mainly professional artists, writers and musicians, and while there were many other clubs in Melbourne their numbers were generally made up of amateurs. Although the Buonarotti Club was short lived (1883-1887) its influence on Melbourne’s artistic life was profound.

A mother and child in the orchard are typical of the Heidelberg School subject and A Spring Morning was probably painted in the area. Colquhoun lived in Heidelberg for a time and was to write; “Old Heidelberg…. the beauty spot of outer Melbourne, yielding in its sheltered valleys and smiling orchards something of the peace and charm of a Sussex village.”

Colquhoun was 14 when he arrived in Australia with his parents and he studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne from 1877-1879 and again from 1882-1887. He became a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1936-1941 and was highly regarded as a critic, writing for The Melbourne Herald from 1914-1922 and The Age from 1926-1941. He served as the Secretary of the Victorian Artist Society from 1904-1914 and is also credited with writing the first monographs on Frederic McCubbin and William Beckwith McInnes.

He was an influential figure in his time and his work is included in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery in Canberra.