State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 37 Autumn 1986

9

Jeanette Sheldon: Queensland Art Pioneer

For all the current proliferation of research and writing on Australian art and artists, various aspects of the art scene are almost totally neglected. Among these frequently found lacunae one of the most recurring (and frustrating) is the history of commercial art galleries. In a national context such research could extend back at least as far as Tasmania's Robin Vaughan Hood (1812–1888) who was reputedly the “proprietor of the first picture gallery in Australia.”1
Further north, in Queensland, such origins have their roots in the more immediate past, for the first significant commercial art gallery of any longevity did not begin operations in Brisbane until 1921. On 18 May, 1921, the Jeanette Sheldon Gallery (later shortened to Sheldon Gallery) opened with a mixed exhibition of works by John D. Moore, Will Ashton, Albert Collins, James Muir Auld, Albert Coffey, Lloyd Rees et al. Jeanette Sheldon herself was sister to the Queensland artist Vincent Sheldon (1895–1945) and her commercial enterprise was as much a catalyst to Vincent's excursions into printmaking as was the artistic example provided by fellow Brisbane artist, Vincent Brown.
The opening of a Gallery in Brisbane that year was a courageous step, for Jeanette had only a small coterie of local artists on which to draw and an uneducated public on which to rely for sales. The wretched state of public art appreciation in Brisbane at the time was plainly indicated, shortly after Jeanette Sheldon's Gallery opened, in a long column in a local paper:
When, by dint of hard striving, or sheer genius, a painter or sculptor excels, he has to go far afield to make not only a name, but a living — for even artists must eat — and we lose our best simply because we are, perhaps too apathetic to make any effort to keep them.2
Edward Colclough, himself a dedicated worker for art's sake in Brisbane, confirmed this judgement yet again the year before Jeanette attempted for the second time to establish a gallery:
… The professional artist in Brisbane has a strenuous time… Art is not a conspicuous feature in our daily life.3
In her first year of operations (1921) Jeanette held four exhibitions of which at least two were of momentous importance. The first of these (3–17 August) was a joint exhibition of seven paintings and fourteen drawings by Lloyd Rees and eleven book bindings by Wal Taylor. This exhibition, contrary to chronologies compiled elsewhere, was Lloyd Rees’ first exhibition with Jeanette Sheldon and was an extension of one held the month before in Sydney in Gayfield Shaw's Gallery. A Sydney Ure Smith exhibition 4 followed and, to close the year, the first and only Brisbane exhibition by the Australian Painter-Etcher's Society.5 The effect of this last exhibition on Vincent Sheldon can be gauged by the fact that he exhibited his first prints in May the following year in a Queensland Art Society sketch Exibition and after the success of his first one-man show in 1928 became the first Queensland member of the Painter-Etcher's Society and exhibited with them on four separate occasions.6
The following year Jeanette Sheldon began one-man or group exhibitions that most appropriately gave emphasis to works by Queensland-associated artists. Apart from the Queensland Art Society (after 1927 the Royal) this therefore was the only alternative venue in which local artists were consistently exhibited. Over the next eighteen years Jeanette Sheldon promoted such local identities as Rubery Bennett,7 William Bustard,8 Robert Campbell, 9Ian Gall,10 William and Gwendolyn Grant,11L.J. Harvey,12 Percy Stanhope Hobday,13 Vida Lahey (particularly),14 Charles Lancaster,15 Margaret and Keith McNeil,16 Roy Parkinson,17 and Frank Sherrin.18
In April 1922 the Gallery changed location and opened with a Sketch Exhibition by the Queensland Art Society on 17 May. The Gallery continued for almost twelve months and then closed:
I then discontinued the Sheldon Gallery as the response to my efforts in keeping a Gallery open for the display of good art work was so small that it did not warrant the continual expense of rent and upkeep generally and so for a while I managed shows privately in various rooms in the city.19
The interim period between April 1923 and the re-opening of another Gallery actually stretched to five years although in that time Jeanette managed at least seven exhibitions: another by Lloyd Rees/ Wal Taylor,20 two early ones by Vida Lahey and perhaps Jeanette's first really successful exhibition in monetary terms, a Lionel Lindsay exhibition21 held in conjuction with the Macquarie Galleries (Sydney) which took £500 on its opening day.
10

Jeanette Sheldon (Reproduced by courtesy of the John Oxley Library, Brisbane)

11
Perhaps this last unqualified success and the business link with a Southern gallery encouraged Jeanette to open a gallery again. Her new-found optimism was also evident in the “Foreword” she wrote as Secretary to the Queensland Art Society's 40th Annual Exhibition that same year: “Undoubtedly, an interest in Art has been developing of late, and appreciation of local talent has been increasing.” Whatever the reasons her new Gallery, now called the Gainsborough Gallery, opened with her brother's first one-man exhibition on 28 August, 1928. Jeanette stayed in this location until October 1930 when a fire caused another relocation. During the intervening period she organized exhibitions at the rate of one every seven weeks — a total which says much for this indefatigable worker on Brisbane's art scene.
Jeanette's new premises opened, again, with a Vincent Sheldon exhibition (28 November, 1930). This was, in fact, his third one-man exhibition under Jeanette's auspices. The following year Sir John Longstaff visited Brisbane and passed judgement on the local exhibition facilities:
I am surprised that a city with such splendid public buildings does not possess a proper gallery, which could be hired for private exhibitions of pictures… Miss Jeanette Sheldon's Gainsborough Gallery is good within limits, but it is suitable only for small works, and has no top light.22
The Gallery stayed at its new address for five and half years and among its many significant exhibitions were three by Vida Lahey, Blamire Young's only Brisbane exhibition,23 one by Tom Garrett24 and another by Lloyd Rees.25 In June 1936, Jeanette again relocated and reopened with a John Eldershaw watercolour exhibition on 9 July.
By August, 1939, Jeanette found that “art interest had dropped below zero… I could not afford to carry on idefnitely with war clouds gathering… I closed my door and the Gainsborough Gallery ceased to exist though still with a lingering hope of re-opening at some future date”.26 As a postcript to her efforts Jeanette's article “Art in Brisbane”was published that same month in Art in Australia.. For almost the next nine years Jeanette alternated between Brisbane and Melbourne and only returned to her home town, finally, in June 1948 to organize a Memorial Exhibition to her brother, who had died in July 1945.
Between 1921 and 1939 therefore, Jeanette Sheldon organized almost one hundred Brisbane exhibitions either in her own Gallery or managed by her in various venues. Nor was this by any means her sole contribution to enlivening and diversifying the art scene during the inter-war years in Brisbane. She acted as Secretary, Exhibition Manager or Councillor for the Royal Queensland Art Society on a number of occasions from 1923 to 1942 and exhibited intermittently with them from 1925 to 1941. During the Art Society's 50th year she delivered two lectures under their auspices and wrote the introduction to their 49th Annual Exhibition Catalogue, “Fifty years of the Royal Queensland Art Society”. She also exhibited with the Society of Women Painters (Sydney) from 1931 to 1933 and with the Victorian Artists Society in 1944 and ultimately held at least two solo exhibitions herself, one in Brisbane in March/April 1950 and one in Surfer's Paradise in August 1966. After Vincent's Memorial Exhibition she still maintained an involvement in the organizing and promotion of exhibitions, even after she retired south of Brisbane.
It is difficult to evaluate Jeanette's effect upon the fortunes of local artists striving for recognition, but it is fair to say that her efforts must have strengthened the fraternity of Brisbane artists as well as broken down Brisbane's cultural isolation. Jeanette Sheldon's pioneering efforts on behalf of Queensland art and artists established a basis for further promotion throughout the ‘forties and even to the present day. John Cooper, later to found the Moreton Gallery, commenced operations late in 1934, the Half Dozen Group began their Annual Exhibitions in 1941 and in 1951 the Queensland Art Gallery itself mounted a significant exhibition which paid tribute to Queensland art. Both William Moore and Vida Lahey acknowledged their indebtedness to Jeanette for help in compiling their respective histories of Australian art, although her greatest memorial is surely the unique record of consistent and unstinted support she provided to local talent through her various Brisbane galleries.
12
Robert Holden

1

Alan McCulloch, Encyclopaedia of Australian Art (Melb: Hutchinson, 1977), p. 277.

2

J.D., “The tragedy of our National Gallery,” Brisbane Courier, 9 July, 1921, p. 17.

3

E. Colclough, “Art in Queensland,” The Muse's Magazine, v.1 no. 1, November 1927, p. 12.

4

9–23 November, 1921.

5

7–30 December, 1921.

6

In 1931, 1932, 1935 and 1936.

7

Part of a group exhibition, 23 April-4(?) May, 1923.

8

Part of a group exhibition, 23 April-4(?) May, 1923; 12–24 October, 1931.

9

21 August-4 September, 1934.

10

10–15 June, 1929.

11

17–31 July, 1931.

12

Part of a group exhibition, 23 April-4(?) May, 1923.

13

19 March-2 April, 1923.

14

14–18 October, 1924; 21–30 July, 1927; 16 May-1 June, 1929; 5–22 August, 1931; 3 September-5 October 1933; 16-(?) October, 1934.

15

Exhibition with Frank Sherrin, 8–22 March, 1922; Part of a group exhibition, 23 April-4(?) May, 1923.

16

3–16 September, 1936.

17

21 May-11 June, 1935.

18

Exhibition with C.H. Lancaster, 8–22 March, 1922.

19

MS 8277. Jeanette Sheldon “The story of the first private gallery opened in Brisbane… ”. La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria, p.41.

20

22 July-5(?) August, 1924.

21

31 July-15 August, 1928.

22

“Art in Queensland”, Brisbane Courier, 26 September, 1931, p12.

23

14 June-4 July, 1933.

24

February 1935.

25

24 July-17 August, 1935.

26

MS 8277, p.41.