State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989

39

A Prophecy Unfulfilled: ‘The Last of The Victorian Aborigines’ By Percy Leason

Amongst the La Trobe Library's portrait collection is a group of oils of Lake Tyers Aborigines painted by Percy Leason in 1934 and shown at the Athenaeum Gallery in Collins Street in September the same year.1 Sixteen of the thirty-one works exhibited are now in the Picture Collection, and negotiations are under way to acquire another. Leason's catalogue listed forty-six sitters whom he considered met his qualifications as full-blood Aborigines, but not all were painted.
Leason's interest in things Aboriginal came from earlier exposure to cave paintings while on a visit to the Wimmera with a National Museum of Victoria team to make copies of the rock paintings in the caves of the Grampians near Glen Isla. The Museum planned to hold an exhibition of Aboriginal art in 1929, drawn largely from the permanent collections, and James Kershaw asked Leason to make a model of the cave shelter at Glen Isla and to include its paintings. Leason disputed claims made about the paintings by the anthropologist, the Reverend John Matthews, and refused to add copies to his clay model.2 On another expedition in 1929, he made copies of the rock paintings in the Mootwingee Ranges of New South Wales, and the results of both these field trips are to be found in the catalogue of the 1929 exhibition.3 Leason's contributions to the catalogue included photographs, coloured illustrations, and a cover which indicated his interest in making Aboriginal figure studies. Exposure to Aboriginal art eventually led to his lifelong preoccupation with European prehistoric art.
Leason's sitters were chosen from biographies of the Lake Tyers Mission Aborigines. Having selected forty-six possibles, some of whom were not resident at the Mission but at Dimboola or incarcerated at Pentridge, he went to Gippsland, staying at a guesthouse, Toorloo, near the Mission. In the ballroom he covered the windows with grey blankets to get the right kind of light, set up his easel and commenced work on 6 March 1934. He kept a diary recording the progress of work and commenting on the ease or difficulty which his sitters experienced.4 His progress, despite trouble with quickly drying canvases, was rapid. On 26 March he reported ‘Fifteen pictures now and ten more to do — ten more!’ The sittings were finished by 11 April and he returned to Melbourne to paint the Pentridge inmates.

Percy Leason (1889–1959) “Mrs. Clara Hunt” 1934 Oil on canvas 74 cm x 59 cm Unsigned, undated LT 852 (H 32096) Gift of Mrs Isobel Leason 1969

40
The exhibition opened in Melbourne on 11 September and was, reviewed by Arthur Streeton in the Argus in a notice remarkable today for its complacency and patronising tone, not towards the artist but towards his subjects: ‘The general expression of most of the works rather reflects the care bestowed upon the vanishing race in recent months. The natives painted appear rather plump, more satisfied, and much less wild than those left in North Australia. They look from the canvas with an expression of calm comfort and confidence, as if they had forgotten their stone-age thoughts and deeds’.5 Streeton expressed his admiration for the portrait of Mrs Clara Hunt, with its broad treatment and muted colours the best in the show, and described the sitter ‘with her full aboriginal structure the calm and beautiful outlook on life of some dear old English dame, a very kindly look’. Streeton reflected the attitude of many well-educated people of the period, that the Australian Aborigines were indeed dying out, and that those remaining had to be fitted into the comfortable prevailing policy of assimilation and eventual absorption by the European community.
Leason's fears that the portraits would be considered anthropology rather than art proved well-justified.6 Blamire Young, writing in the Herald, commented that it might be possible to make a work of art with an Aboriginal subject, but Leason had not succeeded. The public, said Young, ‘must make up their minds whether it can be classed as an exhibition of works of art, or as an ante-mortem analysis of a moribund race, painted more or less in expiation of our sins … ‘, and judge its suitability as a Centenary exhibition.
Streeton hoped that the collection would be acquired by a public institution and kept intact as a record of a vanishing race in Victoria. Initially, this was not to be. When Leason departed for the United States with his daughter in 1938, his wife and other children joining him in 1940, the portraits, apart from six which he took with him, remained unsold and in his mother's care. In the 1934 diary which he kept while painting the portraits, Leason made an entry for 1954 which contains a draft of a letter in which he recounts negotiations with the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria for two of the works. Leason's impatience with quibbling over price and the selection of two works instead of the whole collection led to his withdrawal of the offer. An attempt to persuade the Commonwealth Government to buy them in 1955 was unsuccessful, despite reported lobbying by R. G. Casey and Prime Minister Menzies.7
In 1969, ten years after Leason's death, his widow presented the Library with a large body of his work including five of the Aboriginal portraits taken to America.8 In 1985, Jim Berg of the Aboriginal Heritage Trust drew the Library's attention to twelve additional portraits in a private collection. The owner offered eleven to the Library, keeping one for himself, and these were purchased through the generosity of Mrs. Everard Baillieu.9 Two more portraits were recently acquired by the Aboriginal Heritage Trust.10 Fifty-five years after they were first shown in Victoria as part of the state's Centenary celebrations, the major part of the collection is now in public institutions. Yet all could have been secured as a complete collection in 1934. Admittedly funds were scarce at the time, but the essential conservatism of the Trustees was a contributing factor — as art, the works were too anthropological, and as anthropological evidence they were too artistic. The priorities of the Trustees in 1934 contrasted markedly with those of Redmond Barry and his fellow Trustees who commissioned Charles Summers to make sixteen life-casts of the Coranderrk Aborigines in 1866.
The Trustees of 1934, in the grip of nostalgia generated by the Centenary celebrations — that same nostalgia which also bedevilled the Australian Bicentennial celebrations — ignored the present in favour of the past. The history of public collecting is full of such examples of missed opportunities. There is a lesson in the Leason story for curators and Trustees today.

1

Leason, Percy. The Last of the Victorian Aborigines: a Catalogue issued in connection with an exhibition of portraits at the Athenaeum Gallery, Collins St, Melbourne, September 1934. (Melbourne, 1934). The State Library card catalogue contains no entry under Leason's name for this publication, which was classified with other works on race, ethnology and social anthropology at Dewey 572.

2

Blake, L. J. ‘Percy Leason: Artist, Cartoonist and Historian’ in Victorian Historical Magazine, V. 39. No. 4, 1968, pp. 158–180.

3

Australian Aboriginal Art, Catalogue, (Melbourne: National Museum of Victoria, Public Library of Victoria and National Gallery of Victoria, 1929). Leason's copy with annotations is with his papers in the Australian Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library (MS 8636).

4

Percy Leason Papers (MS 8636), Australian Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library.

5

Argus, 11 September 1934, p. 5, col. 7.

6

Leason Papers (MS 8636) loc. cit.

7

Argus, 17 May 1955. It was also reported that the collection might be sold to America.

8

The Art Librarian, Joyce McGrath, visited Mrs Isobel Leason in New York in 1969 and it is due to her efforts that the collection was acquired. The five sitters are: Adam Cooper (Leason cat. 5); Edward Foster (cat. 6); William Johnson (cat. 22); Thomas Foster (cat. 7); Clara Hunt (cat. 21).

9

The sitters of the eleven portraits are: Annie Alberts (Leason cat. 1); Hector Bull (cat. 2); Charles Green (cat. 10); Julian Hood or Bobby King (cat. 12 or 28); Norman Harrison (cat. 19); Edward Hood (cat. 29); Foster Moffatt (cat. 33); Sydney McCrae (cat. 37); Dorothy Turner (cat. 46); unidentified man; unidentified woman.

10

Portraits of Johnson Hood (Leason cat. 17) and an unidentified man.