Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Buckmaster, Ernest (1897–1968)

by Joyce McGrath

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Ernest Buckmaster (1897-1968), by unknown photographer

Ernest Buckmaster (1897-1968), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 113050

Ernest Buckmaster (1897-1968), artist, was born on 3 July 1897 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, eldest son of Harry Amos Buckmaster, a straw-hat manufacturer from England, and his Victorian-born wife Letitia Martha, née Chandler. A puny lad, Ernest was taken by his grandparents to help on their mixed farm at Box Hill until he was 14. He attended the local state school where he enjoyed nothing more than drawing, in which his precocious talent was recognized from the age of 4.

In 1913 he was apprenticed to James Beament, a signwriter and amateur artist. After Buckmaster was rejected for military service, Beament encouraged him to join the Victorian Artists Society and to enrol at the National Gallery Art School where in 1918-24 he received his only formal art training, from Bernard Hall and W. B. McInnes. Although critical of his unorthodox techniques, both were pleased with his work. Between 1919 and 1924 he sold nineteen of the paintings he exhibited with the V.A.S. and won most of the prizes available at the school.

Apart from 1931, he exhibited with the V.A.S. every year from 1919 until 1943. At Buckmaster's first two solo exhibitions in 1926, Hall made purchases for the Felton bequest. Buckmaster's first Sydney exhibition in 1927 at the Macquarie Galleries, managed by Basil Burdett and John Young, led to portrait commissions. In 1928 he exhibited with Janet Cumbrae Stewart and the Australian Art Association. Commissioned by the Commonwealth Historic Memorials Committee, he also completed a posthumous portrait of Adam Lindsay Gordon that year.

A councillor (1929-30) of the V.A.S., in 1930 Buckmaster was helped by a patron to travel abroad. In 1932 his portrait of Sir William Irvine, the lieutenant-governor of Victoria, won the Archibald prize. Next year he held solo exhibitions in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, and his portrait of Alice Bale was included in the Australian Art Association's last exhibition. He also exhibited with the Twenty Melbourne Painters (1933-62) and the Australian Academy of Art (1938-46), of which he was a foundation member.

On 12 February 1936 Buckmaster married Dorothy Laura Cook at the Methodist Ladies' College, Kew. That year he painted a commissioned portrait of the lieutenant-governor of Western Australia, Sir James Mitchell. In Perth Buckmaster completed eleven portraits in three months, and still held his customary, annual exhibition in Melbourne. Divorced on 15 February 1939, seven days later he married Florence Botting at the Presbyterian manse, South Melbourne.

In 1941 Buckmaster won the National Gallery of Victoria's subject picture prize. A successful exhibition in 1944 at David Jones's art gallery, Sydney, resulted in a commission from Dominion Breweries to paint landscapes for hotels in New Zealand. On 24 August 1945 he was appointed an official war artist, commissioned to paint the Japanese surrender in Singapore. He arrived two days late for the ceremony, but completed twenty-five pictures for the Australian War Memorial. In 1951 his book, The Art of Ernest Buckmaster, was published by Lothian. He won the Albury (Regional Art Centre) prize in 1950 and 1963.

Buckmaster never deviated from his convictions or from his chosen techniques. While scorning modernism, he was respected for his integrity and for his well-argued opinions. After a heart attack in 1959, he began writing notes on his theories and methods, and expressed his concerns in letters to the press. In 1964 he resumed annual exhibitions. Survived by his wife, and by their three sons and two daughters, he died on 18 October 1968 at his Warrandyte home and was buried in Lilydale cemetery. The Art Gallery of New South Wales holds Buckmaster's self-portrait.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian, 11 Nov 1933
  • Victorian Art Society, minute books (State Library of Victoria)
  • Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Annual Reports, 1919-24, and AMPA artists files and indexes (State Library of Victoria)
  • family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joyce McGrath, 'Buckmaster, Ernest (1897–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/buckmaster-ernest-9616/text16955, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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