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Johnstone, Brian William Wallace (1920–1988)

by Louise Martin-Chew

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Brian William Wallace Johnstone (1920-1988), army officer and art gallery owner, was born on 21 November 1920 at Mussoorie, India, only child of Noel William Wallace Johnstone, army officer, and his wife Kathleen Violet, née Hart. The family migrated to Australia and Brian was educated (1933-38) at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. He entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Australian Capital Territory, in 1939. After graduating in 1941, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force and performed training and staff duties in the South-West Pacific Area. In 1945-48 he served in the United States of America and Europe. Captain Johnstone transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 29 June 1949, in order to take the post of aide-de-camp to the governor of Queensland, Sir John Lavarack. On 8 September 1950 at St Mary’s Church of England, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, he married Marjorie Rose Mant, a 38-year-old actress. Next year they became founding members of the Queensland (National) Art Gallery Society.

In partnership with Hugh Hale, a Brisbane-based interior designer, on 8 December 1950 Johnstone opened the Marodian Gallery, at the back of Hale’s shop in Upper Edward Street. Probably intended as a trial, the venture had a fairly safe beginning, but in 1951 Hale’s intolerance of more challenging art by Donald Friend and Arthur Boyd led to the dissolution of the partnership.

After Johnstone left his post with the governor on 14 July 1951, he and his wife opened the Johnstone Gallery, on 5 February next year, in the Brisbane Arcade, Queen Street. The small basement space—a former bomb shelter—was decorated in a modern and inexpensive fashion. In a letter to clients Johnstone outlined his intention to exhibit `the most creative work in Australia today’, particularly that of `brilliant’ younger artists. Drawing on new schools of painting that were emerging in Melbourne and Sydney, in the first year he arranged solo exhibitions for Friend, Laurence Hope, (Sir) Sidney Nolan and Carl Plate. Michael Kmit showed his work for the first time in Brisbane. In 1954 at their home, 6 Cintra Road, Bowen Hills, the Johnstones opened the `Home Salon’ to complement the city gallery. Their confidence was high and the market-place responsive; however, they closed the Johnstone Gallery on 19 December 1957. Johnstone then spent ten months in hospital with tuberculosis before reopening it at 6 Cintra Road.

This gallery combined a semi-domestic setting, modern designer wares and good contemporary art with a dramatic décor: walls were painted dark or white and theatrically placed curtains, furniture, ceramics and arrangements of dried flowers, sticks or plants created a distinctive aura. The nature of the space with its twists, turns and vistas, placement of works around every corner and up small flights of stairs, and sophisticated lighting, all helped to show the art to its greatest advantage. Boyd, Friend and Nolan, as well as other artists including Charles Blackman, Margaret Olley, Ray Crooke, Lawrence Daws, Keith Looby, Lloyd Rees and (Sir) Russell Drysdale and the local sculptors Leonard and Kathleen Shillam, were among the exhibitors.

The Johnstones had a unique style. Marjorie’s theatrical personality was evident not only in the gallery’s presentation but also at frequent opening events, often in a tropical garden setting. The couple developed methods of marketing and of promoting the artists whose work they exhibited: they travelled interstate and sold from slides, used catalogues with additional information and forewords, issued invitations to events, and established links with the press. The gallery gained national significance and pervasive influence. Its location in Brisbane, often derided before the 1980s as a place of little culture, makes the Johnstones’ achievement all the greater.

In the 1960s the Johnstones made available a block of land adjacent to their home, and helped to raise funds, for a new Twelfth Night Theatre, which opened in 1971. Fatigued, and in ill health, they retired and closed the gallery in December 1972. Survived by his wife (d.1993), Johnstone died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on 22 June 1988 in Brisbane and was cremated. There were no children. `The Jabirus’, a sculpture by Leonard and Kathleen Shillam, was presented in 1992 to the City of Brisbane Collection (now held by the Museum of Brisbane) as a memorial to the Johnstone Gallery. In 1994 the Johnstones’ extensive private art collection was auctioned. The Johnstone Gallery archive and portraits of Brian and Marjorie Johnstone, painted and donated by Ray Crooke in 2003, are held by the State Library of Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • Art and Australia, June 1978, p 395
  • A. Archer, Back Room—Bomb Shelter—Bowen Hills (BA Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1990)
  • L. Martin-Chew, “Like Topsy”: The Johnstone Gallery 1950-1972 (MCA thesis, John Curtin University, 2001)
  • series B2458, item 3319 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Louise Martin-Chew, 'Johnstone, Brian William Wallace (1920–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnstone-brian-william-wallace-12704/text22905, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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