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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kent, Herbert Wade (1877–1952)

by Mae Anna Quan Pang

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Herbert Wade Kent (1877-1952), collector of Chinese art, was born on 28 September 1877 at South Yarra, Melbourne, son of Robert George Kent, a civil servant from England, and his Victorian-born wife Fanny Isabel, née Wade. Herbert was educated (1893-97) at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. Stimulated by the decorative Chinese export wares in his family's home, he developed an interest in Chinese art and a wish to live in the East. He worked for shipping companies, from 1898 to 1904 with Orient Steam Navigation Co. in Melbourne and London, and from 1905 to 1936 with Butterfield & Swire in China and Japan. On 8 January 1913 at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, he married Irene Lenore Simson.

While in the East, Kent developed an understanding of Chinese aesthetics. With an impeccable eye, he formed a collection of ceramics, and a few items of archaic bronze, jade, lacquer, painting and furniture. The outstanding pieces were early ceramics, particularly those of the T'ang (A.D.618-907) and Sung (Song) (A.D.960-1279) dynasties, which reflected his taste for pure form and colour, and his love of horses.

Returning to Melbourne in 1937, Kent was eager to share his passion for Chinese art, which he considered one of the greatest expressions of the human mind and imagination. With the support of the trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria he arranged an exhibition of his collection of 129 objects. It generated interest and excitement, and was hailed by the art critic Basil Burdett as a stimulating and important exhibition. Moved by public enthusiasm, the Kents presented their collection to the N.G.V. where it became the nucleus of the gallery's holdings of Chinese art. Kent was proud that his collection represented 'Chinese taste' and contained 'no specimen made specially for the export trade'.

In 1938 Kent became a trustee of the gallery and its first curator of Oriental art. Having secured the support of the Felton Bequests' Committee to travel to London to purchase works of art, he acquired an excellent range of Chinese ceramics and established useful contacts. Other overseas collectors and dealers, inspired by Kent's enthusiasm, donated gifts which the N.G.V. exhibited in March 1939. The Society of Artists, Sydney, awarded Kent its medal in 1943 in recognition of his services to Australian art; in 1948 the gallery housing Oriental art at the N.G.V. was renamed in his honour.

Devoted to his collection, Kent described his other hobbies as golf and riding; he lived at Toorak and belonged to the Melbourne Club. He made two further trips to England, the last in May 1951. At the end of that year he retired as treasurer of the council of trustees due to ill health. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 7 April 1952 at Preston and was cremated. In 1961 his wife presented his favourite piece, a Sung dynasty white vase, to the gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970)
  • Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 39, 1971-73, p 30
  • Apollo, 97, Mar 1973, p 217
  • Art in Australia, 15 Nov 1937
  • National Gallery of Victoria Archives.

Citation details

Mae Anna Quan Pang, 'Kent, Herbert Wade (1877–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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