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Long, Sydney (1871–1955)

by Joanna Mendelssohn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sydney Long (1871-1955), painter and etcher, was born on 20 August 1871 at Ifield, Goulburn, New South Wales, posthumous fifth child of James Long, Irish commission agent, and his native-born wife Susan, née Fletcher. He was educated at Goulburn Boys' High School, and about 1888, the date of his first extant painting, moved to Sydney where he worked for some years at Sandeman's, wine and spirit merchants in George Street. From about 1890 he studied under A. J. Daplyn and Julian Ashton at the Art Society of New South Wales's school. When he first exhibited with the society in 1893 he was awarded second prize in the life class and in painting, and the president's prize. Next year his first major painting, 'By Tranquil Waters', a self-consciously Impressionist study of boys bathing at Cook's River, attracted widespread, mostly favourable critical attention, and was purchased by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Becoming a full-time painter, Long supplemented his income by teaching private pupils. When the Art Society split in 1895 and the Society of Artists, Sydney, was formed by Ashton, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and others, Long joined them and was elected to the council of the rebel group. He was a small man of almost elfish appearance, with brown hair and light blue eyes. After he became president of the Society of Artists in 1898 he wore a top hat, partly to emphasize his status but also to conceal his lack of height. He was active in the amalgamation of the two societies to form the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1903. However, when it split again in 1907, he rejoined the Society of Artists.

Long's mature work evolved into a decorative symbolist style, which owed more to the English Aesthetic movement than to the more European Art Nouveau. Most of his major works from this period are in public collections: 'Pan', 'Midday' and 'Flamingoes' (Art Gallery of New South Wales); 'Spirit of the Plains' (Queensland Art Gallery); and 'The Valley' (Art Gallery of South Australia). In 1898 he became engaged to fellow artist Thea Proctor, but she broke the engagement after she went to Europe.

By the early 1900s Long was trying to save to undertake further study in England. From 1907 he was Ashton's second-in-command in the new Sydney Art School. He finally managed to leave Australia in 1910, reaching London in October. Although Long claimed to have married in 1911, he did not actually marry Catherine Brennan, a dancer, until 1 December 1924, at Lambeth. In 1911 he enrolled at an art school at Kennington and soon associated himself with the more conservative tendencies in British art. He visited France, Belgium and Holland in 1912, but remained firmly Anglocentric. One of the continuing problems of Long's London years was his lack of financial security. He had arranged for the Sydney dealer Adolph Albers to sell works on consignment. During World War I transport of these works became irregular as did payment, and he was often impoverished.

Long achieved minor success in England, exhibiting intermittently with the Royal Academy of Arts from 1913 to 1929, but he failed to obtain the recognition which he felt he deserved, especially compared with George Lambert. In 1918 Long began to learn etching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, Holborn. His quality of line and tone had a natural affinity with the medium and he rapidly became an accomplished etcher. In 1920 he was elected an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and was foundation honorary secretary of the Society of Graphic Art.

In 1921 Long returned to Australia for eighteen months, held successful exhibitions in Sydney and was a founding member of the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society (later president). In 1925 he returned with his wife to settle at Lane Cove, with a caravan at Narrabeen and a studio in George Street. His pupil Donald Friend remembered him as 'a very odd man indeed: envious, jealous, professionally and emotionally very timid: no close friends, only cronies. He yearned after the young, but discouraged actual friendliness. He was a debunker and “a knocker”. Very lonely I think'.

From 1912 he had been sending works to the Royal Art Society and on his return continued to favour it and taught at its school. He was a trustee of the Art Gallery in 1933-49 and strongly opposed the foundation of the Australian Academy of Art.

Long remained one of Australia's leading etchers until the collapse of the etching boom in the mid-1930s, when he turned again to painting. In 1938 and 1941 he won the Wynne prize for landscape painting. His later years were characterized by hostility to younger avant-garde artists and bitterness towards more successful artists of his generation. Late in life he under-stated his age by seven years. In 1952 Long and his wife left for London where he died on 23 January 1955 and was buried in Streatham cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. E. Paul (ed), The Etched Work of Sydney Long (Syd, 1928)
  • J. Mendelssohn, The Life and Work of Sydney Long (Syd, 1979).

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Citation details

Joanna Mendelssohn, 'Long, Sydney (1871–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/long-sydney-7225/text12509, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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