Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Longstaff, Sir John Campbell (1861–1941)

by Leigh Astbury

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

John Longstaff, by George Coates, 1918-19

John Longstaff, by George Coates, 1918-19

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21671650

Sir John Campbell Longstaff (1861-1941), artist, was born on 10 March 1861 at Clunes, Victoria, second son of Ralph Longstaff, storekeeper from England, and his Scottish wife Jessie, née Campbell. Will Longstaff was his cousin. He was educated at a boarding school at Miners Rest and at Clunes State School. Displaying an early aptitude for art, in which he was encouraged by his mother, he received drawing lessons at Clunes from a Dane named Bruhn and in 1873 won a junior division prize in the Victorian schools of design's freehand drawing competition.

By 1874 the Longstaffs had moved to Shepparton where John worked inefficiently in his father's stores and tutored himself in oil-painting technique from a popular art instruction manual. Ralph, dismissive of his son's artistic talent, next found him work as a clerk, at first locally and in 1880 with the Melbourne importers Sargood, Butler & Nichol. He agreed to John's entry into the art school of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1882 only after urgings from Henry Butler who had recognized the young man's true métier.

Under G. F. Folingsby Longstaff, 'an athletic-looking husky', received a sound academic training in figure drawing and painting. An outstanding student, he won the school's first travelling scholarship in 1887 with 'Breaking the News', a figure composition depicting the tragic aftermath of a mining accident. Shortly before sailing for Europe that year he made an impetuous marriage, on 20 July at East Melbourne with Anglican rites, to a 17-year-old beauty Rosa Louisa (Topsy) Crocker; her attraction for him never waned, but her extreme shyness accorded ill with his exuberance and later urbanity.

After only a fortnight in London, Longstaff went to Paris where, on the advice of his compatriot John Peter Russell, he entered the liberal studio of Fernand Cormon, a painter of Oriental and Stone Age subjects and an occasional portraitist. He spent the summer of 1889 with his wife at Russell's chateau at Belle-Ile; under the influence of Russell's Impressionism he temporarily lightened his palette and loosened his technique. Next year he spent three months in Spain studying the art of Velasquez whose careful craftsmanship and subtle dark tonalities remained a major influence on his portraiture. During this period Longstaff exhibited each year at the Old Salon; a portrait of his wife and first child (National Gallery of Victoria) received a mention honorable in 1891 and his large-scale allegorical subject, 'The Sirens', painted under the terms of the travelling scholarship, was exhibited with success at the 1892 Salon and at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1894.

In 1893 Longstaff went to London as a portraitist, but in 1895 he returned to Australia, his wife and family having travelled home at least three years earlier. In Melbourne during the depression, he designed advertisements for a living until he established a portraiture practice. In 1898 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased his large bushfire subject 'Gippsland, Sunday Night, February 20th, 1898'.

Longstaff returned to England in 1901 to undertake a commission from the National Gallery of Victoria's Gillbee bequest to depict the explorers Burke and Wills; the resultant huge canvas was not completed until 1907. On his arrival he enjoyed almost immediate success as a portraitist, his subjects including King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1904. By 1906 he resided in the fashionable St John's Wood area and had a 'magnificent studio' at nearby Carlton Hill. A regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy in 1902-20, he also exhibited nine works with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In 1911 he visited Australia, ostensibly to see his ageing parents at Shepparton, though he appears to have spent considerable time painting portraits in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1918-19 he served as an official war artist with the Australian Imperial Force, executing portraits of distinguished Australian servicemen.

From August 1920 Longstaff lived permanently in Melbourne, travelling to other capital cities as his work dictated. He won the Archibald prize for portraiture five times: in 1925, 1928, 1929, 1931 and 1935. In 1928 he was knighted. During this last period in Australia he held numerous official positions: at various times president of the Victorian Artists' Society and of the Australian Art Association, first president of the Australian Academy of Art in 1938-41, and a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery from 1927.

Tall, handsome and charming, Longstaff moved effortlessly in society circles where his skills as a portraitist were eagerly sought. The constant flow of commissions impeded his ambition to paint significant subject pictures, but his portraiture left an impressive record of notable Australians, while he also painted several important figure subjects on nationalistic themes. His art was basically academic and conservative though some of his early work reveals the influence of Whistler's Aestheticism.

In later life Longstaff carried the financial burden of supporting his wife and youngest son and daughter in England where they had chosen to remain. Rosa died in 1939 and at his death in Melbourne on 1 October 1941 Longstaff was survived by his daughter and three sons; another son had been killed in World War I. Longstaff was cremated. His estate, valued for probate at £4631, bore no signs of the 'princely income' which was supposed to have been his.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Murdoch, Portrait in Youth of Sir John Longstaff 1861-1941 (Syd, 1948)
  • P. Timms, Sir John Longstaff (1862-1941), an Exhibition Prepared by Shepparton Art Gallery for Arts Victoria 75 (Shepparton, 1975)
  • M. Plant and A. Galbally (eds), Studies in Australian Art (Melb, 1978)
  • Lone Hand, 1 June 1908, p 206
  • Life, 15 (May 1911), p 493
  • Art in Australia, 15 Apr 1931
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Aug 1920
  • J. C. Longstaff correspondence (State Library of Victoria)
  • Tom Roberts correspondence (vols 1-3, letters to Tom Roberts, State Library of New South Wales)
  • biography file (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Leigh Astbury, 'Longstaff, Sir John Campbell (1861–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/longstaff-sir-john-campbell-7230/text12519, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 November 2014.

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

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