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MacDonald, James Stuart (Jimmy) (1878–1952)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

James Stuart (Jimmy) MacDonald (1878-1952), art critic and gallery director, was born on 28 March 1878 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of Hector MacDonald, Victorian-born solicitor, and his American wife Anna Louisa, née Flett. He hated his time at Kew High School and Hawthorn Grammar School where he was often in trouble. As a child, through his father's partner William Lynch, an art collector, MacDonald met many painters and in the mid-1890s studied at the National Gallery of Victoria's school; he was also apprenticed to a printer and was taught lithography.

MacDonald went to London in 1898 to the Westminster School of Art, then for five years to Paris where he shared a studio with Hugh Ramsay and attended the Julian and Colarossi schools; he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Old Salon, Paris. Having returned to Melbourne, on 4 August 1904 he was married to an American art student Maud Mary Keller by Rev. Charles Strong. They moved to New York where he taught art until 1910 at a high school. Back in Australia he painted some portraits and landscapes and turned to drawing in charcoal and to lithographic portraits.

On 9 September 1914 MacDonald enlisted in the 5th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. At Gallipoli, as a private, on 26 April 1915 he was seriously wounded in the abdomen and was classified unfit for active service on 27 October. He served as a pay sergeant in 1916-17, mainly in England. In June-August 1918 he worked as a camouflage artist with the 5th Division in France. The effects of his wound required hospital spells both before his departure from England in October 1918 and after his discharge in Melbourne the following April; he was granted a war pension.

In 1916, in his absence, MacDonald's The Art of Frederick McCubbin had been published; similar studies followed in 1920 of Penleigh Boyd, David Davies and George Lambert. Having given up painting, from 1923 he was art critic for the Melbourne Herald. In Art in Australia and elsewhere MacDonald wrote prolifically and well, from deep knowledge, but he was blindly hostile to nearly all twentieth-century painting and much before. He profusely praised the work of his friend John Longstaff and especially, articulating a weirdly extreme racial nationalism, that of Arthur Streeton. His works pointed to 'the way in which life should be lived in Australia, with the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories … If we so choose, we can yet be the elect of the world, the last of the pastoralists, the thoroughbred Aryans in all their nobility'.

In October 1928 Jimmy MacDonald was appointed director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. He chafed at his limited authority and having to act as secretary as well as director. Sydney Ure Smith found him 'narrow and biased' but he satisfied most of the conservative trustees. MacDonald held more exhibitions of Australian work than was customary and added workshops and storerooms to the gallery. He confided to his powerful friend (Sir) Robert Menzies his ambition of becoming director of an Australian national gallery.

In 1936 MacDonald applied for the directorship of the National Gallery of Victoria, stressing to an extraordinary degree his conviction that only painters were fit to be critics or advisers, while deriding scholars and connoisseurs. The trustees' recommendation to appoint W. Hardy Wilson was overturned by the government after strong lobbying on MacDonald's behalf. The omens were unpropitious, for one trustee was Sir Keith Murdoch, a modernist patron. MacDonald made useful progress in cataloguing, bought Australian paintings including major works by McCubbin, and aimed to fill gaps in the European collection. But in doing so he rudely attacked overseas advisers. 'We have bought names … We bought for an enormous price a canvas [self-portrait] which Rembrandt was too disgusted to finish; a Raeburn hardly worth looking at; the world's worst Watteau'. He later correctly doubted an alleged Uccello and a Claude Lorraine purchased in the 1940s, but he did not query the 'van Eyck' Madonna. He supported Menzies in founding the Australian Academy of Art and reviled George Bell.

MacDonald reported vehemently on the 1939 Herald exhibition of contemporary French and English painting, sponsored by Murdoch (now president of trustees). 'They are exceedingly wretched paintings … putrid meat … the product of degenerates and perverts … filth'. But the gallery purchased paintings by van Gogh, Vallotton and Derain.

Early in 1940, following a mild stroke, MacDonald was away from work for three months. In September the trustees recommended against his reappointment. E. R. Pitt, the chief librarian, officially reported and expressed agreement despite the 'qualities of integrity, knowledge and fearlessness which … endear him to his friends'. MacDonald fought to the end, reapplying for the advertised directorship, and was granted a retiring sum of £100 a year for five years.

In later life MacDonald displayed his frequent inability to express aesthetic disagreement without libellous denigration and accusations of commercial, often Jewish, conspiracy to promote certain artists for market advantage. In 1943 he was first witness on behalf of those who brought an action against the award of the Archibald prize to William Dobell for his portrait of Joshua Smith: MacDonald described it as a 'pictorial defamation of character'. In 1943-47 he was art critic for the Age and he was appointed to the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (chairman 1949-52). He made little progress with a survey of the development of Australian painting for which the Commonwealth Literary Fund provided a grant. He lived at Montrose and joined the Liberal Party. A convivial drinker at the Savage Club, he was a man of charm, tactlessness and combativeness.

MacDonald died in Melbourne on 12 November 1952 and, survived by his wife and their son and daughter, was cremated. In 1958 a collection of his writings, Australian Painting Desiderata, was published with a foreword by Menzies. His portrait by Hugh Ramsay is held by the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Syd, 1945)
  • B. Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970)
  • A. Bradley and T. Smith (eds), Australian Art and Architecture (Melb, 1980)
  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors (Melb, 1981)
  • People (Sydney), 12 Sept 1951
  • MacDonald papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'MacDonald, James Stuart (Jimmy) (1878–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macdonald-james-stuart-jimmy-7338/text12737, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 9 December 2016.

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

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