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Miller, Godfrey Clive (1893–1964)

by Ann Wookey

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

Godfrey Clive Miller (1893-1964), artist, was born on 20 August 1893 at Wellington, New Zealand, second of three children of Thomas Tripney Miller, a bank accountant from Scotland, and his New Zealand-born wife Isabella, née Duthie (d.1896). Thomas married Isabella's sister Eliza Jane in 1897; they were to have four children. Godfrey inherited a share of his grandfather's extensive ironmongery business, John Duthie & Co. Ltd, Wellington. He attended state schools at Hawera and Palmerston North before boarding (on a scholarship) at Otago Boys' High School, Dunedin.

At the age of 17 Miller was apprenticed to J. Louis Salmond, an architect of Salmond & Vanes, Dunedin; he attended classes at the School of Art and Design, Dunedin Technical School, and worked on construction sites. On 20 October 1914 he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He served as a signalman at Gallipoli where he was severely wounded in the upper right arm on 6 August 1915; as a result of the injury, he suffered musculospiral nerve palsy and neurasthenia. Discharged from the army on 30 May 1916, he was registered by the New Zealand Institute of Architects on 25 July 1917.

Before World War I began, lessons with Alfred O'Keeffe had sharpened Miller's interest in painting, and during 1917 they worked together once more. Miller had early success in 1918 with a prize-winning student drawing submitted to the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, but did not exhibit again until 1952. Shyness and a nervously uncertain disposition underlay his reluctance. From the 1930s he was essentially reclusive, yet he took pleasure in company and was 'a prodigious letter writer'. Meanwhile, he worked on each of his paintings for years.

Journeying to Melbourne, Miller enrolled for 1918 under William McInnes at the National Gallery schools, re-enrolling there for a second year from mid-1923. He travelled in the Far East in 1919 and was fascinated by Asian thought and culture. Between 1918 and 1929 he lived mainly in Victoria, painting at Warrandyte, and in New South Wales. He mixed with a group of artists who in the early 1920s revived the Australian Art Association. About this time he developed an enthusiasm for romantic and symbolist literature. In 1929 he joined the Victorian Artists Society.

For the next decade Miller was based principally in London. He entered (1929) the Slade School of Fine Art, and gained a certificate (1931) for sculpture. In 1933 he rejoined the Slade, moving from Paddington digs to more permanent rooms nearby. By 1934 the school had lost all appeal to him, beyond its unsupervised life-drawing sessions. Throughout his career, Miller drew on other artists' approaches in the belief that the art of the past, and of the present, held the keys to future creativity. Erudite and widely read, he was so enthralled by metaphysics that he joined the British Institute of Philosophy. In the late 1930s he found that theosophy met his mystical inclinations, and he joined the Anthroposophical Society in Australia. He had arrived in London a conservative naturalistic painter, grounded in nineteenth-century artistic traditions. He left a fully-fledged modernist. After moving quickly through Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, he had developed a geometrical, classical style based on the abstraction of natural forms.

Returning to Australia via New Zealand early in 1939, Miller boarded in central Sydney until 1954 when he bought a house at Paddington with an outlook across to Rushcutters Bay, a view occasionally seen in his paintings. He lived frugally (as always) and painted alone until he began teaching part-time at East Sydney Technical College in 1948. Students were awed by his dedication and aesthetic sensibility. In 1952 he agreed to exhibit paintings, with the Sydney Art Group. Next year his work was shown in London, the first of several successful overseas appearances, from one of which the Tate Gallery in 1961 acquired 'Triptych with Figures' (1938-54). Miller held four solo exhibitions, the second a retrospective mounted by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1959. In all, he only ever showed about forty paintings. He published a pamphlet (1959) elaborating the philosophical stance reflected in his paintings, and a book, 40 Drawings by Godfrey Miller (Sydney, 1962).

Miller died on 10 May 1964 at his Paddington home and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at more than £114,000. A hoard of his paintings was discovered in his house and formed the basis of the Godfrey Miller Memorial Exhibition, held in Sydney in 1965. Miller's achievement lay in melding early twentieth-century practices and theories of picture-making with symbolic traditions to express an enigmatic, poetical mysticism.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Henshaw (ed), Godfrey Miller (Syd, 1966)
  • G. Dutton, The Innovators (Melb, 1986)
  • D. Edwards, Godfrey Miller: 1893-1964 (Syd, 1996)
  • Antique News and Sales, 1, July 1975
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 17 May 1964, 21 Feb 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Apr 1996
  • A. Wookey, The Life and Work of Godfrey Clive Miller, 1893-1964 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1994)
  • Miller file (Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives)
  • G. C. Miller, letters to G. Sweet, 1938-61 (privately held)
  • Miller papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann Wookey, 'Miller, Godfrey Clive (1893–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-godfrey-clive-11123/text19807, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 October 2018.

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

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