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Moffitt, Ernest Edward (1871–1899)

by Roger Butler

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

Ernest Edward Moffitt (1871-1899), artist, was born on 15 September 1871 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of John Thomas Lowry Moffitt, draper, and his wife Mary Emily, née Rogers. Little is known of his early life, but from 1890 he was active in Melbourne's art and music circles. That year he enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria's art schools and left after a term of drawing from plaster casts.

In 1891 Moffitt became Professor G. W. L. Marshall-Hall's first student in the faculty of music, University of Melbourne. Although failing the theoretical course, he became a skilled practical musician playing bassoon, banjo and church organ. In 1893-95 he was employed by the music firm of Allan & Co. and from 1896 until his death was secretary of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Here he worked closely with his mentor Marshall-Hall, organizing, producing posters for and playing in his orchestral concerts.

Marshall-Hall encouraged Moffitt to renew his practice of the visual arts and he returned to the gallery schools in 1893; but as Lionel Lindsay noted, 'any suggestion of regulated study was ill suited to his original temperament'. Despite Moffitt's casual attendance he was an immediate stimulus, starting a sketching club and according to Lindsay 'in all things leading the thought and life of that curious heterodox society'. From this time he associated with the young Bohemian artists centred around Lindsay. He was a member of the Cannibal Club and was often to be found at Fasoli's Café which it is claimed he 'discovered'. From 1898 his weekends were spent at Charterisville near Heidelberg, painting, sketching and enjoying the pagan pleasures of Nature with Lindsay and other artist friends. Moffitt regularly exhibited watercolours and drawings with the Victorian Artists' Society from 1893 and in 1897 he designed the title-page of Marshall-Hall's Hymn to Sydney.

As an artist Moffitt is principally remembered for his pen-drawings, woodcuts and etchings. His early landscape drawings show the influence of James McNeill Whistler, but by 1895 his work became more decorative, inspired by the English illustrators of the 1860s. His last works show his response to the Aesthetic movement, probably through his study of such magazines as Studio and Harper's Bazaar.

Moffitt's house in Yarra Street, Alphington, was a meeting-place for artists. He was well known for the artistic furniture he made, and for his collection of old English pottery, beautifully bound books, Japanese furniture and carved pipes.

He died, unmarried, of acute enteritis at Alphington on 23 March 1899 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. The pallbearers at his funeral—Marshall-Hall, John Longstaff and Frederick McCubbin from the Victorian Artists' Society, Mr Dierich and Carl Pinschoff from the Austrian consulate, and Charles Tait—attest to his popularity in the Melbourne cultural community.

A book on Moffitt by Lionel Lindsay, financed by Marshall-Hall, was published in 1899; the first monograph devoted to an Australian artist, it commemorated 'a fine artist and what is saddest, the promise of a great one'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. A. Lindsay, A Consideration of the Art of Ernest Moffitt (Melb, 1899)
  • L. A. Lindsay, Comedy of Life (Syd, 1967)
  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), 4, no 1 (1899), p 62
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 1 Apr 1899.

Citation details

Roger Butler, 'Moffitt, Ernest Edward (1871–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/moffitt-ernest-edward-7612/text13301, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 1 October 2014.

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

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