Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Powell, James Alexander (1836–1921)

by Anne Beggs Sunter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

James Alexander Powell (1836-1921), arts administrator, was born in 1836 in London, son of James Powell, cowkeeper, and his wife Catherine. In October 1852, when the family arrived in Victoria, James was 16, of Protestant faith, able to read and write, with four older sisters and a younger brother. They went straight to Ballarat where James worked with his father gold-mining though he must have attended to his education also, for his later writings reflect the philosophies of the mechanics' institute movement. Earnest and thoughtful, he organized the formation, on 20 January 1870, of the first miner's union in Victoria, the Ballarat and Sebastopol Miners' Mutual Protection Association. Powell enunciated its rules and objects, which were particularly concerned with protecting the health of underground miners. He accepted the post of union secretary 'from a love of the class to which he belonged'. His refusal to accept more than a miner's wage did not prevent the union's collapse in May. On 2 January 1882 at Avoca he married the widowed Adelaide Rebecca Stewart, née Simons.

Described as 'an old identity of nearly 30 years' in 1882, Powell was proprietor and editor of the Ballarat Star from November 1882 to June 1884, and later wrote for the Courier. The Star reported an art exhibition in June 1884 organized by a committee led by James Oddie that led to the setting up of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Powell was appointed secretary of the Gallery Association in August 1885 at £200 a year. He set about defining the philosophy and aims of the gallery (renting its premises in the Academy of Music) in a series of lectures for members of the association early in 1886. Published as A Plea for Art Culture (Ballarat, 1887), they propounded the desirability of 'proper facilities … for the acquirement by our young art students, artisans and mechanics of a sound artistic and technical art education under an approved system and recognized competent supervision'. Powell's philosophy embraced a purely utilitarian intention to secure the industrial future by fostering good design, but it was concerned equally with the moral responsibility to pass on 'the rich legacy of a cultivated taste'.

Powell was active in founding the gallery's technical art school in 1891, and his sound administration and gifts with the pen secured its success. During 1887-89 he supervised the building of the art gallery's new premises and the hanging of the first pictures. His theories of art education and popular culture appeared in several pamphlets that include a Descriptive Catalogue (Illustrated) of the Permanent Collection of Pictures (1891).

Powell resigned through ill health in April 1915. He died, childless, on 21 October 1921 at the Homoeopathic Hospital, South Melbourne, and was buried in Coburg cemetery. He left £65 in the State Savings Bank of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Ballarat Fine Art Gallery Association, Memorandum and Articles of Association (Ballarat, 1887)
  • W. Bate, Lucky City (Melb, 1978)
  • Ballarat Star, 21 Jan, 8, 18 Apr 1870, 14 Nov 1882
  • Ballarat Courier, 4 Nov 1921.

Citation details

Anne Beggs Sunter, 'Powell, James Alexander (1836–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/powell-james-alexander-8087/text14113, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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