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Power, John Joseph Wardell (1881–1943)

by Anthony Bradley and Bernard Smith

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

John Joseph Wardell Power (1881-1943), by unknown photographer

John Joseph Wardell Power (1881-1943), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/3617

John Joseph Wardell Power (1881-1943), medical practitioner, artist and benefactor, was born on 12 October 1881 in Sydney, son of John Joseph Power, graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and a successful Sydney physician, and his wife Mary Lucy, daughter of W. W. Wardell, architect. He was educated at Sydney Grammar School and studied medicine at the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1905). On graduating he went to England and on the death of his father in 1906 inherited the greater part of his fortune, held largely in what became the Mutual Life & Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd stock. After examinations he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, and received the licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians, London, in 1908; he practised at 50 Harrington Gardens in south-west London. On 4 February 1915 at Paddington Registry Office he married, as her third husband, a divorcee Edith Mary James (b.1869), formerly Abdy, daughter of George Lee of Bathurst and sister of Ida Lee. From April 1917 Power served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a temporary lieutenant; he was promoted temporary captain on 25 April 1918.

At the end of the war he abandoned medicine, studying art under Pedro Araujo in Paris in 1920-22. Here Power came in contact with the first generation of artists associated with cubism, de stijl and surrealism. In 1924 he exhibited with the London Group and his work was commented upon favourably by Osbert Sitwell and Anthony Bertram. Leonce Rosenberg, the Paris dealer, offered him a contract but he found the regular output required uncongenial and thereafter continued to work in private, exhibiting little. In the early 1930s he was closely associated with the Abstraction-Creation group in Paris and became intensely interested in proportion theory, publishing at his own expense Eléments de la Construction Picturale (Paris, 1932). In the 1920s and 1930s he lived variously in London, Paris, Brussels and at Bournemouth, England.

Power was the first Australian-born artist to explore the formal and spatial possibilities of cubism. His paintings evoke the modernity of the 1920s, his love of music and sense of fun. An unassuming man, generous to his friends, he had little patience with conventional behaviour. In his later years he lived as a recluse and both he and his wife gained a reputation for eccentricity. Bertram recalled how on being asked to dinner he found that the Power dogs were also accorded their customary place at table.

On the outbreak of World War II Power settled at Bellozanne, Jersey, Channel Islands. Survived by his wife, he died of cancer on 1 August 1943 during the German occupation. His will, drawn up in September 1939, left the greater part of his estate, after the death of his wife, to the University of Sydney—'to make available to the people of Australia the latest ideas and theories in the plastic arts by means of lectures and teaching and by the purchase of the most recent contemporary art of the world … so as to bring the people of Australia in more direct touch with the latest art developments in other countries'.

The bequest, when acquired in 1961, was assessed at about £A2 million. With it the university established the Power Institute of Fine Arts, comprising a teaching department, a gallery of contemporary art and a research library. Power's wife died on 6 October 1961 and bequeathed most of his own paintings to the university, which holds his self-portrait.

Select Bibliography

  • Dr John Power and the Power Bequest, the Power Institute and the Power Foundation (Syd, 1976)
  • Art and Australia, 13, no 2, Spring 1975, p 176.

Citation details

Anthony Bradley and Bernard Smith, 'Power, John Joseph Wardell (1881–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/power-john-joseph-wardell-8090/text14119, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 September 2014.

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

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