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Thomas, Laurence Nicholas Barrett (Laurie) (1915–1974)

by Barry Pearce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Laurence Nicholas Barrett (Laurie) Thomas (1915-1974), art gallery director and critic, was born on 19 January 1915 at St Kilda, Melbourne, second son of Nicholas Thomas, a printer from South Australia, and his Victorian-born wife, Annie Amelia, née Barrett. As a child, Laurie enjoyed drawing, reading and writing. He left school torn between attending the National Gallery schools and taking up a scholarship at the university. The effect of the Depression on his family denied him either course. After trudging the streets for months door-knocking for employment, he worked for three years as a clerk and rent collector with the Small Arms Co. Pty Ltd. He gave most of his wages to his mother and spent what remained on building up a small library to educate himself.

Contemplating a clerical career, Thomas entered Queen's College, University of Melbourne (B.A., Hons, 1938; Dip.Ed., 1940), with the support of the Methodist Church. He joined the university's Tin Alley Players, tutored (1938) in English and became a resident tutor at the college. In 1939 he went to Perth as an assistant temporary lecturer in English under (Sir) Walter Murdoch at the University of Western Australia.

On 1 May 1941 Thomas was commissioned paymaster sub-lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Promoted lieutenant (1942), he carried out intelligence duties in the Northern Territory, New Guinea, Queensland and Victoria. His naval appointment terminated in Melbourne on 24 May 1946. At Queen's College chapel on 27 June 1942 he had married Jessie Enid Weate, a laboratory assistant; they had three children before being divorced.

Thomas took up a Gowrie postgraduate research scholarship for ex-servicemen and travelled to Britain in 1946. At King's College, Cambridge, he began a thesis on poetry. Disliking the prevailing reductionist-analytic approach in English studies, he informally attended the sessions of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Back in Melbourne, he was employed as art critic (1949-50) with the Herald before being made assistant-director (1950-52) of the National Gallery of Victoria under (Sir) Daryl Lindsay. He organized and wrote part of the catalogue for the Jubilee Exhibition of Australian Art, which toured all State galleries and was notable for its inclusion of Aboriginal art.

In 1952 Thomas became director of the Western Australian Art Gallery. A dispute with the trustees led him to leave for Sydney in 1956. Following a brief period as theatre reviewer for the Sun newspaper in 1957, he was its leader-writer until 1961. He also produced theatre, film and art reviews, and feature articles on various topics. In 1961 he was appointed director of the Queensland Art Gallery. He again came into conflict with parochial attitudes and resigned in 1967. As a gallery director in Perth and Brisbane, he had pioneered the exhibition and cataloguing of Aboriginal art as art rather than 'artefacture', acquired work by young painters for public collections, and flown exhibitions of paintings to remote areas of Western Australia and Queensland. On 1 April 1966 at the general registry office, Brisbane, he had married Dorothy Jean Bronwyn Yeates, née Tricks, an artist and a divorcee.

Returning to Sydney, Thomas was arts editor and feature writer for the Australian from 1968 until about 1973. He had appeared regularly on the Australian Broadcasting Commission's television programme 'The Critics' in the early 1960s, and in other programmes on art and painters. His reviews, feature articles and tributes in the Australian revealed his joyful commitment to the arts—though they were not without occasional pungent comment. In 1969 the interim council of the Australian National Gallery recommended that Thomas be appointed foundation director of the gallery. Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton vetoed that recommendation, causing Lindsay to resign as chairman of the interim council and provoking considerable public controversy.

Thomas never quite recovered from the rebuff. He helped to produce various exhibition catalogues and edited 200 Years of Australian Painting (Sydney, 1971). His last major project was selecting illustrations and writing the foreword for Arthur Boyd Drawings, 1934-1970 (London, 1973). Awarded a grant by the Australian Council for the Arts in 1973, he began accumulating notes for a book on the history of Australian art. He died of cancer on 20 August 1974 at his Paddington home and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did the son and two daughters of his first marriage. Charles Blackman and John Olsen, two of his closest friends, published a selection of his writings from the Australian as The Most Noble Art of Them All (Brisbane, 1976) and paid homage to his eloquence, generosity of spirit and love of life. Ivor Hele's portrait of Thomas is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Art and Australia, Oct-Dec 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Mar 1971, 21 Aug 1974
  • Hazel de Berg, interview with Laurie Thomas (transcript, 1963, National Library of Australia)
  • Thomas papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Barry Pearce, 'Thomas, Laurence Nicholas Barrett (Laurie) (1915–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomas-laurence-nicholas-barrett-laurie-11844/text21199, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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