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Basil Burdett (1897–1942)

by Richard Haese

This article was published:

Basil Burdett (1897-1942), by Arnold Mason, 1931

Basil Burdett (1897-1942), by Arnold Mason, 1931

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an4663467

Basil Burdett (1897-1942), journalist, art dealer and critic, was born on 23 July 1897 at Ipswich, Queensland, son of William Burdett, clerk, and Lillie Jane Gray. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in Brisbane in September 1915 and served as a stretcher-bearer with the 1st Field Ambulance. Before his return to Australia late in 1919 he took a three-month course of commercial training in London. In 1919-21 he was a journalist on the Brisbane Daily Mail and first contributed art criticism to that paper. Moving to Sydney, he opened the New Art Salon in Pitt Street; in 1923 he managed a gallery in George Street and then briefly ran another art-dealing business. Early in 1925, with John Young, he established the important Macquarie Galleries in Bligh Street. At this time he was also an associate editor for, and frequent contributor to, Art in Australia.

On 22 December 1925 in Melbourne Burdett married Edith Napier Birks of Adelaide; the couple lived at Wahroonga in a house designed by their friend J. D. Moore until the break-up of their marriage in 1929. Burdett then travelled in Europe and returned in mid-1931 for divorce proceedings. His association with Macquarie Galleries also ended that year. He sold a valuable collection of old English glass, china, furniture, books and paintings and returned to Europe where, fluent in both French and Spanish, he roamed widely.

On his return to Australia in 1931, Burdett continued briefly as associate editor of Art in Australia and then moved to Melbourne where he joined the Herald. After a further 2 years away in 1934-35 he became its art critic in 1936; he also reviewed the ballet performances of the de Basil company during their Melbourne seasons. Commissioned by Sir Keith Murdoch to organize an exhibition of European modernist art, he left Australia late in 1938, returning next year; the comprehensive and seminal Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art opened in Melbourne on 16 October 1939. Ill with jaundice, he could not be active in the Melbourne showing.

Between 1936 and 1941 Burdett brought to art criticism in Australia a unique combination of aesthetic perception, intellectual awareness and open-minded sympathy for the work of the young and the avant-garde. His closest cultural ties were with the values of European society and he felt frustrated by parochial attitudes towards the arts in Australia. At times he seemed distant and aloof, but this may have been largely a shield for a natural diffidence and, perhaps too, a disappointment with his own creativity. It is to his great credit that he recognized immediately and promoted the work of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Danila Vassilieff.

Burdett joined the Australian Red Cross Field Force on 15 January 1941 in Melbourne and embarked for Singapore later that month. He was appointed deputy assistant commissioner on 16 September and assumed responsibility for administering both the Australian and British Red Cross operations in the 'Far East'. He was killed at Sourabaya, Java, when the aircraft on which he was a passenger crashed on landing on 1 February 1942. He was survived by his daughter, born in 1927. In 1943 Burdett was posthumously awarded the (New South Wales) Society of Artists' Medal.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Ure Smith (ed), The Society of Artists Book (Syd, 1943)
  • N. Palmer, Fourteen Years (Melb, 1948)
  • J. Lindsay, Time Without Clocks (Melb, 1962)
  • A McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art (Lond, 1968)
  • L. Rees, The Small Treasures of a Lifetime (Syd, 1969)
  • A Coates and N. Rosenthal, The Albert Coates Story (Melb, 1977)
  • Herald (Melbourne) 3 Feb 1942
  • Burdett and Lindsay papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Australian Red Cross Society records (Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Haese, 'Burdett, Basil (1897–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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