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Sir Joseph Terence Burke (1913–1992)

by Sheridan Palmer

This article was published:

Sir Joseph Terence Burke (1913–1992), art historian, was born on 14 July 1913 at Ealing, England, youngest of five sons of Rickard Martin Joseph Burke, bank clerk (later manager), and his wife Dora, née Teasdale. Educated at Ealing Priory School, Joseph excelled only after his chronic short sightedness was diagnosed. Precociously bright, at the age of sixteen he was accepted into King’s College, University of London (BA, 1933), where he studied English. He was sub-editor of the King’s College Review and active in golf, fencing, debating, and the literary society. Awarded an upper-second-class degree, he enrolled in a joint Master of Arts (1935) at King’s College and the newly established Courtauld Institute of Art, where he capitalised on the presence of refugee European art historians. His master’s dissertation, a critical edition of William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty, reflected his interest in eighteenth-century English art and aesthetics. It was published in 1955 and followed in 1968 by Hogarth: The Complete Engravings, with Colin Caldwell.

In 1935 Burke lectured part time at King’s College and wrote articles for John O’London’s Weekly about National Portrait Gallery acquisitions. The next year he was awarded a Henry fellowship to Yale University (MA, 1937), where he wrote a thesis on the Anglo-American painter Benjamin West, and established lasting friendships with his supervisor, Theodore Sizer, and the Horace Walpole expert and Anglophile, Wilmarth S. (‘Lefty’) Lewis. On his return voyage to England in 1937 Burke met Agnes Adelaide Middleton, whom he married with Catholic rites on 20 November 1940 at St Benedict’s Church, Ealing. Although raised as a Roman Catholic, Burke was later received into the Church of England.

Burke was appointed assistant keeper in the department of circulation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938, under Leigh Ashton, keeper of special collections. He developed a passion for utilitarian ware and the decorative arts, insisting that art in industry was as important to him as pictures on a wall. This influenced his subsequent support for the Industrial Design Council of Australia. In September 1939 he was seconded to the Ministry of Information and the Home Office, where he joined the staff of the controller of home publicity, Sir Kenneth (Lord) Clark. In October 1940 he was appointed secretary to the lord president of the council, Sir John Anderson (Viscount Waverley), and on one occasion attended secret discussions with American officials on atomic bomb research. In September 1943 Clement (Earl) Attlee replaced Anderson as lord president, inheriting Burke as his private secretary. Burke accompanied Attlee to the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, where they sat opposite Joseph Stalin at conference sessions. When Attlee was elected prime minister on 26 July, he appointed Burke as his principal private secretary. Burke was appointed OBE the next year. The six years he spent at the heart of British government was pivotal to his personal and public development and prepared the way for his subsequent career in Australia.

In 1946 Burke became the inaugural Herald professor of fine arts at the University of Melbourne. The first of its kind in Australia, the position was instigated by Sir Keith Murdoch and established with a gift from the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd. Burke was expected to promote the appreciation of art in both the university and the wider community. With no art library, photographs, or slides, he had to build his new department from the ground up, but his appointment in 1949 of two refugee art historians, Franz Philipp and Ursula Hoff, and his 1955 hiring of Bernard Smith, created an outstanding department and established art history as an academic discipline in Australia.

Tall, impeccably dressed, charismatic, and with ‘a fund of good humour and grace’ (Smith 1992, 47), Burke skilfully handled the press, businessmen, bishops, and committees with eloquent mastery. He worked smoothly between conservatives and socialists, intellectuals and the common man. He exercised considerable influence within Melbourne’s cultural environment and facilitated many programs in keeping with his civic humanism, such as the National Gallery Society and the Herald Outdoor Art Show, the latter established in 1953. A magnificent orator, Burke gave hundreds of public lectures throughout Australia, which were appreciated as much for their anecdotal wit as for their elevating cultural content.

Closely associated with artists including John Brack, Noel Counihan, Russell Drysdale, (Sir) Sidney Nolan, and Fred Williams, Burke ensured that students, scholars, artists, and architects received opportunities for professional advancement. An inveterate ‘club man,’ he developed a strong network amongst the business and wealthy elite through his membership of the Melbourne Club. Among his closest friends were Sir Daryl Lindsay, the Right Reverend John McKie, Dale Trendall, Sir Clive Fitts, Sir Russell Grimwade, Aubrey Gibson, Maie (Lady) Casey, Milo (Lord) Talbot, Judah Waten, and Sir Roy Grounds.

In 1952 Burke established the Society of Collectors, which encouraged connoisseurship and patronage; leading by example he personally donated works of art to the university’s collection. He was a trustee (1952–56) of the National Gallery of Victoria, and a member of the Felton Bequest Committee, the National Gallery and Cultural Centre Committee, and the Australian Parliament House Construction Committee. He also helped establish the National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

Burke contributed significantly to academic life as dean (1950–54) of the faculty of arts and a board member (1955–78) of Melbourne University Press. He helped establish the Australian Humanities Research Council in 1956 and was a foundation member (1969) and president (1971–74) of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He sat on the boards and committees of several international organisations, including the Commonwealth Fund’s Harkness Fellowships, the Royal Society of Arts, the William Morris Society, and the Walpole Society.

The demands of public and academic life had a price, and Burke took more than twenty-five years to complete English Art, 17141800, which was published as part of the Oxford History of Art series. Some bemoaned it was out of date by the time it appeared in 1976, but the historical synthesis of the eighteenth century’s golden age remains impressive.

Promoted to CBE in 1973, the next year Burke was elected a fellow of Trinity College, Melbourne, where he took rooms in the old Chaplaincy. This enabled him to engage in academic and cultural affairs during the week, returning to his Mount Dandenong home at weekends, an arrangement that continued after his retirement in 1979. He received honorary degrees from Monash University (DLitt, 1977) and the University of Melbourne (LLD, 1987). In 1980 he was elevated to KBE for his services to the arts.

Burke became increasingly wistful as his deteriorating eyesight prevented further research, and a memoir about Attlee’s productive relationship with Winston Churchill during the war remained unfinished. Towards the end of his life he suffered from the early stages of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 25 March 1992 at Lilydale and was cremated. The Joseph Burke lecture at the University of Melbourne commemorates him, and portraits by Fred Williams and Noel Counihan capture the quintessential urbane gentleman and the ruminative scholar.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Palmer, Sheridan. Centre of the Periphery: Three European Art Historians in Melbourne. North Melbourne, Vic.: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008
  • Smith, Bernard. ‘Sir Joseph Burke 1913–1992.’ Australian Academy of the Humanities Proceedings 17 (1992): 47–49
  • Speagle, H. L. Editor's Odyssey: A Victorian Reminiscence, 1945 to 1985. Melbourne: H. L. Speagle, 1998
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 78/39, Burke, Joseph. Papers.

Citation details

Sheridan Palmer, 'Burke, Sir Joseph Terence (1913–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 July, 1913
London, Middlesex, England


25 March, 1992 (aged 78)
Lilydale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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