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George James Coates (1869–1930)

by Richard Haese

This article was published:

George James Coates (1869-1930), artist, was born on 9 August 1869 at Emerald Hill, Melbourne, son of John Coates, bookbinder, and his Irish-born wife Elizabeth, née Irwin. He attended St James's Grammar School and at 15 was apprenticed to the stained-glass firm, Ferguson and Urie. He first studied art under W. Dellit at the North Melbourne School of Design before attending evening drawing classes under F. McCubbin at the National Gallery School. He soon became one of the school's best draughtsmen. His father had died when George was 8 and, unhappy at home with his stepfather, he shared various studios in the city, living for a time with Lionel Lindsay and Hugh McLean in Elizabeth Street. Coates ran a drawing class in his Swanston Street studio where the students included Max Meldrum, Norman and Percy Lindsay, and George Bell. A fine swimmer and amateur boxer, he was dubbed 'king' of the bohemian student group, the 'Prehistoric Order of Cannibals'.

In 1895-96 Coates studied painting under L. Bernard Hall, acquiring both respect for the painter's craft and the approach of the Munich School—qualities that formed the basis for his later development. He won a travelling scholarship in 1896 and went to London next year before moving to Paris, where he worked at the Académie Julian and studied under Jean Paul Laurens. In Paris Coates renewed an acquaintance with a fellow art student, Dora Meeson (1869-1955), who arrived in 1898. She was born on 7 August 1869 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, daughter of John Thomas Meeson, schoolmaster, later barrister, and his wife Amelia, née Kipling, and grew up in New Zealand. A student at the Melbourne National Gallery School, and later the Slade School, London, Dora studied in Paris under Benjamin Constant and Laurens. The couple were engaged in France but could not afford to marry until 23 June 1903, some three years after their move to London. They resolved not to have children but to devote themselves to their artistic careers.

Coates and Meeson established themselves in Chelsea where they became members of an extensive circle of Australian expatriate artists. To earn money they contributed black and white illustrations to Dr H. S. Williams's Historians' History of the World and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Coates had exhibited 'on the line' at the Old Salon in Paris in 1898 and continued to show there and at the Royal Academy. Recognition did not come until after 1910, with an honourable mention at the Old Salon, prominent public notice at the 1912 Royal Academy exhibition and success at the 1913 New Salon when he was elected an associate (a member in 1927). Numerous commissions followed and soon established him as one of London's leading portrait painters. He was a member of the Chelsea Arts Club, the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Meeson had the distinction of being the first Australian woman artist elected a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

Despite physical prowess Coates lacked a strong constitution; when Meeson visited Australia alone in 1913 to accompany an exhibition his health collapsed and she had to return to nurse him in Italy. In 1915 he enlisted in the Territorial Royal Army Medical Corps and served as an orderly at the 3rd London General Hospital, attaining the rank of sergeant. He was discharged in 1919 as physically unfit. While never an official war artist, he produced many portrait commissions for the Australian War Memorial. These included portraits of World War I heroes and a large group portrait of Major General (Sir William) Bridges and his staff in Egypt—on which Coates and Meeson worked after returning to Australia in 1921-22. Coates also painted portraits of Canadian war heroes.

Neither artist responded to developments in art after impressionism and their work remained firmly wedded to strictly representational modes. Primarily a portrait painter, the diffident and unassuming Coates was temperamentally disinclined to challenge accepted assumptions about art despite his admiration for Whistler, Dégas and Puvis de Chavannes. His realism emphasized a harmonious range of low tones and his approach was painstaking and obsessive. While able to handle large-scale works, his best portraits were more intimate such as 'Arthur Walker and his brother Harold' (1912) which reveal a sensitive response to character. Meeson is best known for her many fine impressions of the River Thames, a number of which were acquired after 1945 by the Port of London Authority.

Coates died suddenly in London of a stroke on 27 July 1930. A memorial exhibition of his work was opened in May 1931 at the New Burlington Galleries by Lord Birdwood. His wife continued an active artistic career until her death in London on 24 March 1955. The two were buried together in Rye cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Coates, George Coates (Lond, 1937)
  • L. A. Lindsay, Comedy of Life (Syd, 1967)
  • Mail (Adelaide), 23 Aug 1913
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1937.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Richard Haese, 'Coates, George James (1869–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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