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George Frederick Folingsby (1828–1891)

by Ruth Zubans

This article was published:

George Frederick Folingsby (1828-1891), by John Longstaff

George Frederick Folingsby (1828-1891), by John Longstaff

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H247

George Frederick Folingsby (1828-1891), artist and art teacher, was born on 23 August 1828 in County Wicklow, Ireland. At 18 he travelled to New York, attended the National Academy of Design and was illustrator for Harper's Magazine and the Illustrated Magazine of Art. After wide travel he studied drawing at the Munich Academy in 1852-54, and was briefly a pupil of Thomas Couture in Paris. Returning to Munich he spent five years under Karl von Piloty (1826-1886) who had a major influence on his style and technique. Folingsby stayed in Munich, established himself as a history and portrait painter and exhibited in London, Belfast and elsewhere. In Vienna in 1873 and Philadelphia in 1876 he won first-class medals for history painting. Some reproductions appeared in the Illustrated London News and the Graphic. Among his major works are 'The First Lesson', exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1869 and in 1871 'Lady Jane Grey's Victory over Bishop Gardiner'.

In 1878 Folingsby decided to leave Europe. The Report of the Trustees of the … National Gallery of Victoria stated that he would be prepared to settle in the colony if 'sufficient inducement' were offered. He was already known in Victoria for his painting, 'Bunyan in Prison', acquired in 1864, and the trustees commissioned another work for £500. Folingsby's name first appears in the Melbourne Directory of 1880. He promptly established himself as a portrait painter and became an examiner of art teachers. He was offered the position of 'Master in the School of Painting' at the gallery, and was appointed on 1 June 1882 at a salary of £600. In September he became director of the National Gallery and master in the School of Art.

Folingsby completely reorganized art teaching methods in Melbourne. Students ceased to copy paintings; following the Munich school they drew and painted directly from life, made academic studies of the antique and still life and progressed to studies in composition. The separate Schools of Design and Painting were co-ordinated. Folingsby did not discourage outdoor sketching but preferred studio finish: 'The man who paints landscape in open air is a fool'. He stressed good drawing and 'broad and simple' work. An exacting and able teacher, he taught the fundamentals of art and a disciplined approach. His interest in history painting may have stimulated awareness of national themes. In November 1883 he initiated annual student exhibitions, and on his advice the travelling scholarship was introduced in 1887. The student exhibitions were commended in the press but he was later criticized for teaching the Munich method of painting with a bituminous base. Among his students were Frederick McCubbin, David Davies, John Longstaff, Rupert Bunny, Emanuel Phillips Fox and Aby Altson. McCubbin later wrote: 'The influence of Folingsby was a great stimulus to us all'. Alexander Colquhoun found his attitude 'intimate and stimulating'; Bunny felt he had to 'unlearn nothing'. The academic method was, however, considered detrimental to landscape painting.

As director, Folingsby reorganized the gallery and advised the trustees on purchases. He discontinued the frequent cleaning and restoration of paintings, and obtained much needed studios for the Art School. As a painter he was not involved in local art and art organizations, but exhibited with the Victorian Academy of Art in March 1883 and by invitation briefly joined the Australian Artists' Association in 1887.

The National Gallery of Victoria has Folingsby's 'Bunyan in Prison' and 'First Meeting between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn' as well as various studies, including landscapes. His completed works are realistic, carefully arranged and meticulous in finish; some of his studies are very free and spontaneous. The Historical Collection of the La Trobe Library, Melbourne, has his portraits of William Saurin Lyster, 1883, Sir Charles Sladen, 1884, and James Service, 1886. Mitchell Library, Sydney, has his portrait of Sir Hercules Robinson. Folingsby's wife Clara, née Wagner, then a recognized landscapist, is represented by broad and high-keyed studies in the National Gallery of Victoria. Folingsby died on 4 January 1891 and was buried in the Church of England section of Kew cemetery, Melbourne. He was survived by his daughter Grace.

His portrait by Sir John Longstaff is in the State Library of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria (Melb, 1880, 1883-92)
  • Gemmell, Tuckett & Co., Catalogue of Oil Paintings … of the Late G. F. Folingsby … to be Sold by Auction (Melb, 1891)
  • E. La T. Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria: 1856-1906 (Melb, 1906)
  • J. MacDonald, foreword, The Art of Frederick McCubbin (Melb, 1916)
  • A. Colquhoun, Frederick McCubbin: A Consideration (Melb, c1919)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1891
  • Table Talk, 9 Jan, 20 Mar 1891
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1932
  • Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, minutes, 1882-90 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ruth Zubans, 'Folingsby, George Frederick (1828–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Frederick Folingsby (1828-1891), by John Longstaff

George Frederick Folingsby (1828-1891), by John Longstaff

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H247

Life Summary [details]


23 August, 1828
Wicklow, Ireland


4 January, 1891 (aged 62)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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