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Ivor Pengelly Francis (1906–1993)

by Jane Hylton

This article was published:

Ivor Pengelly Francis (1906–1993), artist, teacher, and art critic, was born on 13 March 1906 at Uckfield, Sussex, England, eldest of three children of Ivor Francis, journeyman ironmonger, and his wife Florence Keziah Francis, née Wheatley. He was educated at Merton Court Preparatory School in Kent, followed by Woodbridge School in Suffolk.  Prior to emigrating under an assisted scheme, Ivor worked as a photographer’s apprentice. On 19 February 1924 he arrived in Adelaide and was joined by his parents and two sisters the next year. He initially worked on Eyre Peninsula as a farm hand.

To meet a pressing need for teachers in rural areas, the South Australian government advertised for trainees. Francis was given a trial at Elliston, then appointed to Marratta in 1925. The local inspector saw his potential and encouraged him to apply for the one year course speedily developed at Adelaide Teachers’ College to meet the shortage. He completed the course in 1926 and taught at a number of schools in rural South Australia until he was posted to suburban Adelaide in 1930. He continued teaching until moving into broadcasting in 1948.

From 1926 to 1940 Francis studied part time at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts where his teachers included Marie Tuck, Mary P. Harris, and Louis McCubbin. On 21 January 1931 at St Margaret’s Anglican Church, Woodville, he married Ethel Saunders (d. 1986), whom he had met while teaching at Jamestown, north of Adelaide. She became his greatest critic and supporter. They initially settled at Prospect but from 1957 lived at Crafers in the Adelaide Hills.

By the mid-1930s Francis was rising to prominence as an artist. During the very early stages of his artistic career he showed exceptional ability in design and composition. In 1936 he was awarded the McGregor memorial prize (poster design), and in 1939 won the John White prize (landscape painting, South Australia). He participated in exhibitions of contemporary art including, in 1942, the controversial breakaway show First Exposition: Royal South Australian Society of Arts Associate Contemporary Group. In the same year he was a foundation committee member of the newly formed Contemporary Art Society of Australia (South Australian branch), later chairman in 1944, and became a spokesperson for contemporary art. He organised a second highly contentious exhibition of contemporary art in Adelaide, The Anti-Fascist Exhibition, in 1943. His painting, Finality Concept, showed ‘how human life is made uniform and mechanical in the Fascist way of life, and that man loses his personality in the machine of State.’(News, 1943, 6). In 1944 he was appointed a fellow of the Royal South Australian Society of Arts (RSASA), serving as vice-president from 1953 to 1955.

From the early 1940s Francis published articles on contemporary art in journals including Angry Penguins and the South Australian Teachers’ Journal. He was art critic with the News (1944-56), and continued critical writing until 1977, editing and publishing his monthly Ivor’s Art Review (1956-60), and contributing to the Sunday Mail (1965-74) and the Advertiser (1974–77). From 1948 until his retirement in 1968 he was supervisor of youth education, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Adelaide. 

During the 1940s his interest in surrealism grew, as shown in both his painting and his writing, causing the leading Adelaide poet and the inaugural editor of the Angry Penguins magazine, Max Harris, to dub him ‘Apocalypt’. It is for paintings from this period that he is best known, despite having a productive painting career spanning six decades. A surrealistic theme runs through much of his work, and an underlying despair at mankind’s continuing capacity for self-extermination.

Francis exhibited regularly in group exhibitions, and in 1945 had a joint exhibition with Douglas Roberts.  However, he had only four one-person exhibitions during his career: 1948 at the John Martin’s Gallery, Adelaide; 1965 at the RSASA; 1978 at Avenel Bee Gallery in the Adelaide Hills and the 1987 retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. His work Schizophrenia, painted in 1943, was his first to enter a public collection (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1945) and he is well-represented in major public collections throughout Australia. Five of his paintings were included in Aspects of Australian Surrealism 1976 (AGSA) and three in the major international survey Surrealism: Revolution by Night, 1993 (National Gallery of Australia).

The recipient of an Australia Council emeritus award in 1988, Francis was appointed AO for his service to art as a painter, critic, and teacher in 1989. ‘A gentle, thoughtful, softly spoken man’ (Advertiser, 1987, 38) who championed artistic innovation, he died on 6 November 1993 in Adelaide, and was cremated. His autobiography, Goodbye to the City of Dreams, was published in 2004.

Research edited by Kylie Carman-Brown

Select Bibliography

  • Harris, Samela. ‘Ivor Francis looking back with a sort of wonderment’, Advertiser, 11 July 1987, 38.   Hylton, Jane. Ivor Francis: An Adelaide Modernist. Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1987.   Hylton, Jane. Adelaide Angries: South Australian Painting of the 1940s. Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1989.   Ward, Peter, ‘The Penguin’s day has finally arrived’, Australian, 4 August 1987, 7.    

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Citation details

Jane Hylton, 'Francis, Ivor Pengelly (1906–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 29 May 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 19

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