Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Robert Lawson (1860–1926)

by Max Kelly

This article was published:

James Robert Lawson (1860-1926), auctioneer, was born on 10 October 1860 at Pyrmont, Sydney, second of nine children of James Lawson, publican from Scotland, and his Yorkshire-born wife Emma, née Glen. About 1864 his father set up a furniture warehouse and later also as a cabinetmaker. James was apprenticed to his father and had an early training in quality furnishings. Describing himself as an importer, he married Maria Rossiter at St Paul's Anglican Church, Canterbury, on 20 January 1885. They visited London where Lawson 'studied all aspects of the auctioneering business and also fine art, antiques'.

On his return he set up as a cabinetmaker and in 1886 established Jones, Lawson Bros & Co., auctioneers, with premises at 39 Castlereagh Street. It was the first of many short-lived partnerships, some of which ended acrimoniously. In 1887 he auctioned the contents of four Irish country houses, a collection which W. Hardy Wilson noted in 1922 was 'by far the most important sale of pictures and antiques that had been held in Australia'. In partnership with Francis Broughton by 1889, Lawson petitioned to be declared bankrupt on 3 March 1891 because of his partner's insolvency. He moved to smaller rooms but fire destroyed 'all assets, books and private papers' of his new firm, Lawson Bros & Co., and an office clerk was later convicted of embezzling £600. Lawson owed £2098. He worked as an auctioneer for Harris & Ackman and was discharged from bankruptcy on 8 February 1893.

In partnership with John Charles Smith by 1896, Lawson auctioned some 5000 books, including two volumes of autographed letters, for Sir Henry Parkes, in March. After Smith's death in 1899 he set up Lawson, Caro & Co. Ltd, trading at 128-130 Pitt Street, until the partnership was voluntarily dissolved on 17 March 1904. On 31 March, with William Augustus Little, he formed James R. Lawson & Little, Pitt Street, which lasted until 1914. Lawson then traded on his own until he took his sons into partnership in 1921.

Almost all notable collections sold by auction in Sydney passed through Lawson's rooms. They included the dispersal of the effects of the late Miss Wentworth of Vaucluse House in February 1900. In August 1916 he was at the late John Norton's house, St Helena, to sell its contents—rooms filled with massive furniture, costly pictures and Napoleonic relics. For the sale of Captain G. W. Eedy's treasures in 1921, he and J. R. Tyrrell arranged a throne draped with velvet to display each item, while Lawson 'waxed lyrical on the rostrum', a new practice that soon became common. As well as the fine arts, the firm had a large share of the ordinary second-hand trade and often sold surplus effects for the government.

Lawson, always dressed for the occasion, auctioned with style and kept tight control of the crowd. He was delightfully portrayed by Norman Lindsay as a koala wearing top hat and frock coat. According to his son, Lawson 'had an outstanding personality, a brilliant brain and also a great love of the good things of life. His business integrity was of the highest'. He moved house many times, living at Canterbury in 1904-19, Clifton Gardens in 1920-25 and Turramurra where he died of cerebro-vascular disease on 5 November 1926; he was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife, two sons and four daughters survived him and inherited his estate valued for probate at £32,243. The firm was carried on at 236 Castlereagh Street by his son Maxwell until 1969.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Tyrrell, Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney (Syd, 1952)
  • T. Ingram, A Question of Polish (Syd, 1979)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Sept 1896, 6 Nov 1926
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 Nov 1926
  • M. J. Lawson, Notes, and M. B. Reymond, Lawson's (manuscripts, privately held)
  • bankruptcy file no 3391 (State Records New South Wales)
  • New South Wales Companies Office, company packets, no 1839 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Max Kelly, 'Lawson, James Robert (1860–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 October, 1860
Pyrmont, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


5 November, 1926 (aged 66)
Turramurra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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