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Norman Macgeorge (1872–1952)

by Ray Marginson

This article was published:

Norman Macgeorge (1872-1952), artist and art patron, was born on 8 July 1872 in Adelaide, son of Alexander Macgeorge, prosperous draper and later land agent, and his second wife Rachel Elizabeth, née Luxmoore. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, he studied art at the Adelaide School of Design under Harry Gill and the National Gallery School, Melbourne. After being placed third in 1899 for the gallery's travelling scholarship, behind Max Meldrum and Hugh Ramsay, he travelled independently to Britain and Europe.

Drawing master at Wesley College, Melbourne, in 1902-06, Macgeorge introduced 'freehand drawing and perspective as a regular form subject throughout the school', a study that was closer to his heart than the regions of 'strict geometry'. He also taught at Melbourne Teachers' College and, in 1902-32, at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. Tall, athletic, clean-shaven and well-groomed, he belied the conventional artist's image; his students derived pleasure from counting 'the number of his new suits'.

On 25 January 1911 at Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, Macgeorge married May Ina Hepburn, granddaughter of the pioneering pastoralist Captain John Hepburn. On the unanimous advice of his painter friends, he engaged Harold Desbrowe Annear to design a house for him at 25 Riverside Road, Ivanhoe, at the junction of the Yarra River and Darebin Creek. The formal garden layout was the work of Blamire Young. Here Macgeorge lived until his death, journeying to Europe on occasion and absorbing new developments. He used his financial security to aid the course of art and artists, and his area of interest was broad, encompassing literature and ballet. With his wife he welcomed his contemporaries and the young to the relaxing ambience of his home, Fairy Hills, with its talk-filled dinners and summer punting-parties.

Just too late to be part of the Heidelberg movement, Macgeorge painted lyrical and contemplative landscapes—yet his personal stance accommodated the new developments in Europe. But although seen by contemporaries as leaning towards the avant garde and with an understanding of the modern movement, Macgeorge was never entirely at ease with the German Expressionists, the Cubists or Picasso and his contemporaries. In an article contributed from London to Art in Australia in 1930 he said of the German salon at the Biennial International Exhibition at Venice, 'Germany has entirely cast aside the trammels of convention and tradition at the risk of becoming neurotic and even repulsive'.

Macgeorge was active in art education and politics. He was second president of the Australian Art Association, founded in 1912. He wrote for the Melbourne Herald, lectured to university extension classes, and exhibited. One of the group that opposed (Sir) Robert Menzies' dream of an Australian Academy of Art (1937-46), he helped to establish the Contemporary Art Society in 1938 in opposition to it. He delivered the society's third lecture, largely on the artistic bankruptcy of commercial painters. At his own expense he published two works which showed his wide understanding of the continuous fabric of all art: Borovansky Ballet in Australia and New Zealand (1946) and The Arts in Australia (1948).

Norman Macgeorge died, childless, on 2 September 1952 and was cremated. His estate of £11,867 was bequeathed, after the death of his wife in 1970, to the University of Melbourne. They wished their home to continue to be a centre for encouragement of the arts, especially to benefit students. The university established the Macgeorge Bequest and set up a committee of management for the property. Successive artists-in-residence at the university have lived there.

Macgeorge is represented in several collections of major institutions. The National Gallery of Victoria has the oil painting for which he is best known, a 'large, delicately high-keyed work', 'Mother of Pearl'. The University of Melbourne has significant examples of his oil landscapes and a large collection of his watercolours. It also holds the major portrait in oils of him, by his friend Napier Waller. In 1979 Macgeorge was one of 'Five Artists from Heidelberg', a retrospective exhibition at the Banyule Gallery by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Liber Melburniensis (Melb, 1937)
  • Wesley College Chronicle, Apr 1902
  • Art in Australia, no 2, Nov 1922, no 42, Feb 1932, no 76, Aug 1939
  • Melb Teachers' College, Trainee, 1965
  • Australian Art Association catalogues (State Library of Victoria)
  • manuscript collection relating to N. and M. Macgeorge (State Library of Victoria)
  • Macgeorge papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Ray Marginson, 'Macgeorge, Norman (1872–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 July 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

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