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O'Brien, Justin Maurice (1917–1996)

by Flavia Scardamaglia

This article was published online in 2021

Justin O'Brien in his studio, by Fiona McDougall, 1986.

Justin O'Brien in his studio, by Fiona McDougall, 1986.

© OneWorld Photo

Maurice Justin O’Brien (1917-1996), teacher and painter, was born on 2 August 1917 at Hurstville, New South Wales, third of five surviving children of locally born Maurice Joseph O’Brien, produce merchant, and his Irish-born wife Teresa Mary, née Sherin. Justin grew up in a devout Irish Catholic family and enjoyed a serene childhood on his family’s semi-rural property.

The O’Briens fostered an interest in music, theatre, and art in their children, and encouraged Justin’s enthusiasm for the arts. He realised at the age of six that he wanted to be a painter when, during a stay with relatives at Elizabeth Bay, he was given a set of coloured chalks, pencils, and drawing books by his aunt Louise. Aged thirteen, while completing his education at the Christian Brothers’ College, Waverley, he started tuition at the studio of the painter Edward M. Smith. He left school the following year to become Smith’s full-time apprentice. After four years at the studio, O’Brien taught art classes in Catholic schools. Growing in confidence, he was a finalist in the Archibald prize in 1937, 1938, and 1939. During this time, he met the art teacher Peter Dodd and the critic Peter Bellew, who invited him to join the Contemporary Art Society and the Fra Angelico Art Guild.

Volunteering for service in World War II, O’Brien enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 31 May 1940 and was posted to the 2/5th Australian General Hospital (AGH) as a nursing orderly. The unit arrived in the Middle East in November and relocated to Ekali, Greece, in April 1941. As the German army advanced, he was among the 165 personnel who remained to care for casualties and were taken as prisoners. For several months, the hospital continued to operate under German control. By January 1942 he was moved by cargo ship and cattle trucks to Stalag XXA, a prisoner-of-war camp at Toruń, Poland.

While detained, O’Brien developed friendships with other painters including the New Zealander Austen Deans and the English-born Australian Jesse Martin. He joined the camp’s theatre group, facilitated art classes, and painted, relying on voluntary aid organisations to provide art supplies. In October 1943, with Martin and others, he was taken to Barcelona, Spain, for repatriation following a prisoner exchange. He returned to Sydney in January 1944 and was posted to the 113th AGH, Concord. Artworks that he had completed while in captivity formed the core of a joint exhibition with Martin. Held in Sydney at the Macquarie Galleries in March 1944, the show was believed to be the first exhibition of returned servicemen’s art to be held in Australia.

On 27 July 1945 O’Brien was discharged from the army. Later that year he was appointed art master at Cranbrook School, Bellevue Hill. When not teaching, he continued painting, exhibiting, and undertaking commissions, and joined the Sydney Group of modernist painters. By 1946 he was living at Merioola, a Victorian mansion at Woollahra that was run as a boarding house for bohemians by ‘Chica’ Edgeworth Lowe. O’Brien considered this period one of the happiest and most formative of his life; he lived alongside and met other artists, several of whom became lifelong friends. The next year he held his first solo exhibition at the David Jones Art Gallery under the direction of Marion Hall Best.

In 1948 O’Brien took a two-year sabbatical from Cranbrook and proceeded overseas. He rented a flat in London and travelled in Spain, France, and Italy. At a solo exhibition at London’s Hanover Gallery in July 1949, his works were praised for their ‘glory in brilliant colours’ (Age 1949, 1). Back in Sydney, he won the inaugural (1951) Blake prize for religious art with the triptych The Virgin Enthroned, later bought by the Felton Bequest trustees for the National Gallery of Victoria. Several commissions followed, including for the new chapel of the St Xavier Cabrini Hospital, Malvern, and the Mary Immaculate Church, Ivanhoe. In 1962 he was awarded the Darcy Morris memorial prize with the triptych The Dormition of the Virgin. Although often described as a religious painter, he believed that more accurately he was a ‘painter of religious subjects’ (Beeby 1984, 5), having been agnostic since the mid-1950s.

At the end of 1963 O’Brien again left Cranbrook to travel to Europe, including four months on the Greek island of Skyros with the artists Jeffrey Smart and Brian Dunlop. The trio leased a fisherman’s cottage and worked on landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. He returned to Australia in mid-1965. His solo exhibition in July, featuring Skyros-inspired subjects and themes, attracted large crowds and sold quickly. At the end of 1966 O’Brien resigned from Cranbrook to dedicate his time to painting. After another prolific stay on Skyros, he moved to Rome. In early 1968 he was commissioned to create a mosaic to represent the southern hemisphere for the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth and asked his Roman friend and pupil Egidio Scardamaglia to pose for the angel. By then, O’Brien had decided to relocate to Italy permanently. There Scardamaglia, his wife, and their two daughters would become his adoptive family.

Although O’Brien’s work was inspired by the art, culture, and environment of Europe, he continued to paint for the Australian market, and returned regularly to stage exhibitions. He considered that a ‘classical religious subject’ allowed him to use his ‘imagination freely’ (Pearce and Wilson 2010, 38, 40), but to some critics his work seemed old-fashioned. For a period his work was eagerly snapped up by private collectors rather than galleries. In 1973 his painting The Raising of Lazarus was accepted into the modern religious art wing of the Vatican Museums. His seventieth birthday brought wider recognition, with the National Gallery of Victoria, and the S. H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney holding retrospective exhibitions of his work. In 1992 he was appointed AM.

O’Brien was fondly recalled as ‘unpretentious, easy-going, loyal, and affectionate’ (Phelan 1996, 12), with a doe-eyed gentle appearance that belied his wicked sense of humour and occasional spells of bloody-mindedness. He had ‘a gift for real friendship’ and ‘a feeling for entertainment,’ while ‘his homosexuality coloured his life, nearly causing him to have a nervous breakdown in his younger years’ (Rotelli 1997). During 1989 he spent several months in Sydney and underwent radiotherapy treatment for cancer before returning to Rome. On 17 January 1996 he died at the Salvator Mundi Hospital in Rome after complications arising from bone cancer and was buried in Moiano cemetery, Perugia. A memorial service was held later that month at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney. Portraits by Brian Westwood (1980) and Brian Seidel (1984) are held at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. In 2010 the Art Gallery of New South Wales opened a major retrospective tracing O’Brien’s career.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Makes Color Stand Out.’ 21 July 1949, 1
  • Beeby, Rosslyn. ‘Artist Finds Christianity a Source of Inspiration.’ Age (Melbourne), 1 October 1984, 5
  • Bradley, Anthony. The Art of Justin O’Brien. Foreword by Mervyn Horton. Sydney: Craftsman’s Press, 1982
  • France, Christine. Justin O’Brien: Image and Icon. Seaforth, NSW: Craftsman House, 1997
  • Grishin, Sasha. ‘Justin O’Brien in Retrospect.’ In Justin O’Brien: A Survey Exhibition 1938–1995. 3 October to 19 October 2006, 3–19. Brisbane: Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, 2006. Exhibition catalogue
  • Hunter, Catherine, dir. ‘Justin O’Brien. The Sacred Music of Colour.’ Catherine Hunter Productions. Compass. ABC Television. Season 34, episode 21, aired 26 July 2020
  • McDonald, John. ‘Saints in Fancy Dress Reveal a Lack of Faith.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 2011, 12
  • McDonald, John. ‘All Roads Still Lead to Rome.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1990, 76
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX23439
  • O’Brien, Justin. Interview by Barbara Blackman, 1986. National Library of Australia
  • O’Brien, Justin. Interview by Heather Rusden, 15 November 1989. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Pearce, Barry, and Natalie Wilson. Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2010. Exhibition catalogue
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Phelan, Nancy. ‘Holy O’Brien: A Gift for Intimacy.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1996, Arts 12
  • Rotelli, Marian. Memories of Justin O’Brien, letter to Martin Sharp, 24 February 1997. Cranbrook School Archives

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Flavia Scardamaglia, 'O'Brien, Justin Maurice (1917–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-justin-maurice-31177/text38564, published online 2021, accessed online 8 December 2021.

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