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John Richard Passmore (1904–1984)

by Eileen Chanin

This article was published:

John Richard Passmore (1904-1984), artist, was born on 4 February 1904 at Redfern, Sydney, elder child of Sydney-born John Passmore, watchman, and Queensland-born Elizabeth Webber.  At 13 John left school; he first worked as a paint-mixer for a signwriter, so beginning his career as a commercial artist.  In the early 1920s he was employed by the Sydney advertising agency Smith & Julius, where he did some work for Lever Bros Pty Ltd.  While studying at Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School, he taught lettering there until 1932.  On 19 December 1925 at the Methodist parsonage, Marrickville, he married Muriel Roscoe, with whom he had a son.  They separated in 1933 when Passmore went to England, but they never divorced.

In London Passmore worked at Lintas Pty Ltd (part of Unilever Ltd) as a layout artist in 1933-39 and in 1947-50.  He attended evening classes at the Westminster School of Art from 1934, studying under Mark Gertler and Bernard Meninsky.  Regularly travelling on the Continent, he made an exhaustive study of artists such as Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Cézanne and Picasso.  He made close friends through Lintas, notably the artist Keith Vaughan and the art director Reg Jenkins, in whose Suffolk cottage Passmore lived and painted in 1940.  The following year he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force.

Passmore returned to Australia in 1951 and began teaching at the Julian Ashton School; John Olsen was one of his pupils.  In 1954 a productive period followed at Newcastle, where he taught for eighteen months at the Newcastle Technical College.  He transferred to the National Art School, East Sydney Technical College, as a full-time teacher in 1956.  Awarded the 1959 Helena Rubinstein travelling art scholarship, he took the opportunity to travel in Europe again, for twelve months.

His painting in the early 1950s was characterised by a humanistic phase; the Sydney waterfront and coastal strip, and its people, familiar from his childhood, were recurring subjects.  He had an eye for the significant gesture, and anecdote formed the core of his art.  Looking to Cézanne, he turned to abstract expressionism and was poised between figuration and abstraction.  Often grouped with Ian Fairweather and Godfrey Miller as one of the top three draughtsmen in Australia, he was highly regarded by his peers.  In Sydney he regularly exhibited with the Society of Artists and the Sydney Group.  He participated in Direction 1 (1956), the exhibition that is considered to have launched abstract expressionism in Sydney.

A seminal figure in Australia’s postwar art world, Passmore mentored a younger generation of artists, including John Firth-Smith, Ann Thomson and Keith Looby.  He cultivated a guru-like standing among his students and liked intrigue.  Secretive, self-doubting, contemptuous of commercial success, insular and given to uttering Delphic maxims, he was also mischievous, with an impish sense of humour.  He was of slight build, hook-nosed with intense blue eyes, and quietly spoken.  Believing that artists should paint, not talk, he said that ‘Painting is first, friendship the second’.

In the early 1960s, having suffered a mild heart attack, Passmore withdrew into his own world.  He resigned from East Sydney Technical College in 1962 and spent the last twenty years of his life as a recluse at Rushcutters Bay.  Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 9 October 1984 at Stanmore and was cremated.  In his will, written in May 1984, he made Elinor Wrobel the sole trustee of the Passmore Trust (she was to receive 270 paintings); he left about $70,000 to his son and widow.  After a legal challenge by his son, in 1989 a settlement was reached out of court.  His portrait (c.1933) by Adelaide Perry is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  A retrospective exhibition of his work, organised by that gallery, toured museums during 1985.  His work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, all State collections and many regional galleries and university collections.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Pearce, John Passmore 1904-84 (1984)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October 1984, p 4, 9 November 1989, p 3
  • National Times, 1-7 February 1985, p 27
  • Bulletin, 19 February 1985, p 32
  • Mercury (Hobart), 24 February 1985, p 3, 12 March 1985, p 14

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Eileen Chanin, 'Passmore, John Richard (1904–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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