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John Harford Reed (1901–1981)

by Richard Haese

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Lelda Sunday Reed

John Reed, with his wife, Sunday Reed, by Albert Tucker, 1943

John Reed, with his wife, Sunday Reed, by Albert Tucker, 1943

State Library of Victoria, 23287647

John Harford Reed (1901-1981), solicitor, publisher and art patron, and Lelda Sunday (1905-1981), art patron, were husband and wife.  John was born on 10 December 1901 at Logan, Evandale, Tasmania, fourth of six children of Henry Reed, a wealthy English-born grazier, and his wife Lila Borwick, née Dennison, born in the Orkney Islands, Scotland.  John was the grandson of Henry Reed and the brother of Cynthia Nolan and Henry Dennison Reed.  Sunday was born on 15 October 1905 at Camberwell, Melbourne, third of four children of Victorian-born parents Arthur Sydney Baillieu, accountant, and his wife Ethel Mary, née Ham.  Her father was a younger brother of W. L. Baillieu.

John Reed grew up in the family homes, Logan and Mount Pleasant, in an austere evangelical atmosphere.  As a child he accompanied his family to England and was enrolled as a boarder at Pinewood preparatory school, Farnborough, before attending Cheltenham College.  On the outbreak of World War I he returned to Australia and boarded (1915-21) at Geelong Church of England Grammar School.  Returning to England, he read arts and law at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (BA, LL.B, 1924).  Of medium height and lean, with striking good looks and a shock of black hair, he was described by a Cambridge friend as appearing 'like the principal figure out of a possible Conrad novel'.  He undertook further studies at the University of Melbourne (LL.B, 1926) and joined the law firm Blake & Riggall in 1926, becoming a partner in 1933.  Resigning in 1935, he set up in private practice in Collins House, Melbourne, headquarters of the Baillieu family’s businesses.

Sunday Baillieu was taught until the age of 15 by a governess at the family home, Balholmen, Toorak, before completing her education at St Catherine’s School, Windsor.  In 1924 she accompanied her family to England, where she was presented at court during the débutante season.  Although she could not be described as a conventional beauty, with her willowy figure and long pre-Raphaelite features set off by a fashionable bob, she was attractive to men.  Back in Melbourne, she met Leonard Quinn, an American who had lived in England, and on 31 December 1926 married him with Catholic rites at Sorrento.  They spent two years (1927-29) in Europe, travelling in France and England.  In 1929 in Paris Sunday was diagnosed with gonorrhoea; the disease, and a subsequent operation, left her unable to bear children and deaf in her right ear.  Quinn deserted her and her father and brother travelled to London to bring her home.

While Sunday was convalescing she met John Reed at a tennis party in late 1930.  Despite the difficulty of obtaining a divorce, family influence and connections prevailed and Sunday’s divorce was finalised in June 1931.  She married him on 13 January 1932 in the Ascension Chapel of St Paul’s Church of England Cathedral, Melbourne.  The marriage was formally registered with the state but not recorded in the cathedral’s register.  Although they shared wealthy and privileged backgrounds, the Reeds were perhaps unlikely partners.  However, the emotionally repressed John found someone with a clear and direct approach to life who 'provided the sort of challenge I had never had to meet before'.  In John, Sunday found a rock-like support that enabled her to cope with her introversion and highly strung temperament.

Before meeting Sunday, John had already begun to mix with artists, although they were in the main conservative figures such as Harold Herbert, James MacDonald and Will Dyson.  Sunday’s art connections were more long-standing.  (Sir) Arthur Streeton, especially, had been a family friend and had painted her dancing in the moonlight at Merthon, the family holiday house at Point King, Mornington Peninsula.  Living in South Yarra, John and Sunday Reed began to cultivate the circle of modernist artists forming the core of Melbourne’s bohemia in the 1930s, together with a group of progressive professionals who were drawn to modernism.  They included the designer Fred Ward, the painters Moya Dyring and Sam Atyeo, H. V. Evatt and his artist wife Mary Alice, and the psychiatrist Reg Ellery.  John’s sister Cynthia was also a part of this circle.  For a time Sunday attended the Bell-Shore modern art school, but soon abandoned her student painting efforts.

In 1934 the Reeds bought a small but elegant weatherboard farmhouse near Heidelberg (Bulleen), north-east of Melbourne, together with fifteen acres (6 ha) of land backing on to the Yarra River.  Taking up residence in 1935, they renovated the house and named it Heide.  This property became the centre of their partnership, friendships and sponsorship of artists.  They began extensive tree and rose plantings in what would become a celebrated garden, based on the informal principles of the English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.  By this time Sunday had embarked on a love affair with Sam Atyeo.  It ended when he left for Paris in 1936, plunging her into a state of deep nervous distress, which was relieved by a voyage to the United States of America to visit her younger brother Everard.

In July 1938 the Reeds were active in the formation of the Contemporary Art Society, established to promote modernist art as a counter to conservative forces in Australian art.  Later that year John met a young artist, (Sir) Sidney Nolan, who was also drawn into CAS.  Nolan was a key figure in a second circle of artists to whom the Reeds gave friendship and financial support at Heide over the following decade.  This group included Albert Tucker and his wife Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Danila Vassilieff and the writer Michael Keon.  By 1941 Nolan was living at Heide, having begun an intense relationship with Sunday.  In March 1942 Nolan enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces, spending almost three years in the Wimmera region; the Reeds supplied him with artists’ materials, picture frames and books, and Sunday visited him there occasionally.  Many have speculated on John’s apparent tolerance of this and her other affairs.  While he clearly suffered, his reply to questions on the matter appears to have drawn on his admiration for the ideas of Bertrand Russell and D. H. Lawrence:  'well, the more love in the world the better'.

John abandoned his legal practice in 1943 and with the Adelaide-based poet Max Harris established Reed & Harris to publish the art and literary magazine Angry Penguins, begun by Harris in 1940 at the University of Adelaide.  In 1944, the year of the Ern Malley hoax perpetrated by Harold Stewart and James McAuley, the partners included Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan.  The venture was financed almost wholly by Sunday’s inheritance.  The firm also published a number of radical books and, in 1946, the Angry Penguin Broadsheet and a news magazine, Tomorrow.  The notoriety of the Ern Malley hoax has obscured the contribution of the writers and artists associated with Angry Penguins and Reed & Harris.  They played an important role in developing a belated Australian experimentation with modernism and internationalism in writing and art.

By the end of World War II John and Sunday Reed were the foremost champions and supporters of modern art in Australia, paying regular stipends to several artists.  They were also sympathetic supporters of the Communist Party of Australia.  Their radicalism was acknowledged early by the artist Harold Herbert: 'there are only two things I hate in this world, modern art and communism, and you stand for both of them'.  John helped fund CPA candidates in Federal elections, despite fighting in the CAS, of which he was a vice-president, to ensure left-wing artists did not control the society.

In 1946 and 1947 Nolan painted his celebrated first Ned Kelly series at Heide with, it is said, contributions from Sunday.  The Reeds spent the winter of 1946 in Queensland and later that year disbanded Reed & Harris, absorbing the financial losses.  By July 1947 the relationship with Nolan was over.  He left Heide for Queensland and in 1948 married John’s sister Cynthia in Sydney.  An attempted reconciliation between the Reeds and Nolans at Heide in 1948 was a failure.  With the breakup of Albert Tucker’s marriage to Joy Hester, and their departure from Melbourne, the Reeds agreed to care for the Tuckers’ young son Sweeney, whom they later adopted.  In August 1948 they sailed with Sweeney for France, where they stayed for a year, endeavouring but failing to meet Picasso, while arranging for the Kelly paintings to be exhibited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris.

Early in the 1950s the Reeds revived the Melbourne branch of CAS and its Gallery of Contemporary Art.  A new group of artists and writers formed at Heide, including Charles Blackman, Barrett Reid, Laurence Hope and Georges and Mirka Mora.  With Max Harris and Barrett Reid they launched a new publishing venture, Ern Malley’s Journal (1952-55).  Around this time the Reeds were compelled to return many paintings in their possession to Nolan, although they retained the Ned Kelly series, which Sunday donated in 1977 to the National Gallery of Australia.  Using their own funds the Reeds transformed the CAS gallery in 1958 into the Museum of Modern Art (and Design) of Australia.  John was its director (1958-65) and their collection of Australian modernist art formed the core of the museum’s holdings.  Its finances were always a problem and in 1965 he gave up the struggle and resigned.

In 1961, spurred by Sunday’s enthusiasm, the Reeds engaged the architect David McGlashan to design them a modernist beach house at Aspendale.  Delighted with it, in 1964 they commissioned him to design a house at Heide, closer to the Yarra River.  In 1968 Heide II, built from white limestone, won the bronze medal for outstanding architecture from the Victorian chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.  It was, they said, 'a gallery to be lived in'.  Sunday and John created a new kitchen garden nearby and added Australian native plants to the garden.  They assisted Sweeney Reed in opening and operating (1967-68) an art gallery, Strines, which in turn brought a fourth generation of artists more distantly into the orbit of their patronage and support.  Sunday funded her longed-for bookshop, Eastend Booksellers (1966-69), on Exhibition Street, Melbourne, managed by Philip Jones.  In 1966 John Reed helped to organise the unsuccessful legal defence against charges of obscenity brought against the Sydney artist Mike Brown.

Neither John nor Sunday accepted the term 'patron', preferring 'fellow art workers' but, of course, they were patrons.  They lavished much of their wealth, the extent of which was often exaggerated by enemies and critics, in the cause of art.  John explained his attraction to the creative world:  'because I am not an "ideas" man myself, I am always drawn to those to whom ideas come freely'.  That was true of them both.  Although totally dependent on each other throughout their lives, their greatest intimacies were those in which they shared together in the creative genius of others.

The last decade of their lives was marked by pain, sadness and loss.  Sidney Nolan produced what Sunday called 'an evil book', Paradise Garden (1971).  It was a virulent poetic and visual attack on his relationship with both the Reeds.  In August 1972 they supported Sweeney in opening the Sweeney Reed Gallery, Fitzroy.  In 1976 Cynthia Nolan committed suicide in London and soon after Nolan married Sunday’s friend Mary Perceval, née Boyd.  Although Sunday had not seen Nolan since 1948, she wrote to Mary, 'I would give you tickets, money, everything, tomorrow, if you could bring Nolan to Heide to see me even five minutes'.  The breach was not healed; it was a loss that Sunday never accepted.  In 1979 Sweeney took his own life and in the same year John was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

In mid-1980 the Reeds moved back into Heide I, having sold Heide II and the bulk of their art collection to the Victorian government to form the nucleus of a new public art gallery.  Heide Park and Art Gallery (later the Museum of Modern Art at Heide) opened in November 1981 with an exhibition of the Ned Kelly paintings.  Sunday did not attend.  John, a believer in euthanasia, died at their home on 5 December that year and Sunday died there ten days later on 15 December.  Both were cremated and their ashes scattered at the base of an old river red gum on the hillside between their two houses at Heide.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Haese, Rebels and Precursors, 1981
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s, 1988
  • J. Burke (ed), Dear Sun, 1995
  • B. Reid and N. Underhill (eds), Letters of John Reed, 2001
  • J. Burke, The Heart Garden, 2004
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 December 1981, p 10
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 January 1982, p 12
  • Age (Melbourne), 'Good Weekend', 23 September 1995, p 18
  • Australian, 9 December 1981, p 12
  • Australian, 'Weekend Magazine', 12 December 1981, p 8
  • Australian, 6 January 1982, p 8
  • Corian, July 1985, p 176
  • Reed papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information
  • personal knowledge

Citation details

Richard Haese, 'Reed, John Harford (1901–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Reed, with his wife, Sunday Reed, by Albert Tucker, 1943

John Reed, with his wife, Sunday Reed, by Albert Tucker, 1943

State Library of Victoria, 23287647

Life Summary [details]


10 December, 1901
Logan, Evandale, Tasmania, Australia


5 December, 1981 (aged 79)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.