Entirely overlooked by the Hollywood scriptwriters whose recent movie hailed the military unit that saved great works of art from Europe’s rubble in the dying days of the World War II, Tom Dunbabin and John McDonnell deserve not merely to to be remembered but celebrated
Aeneas John Lindsay McDonnell (1904–64) was born in Toowoomba and educated at Cranbrook School in Sydney, where he developed his early interest in art. In 1928 he joined in the partnership which ran the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney. He had a particular interest in French art and architecture, spoke fluent French and travelled widely. He later became private secretary to the Governor of Queensland. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the Red Cross in April 1940, serving in Africa and the Middle East until 1943. In May 1944, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was commissioned as a lieutenant and then seconded to special duty with the British forces.
Owing to his expertise in art and his fluency in French, he was then assigned to the Civil Affairs Division of the Allied Armies as an Australian representative to the SHAEF Mission to France in early 1945. “At SHAEF Headquarters in London, McDonnell was tasked with creating the MFAA (Commission on Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) Handbook for France alongside Monuments Officers Walter Hancock and Bancel LaFarge.” The MFAA was established by a directive of President Roosevelt:
to protect cultural artifacts and monuments from war damage [and] then afterwards, [to] repatriate cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners when and where possible. [It] was comprised of about 350 to 400 men and women who were trained as museum directors, curators, art historians and educators. From 1943 till the cessation of hostilities, officers of MFAA saved and protected countless cultural artifacts, monuments and churches across Western Europe.
The MFAA’s work has been described in L.H. Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (1994) and by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter in The Monuments Men (2010). McDonnell’s service as a Monuments Officer took him throughout the American and British Zones in Occupied Europe. In May 1945 he was with Lieutenant Commander Charles Kuhn, Deputy Adviser to the MFAA, during the ten-day inspection of Nazi art repositories in Germany. At Altaussee, McDonnell examined the Ghent Altarpiece by Van Eyck and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo. He also saw the very large collection of looted French art stored by the Nazis at the Schloss Neuschwanstein. He headed the first conference of the Archivists of the British Zone held at Bunde in 1946.
McDonnell (left) was appointed an Officer of the Legion of Honour by the French government and was awarded the Australian Service Medal, the British War Medal (with the Mentioned in Despatches Oakleaf), and the France and Germany Star. His decorations set is now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial.
After his discharge in January, 1947, with the honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel, McDonnell was appointed to be the London adviser to the Felton Bequest for the benefit of the National Gallery of Victoria, in which capacity he served until his untimely death in 1964. He worked closely with Sir Kenneth Clark and other art historians in London and on the Continent, on the Bequest’s campaign to augment the collections of the NGV. Among the major works the NGV acquired through the Felton Bequest during McDonnell’s time as its London adviser were paintings by Poussin, Rembrandt and Gainsborough, as well as the collection of Albrecht Durer prints amassed by Sir Thomas Barlow of Manchester.
McDonnell was one of the two Australians who served with the Allied “Monuments Men” in Europe from 1943 to 1947. The other was Thomas James Dunbabin (1911–55) a classical scholar and archaeologist who served with SOE on Crete (alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor) from 1942 to 1945, after which he worked in Athens as the Director of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied Forces in Greece. Later, he returned to Oxford University, becoming Reader in Classical Archaeology and All Souls Bursar in 1950. His best-known published work is The Western Greeks: The History of Sicily and South Italy from the Foundation of the Greek Colonies to 480 BC (1948). Dunbabin died of pancreatic cancer at the age of only forty-four on March 31, 1955.
Dunbabin (right) was born in Tasmania, the son of the celebrated Australian journalist Thomas Dunbabin. He was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. As Derby Scholar in 1933, he travelled extensively in Sicily and southern Italy and by 1936 was already the youthful Director of the British School at Athens. With the onset of the war he:
was commissioned into the British Intelligence Corps where he worked in the War Office. He then volunteered for duty in occupied Crete in early 1942. He was well known among resistance leaders for the black shepherd’s cloak and cowl he often wore. Dunbabin’s reconnaissance missions included reporting on the construction of the Tymbaki aerodrome, which he observed from a tree overlooking the runway. His report enabled the RAF to complete a successful bombing run just before the aerodrome was to support German military operations in Libya. In 1945, Dunbabin was sent to Athens to work as the [Monuments] Director [and] after the War, he continued his study of Greek archaeology at Oxford under Sir John Beazley … He was awarded the [Greek] Order of the Phoenix in 1947 … He travelled widely giving lectures, including a trip to the Near East on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship in 1952.
During the war, Dunbabin held the rank of lieutenant-colonel and served as an SOE Field Commander on Crete, where he played a key role in organising the local resistance and was awarded the DSO. On Crete, he used the Greek codename “Yanni”, and was also known as “o Tom”.
The courageous doings of Tom Dunbabin during his SOE service on Crete have been described in more detail by his cousin, also named Tom Dunbabin, in the book Tom J. Dunbabin: An Archaeologist at War, which appeared as the sixth in the series published by the Society for Cretan Historical Studies, based in Heraklion. It is a worthy tribute indeed. Whilst Dunbabin had his postwar career tragically cut short and spent most of that period in the United Kingdom, he still remained well known to Australian scholars for The Western Greeks, but memory of his contribution as one of the “Monuments Men” deserves to be brought into greater prominence as well; and this is starting to happen.
Aeneas McDonnell (usually known as John) also stayed in England after the war, but he became more widely known in Australia due to his role as London adviser to the Felton Bequest at a time—the two decades after the war—when the Bequest reached what its historian John Poynter has termed the “Apogee”. Interest in the arts was beginning to widen and deepen in Australia, helped along by the post-war economic boom and relative prosperity, when Australians had encouragement from the federal government (especially in connection with the Federation Jubilee Year in 1951) and also some arts initiatives from state governments. One can see this growth of interest in the arts in, for example, the entries on such developments in The Australian Encyclopaedia (1958).
It is of some interest to see how McDonnell came to the post and how he had such an enormous influence on the augmentation and broadening of the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection through the Felton Bequest. Whilst earlier London advisers, such as Frank Rinder and others, had benefited the NGV through great Felton purchases—for example, Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra from the Soviets when they sold off Hermitage artworks in 1933—it is clear that when Sir Kenneth Clark and then McDonnell came to the fore in the post-war period, some very great acquisitions came about, including the celebrated Melbourne Poussin, The Crossing of the Red Sea and others.
Dr Leonard Cox’s history The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1968 tells how McDonnell was appointed as London Felton adviser. Sir Kenneth Clark, on accepting the Slade Professorship of Fine Arts at Oxford, resigned as London adviser, which he had been since 1945. NGV Director Sir Daryl Lindsay recommended McDonnell, an Australian already based in London and with impressive experience, from his early time in the Australian art world before the war and also from his exposure to the great galleries of Europe and the London art world, and his service as a “Monuments Man”. These factors added up to a very positive recommendation and McDonnell was appointed, but with an arrangement that Clark would still be consulted and involved in an advisory capacity for major purchases. It was a useful arrangement, and it was to bear very fine fruit, quite soon.
Cox devoted about 150 pages to the period of McDonnell’s advisership, and one whole chapter to “John McDonnell as Felton Adviser”. Cox points to highlights of acquisitions secured by McDonnell, including Lord Radnor’s Poussin picture through Agnews in London in 1948, Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception (both with Clark’s advice) and Landseer’s The Earl and Countess of Sefton as well as pictures by Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Walter Sickert and Duncan Grant and sculptures by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and Maillol. Of great importance also was McDonnell’s successful recommendation of the portrait group by Jacopo Amigoni (1675–1740) depicting the singer Farinelli and His Friends. This was acquired for the reasonable price of 2200 pounds. It remains an important and popular work in the NGV collection.
McDonnell visited Melbourne in 1949 to consult with the Felton Committee and the NGV about the development of the collection. In 1951, when Sir Daryl Lindsay was about to retire, there was a suggestion that McDonnell be approached to come to Melbourne as Director, but whether McDonnell ever got wind of this, Cox indicates that in any event he had no interest in leaving London. It was nevertheless a measure of the esteem in which McDonnell was held. McDonnell continued to secure many fine works for the NGV through the Felton until he became seriously ill in 1961.
This essay appeared in the November, 2016, edition of Quadrant.
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Whilst there was occasional disquiet from some quarters that McDonnell’s purchases of works by contemporary English painters seemed to be of a selection of works of current “names”, but not necessarily of the highest enduring quality, the fact was that McDonnell scored many triumphs over his nearly two decades of service as the Felton’s London adviser. Whilst he may not always have adhered strictly to the stated Felton policy of “select the best and reject the rest”, his judgments were on the whole good, and the NGV and the people of Australia owe him a great debt.
When McDonnell came out of hospital in December, 1963, the Felton Committee sent him messages of support and good wishes for his recovery, but he died suddenly at the home of a friend in London on January 13, 1964. Sir Trenchard Cox said in an obituary notice in the Times:
His great charm of manner, and diplomacy, made him many friends, and he travelled widely in Europe, America and the Middle and Far East. He found in himself a love of art at an early age, which he satisfied by the purchase of fine books and pictures. This he developed into a connoisseurship in many fields of the fine arts. His taste was not only contemporary, but in the art of all countries, at all periods of time, so that later in his flat in Lowndes Street, his friends might find modern French painting, sculpture, and examples of ancient Chinese and Japanese art, set in an arrangement united by some mysterious common quality … John McDonnell put his gifts of perception and discrimination to great use in a variety of fields ancient and modern in painting, sculpture, furniture, textiles and oriental art. He had important friendly connections with numerous specialists and scholars, and with collectors and dealers … His taste, general knowledge, connoisseurship, and gift of friendship, were all exceptional, and it will be difficult to find another with all these qualities.
It is worthwhile to reflect that during the Second World War, and well before the post-war explosion of interest in the arts in Australia, this country was able to provide two such fine examples of an officer-scholar in Tom Dunbabin and an officer-connoisseur in Aeneas John McDonnell, both of whom (along with the New Zealander Sir Gilbert Archey, shown in later life at right) served so effectively with the Allied Forces Monuments and Fine Arts service in the European theatre and also later made such contributions to their own fields respectively as archaeologist and as adviser to the Felton Bequest. In May 2014, the United States Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the MFAA unit in recognition of its work.
The sighting, on a recent visit to Rome, at the Mausoleum of Augustus, of the remaining traces of the UNESCO symbol intended to mark places of world heritage significance and especially as a marker against bombardment in wartime, is a timely reminder of the threat there is now to places and things of critical importance to the cultural history of the West. We have already seen the destruction of major cultural sites in the Middle East, in an age now when the fabric of all that is best in the achievement of the Western heritage is traduced and attacked by forces that receive the support of groups within the West who are what Sir Kenneth Clark in 1968 called “the bankrupt heirs” of the fruits of a tradition they want to deny, debunk and destroy. In Tom Dunbabin and John McDonnell we saw an entirely different spirit, one to be praised and valued in these precarious times.
Dr Douglas Hassall is a frequent contributor to Quadrant on the arts