In the Order of Merit there are many mansions—as befits an order which is both limited in the number of its company and is in the monarch’s personal gift. It was the creation early in his reign, in 1902, of that large-hearted man, King Edward VII. The membership of the order has, at various times, included a great and representative group of distinguished persons in all fields of achievement including, but not limited to, the arts and sciences. It has been given to such diverse persons as the uber-bohemian painter Augustus John, who took his place amongst other members of a much more conservative stamp. The order has not been limited just to Britons as such; many have been people from the Commonwealth countries, including Sir Owen Dixon, Dame Joan Sutherland and, most recently, John Howard.
Sir Owen Dixon (above) received the Order of Merit in 1963 and the insignia was conferred on him at Government House, Canberra, by the Governor-General, Viscount De L’Isle. In 2003, Philip Ayres brought out his detailed biography of Owen Dixon, and in that book, amongst so many other aspects of Dixon’s more personal and private life he touched upon Dixon’s service as a member and later chairman of the Felton Bequests Committee under the terms of the will of Alfred Felton, for the benefit and building up of the public collections of the National Gallery of Victoria.
This article notes the nature and level of Dixon’s service thus to the people of Victoria and of Australia generally. The main sources are Ayres’s biography Owen Dixon, and shorter pieces such as Sir Ninian Stephen’s Sir Owen Dixon: A Celebration (1986). There are also several insights to be found in Dixon’s extra-judicial writings. Dixon’s work in various other cultural directions has been somewhat obscured or, perhaps it is better to say overshadowed, by his prodigious contributions to the law, both as a practising barrister, a Bar leader and as a judge. In later life and in somewhat downcast autumnal mode, Dixon considered that his judicial work had been a more or less ephemeral distraction from his love of the Classics; and he spent a great deal of his retirement reading in the Greek and Latin texts from which he derived real balancing sustenance throughout his life. What follows is simply a record of an important aspect of this great man.
Some early tracings of Sir Owen Dixon’s role as a member and later chair of the Felton Bequests Committee appeared in Dr Leonard Cox’s history The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1969. Dr Cox was a long-serving member of the Felton Bequests Committee and other bodies relating to the NGV. Further detail emerges in Professor John Poynter’s more recent study Mr Felton’s Bequests (2003, new edition 2008). Sir Owen Dixon joined the committee on January 24, 1945, following the death of James Levey. Poynter notes that Dixon
brought to the Bequests Committee intellectual stature, integrity, humanity and a sharp wit, but no special knowledge of charity nor broad tastes in art; and characteristically accepted appointment only on condition that he gain no personal monetary benefit. Before appointing him, the Committee resolved that the 250 pounds which had been divided between the five committee members each year since 1922 be reduced to 200 pounds, divided among the other four.
Dixon served as one of the members of the committee until 1956, when he accepted appointment to the chairmanship of the committee, a post which he retained until August 1965. Three major events which occurred during Dixon’s time on the committee were the visit to Australia in 1949 by Sir Kenneth Clark to advise on the development of the NGV and its collection; the acquisition by the NGV under the Felton Bequest of Nicolas Poussin’s important work The Crossing of the Red Sea (1632–44), the pendant to his The Worship of the Golden Calf in the National Gallery, London; and the planning and design of the NGV’s new building in St Kilda Road.
First, however, must come Alfred Felton, the great benefactor. The dust-jacket of Poynter’s book pithily says of him:
Alfred Felton, a bachelor of definite opinions and benignly eccentric habits, was one of the remarkable group of Melbourne merchants who dominated the economy of the Australian colonies in the decades after the gold rush. In 1904 he left his substantial fortune in trust, the income to be spent by a Committee of his friends, half to charities (especially for women and children), and half on works of art for the National Gallery of Victoria, works calculated to “raise and improve public taste”. The Gallery suddenly gained acquisition funds greater than those of London’s National and Tate galleries combined and between 1904 and 2004 more than 15,000 items were purchased for it by the Felton Bequest.
Poynter’s detailed book covers and explores “a human story of many triumphs and occasional follies, of decisions made and unmade amid changing notions of art, philanthropy and public taste”. This field of interactions between benefactors and galleries is notoriously fraught with difficulties and disputes: after his retirement, Hal Missingham, a former Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, wrote a biography titled They Kill You in the End. Likewise, as Poynter notes:
The history of the [Felton] Art Bequest—like the history indeed, of any great gallery—could certainly be told as a succession of fumbles and blunders, of misunderstandings and malice; in art, this year’s coup is next decade’s folly, and the work dismissed as unworthy yesterday tops tomorrow’s auction. Thus the historian, as well as the buyer, must beware: and beware also of the vicissitudes of changing attributions. The small number of Vermeers in the world accepted as genuine goes up and down, like the tide; and the Ince Hall Madonna and Child, enthroned as the queen of Melbourne’s collection in 1923 and deposed after 1959 as a mere copy or even pastiche, has had those judgements questioned in 2001. There is no certainty in scholarship, though some bets are better than others.
It was against that kind of background, then, that Sir Owen Dixon made his major contribution to the important work of the Felton Bequests Committee.
Philip Ayres’s biography of Dixon indicates that it was following a dinner given by Sir Keith Murdoch in Dixon’s honour at the Melbourne Club in late 1944 to mark Dixon’s return from his Australian Representative wartime posting in Washington, that Murdoch’s friend Sir Russell Grimwade successfully moved for Dixon’s appointment as a member of the Felton Committee. Murdoch was a “cultural liberal” and a particularly active patron of the arts who had brought out to Australia a major exhibition of Modern French Paintings in 1939 under the auspices of his Herald newspaper.
It seems that having accepted the Felton appointment, at first Dixon found it a difficult one, confiding in a letter to an overseas friend:
my days and nights are spent in writing judgments which few read, in listening to arguments confused by interruptions from the bench and in attending dull and pointless social gatherings. Some variety of interest has perhaps been added by my submitting to becoming president of this or that committee. Of these the most exasperating is one administrating a huge bequest for the purchase of works of art for the local national gallery.
However, it is clear that by the time he became chairman of the Felton Committee in 1956, Dixon had begun greatly to enjoy his work with the committee. After noting Dixon’s presidency of the English-Speaking Union and his posts with the Royal Empire Society, both promoting Anglo-Australian unity, Ayres notes:
he was also playing an active part on the Felton Committee, which was purchasing major art works through these years [1944 to 1950] on the advice of the outstanding British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark. An example from 1946, “we decided to pchse (1) Paul Veronese Rewards of Philosophy 12,000 (pounds) (2) J.M.W. Turner’s Red Rigi (formerly in Ruskins pssn) 2,000 (pounds)”. Dixon was not silenced by his lack of expertise: “to the meeting of the Felton Committee & of the Gallery Trustees where we agreed to buy Lord Radnors Poussin Moses Crossing the Red Sea for 74,000 [pounds] & an escritoire Louis seize for 3,000 [pounds]. I opposed the latter”. As for modernist art it was “dreadful or beyond me”. Significantly, his closest friend in this circle apart from Daryl Lindsay was Joseph Burke, Professor of Fine Arts, a classicist whose field was the English eighteenth century.
Dixon’s welcome of the Poussin and opposition to the escritoire were at least a neat inversion of Lord Rosebery’s dictum, from his 1883 visit here, that an Australian was a man “who sat in a 20-guinea chair and looked at a 10-shilling oleograph”. Dixon was not a mere reactionary on art; he was later to preside, as chairman, over some important modernist acquisitions and innovations. Dixon’s involvement in the decision to buy what is now world-renowned as “the Melbourne Poussin” is perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the appreciation of the fine arts in Australia; and Dr John Carroll has extensively discussed in these pages the importance of Poussin’s works in general and of that Melbourne picture in particular, which he describes as being, along with Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, one of “two European paintings of the first rank in Australia”. Poynter records:
Sir Kenneth Clark told Dixon it was preferable to have one or two men on the Felton Committee who were not artists … Small and unimportant works should be bought as well as great pictures “to make a background”. Present-day works should be purchased on the understanding that much would prove wastage, but developments would give some of it value for posterity. “He conceded we were in a decadence.”
After the death of Sir Russell Grimwade on November 2, 1956, Dixon was appointed as chairman of the Felton Bequests Committee. Ayres records that “he would be particularly cautious about spending funds on items whose authenticity was dubious, and be in a stronger position to recommend the purchase of Greek vases”. In his footnote, Ayres adds, “he was especially cautious over the purchase of the ‘Ince Hall Madonna’, reputedly a Van Eyck but believed by more than one expert to be a seventeenth-century copy of a Van Eyck. In the event it would be purchased and hung as a Van Eyck.” Cox has written:
through [Dixon’s] direction some changes were made to the [Committee’s] modus operandi: as has been noted to this time, although the official method of communication between the Committee and its London Adviser was through the London Agents, Radcliffe’s & Co., often there had been a parallel confidential correspondence between the Chairman and the Adviser or Consultant, which permitted much greater frankness. This, Sir Owen believed, should be discontinued; and only on one occasion, in which a letter required a personal answer, did he depart from his ruling. At the same time the principle of Felton Conferences was discontinued, except on special occasions, the advice of the Trustees being transmitted by letter through the Director, supplemented by discussion with their representative at the Bequests Committee meetings.
In 1958, Dixon visited London, where he met with Sir Philip Hendy, Martin Davies and the Felton Bequests’ London adviser, John McDonnell, particularly in regard to questions that had been raised by continental scholars about the Ince Hall Madonna being properly attributed to Van Eyck. In late 1959, Australian newspapers printed noisy headlines such as “False Van Eyck” and the picture was dethroned for many years; recent research has placed it as being by “an artist associated with Van Eyck’s studio”. Ayres’s book features an engaging photograph of Dixon on August 12, 1959, alongside A.R.L. Wiltshire and Dr Leonard Cox, standing before the latest Felton acquisition, George Romney’s The Leigh Family, which is still today a favourite of visitors to the NGV.
Sir Owen Dixon’s contribution to the activities of the Felton Bequests Committee was an example of how important the voluntary work of a jurist possessing a classically equipped mind can be to the public benefit. Dixon also managed, by a carefully contrived but easy manner, to avoid or at least ameliorate some of the difficulties encountered by the committee and thus to discreetly steer the committee and NGV Trustees to good outcomes for the gallery and the augmentation of its collection with great works. Dixon adopted a similar course of moderation and masterly care during his presidency of the Australian Club in Melbourne for five years from January 1945, where on retirement he noted that, as a teetotaller, he had nevertheless had many occasions to make, or at least guide, decisions about the club’s drinks bar.
Numerous photographs of Dixon survive; those reproduced in Ayres’s book include one of him in an academic procession at Oxford in 1958, where he is seen in company with Harold Macmillan, Hugh Gaitskell and Dimitri Shostakovich. A seated portrait in oils is in the High Court collection at Canberra and a full-length one hangs in Owen Dixon Chambers in Melbourne; both are by A.D. Colquhoun.
His work on the Felton Bequests Committee, as well as Dixon’s own extra-judicial writings, clearly point to his having had a formidable and impressive “hinterland” of the mind and sensibility, of the very kind which is seen to be lacking in so many public figures today. Anyone familiar with the book trade will know how various parliamentary libraries around Australia have been denuded of many classic texts. Dixon’s essay on “Sir Roger Scatcherd’s Will in Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne”, which appears in the collection of his occasional papers and addresses titled Jesting Pilate, is further evidence reflecting Dixon’s wide literary reading habits. Likewise, those interested in the plastic arts will find of interest Dixon’s judgment in the High Court of Australia case of Dougan v Ley (1946) 71 CLR 142, where he discussed the particular equitable remedy, in lieu of damages, of the specific delivery of chattels, citing the old case of Falcke v Gray (1859), to the effect that a purchaser of “articles of unusual beauty, rarity and distinction” was entitled to obtain them in specie.
Dixon’s work on the Felton Bequests Committee is a fortiori an example of Edmund Burke’s aphorism, cited in 1940 by Sir Robert Menzies in regard to the late Sir Littleton Groom federal service, about those who “bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life into the service of the commonwealth”. For those who never heard or saw Dixon in the flesh, nor any recording of his voice, there exist various pieces of newsreel film, most notably that of the occasion in the Commonwealth Parliament in 1961 when Dixon administered to Viscount De L’Isle the oaths of allegiance and office as Governor-General. The voice is that old-style Australian voice of somewhat higher pitch than we hear now, but all is done with a grace, decorum and soundness of the kind which, hopefully, we are recovering.
Dr Douglas Hassall is a frequent contributor on art.