Art

A Superb Art Collection in Toowoomba

A recent visit to Toowoomba, after an absence of some decades, gave occasion for reviewing the distinctive, privately formed collection of William Bolton (1905–73). He first established it as the Lionel Lindsay Art Gallery and Library in 1959, but it is now housed and administered in the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery (TRAG), along with the Fred and Lucy Gould Art Collection and the Toowoomba City Collection, within which is held the Dr Irene Amos Bequest Collection. This gallery viewing in October 2019 was a rewarding revisit to this collection, first seen in 1964. It was also an opportunity to note developments in the economic, cultural and political significance of the Darling Downs region in Australia’s national polity. That is reflected in TRAG’s embracing of Bill Bolton’s pioneering initiatives.

From April to July 2019, the Toowoomba Gallery had mounted a fitting exhibition commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Lionel Lindsay Gallery and Library Collection. Other commitments prevented me from viewing that exhibition, which was a special project in which Jayson Althofer, the Bolton Library Services Officer at the gallery, excelled with a comprehensive showing of oils, watercolours, prints, drawings and other works from the Lionel Lindsay collection. However, in October I was privileged to be given very helpful access to the collection, both on display and in secure storage. It is a remarkable collection and Toowoomba is fortunate indeed to have it, located since the mid-1990s in a dedicated building in the CBD there, which is much more appropriate and accessible than its earlier and temporary homes. The collection ranks highly among the regional galleries in Australia. Whilst not as extensive as the renowned Hinton Collection at Armidale, this collection at Toowoomba is still a very important one.

Thanks to Bill Bolton and his friendship with Lionel Lindsay and other members of the Lindsay family, this collection includes works by not only Lionel Lindsay and other Lindsays including Sir Daryl, Norman, Percy and Ruby Lindsay, but also impressive works by Emanuel Phillips Fox, Rupert Bunny, Will Ashton, Ivor Hele, George Lambert, Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, John Mather, John Longstaff, Fred Leist, Arnold Shore, John Gould, James Wieneke, and also artists with Toowoomba associations Kenneth Macqueen and Jessie Jewhurst Hilder, amongst others.

Robert Menzies opened the original Lionel Lindsay Gallery, then located in a bungalow, at Toowoomba in April 1959. The National Library of Australia holds an audio recording of the speeches made by Menzies and Lionel Lindsay. It is fascinating to hear Menzies’s superb delivery, at length and relaxed, on a non-political occasion; and then Lindsay’s reminiscences of Streeton and Roberts.

Works by most of the above artists were included in the 2019 sixtieth anniversary exhibition, which was a notable success. It served to show how well the collection is now placed, curated and presented to the public and how it is therefore a great resource for Toowoomba residents, the young in particular, and also for the many visitors to this refreshing mountain-top city. The Bolton/Lindsay collections are complemented and augmented by the Fred and Lucy Gould Art Collection of pictures and objects. Fred Gould was a trustee of the Queensland Art Gallery in the 1920s and his wife Lucy was a keen practising artist: their eclectic and interesting collection was formed, it seems, almost exclusively from Australian sources and later donated to the City of Toowoomba.

Toowoomba has grown enormously in recent years and with a population of about 160,000 people, it is now the second-largest inland city in Australia after Canberra. This must surprise anyone who is familiar with the general decline of regional centres over recent decades. Credit for the current prosperity and lively nature of Toowoomba as a regional hub, educational and business centre, must go to far-seeing administrators and to local business people, amongst whom Bill Bolton was an early exemplar and one who could envision this city’s future well beyond his times. Toowoomba was the home of Sir Ernest Littleton Groom, an early Attorney-General and later a distinguished Speaker of the Parliament at Canberra. The federal electorate in which Toowoomba stands is named after Groom, a man of culture and urbanity, who encouraged the growth and the development of the city. In the 1950s and 1960s, the mayor, Jack McCafferty, placed Toowoomba firmly on the tourist map with its spring “Carnival of Flowers”.

It was against this background of Toowoomba as a rather special and well-endowed inland city, to which in colonial times governors of Queensland and their retinues used to withdraw from the heat of the summer in Brisbane, that Bill Bolton came in the 1940s to found his successful road transport business, later based around the iconic business name of “Cobb & Co”, which he had purchased as a survival of the Australian coaching tradition. The very last Cobb & Co coach-and-horses service ran between Surat and Yuleba in Queensland in 1924. Bolton was deeply inspired by the romance of those days, which lasted well into the twentieth century, by a kind of accident of the location and agricultural and regional milieu of Toowoomba, where, as late as the early 1960s, blacksmiths’ shops survived in side-streets.

For these reasons Bolton began to collect Australiana, in printed and graphic form, as well as artworks under the tutelage of Lionel Lindsay, who became his great friend and mentor until Lindsay’s death in 1961. Bolton’s friendship with Lindsay arose from a postage stamp. In 1955, an Australian stamp was issued based on Lindsay’s drypoint of 1925 titled Cobb & Co, prompting Bolton to contact Lindsay, and a lively correspondence ensued, which flowered into a friendship of kindred spirits. Bolton delved deeply into Australiana, in books, manuscripts, prints and maps, as well as literary items from the Bulletin school including A.B. Paterson, Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd and Will Ogilvie. Many are important sources as to Australian literature. It is worth mentioning here that there is a fitting monument at Toowoomba, in its mountain-edge “Range” area, to the Anglo-Australian poet George Essex Evans, who founded the literary Austral Society in Toowoomba in 1903. One of the gems of the Bolton Collection is George Lambert’s Study for the Henry Lawson Memorial Sculpture (circa 1926), a fine and impressive drawing.

Another special aspect of this collection is the extensive holding of bookplates and other engravings and etchings by Lionel Lindsay, which happened to be on display in a dedicated exhibition of their own during my October 2019 visit. In particular, although the major vogue for etchings and the like waned markedly in Australia, as worldwide, after about 1939, the bookplates made from wood engravings and other printing processes remain a much sought-after field for art collectors and bibliophiles. Some of the more famous examples and bookplates pertaining to prominent personalities and collectors form a distinct collecting field of great historical and literary importance. The black-and-white techniques used by Lionel Lindsay for many of his images of birds and flowers are memorable creations and several of these were featured. An exhibition at TRAG in February to April 2020 will show about twenty bookplates designed and cut by Lindsay, including those he made for R.G. Menzies, F.R. Jordan and J.R. McGregor. Bookplates are not merely useful, they are also enjoying a comeback. The exhibition will also feature pencil studies by George Lambert of Christopher Brennan and R.B. Cunninghame Graham.

Some enormously impressive major works in oils form the backbone of Bill Bolton’s Lionel Lindsay Collection of Art. These include the beautiful and action-filled equestrian picture by Sir John Longstaff titled Between Sky and Water The Clown Came and Caught Her (1912), a depiction of two horses and riders jumping across a hedge and small stream, both caught in mid-air and at full stretch of their exertions. The scene is set against a greying sky, with a hint of sun-glow reflected in the water below. This is a magnificent painting and I recall it vividly in its pride of place in the original Lionel Lindsay Gallery building, then in Godsall Street. It is a picture which should be better known around Australia, especially when, despite some naysayers, equestrian pursuits remain very important to the Australian people. Sir Daryl Lindsay wrote in The Leafy Tree (1965):

Australians have always been a horse-minded people and there was a time when the horse was almost a national symbol … With this national love of the horse, I have always wondered why so few of our painters made use of it as part of our pictorial background.

Two other wonderful equestrian pictures in the collection are the oils by Sir Ivor Hele, originally commissioned by Bolton in connection with some business calendars for the customers and staff of his transport operations. These are The Man from Snowy River (1956) and Through Ranges, Where at Racing Speed, Old Kiley Used to Wheel the Lead (1958) after A.B. Paterson’s poems “The Man from Snowy River and “On Kiley’s Run. These are exciting and superb paintings from the brush of Ivor Hele, who served as an official Australian war artist in the Second World War. We may pause to note that Hele was in the 1980s one of the mentors of the late Phillip Silcox, who became an accomplished Toowoomba painter of equestrian subjects, portraits and landscapes and won many major prizes for his works. The collection also features Hele’s canvas The Lights of Cobb & Co (1959) and Douglas Fry’s equestrian portrait watercolour of Creamy (1903).

Another major work in the collection is Frederick McCubbin’s delightful oil on canvas of figures in a summer landscape, The Midday Rest (1888), a spacious image of which Bolton was justifiably proud and glad to have acquired. This is a quintessentially late-nineteenth-century portrayal of a country scene, with overtones of French plein-air Impressionism and the kind of rural idyll much loved on the Continent and seen in many nineteenth-century Italian pictures, only here translated to a very bright-skied and obviously Australian context. It is a great representative picture of Australia’s Heidelberg School. Likewise, Sir Arthur Streeton’s oil view of Kosciusko seen snow-covered from flatlands with a stream in the middle ground, probably somewhere on the Monaro, is a fine example of the artist’s work which immediately exhilarates one on sight.

Much the same can be said for Tom Roberts’s The Coast near Stanwell Park NSW (1898) which Daryl Lindsay found for Bolton, who described it in his letter of January 7, 1958, to Lionel Lindsay as “a gem of a work”. Lindsay replied of this Tom Roberts:

there is a grandeur about the feeling for the subject that the world has lost. The last rays of the sunset glow on the cliff tops and all is drawn with the brush in a masterful sympathetic way that is lost to the current generation … it will grow into your soul, just as Lawson and Paterson are part of your being.
               
The letter is quoted in Bill Bolton’s Vision 60 Years On, Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery, 2019.

Other striking Australian works in this collection include Emanuel Phillips Fox’s Dejeuner (Mother and Child No 1) (circa 1910-11) a lovely example of a Belle Epoque garden scene, of a luncheon in a shaded arbour, the figures in which recall Renoir and of which various examples are to be seen in Australian metropolitan public collections, such as the NGA at Canberra and the NGV at Melbourne. Toowoomba is fortunate to have this; a point which can also be made of Will Ashton’s The Last of the Snow (1934), an oil depicting the melting snows of the Australian Alps, in a manner that is fresh with the chill of the air and with the alpine grasses hugging a watercourse fed by the ebbing snow, against a sky of light clouds blown by the high winds. This picture is another which has remained strong in the memory over decades.

I mentioned above works in this collection by Kenneth Macqueen, that doyen of Australian watercolourists, who executed many works around Toowoomba; and also by J.J. Hilder, who had early Toowoomba associations and is another of the great Australian watercolourists. This leads me to mention a less widely-known artist represented in the collections at TRAG, Herbert Carstens (1904–78). A former commercial artist who then took some lessons in Sydney, he became a founding influence on Toowoomba art circles and a member of the “Half Dozen Group” of artists based on the Brisbane area. His works are distinctive for a creamy and rich palette, instantly recognisable on a wall from ten yards away. Carstens was a most affable figure, esteemed in his home town and exuding a cheery enthusiasm for painting whenever one visited him in the studio at his Curzon Street home. He liked to choose and to make his own styles of frames; and his hasty pencil scrawls of title, date and modest price on the back of his oils on board framed works, remain an endearing reminder of this gentlemanly Toowoomba artist.

It may also be noted that the Toowoomba City Collection has been augmented by the acquisition, through the Cay Gift, of some interesting eighteenth-century family portraits, one of an advocate, a sheriff and an elderly Scots lady, painted by Scottish artists and discovered in Toowoomba.

The catalogue which accompanied the 2019 commemorative exhibition contains some delightful reminiscences of Bill Bolton by his son David Bolton, his granddaughter Shona Burgess and grandson Rob Bolton, who are also trustees of the collection. These serve to fill out and to record the picture of Bill, who with his wife Marion carefully acquired and cared for the works which became the Lionel Lindsay Collection and Library and of the enthusiasm they devoted to this project, by which they conferred a great benefit upon the people of Toowoomba, of Queensland and indeed, of Australia. The Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery manages the collection in consultation with the trust. This arrangement enables the collection to be showcased at its best in a modern gallery of appropriate design and with fully contemporary amenities, temperature, air quality and security facilities.

The immense personal impress of the personality of Bill Bolton remains obvious in the nature of the collections of artworks and books which go to form this magnificent benefaction, created by an Australian couple who, whilst not of any enormous wealth, nevertheless took the time and the care to turn such resources as they had to the formation of a collection at the centre of what now must rate as one of the most important regional art collections. Lionel Lindsay and his contacts helped them to do so. The Lionel Lindsay Art Gallery and Library also form a major repository of the cultural and artistic ethos of the Australian bush and its pioneering days.

Sir Lionel Lindsay was no stranger to controversy and was an undoubted conservative in his inclinations. His 1942 book Addled Art made clear his disdain for much of the work of the Modernist movement in twentieth-century art. Yet, he was and is recognised as one of Australia’s greatest etcher-artists and printmakers—perhaps even our greatest in those fields. His friendship with Bill Bolton bore the fruit of the Lindsay Collection that is now readily accessible to both the public and specialist art historians at the TRAG.

As the entry on him in the Australian Dictionary of Biography shows, Bill Bolton himself fought many battles for the good, not least of which was his (ultimately unsuccessful) litigation with the Queensland government in the 1960s, in connection with the legal freedom of interstate trade as it affected the transport business operations of himself and others. This weighed heavily upon him and it no doubt shortened his active, talented life. However, at least the Queensland government of the day, despite various hard-fought legal altercations, at length duly recognised Bill Bolton’s philanthropy and his major contributions to the cultural life of the state and the city of Toowoomba, with the conferral upon him by Her Majesty the Queen of the award of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Civil) in the Honours List for 1966. Visitors to Toowoomba should not miss the Lionel Lindsay Art Collection and Library now housed at the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery: indeed, this distinctive vision is its own rich reward.

Dr Douglas Hassall is a frequent contributor on art. He acknowledges the assistance provided by Jayson Althofer at the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery in connection with this article.

 

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