Australian painter, war artist and a five-time winner of the Archibald Prize, Sir John Campbell Longstaff was born at Clunes, Victoria, on 10 March 1861. He was educated at a boarding school in Miners Rest and Clunes State School and later studied at the Melbourne National Gallery School, after his father initially disapproved of his artistic ambitions.
Longstaff married 17 year old Rosa Louisa (Topsy) Crocker on 20 July 1887; and in the same year, won the National Gallery of Victoria’s first travelling scholarship. By September, he and his wife sailed to London from Melbourne. In January 1888, they joined a small group of Australian expatriate artists living in Paris.
- The cabbage plot Belle-Ile (Oil on canvas 27cm x 46 cm, Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum). Longstaff travelled to Belle-Ile, France with Topsy in the summer of 1889 to recuperate after suffering from influenza in Paris. He had been invited by fellow Australian artist and friend John Peter Russell who had been living in a large manor house (featured in this artwork) on the remote and picturesque island off the Brittany coast since 1885.
- This artwork is a gift of Mrs. Elsie Clark (1942) in memory of her son Sgt. G.H. Clark, who died at Gaza, Palestine in 11 Feb 1941. The Clark’s were friends of Longstaff and bought the painting from the artist’s estate.
Lady in Grey (oil on canvas, Paris, 1890, National Gallery of Victoria) is a portrait of his wife ‘Topsy’. The subtle tonalities of this work and its fashionable Japonist theme are inspired by James McNeill Whistler. This was Longstaff’s first Parisian success and was hung ‘on the line’ at the 1890 Paris Salon.
The Young Mother (oil on canvas, Paris, 1891, National Gallery of Victoria) shows ‘Topsy’ and their first child Ralph, who was born in 1890. Pale and slim after a long winter spent in their one-room apartment that was divided by a curtain into sleeping and eating quarters, ‘Topsy’ gently waves a palm fan over the outstretched arms of her baby son.
Longstaff later moved to London, where he painted many portraits such as:
- Ada Garrick (Mrs Bright) oil on canvas, London, 1895 (Gift of Miss Rachel Bright to the National Gallery of Victoria).
Longstaff returned to Australia in 1894 and was given several commissions. He occupied a studio at Grosvenor Chambers in Melbourne from 1897-1900. He travelled to London again in 1901, where he exhibited with the Royal Academy. Longstaff was appointed an official war artist with the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) in World War I where he painted several portraits of military officers. On his return to Australia, Longstaff won several awards and was given distinguished positions, including President of the Victorian Artists Society in 1924 and Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1927.
- Portrait of Edna Thomas (oil on canvas 12 cm x 86.5cm , 1925 Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum). Edna Thomas was a visiting American singer from Louisiana who sang Negro spirituals and Creole songs in concerts in Melbourne Sydney and Adelaide.
Longstaff was knighted in 1928 and the first Australian artist to have had this honour. His 1920 portrait of Nina Murdoch hangs in the Reading Room at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Murdoch later published a biography about Longstaff in her “Portrait in Youth” published in 1948. John Longstaff died on 1st October 1941.
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