L. Bernard Hall – the man the art world forgot

Reviewed By  Janet Mawdesley       July 3, 2013


Author  Gwen Rankin

ISBN:                 9781742233581
Publisher:         New South Publishers/State Library of Victoria
Release Date:    

Website:    http://www.newsouthpublishing.com 

L. Bernard Shaw: who was he and what part has he had to play in the history of Australian Art Collections?  You may well ask as the title – the man the art world forgot – becomes relevant and also intriguing.

Why did the art world forget this man who over his more than 40 years in Australia, creating something of great significance from nothing of great importance, become almost a pariah in his world –  in particular the art world of Victoria in the late 1800s to early 1900’s, through to his death in England in 1935.

Gwen Rankin has put together a masterful expose on a small corner of Australian history that not only details the life of man who contributed much, not just to the art world but also to society in Victoria, leaving behind him a legacy of perhaps one of the most influential and cosmopolitan collections of Art in Australia: no small legacy to leave.

This is the story of a man who decided to come out to Australia or as it was commonly referred to in those times the Antipodes’, leave behind his world of bohemia and art as created in Britain and Europe, to take up his appointment as the Director of Melbourne’s National Gallery and Head of its Arts School.

 He married his Australian love Elsie Shuter, in 1894, who was later to die in childbirth with their second child in 1901. Around this time he was also meeting many challenges with decreasing funding due to the financial crash of 1893, petty jealousies from locals and members of the Board, frustration that he could not conduct his roles in the manner required and the sheer hard work involved in virtually running the Gallery that was required.

A lesser man may well have thrown it all in about this stage but somehow just when things seemed to reach dire proportions something always came along to save the day.

The Felton Bequest proved to be such a lifeline as well as eventually a curse of sorts, which in the end almost prevented the Melbourne Gallery acquiring its greatest treasure, that of a then  unknown Rembrandt –Two Old Men Disputing.

During his 40 years with the National Gallery in Victoria Bernard Hall met with frustration, petty jealousies, underhanded practice and disparagement which would eventually see his record consigned to obscurity.

Upon his death,  the Bequests’ Committee set up to administer Trusts such as the Felton bequest ceased all payments to his widow Grace Hall, leaving her in penury, refusing to pay his medical bills and any expenses occurred on his last commission to England and Europe on behalf of the National Gallery, where he came upon the Rembrandt.

Thanks to the carefully preserved records of his life and history kept by his family, along with a vast collection of his art works, there is now a scholarly tomb in his memory.

Perhaps there is more to tell in this story of a remarkable man which will remain untold. The work Rankin has created is in tribute to a man who overcame enormous odds to do what he set-out to do, that of establishing a world class collection of art works in the Antipodes.