top of page

Other Australian Stories In Britain 1920-1960

1 December 2022 at 2:30:00 am

Convert to local time with

Session Convenors

Rex Butler, Monash University
Dr ADS Donaldson, National Art School

Session Speakers

Rex Butler, Dr ADS Donaldson

The recent Queer exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria draws our attention to a number of gay Australian men who lived and worked in the visual arts in Britain before and after the Second World War: James Gleeson, Loudon Sainthill, Roy de Maistre, Sidney Nolan and Harry Tatlock Miller. And there were others: Rex Nan Kivell, Douglas Cooper and even in a way Francis Bacon. Bernard Smith wrote a famous polemic, ‘The Myth of Isolation’, lambasting English critics for seeing Australian art as exotic and isolated, but even he did not know or did not see fit to record the extent of English-Australian artistic connections during this period, especially featuring gay men. In this regard, it is like his writing out of the women, and especially lesbian women, who worked in Paris before and after the Second World War. What other kinds of “Australian” stories can we tell in Britain that are not the usual ones featuring the Australian writers and intellectuals of the 1960s and the straight Sidney Nolan? This session tell these other Australian (and sometimes New Zealand) stories.

The Myth of Heterosexuality

Rex Butler, Monash University
Dr ADS Donaldson, National Art School

In late 1961, Bernard Smith gives his well-known lecture at the University of Queensland, ‘The Myth of Isolation’, in response to Bryan Robertson’s Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in London earlier that year. It is undoubtedly a slightly vexed response to what he saw as his unjustified exclusion from the show and the passing over of its catalogue-writing duties to the young Robert Hughes. In it, Smith, contrary to the position he was about to take in his Australian Painting (1962), argues against the idea of Australia’s artistic isolation, suggesting that this is still the prevailing assumption of Robertson’s show. Smith’s argument remains largely an assertion, but if he was looking for evidence for what he was saying he might have turned to the many largely homosexual Australian artists who had at been living and working in London since the late 1920s. They knew each other, occasionally had relationships with each other and altogether allow us to think another “Australian” art history beyond that “jardin exotique” spoken of by Hughes in his catalogue essay. Perhaps Smith overlooked this other history not merely because of a “myth of isolation” but a “myth of heterosexuality”. It is a myth that has recently been contested with regard to the Australian women artists in Paris before and after the Second World War and it is perhaps time to do so with the Australian men in London at the same time.



Rex Butler, Monash University; Dr ADS Donaldson, National Art School 

Rex Butler is Professor of Art History in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University. ADS Donaldson is a practising artist and Lecturer at the National Art School. Together they have recently published UnAustralian Art: 10 Essays in Transnational Art History.

bottom of page