B. E. M i n n s
Foundation President of the Australian Watercolour Institute 1923-1937
Painters in this medium are animated by the same high purpose and determination to excel as their colleagues in oil but, in united exhibitions, their claims for equal privileges have too often been sacrificed to work in the oil medium. – B.E. Minns, Foreword, AWI exhibition catalogue, 1924
When B.E. Minns assumed the office of founding president of the newly established Australian Watercolour Institute in 1923 at the age of sixty, he had already forged a formidable career internationally both as a black and white artist and watercolourist. His professional reputation, public profile and personal charisma lent considerable prestige to the Institute.
A tall, sturdy man with finely chiselled features, a penetrating gaze and patrician forehead, he was extremely popular with his colleagues for his bonhomie, genteel demeanour, pithy, homespun humour and notable lack of customary art world hubris. In fact, M.J. MacNally recalled that, ‘The grave and philosophic personality of Minns expands in his praise of others but getting him to speak of his own efforts and outlook is like attempting to start a discussion on the Binomial Theorem with a Baby Austin.’1
That Minns was a fit and doughty fellow even into his advancing years is substantiated by an account that appeared in the pages of the Police Gazette of 5 March 1919, at which time he resided at Cambridge Flats, 305 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst. At about 1:30 am one morning, the 56-year old artist became aware of a man moving about his bedroom. Leaping to his feet, he tackled the intruder and in the ensuing scuffle was struck by a blow to the head with a rubber hose loaded with lead, leaving him dazed. With Minns thus coshed and hors de combat, his assailant absconded with an Omega watch and a new pair of serge trousers containing a double-bladed pocketknife and the sum of 13 shillings. Minns was transported to hospital where three sutures were inserted in his wound. The incident involving the eminent artist was widely reported in the press from Sydney to Perth, his pluckiness being applauded.
Benjamin Edwin Murray Minns was born on 17 November 1863 near Dungog in the verdant, picturesque Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, the son of Bridget Murray, aged 17, who had arrived in Australia in 1850 from Galway, Ireland, on the vessel Emily with her father Patrick, farm labourer, mother Bridget, domestic servant, and five year old brother Michael.2 His mother subsequently married George Minns, farmer, in 1869 at Scots Church, West Maitland, New South Wales, and the family settled in Inverell, where young Benjamin took drawing lessons from ’an old woman in the town.’3 It was during those early years spent in Inverell that Minns developed an abiding affinity for the outback landscape, its flora, fauna, stockmen, drovers, bullock teams, Cobb and Co. coaches and native aborigines — motifs which would be so evocatively and lyrically limned later in his pastoral imagery.
As a 17-year old adolescent, Minns arrived in Sydney to pursue his prospective profession in law, securing a position as a clerk in the legal firm, Abbott and Allen, but was soon inexorably drawn to art. He entered into a course of study at Sydney Technical College under French Republican artist and pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Lucien Henry, and at the Art Society of New South Wales under the tutelage of A.J. Daplyn and Julian Ashton, both of them British-born, French-trained early proponents of the Barbizon School of plein air painting in Australia. Together with Ashton, Girolamo Nerli, English caricaturist, Phil May, and his close friend, Charles Conder, Minns was a member of the Art Society’s Sketch Club.
For eighteen months, Minns shared accommodation at 71 William Street, Woolloomooloo, with the flamboyant Conder, who often accompanied him to Julian Ashton’s classes at the Art Society. The redoubtable Mr Ashton, venerated master and mentor to numerous notable Australian artists of the era, recalled Conder as being ‘by nature averse to any form of discipline,’ while Minns, ‘quiet and untiring, soon left him far behind. In his spare hours, Minns devoted much of his time to painting watercolours…His quiet sense of humour and good address made many friends for him.’4
Eventually, Minns was able to leave the law firm and support himself financially as a professional artist, finding a market for his watercolours at moderate prices and landing a job at the Illustrated Sydney News through the intermediary of Conder, who was employed by its publisher, Gibbs, Shallard & Co. He also produced drawings for the Sydney Mail and, from 1887, was a regular contributor to the Bulletin, his comical but affectionately penned ‘blackfella’ cartoons attracting a wide and appreciative audience. At the same time, from 1884 until 1929, Minns consistently exhibited with the Art Society of New South Wales (renamed the Royal Art Society of New South Wales by a Royal Charter granted in 1903), serving on its Council from 1890 to 1893 and acceding to the office of vice president in 1894.5 Moreover, two watercolour landscapes, Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness, which had been awarded first prize of 75 guineas in a watercolour competition,and Crescent Head, Point Plomer, were acquired by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1891 and 1892 respectively, while several of his poignant watercolour portraits of aborigines were similarly purchased over the succeeding three years by that same institution.
Meanwhile, Minns had married Harriet Ford (born 1865 in Ballarat, Victoria, to William Henry Ford and Mary Ann Williams) at St. John’s Church, Darlinghurst, on 9 June 1888.6 Conder, with whom Minns and the Collingridge brothers, Arthur and George, frequently painted en plein air, moved to Melbourne in October that year, where he would become a seminal figure in the evolution of the Heidelberg School of Australian Impressionism.The couple, who would remain childless, set up residence initially at ‘Emilyville’, Sloane Street, Summer Hill, before residing at various addresses in the city.7 Having already accrued an impressive reputation both as a painter and black and white artist, Minns made the decision to relocate to England to develop his career overseas, which was a source of immense sorrow for his vast coterie.
As evidence of the esteem in which he was held, on the evening of Saturday, 23 February 1895, more than a hundred of his peers assembled at the prestigious Paris House at 173 Philip Street (the French restaurant for which author Robert Louis Stevenson similarly had a predilection during his Sydney sojourns of the 1890s) to bid Minns bon voyage while convivially partaking of an epicurean repast with their coats off and as little conventionality as possible.8
Expatriate American Bulletin cartoonist, Livingston ‘Hop’ Hopkins, presided over the proceedings, proposing a postprandial toast in which he praised Minns for his artistic talent, adding that he was confident Minns would meet with a reception in the Old World which his qualities both as an artist and a man merited.
Julian Ashton supported the sentiment while deploring the fact that they ‘must all feel regret that an artist such as Mr Minns should be compelled to leave a country such as this – young and prosperous – because the love of art had not sufficient hold on the people.’9
Rising to a crescendo of cheers, Minns responded that he would never forget that occasion or the kindness that his brother artists had always extended towards him and, as many of them were among his oldest friends, he would feel the separation acutely. Yet, he would be in the vanguard of expatriate Australian artists working in London during the late 1800s and early 1900s, among whom were Charles Conder, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, Thea Proctor, Rupert Bunny, John Longstaff and Emanuel Phillips Fox.
Although the couple had envisaged staying for only five years in England, they remained there for two decades, during which time Minns consistently sent cartoons to the Bulletin while also contributing to such illustrious publications as the Strand, St. Paul’s Magazine, Pearson’s, the Bystander, London Opinion, Windsor Magazine and the popular, lampooning Punch, joining the latter’s pantheon of world-class cartoonists. A collection of 74 of his original Bulletin pictures was exhibited at the Athenaeum Hall, Melbourne, in 1910.
Concurrent with his activities as an illustrator of books and periodicals, he was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours and the New Salon in Paris, attracting the plaudits of both critics and his peers in making his name renowned in two hemispheres. The paintings of London street scenes and the Thames that he sent to the 1896 Art Society of New South Wales Exhibition were, in the view of one critic, ‘the most artistically perfect Minns has produced. His friends will be glad to learn that he has been very successful and busy since his arrival in London.’10
During his long absence from Australia, Minns made extended painting excursions, as well as bicycle tours with his wife, to Brittany, Normandy, Paris, Holland and Belgium, specifically studying the techniques of English and Dutch watercolour masters, the influence of which is discernible in his heterogeneous, manneristic, Old Friends, painted in Pont Aven, Brittany in 1903 (first exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts 1904 Salon, Paris), and Breton Maid (1904), both of which are held in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.11
In England, Minns and his wife moved in fashionable circles, enjoying the privilege and patronage reserved for members of the beau monde, while remaining quintessentiallyAustralian. Their many social engagements and travels were regularly reported in the British Australasian, the Anglo-Australian weekly catering for expatriates living in England, being later picked up by newspapers throughout Australia. Serendipitously, they had met Louisa Rhodes, sister of Sir Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate, politician and founder of the eponymous state of Rhodesia, when she arrived one day at their cottage in Uxbridge with a geriatric collie in tow, saying that she had heard they were Colonials and wished to introduce herself. She was invited for tea in the course of which their conversation was interrupted by a series of squeals. Going to investigate, Minns was devastated to discover that his guest’s superannuated canine had killed his beloved pet rabbit. He tactfully refrained from mentioning the distressing event until pressed by Louisa. Their friendship was thus formed and he entered a period of prosperity, selling many of his paintings to the Rhodes family and their associates. At the family’s request, he spent a summer at Dalham Hall, the Rhodes estate near Newmarket, Suffolk, producing a series of watercolours and, in 1905, Colonel Frank Rhodes, brother of Sir Cecil Rhodes, commissioned a number of paintings with the intention of introducing Minns and his work to his friends during a shoot the following autumn on the estate, which he had since inherited. When Colonel Frank Rhodes died some months later in South Africa, the family honoured the contract, purchasing all of the commissioned works.12
At the outbreak of World War I, the quinquagenarian Minns endeavoured to enlist but was rejected owing to his age. For the next several months, he struggled to make the best of the worsening situation in Europe, which saw the onset of Germany’s blockade of Britain, the use of chlorine gas by the Germans, the sinking of the Lusitania, the second battle of Ypres and the first zeppelin raids over England. Finally, he resolved to return to Australia with a view to having an exhibition for which he had been preparing for three years and, on 24 June 1915, boarded the P & O steamer, S.S. Benalla, which berthed in Sydney on 13 September that year. However, three days out of Cape Town, 800 miles east of Durban, on 20 July, a shipboard fire erupted in the No. 2 hold and, tragically, virtually the entire cargo of paintings Minns had transported with him were destroyed.13
Upon his return to Australia, Minns produced vibrant vignettes of Sydney street life, romantic vistas of Sydney Harbour and heroic, atmospheric evocations of the Australian outback (in sympathy with the nationalistic ethos of the idealised bush ballads of Banjo Paterson, his colleague at the Bulletin), as well as epic works in oil depicting historic national events. The colour harmonies, rhythmic arrangements and delicate, deft brushwork of his floral subjects and still lifes reflect his fervour for gardening as much as the influence of Flemish masters. Simultaneously, he developed what would be regarded as his most characteristic work, initiated before his departure for England – compelling, masterfully modelled portraits of New South Wales aborigines, suffused with character, vigour and authority. While, from their generic titles, these images can be perceived as depersonalised anthropological representations of a dying race, derivative of the primitivist noble savage trope prevalent in early 20th century art, Minns had a genuine respect for aboriginal culture and customs based on his childhood recollections of the Hunter Valley.
In the pages of the 1932 edition of Art in Australia devoted to Minns, Julian Ashton recollects attending an exhibition of Minns’ watercolours depicting various aspects of Aboriginal culture held in 1930 at Rubery Bennett’s Galleries in King Street, Sydney, and opened by Lady Street, wife of former Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir Kenneth Street. When he arrived, there were numerous prominent people present and already twenty-five paintings had sold but the artist was preoccupied escorting an elderly aboriginal woman around the room, intently discussing his paintings with her. Only after accompanying the old woman to the lift did he turn around to greet his friends and admirers. Anecdotally, this provided a better understanding of Minns and his attitude towards life, Ashton commented, than anything he could possibly say about him.14
In the years following his return to Australia, Minns travelled extensively throughout the country, accumulating visual material for his paintings. During his tour of the west coast of Tasmania in March 1920, a profile appeared in the Zeehan and Dundas Herald in which the unnamed writer waxed lyrical about the artist’s charismatic personal qualities as much as his prowess with a pen:
Such cartoons as come from his pencil have a delicate and fascinating humour of their own, and are quite characteristic of the artist. When one mentions the Bulletin in presenting men as they are rather than as they ought to be, inevitably the association of the bold Bohemianesque artist occurs to the mind. Mr Minns is not that.
Artistically, he is delicate, refined and intellectual, with a personal charm and grace of manner that attracts and captivates. But he knows men by the very force of his artistic conception and when his kind, grave eyes look steadily at a subject in the flesh, the artist knows all that is to be known of the make-up and idiosyncrasies of that subject. It is this power of penetration, this force of mental analysis and deduction, that makes the art of Mr Minns vital and appealing. His refinement of thought adds the grace that commands attention and lends strength to his subjects. His philosophy is the crowning force of his art, and his appreciation of human nature is equal to his understanding of its complexities, its pathos, its strength and its amiable weaknesses.15
Though he participated in numerous group exhibitions, including the annual Royal Art Society shows, it would be eight years until Minns mounted his first solo exhibition, in December 1923, at Basil Burdett’s New Art Salon, 219 George Street, Sydney, which received laudatory reviews, as did all of his succeeding solo shows. Cited as one of the acknowledged authorities among Australian artists as a watercolourist, he was variously praised for his gimlet eye for a good subject, breadth of style, impeccable draughtsmanship, rich colour, grace in composition, unmistakable appreciation of Australian atmosphere, attention to the subtleties of local light and admirable rendering of horses, being an excellent equestrian himself.
On Friday, 19 February 1937, Minns called on Henry Kenneth Prior, Manager of the Bulletin, and cheerfully announced it was exactly 50 years ago, on that day, his first drawing was published in the Bulletin. On the following Sunday, while talking photographs of animals, which he so loved, at Taronga Zoo, Mosman, as a resource for a forthcoming exhibition, Minns suddenly fell lifeless to the ground. His camera, bearing his name, led to the discovery of his identity. H.K. Prior formally identified the body.The funeral, which was held at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, with a service conducted in the chapel by Rev. C.A. Stubbin of the Ryde Church of England, was well-attended by representatives of the art and literary milieux, including John William ‘Will’ Ashton (Director of what was then the National Art Gallery of New South Wales), Fred W. Leist, C.E.S. Tindall, H.K. Prior, G.K. Townshend, H.W. Grace, J.W. Tristram and Sydney Long, among many others.16 In addition to the encomiums his own talent elicited, it was remembered how generous Minns had been in his encouragement of young artists. Numerous lengthy, adulatory obituaries were published in newspapers throughout Australia.
In April 1937, the following tribute appeared in the catalogue of the Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the Australian Watercolour Institute:
The Late BENJAMIN E. MINNS
Foundation President of the Australian Watercolour Institute
The members of this Institute record their deepest regret in the loss of one of Australia’s finest artists.
He was a worthy leader, who set an example to us all by the high standard of his own work. He was a kindly companion, always willing to help and encourage younger men struggling along Art’s difficult pathway.
His modesty and humility with regard to his own attainments was one of his chief charms. In a bustling world, he maintained a quiet calm and pursued his calling as an artist with the sincere devotion of one who found intimate contact with nature full compensation for life’s little tribulations.
His work is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria; Art Gallery of New South Wales; Queensland Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Western Australia; Museums & Art Galleries of the Northern Territory; the regional galleries of Armidale, Bendigo, Benalla, Ballarat, Bunbury, Castlemaine, Geelong, Manly, Newcastle, Toowoomba, Tamworth and Wollongong; La Trobe University; University Art Museum; University of Queensland; Mitchell Library; State Library of New South Wales and the National Library of Australia.
Then domiciled in Gordon Parade, Gordon (later renamed Minns Road in tribute), Minns left an estate with a probate value of £2058.17 A year after his demise, a memorial exhibition comprising all 61 works contained in his estate was shown at David Jones’ Gallery and Murdoch Art Salon, Sydney, and at Sedon Galleries, Melbourne.
Minns was posthumously awarded the Sesquicentennial Prize for an historic painting, The Landing at Botany Bay 1788, painted in 1934 and exhibited at David Jones Art Gallery, Sydney, November-December 1937; in the Art Competitions Exhibition: Australia’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations 1788-1938 at Sydney’s Education Department Art Gallery, 2-28 February 1938; and at Sedon Galleries, Melbourne, 3-14 May 1938.18
His legacy is an enduring one as founder of the Australian Watercolor Institute, which he steered with a steady hand through the polarising stylistic shifts in Australian painting, and attitudinal resistance to the dissemination of Modernist ideas, as well as the economic vicissitudes of the Great Depression. In his office as president, Minns wasn’t averse to taking unpopular decisions for the advancement of the Institute, such as that in connection
with the second AWI annual exhibition in 1925, which was opened by the seventh Governor-General of Australia, Lord Forster. After expressing his gratitude to Lord Forster on that occasion, Minns pointed out that, in redress of the cavilling about the quality of some works in the Institute’s inaugural exhibition the previous year, he had enforced stringent standards, and subjected every painting to such a probing vote, that numerous paintings by members of the Committee of the Australian Watercolour Institute were rejected. In 1930, to further promote watercolour painting, the Council of the Australian Watercolour Institute introduced a student exhibition and competition open to all recognized art schools, which was gratifyingly successful and endured for four years.
Throughout his tenure as president, the AWI annual exhibition was a highlight of the cultural calendar that attracted extraordinarily large attendances, acclamatory reviews, and generated unprecedented sales, including numerous purchases by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In addition to the strong national membership Minns consolidated, the annual AWI exhibitions toured to cities and regional centres throughout Australia. Moreover, under his presidency, most of the luminaries of Australian art exhibited with, or were members of, the Institute, including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, Rupert Bunny, Norman Lindsay, Lloyd Rees and Hans Heysen, who won the prestigious Wynne Prize, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, nine times, five of those awards being for watercolour paintings (notably in 1909, 1920, 1922, 1924 and 1931).
Lamentably, the memory of Minns and his contribution to this country’s visual arts culture has waned with time. In 1951, an indignant art aficionado addressed a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald concerning the lacunae in the Commonwealth Jubilee Exhibition, purportedly showcasing 50 years of Australian art. ‘Where,’ the writer queried, ‘are the pictures of such men as Piguenit, Mahony, Tristram, Fullwood, Watkins, Minns and, not least, the Collingridge brothers, Arthur and George, the latter having founded the Royal Art Society of N.S.W.?’19
Subsequent to the death of her husband, Harriet Minns lived in a ‘large, light, airy and comfortable studio’, comprising a bedroom, sitting room and kitchenette, at 227 Macquarie Street, Sydney, surrounded by ‘more beautiful paintings than any one person would have in an entire house,’ including a portrait of herself painted by Sir John Longstaff in London, according to a feature article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of 20 February 1940. The 75-year old widow was photographed sipping a cup of tea in her favourite old chair, which she stated would be mentioned in the monograph she was ostensibly writing about her late husband entitled, The Life of B.E. Minns. The fate of that manuscript is unknown, as it was never published.
She passed away on 23 July 1946 at Eversleigh Home of Peace for the Dying, Marrickville, intestate. An announcement published in the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 July 1946 simply read: MINNS – July 23, 1946, at Sydney, Harriet Minns, widow of the late B.E. Minns. A legal notice afterwards appeared advising that administration of her estate, valued for probate at £940, was granted to the Public Trustee on 18th March 1947.20
- MacNally, M.J., Art in Australia, ‘The Watercolours of B.E. Minns’, Dec. 15, 1932, p. 17.
- New South Wales, Australia, Assisted Immigrant Passenger Lists, 1828-1896.
- Lindesay, Vane, ‘The Inked-In Image – A Social and Historical Survey of Australian Comic Art’, Hutchinson Australia, Richmond, Vic, 1979, p. 13.
- Ashton, Julian, Art in Australia, ‘B.E. Minns,’ Dec.15, 1932, p. 7.
- Information from the records of the Royal Art Society, courtesy of Christine Feher, RAS Secretary.
- Australia Birth Index, 1788-1922, Registration Number 13172
- Sands’ Sydney and New South Wales Directory, 1889, 1891-1895.
- ‘Farewell to Mr B.E. Minns’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1895.
- Evening News, 24 July 1896.
- Catalogue Illustré du Salon 1904, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Librairie d’Art, Paris, p. 37.
- Ashton, Julian, Art in Australia, ‘B.E. Minns,’ Dec.15, 1932, p. 10.
- ‘S.S. Benalla All Well: Fire Under Control,’ The Argus, 24 July 1915.
- Ashton, Julian, Art in Australia, ‘B.E. Minns,’ Dec.15, 1932, pp. 10-11.
- ‘A Visiting Artist: Mr Minns, the Well-Known Cartoonist’, Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 24 March 1920.
- ‘Mr B.E. Minns’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 1937.
- New South Wales, Australia, Index to Deceased Estate Files, 1923-1958.
- Sotheby’s Australia, Important Australian Art, 31 August 2010, catalogue.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1951.
- New South Wales, Australia, Index to Deceased Estate Files, 1923-1958.
Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen
Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)