John Longstaff (1861-1941)


Much is known and has been written about Sir John Campbell Longstaff. He was born in Victoria in 1861, and although at times he worked on the land around Shepparton, his passion was art. Much to the chagrin of his father, he attended the National Gallery School in Melbourne and won the first travelling scholarship for ‘Breaking the News’, a powerful figurative work which was drawn from a mining incident in Clunes. Longstaff’s prize was three years abroad and, in 1887 with his newly wed wife, Rosa Crocker (apparently better known as Topsy), they travelled to Europe to begin his life as a professional artist.

Over the course of his career, he worked in Europe and Australia, moving back to Australia permanently in 1920. An accomplished artist he went on to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture five times in 1925, 1928, 1929, 1931 and 1935.

This painting is of the young Elizabeth Coles, made after her death. In undertaking research on this painting, we contacted the State Library of Victoria in the hope that their database on the Coles family might illuminate the circumstances of the commissioning of this work. In the published biography of G. J. Coles it is noted that ‘… his second daughter Elizabeth contracted blood poisoning while at boarding school when George and Greta were away on an overseas trip. They arrived home to find Elizabeth critically ill in hospital, and she did not recover.’  This was in 1932.

The death notices from that time state that “On the 16th August at Toorak, Elizabeth Florence, dearly loved daughter of George and Margaret Coles of Ben Ledi, Kooyong Road, Toorak aged 9 years.” This painting was produced posthumously (1935) and most likely based on a photograph. Given its personal nature, it would not have been exhibited publicly. It entered the Benalla Art Gallery Collection in 1992.

James Harley

Image: John Longstaff, Portrait of Elizabeth Coles, c.1934
Oil on canvas
Benalla Art Gallery Collection. Gift of Mrs Irwin Bright.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s