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Sir John Campbell Longstaff was born on 10 March 1861 in Clunes, Victoria. His father, Ralph Longstaff, from England, and his mother. Jessie Campbell, from Scotland, had one other son, Ralph, and three daughters, Phoebe, Jessie and Polly. When John was twelve he accompanied his father to Shepparton where the dense bushland was open for free selection. His father spent a year building a house and establishing a store before the rest of the family arrived. Ralph also had land further north in the Mundoona district, where he opened another store and a post office, sending John to take care of it. John worked for a time with Hector MacDonald, James Stuart MacDonald’s father, and he painted both father and son. In his personal papers (held at the National Library of Australia) MacDonald claims that it was his father who helped Longstaff overcome his own father’s opposition to his studying art. In 1880 Longstaff moved to Melbourne where his father had organised a job for him as a clerk at Sargood, Butler and Nichol in Melbourne. However, in 1882 he enrolled at the National Gallery School.
At the National Gallery School Longstaff studied under G.F. Folingsby, whose portrait he painted around 1886. He worked alongside Emmanuel Phillips Fox, Tudor St George Tucker, Tom Humphrey, John Mather and Frederick McCubbin, with whom he went on weekend sketch trips throughout his years as a student. Longstaff was also a founding member of the Buonarotti Club which ran between 1883 and 1886. In 1887 Longstaff won the school’s first travelling scholarship with Breaking the News, a figure composition depicting the tragic aftermath of a mining accident (Art Gallery of Western Australia). His inspiration was drawn from a remembered mining incident in Clunes. However, the work drew much attention as it was exhibited shortly after the Creswick mining disaster of 1882. The travelling scholarship funded three years abroad, and in return Longstaff was to paint for the National Gallery of Victoria two copies of Old Masters and one original work. On 20 July 1887 he married Rosa Crocker, better known as Topsy.
Longstaff and his new wife left for England on the Valetta in September 1887. In London they were met by his relative John Longstaff, visiting his house in south-east London before a brief stay at the Blackfriars Hotel. In January 1888 John and Topsy arrived in Paris, where they were met by the Australian artist John Peter Russell. Russell proved a good friend, organising accommodation for the couple at the Hotel de l’Univers et du Portugal and having them to dinner at his house with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Russell suggested Longstaff attend Cormon’s atelier, which was not usually frequented by international students, although Longstaff later regretted attending this rather than the more popular Academie Julian. Further extending his hospitality, following Longstaff’s extended illness in 1889, Russell invited the Longstaffs to stay with him at his house at Belle-Ile. However, disagreement between their wives meant the Longstaffs relocated to a nearby fisherman’s cottage for the next three months. Here Longstaff painted numerous studies, and, influenced by Russell, experimented with Impressionist techniques. In Paris Longstaff also became close friends with Charles Conder, who, having arrived from Australia in 1890, had contacted him. Their time spent together is evident in Conder’s watercolour of Topsy. In 1891 Longstaff renewed his friendship with the illustrator Phil May, with whom he had been friends in Melbourne.
To fulfill the requirements of his scholarship, Longstaff painted a copy of Titian’s Entombment of Christ in the Louvre collection. As his second work he chose to copy a work by Velasquez, one of the most admired and imitated Old Masters in the period. With the help of the National Gallery of Victoria Longstaff travelled to Spain in May 1890 to view Velasquez’s Aesopus. In Spain he experienced the local culture, going to a bullfight, learning dances and also learning to play the guitar. After three months Longstaff and Topsy returned to Paris, and that winter their first son Ralph was born. Topsy and Ralph were the inspiration for Mere et Son Enfant, which received a mention honorable in the salon of 1891, and is now in a private collection in Australia. Longstaff’s final scholarship work was The Sirens, a huge dramatic piece which he exhibited at the salon the following year and at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1894, where it hung on the line it received much attention.
Although Longstaff was constantly working and successfully exhibiting, a steady income with which to support his family remained difficult and uncertain. He was often forced to rely on alternate funds, such as winning money playing billiards, and also assistance from friends such as Hector MacDonald who, when visiting, gave him a gift of one hundred pounds. Aside from financial issues, Topsy had disliked living abroad from their arrival, and over the years in Paris she rarely left the house and learnt no French. Hence, when her aunt visited, Topsy agreed to her suggestion that she and the baby return to Australia with her. Following this, Longstaff moved first to the Hotel de l’Univers and then the cheaper Hotel Pelletier. Here he entertained many friends including the Australian artists Rupert Bunny and Bertram Mackennal. By mid-1894 Longstaff was in London, first staying in May’s flat while he was in Italy, and when May returned he lodged nearby on Holland Park Road. Here, he taught for three months at the London School of Art. In 1895 Longstaff decided to return to Australia.
When Longstaff arrived in Melbourne in mid-1895 it was in the midst of the depression, which did not bode well for obtaining steady work. He settled his family in a cottage in Brighton, close to Frederick McCubbin’s family. His family was quickly expanding; his second son Reginald had been born in Australia in early 1895, in mid-1898 a third son, Percy, was born, but died when only six months old, and John Campbell Junior was born in 1900. Longstaff divided his time between the house and his studio, which he first set up in the New Zealand Chambers and later the Grosvenor Chambers. Between 1895 and 1901 Longstaff spent much of his time travelling interstate visiting family, accepting invitations and importantly undertaking commissions. In 1896, along with Phillips Fox and McCubbin, he was invited to be a judge for the Sydney Gallery’s first travelling scholarship which they awarded to George Lambert. In 1898 he travelled to Gippsland with Desbrowe Annear to help fight the devastating fires. He later made studies recalling the event, and his large work Gippsland, Sunday Night, February 20th, 1898 was soon purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria.
The unpredictable guarantee of work meant Longstaff accepted commissions from advertising companies, for example designing a whisky advertisement. Also, leading up to the Federation celebrations planned for 1 January 1901, Longstaff and Norman Lindsay were assigned to create invitation cards and a printed program. However, he built up a steady stream of portrait commissions, including images of Sir Edward Knox, Sir Anthony Brownless, the Chief Justice of New South Wales Sir Frederick Darley and the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Sir Arthur Snowden. Longstaff’s method was commented on by Henry Lawson, whom he had painted in a single sitting in Melbourne in 1900 before Lawson departed for London. Lawson commented on Longstaff’s rapid, vigorous and animated manner of painting, as he “quickly arranged the pose (if I ever 'posed’) and we had two or three hours at it that morning. I think I could watch that man work all day” (1994 Joske, pp 86-8). The thick, expressive paintwork that was a signature of Longstaff’s portraits was felt to not only illustrate an appearance, but to express the personality of the sitter, revealing their inner spirit and emotions.
One of the most significant commissions Longstaff received whilst in Australia was that of the Gillbee Bequest. William Gillbee was an Australian art patron who bequeathed to the National Gallery of Victoria 1000 pounds for the commissioning of a painting of an Australian historical subject. Longstaff and Emmanuel Phillips Fox were both awarded the bequest, with Fox choosing for his subject the landing of Captain Cook and Longstaff the ill-fated expedition of Burke and Wills. The award stipulated that the work be undertaken in England, and so Longstaff returned to London. Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper’s Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861 was not completed until 1907, and at 285.7 × 433cm it was the largest canvas to be painted by an Australian artist. This immensity emphasised the sombre mood of the subject of the futile and fatal journey, which ultimately meant the picture was not well received.
In the five years it took Longstaff to complete the Gilbee Bequest he continued to paint portrait commissions, the most important being Earl Beauchamp’s request to paint King Edward VII in 1902 as a gift to the Sydney Art Gallery. In response, the women of Sydney raised the funds for Longstaff to also paint Queen Alexandra. The finished pair arrived in Sydney in 1905, where there was a grand affair with an artillery band playing the national anthem as they were unveiled. Through his commissions Longstaff established a strong reputation as a portraitist. His increasing success is evident in his move in 1904 to the popular St John’s Wood, where he lived at 14 Carlton Hill. He also established a studio nearby at 1A Carlton Hill, which was later described as having a “loft ceiling, parquetted floor and old oak mantel, old tapestries on the walls and Persian rugs” (12 November 1908 British Australasian).Here he held many social events, and showed his recent works. Longstaff exhibited regularly; whilst in Paris he had exhibited at the Societe des Artistes Francais 1890-1894 and again in 1906, and after moving to London he exhibited largely in England, including nine works at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and thirty works at the Royal Academy between 1902 and 1920.
Longstaff remained in London until 1920, aside from a brief visit to Australia in 1911 for less than three months. In WWI he was appointed an official war artist, and between 1918 and 1919 he painted the portraits of many servicemen. In August 1920 Longstaff permanently relocated to Melbourne, with Topsy remaining in England. He immersed himself in the art community, and held roles as the President of the Victorian Artists Society 1924-25, President of the Australian Art Association in 1926 until it dissolved around 1930, a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery from 1927-41 and the first President of the Australian Academy of Art from 1938-41. He continued to receive acclaim for his portraits, evident in his winning of the Archibald Prize in 1925, 1928, 1929, 1931 and 1935. The most significant mark of his success was when in 1928 he became the first Australian artist to be knighted. Longstaff died in Melbourne on 1 October 1941.