Last week, Curator Historical International Art, Dr Mark Stocker, introduced us to Australian artist Lionel Lindsay and the famous Cobb and Co print. Here, Mark continues his story.
Swagmen, like the Cobb & Co stagecoaches discussed in part 1 of this blog, were an endangered species in Australia in the 1920s. Invariably Lindsay depicts them as elderly, grizzled, shabby yet indomitable.
Curator Lizzie Bisley observes: ‘Tramping through a desolate Australian landscape, they are a tribute to a unique model of antipodean masculinity’.
A princely printmaker
The ink had barely dried on Lindsay’s prints when he rose to eminence – and wealth – in the final flourish of the Etching Revival, with sell-out exhibitions at Wright’s posh Bond Street dealer-gallery Colnaghi’s.
Lindsay was knighted in 1941, but by then Sir Lionel was the angry old man of the Australian art world.
In the early 1940s, the print market had collapsed, the nation had sold its soul to the socialism of a Labor government, and modern art had made irreversible inroads into Australian culture. What a catastrophe! Lindsay’s response was to write the short book Addled Art (1942) where he denounced modernism.
Vituperative and nastily anti-Semitic it certainly is, but he also mourns the loss of craftsmanship in art, due to the downgrading of drawing. Perhaps he had a point.
Lindsay on stamps
Flash forward ten years. Sir Lionel had long laid down his etching needle. But then Cobb and Co. was rediscovered and inspired two 1955 postage stamps commemorating the mail services of yesteryear.
The surface printing process for stamps admirably conveys drypoint, and the result is remarkably attractive and dignified.
Stamps were big in 1955. Every other schoolboy and not a few schoolgirls collected them. As cultural signifiers, saying ‘This is Australia’, stamps spoke volumes and the two-shilling value for overseas postage made their reach global.
Enter Bill Bolton
Queensland transport haulier and businessman William ‘Bill’ Bolton (1905-73) was excited and delighted by the stamps. An intelligent, ruggedly individualistic, down to earth, self-made Toowoomba man, he knew a good stamp when he saw one.
He would have been especially chuffed to have read Cobb and Co on the stamps. This was the very name of his own thriving South Queensland motor haulage enterprise, inspired by the original firm.
Like Lindsay, he was a passionate aficionado of bygone Australia and loved the old coaches themselves, amassing a collection of 28.
They now form the nucleus of the Cobb + Co Museum in Toowoomba.
What happened next…
There are two versions of the story. The first is appealing, a letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, on the following lines: ‘Dear Bob, These Cobb and Co stamps are corker! Can you ask the bloke whose picture they’re of to get hold of me quick smart? I want to buy the original! Many thanks. Yours, Bill’.
More likely Bolton, who was highly literate and undoubtedly aware of Lindsay as an illustrator and artist, asked a mutual friend Eric Bedford – son of Lindsay’s Cobb & Co cobber back in 1897 – to contact the great man. The rest is history.
Bill and Sir Lionel
‘That’s a real beaut picture you’ve got there, Sir Lionel. I want one framed, to hang in the office. How does £500 sound?’ ‘Bill, if I may, that’s twice the normal price of a standard impression. It’s a deal! Now, let me show you some of my other works!’
Bolton had progressed from collecting coaches to a wider representation of the nation’s pioneer heritage: journals of South Seas exploration, of the First Fleet and inland expeditions, literature of the Lawson/ Paterson era, and accounts of Anzac heroism in World War One. And now of course, thanks to Lindsay, there was the art.
A growing collection
We don’t know how many artworks were acquired over the next five years but a typescript in the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery collection dated December 1960 lists 243 prints; and there were paintings besides. It grew to over 500 in Bolton’s lifetime.
The nucleus was obviously by Lionel Lindsay, but rogue brother Norman (and his erotic prints!) were also on Bolton’s radar. Lionel and a third distinguished brother, National Gallery of Victoria director Sir Daryl Lindsay, gave professional guidance to Bill and the equally enthusiastic Marion Bolton and their budding collection.
A ‘damn fine chap’
Lindsay himself, now well into his eighties, was naturally over the moon. He wrote: ‘We’ve got a damn good country… and some damn fine chaps working. Bill Bolton’s one of them… [He] is a real Australian, he admires the Australian spirit by collecting art, which starts, of course, in painting with Roberts and Streeton, the actual painting of the native born… Australia wants more men like him…[and] he wants the Australians… to grow up with a love of their own country and to know of its traditions…’.
For Christmas 1956, Lindsay sent Bolton a copy of Addled Art inscribed: ‘To my friend W.R.F. Bolton, lover of the real Australia and sane art’.
Towards a new museum
To properly fulfill its didactic role, all this art needed physical housing. In the best Cobb & Co ‘can-do’ spirit, Bolton’s friends, family, and staff assisted him. Though inexperienced in administering art collections, they compensated with their enthusiasm. They converted an old bungalow into…
The Lionel Art Gallery and Library, Toowoomba
4 April 1959 was the proudest day of Bill Bolton’s life, and a glowing moment in Lionel Lindsay’s grumpy old age. The new gallery was officially opened by none other than long-serving conservative prime minister Sir Robert Menzies.
In his speech, Menzies hoped ‘that the people would… find it a place that would stir pride in their own country, and fire the imagination, which was always stimulated by looking at great pictures and drawings’. A ‘true repository of the national spirit’ is another description.
That ‘national spirit’ has subsequently been deconstructed, indeed rubbished by postcolonial scholars. Few people care about stamps any more: the Cobb and Co pair changes hands in mint condition for $3.
Lindsay has suffered too, perhaps deservedly, for Addled Art and its attacks on ‘Jewish Bolshevism’. But aesthetic and moral values shouldn’t be conflated his prints remain superb.
And I wish it were otherwise, but art museums these days rarely experience the old-school generosity of a bloke like Bill Bolton.
Fortunately, all this hasn’t quite been forgotten: Bolton’s remarkable collection was incorporated in 1994 into the purpose-built Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery (TRAG), whose website tells us that it is ‘the permanent home to the Lionel Lindsay Art Gallery and Library’.
I am very grateful to Jayson Althofer, who combines his day job as Bolton Library Services Officer at TRAG with independent scholarship on Lindsay and Bolton, for enabling me to tell this story.