Vida Lahey and the battle for culture in Queensland
Queensland has a burlier history than some Australian States, growing out of the grit and sweat of convicts and only the hardiest of free settlers willing to take on the more brutal northern climes of our country. In her book Art in Queensland, 1859-1959, reviewing a century of cultural awakening in our fair State, Queensland painter Vida Lahey (1959: 1) begins by observing this handicapped starting point. And yet remarkable growth took place over the century she describes, and has continued at a staggering rate in the decades since, despite isolation, an indifferent climate, and generations born without access to the centuries of human achievement that preceded them. Lahey (p. 14) remarks matter-of-factly, ‘Even the capital, during all these years, suffered from this serious retardation to development; and lack of interest in art on the part of the public was the inevitable result of seeing pictures so seldom.’ Despite this, Queensland managed to pull itself up by its own bootstraps and emerge from the ‘vicious circle’ she describes of lack of access and lack of interest—in no small part due to her unrelenting efforts to educate herself, and then to educate fledgling artists and the broader public. We might proudly note the steely heritage on which the Atelier continues to build, spurred on by the passion and resolve reflected in our forebears such as Lahey.
Lahey herself was an accomplished painter. She and her sisters were encouraged by their parents to establish careers of their own, a rarity in her time, and Lahey was supported by uncles to pursue an education in art in Sydney and Melbourne, with the war later taking her to London in aid of her militarily-inclined brothers and opening the way to the European galleries. In many ways she was privileged, as both a woman and a Queenslander, to gain such a broad education, and her work resonates with understanding and ability. Working oftentimes in watercolour, though just as frequently in oils, her floral still lives are strikingly designed, boldly coloured and confidently executed—true compositions and not passive records. And yet her oeuvre encompasses far more than the flowers often associated with her name, for her interest in the growth and progress of Brisbane is reflected in her vibrant and strongly-designed paintings of bridge-construction and the bustling Central Station. As a traveller, she let impressions of new places—from London to Brussels to Tasmania—stimulate new ideas and new themes and compositions. Surveying her work—and considering her two-hundred exhibitions throughout her lifetime—one becomes acutely aware of her open-mindedness, willingness to learn and to experiment, and superhuman work-ethic. What is most surprising about her, then, is to see these qualities (which might have taken her anywhere) married to an undying devotion to Brisbane.
Lahey’s life might be summed up by the tension that this passion for Brisbane created. While her travels and dedication to her work show how important her own education was to her, and how seriously she took this responsibility to educate herself, her fierce ties to Brisbane demonstrate her unquenchable drive to share her knowledge with others. Most notably, Lahey was instrumental, alongside Brisbane sculptor Daphne Mayo, in the Queensland Art Fund (QAF), which was wildly successful in securing funding for significant art infrastructure in Queensland.
While the Queensland National Art Gallery had been firmly established by Godfrey Rivers early in the 1900s, the limited amount of pictures available to the provincial State kept the gallery ‘moribund’ and the public ‘apathetic’ (p. 14). ‘The doldrums still reigned at the Art Gallery,’ she wrote (p. 14), ‘and the only hope of change seemed to lie in stimulating governmental action by showing public concern in the matter. The Government alone had the power and the means to give artists and public adequate access to knowledge of the world of art. This could only be done by developing an art gallery which was really worthwhile, and to do this ‘a shot in the arm’ from the public seemed essential.’ The Queensland Art Fund was the vigorous response to this need, raising money directly from the community in order to lobby Government, and at the same time educating the public about art.
It was no simple task: hardy Queensland was not easily swayed. The Government placed no priority on cultural matters, and Queensland swaggered on with ‘a moribund education system, widespread illiberal values, and an ill-educated population with limited ambitions and socio-cultural horizons’ (MacAulay, 1989: 27). Rather than escape to the cultural heaven of Europe, Lahey found herself returning to Brisbane in 1929 and committing herself heavily to teaching and to ‘improv[ing] the opportunities for artistic appreciation’ (p. 29). She dedicated a large portion of her time to the Queesland Art Library, not to mention a significant contribution of her own art books, and for four years arranged weekly lunchtime lectures, frequently filling the room to overflowing, and often presenting lectures herself like an impassioned art evangelist (Lahey, 1959: 26). She worked extensively on curricula for teaching art to children, and campaigned for the inclusion of art in schools alongside the more academic subjects. ‘Why should a child be drilled in the proportion of numbers and never taught to appreciate the proportion of shape?’ she argued in her lecture ‘Art for all’ given in 1940 (MacAulay, 1989: 88). ‘The low level of general artistic knowledge and the lack of development of the power to enjoy art on the part of the public in general, are unfortunate for the whole community.’ Education and a broader cultural appreciation in the community became increasingly interdependent for Lahey, and these efforts dominated her life’s work.
MacAulay (p. 65) describes Lahey’s vibrant painting Central Station 7am as ‘an optimistic painting, full of the hope that Vida Lahey was beginning to feel for art in Queensland, through the activities of the QAF and the move by the Queensland National Art Gallery to larger premises’ in 1931. Her hope for our State is palpable, and undeniable in the incredible resources and enthusiasm she invested in Brisbane. Perhaps rather than deciding to ‘follow her artistic conscience, and to settle for a limited vision of modernism in her own art’ (p. 80), Lahey couldn’t help but be propelled by the excitement of building, almost from scratch, a vibrant cultural metropolis. The changes she saw before her very eyes, many initiated at her own hand, must have been not only intoxicating and full of import, but immensely rewarding. Nevertheless, these energies were deflected from her own work, and she later commented, ‘On looking back now I realise that as time went on I had allowed myself to be deflected too often and too long from the most important concern of an artist’s life, viz. their own work’ (p. 29).
The seeds of something significant were sown by Lahey and others of her ilk, and today, despite the dominance of Melbourne and Sydney, Brisbane grows on fertile ground, with many hardy Queenslanders full of both imaginative ideas and dogged persistence. If travel literature is to be believed, Loney Planet has named us Australia’s hippest city. Not living under the shadow of cultural golden ages, we are not constrained by tradition and are free to build the entirely modern visions we can imagine. And I have experienced a great enthusiasm for the ambitions of those who really try to establish something, and respect for all the sweat and tears (mostly sweat) that such projects entail. Queensland, with ‘that old Queensland trait … of making-do, of counting one’s blessings and not complaining’ (p. 27), gnawing at us with ‘the ever-present temptation … to lower one’s sights, to turn away to other concerns’—‘a familiar and recurring pattern in Queensland’s history’ (p. 27), does not thwart us culturally in the way it once did. A world away from Europe, it offers us something fresh and new, something just born. Those of us who choose to remain in Brisbane, or remain attached to it in a more fluid way over time, might ‘contrast,’ with Lahey (1959: p. 36), ‘the conditions which prevailed a century ago with those of today,’ and, likewise ‘look forward’ with Lahey ‘to an equivalent development in the coming century, and the attainment then of a city which is closer to our heart’s desire.’
Lahey, Vida. 1959. Art in Queensland, 1859-1959. Jacaranda: Brisbane.
MacAulay, Bettina. 1989. Songs of Colour: The art of Vida Lahey. Queensland Art Gallery: Brisbane.
Some of Lahey’s important works are currently on display at the Queensland Art Gallery in the Transparent watercolour exhibition, which you can visit for free. Nick Leavey is likely to be more than willing to let you leaf through the gorgeous book the QAG has published on this exhibition, to get an idea of the broader context of the history of watercolour painting in Queensland. Thanks also to Nick for letting me peruse Lahey's book and other books about her. One of Lahey’s finest works, the sizeable oil painting Monday Morning, vibrantly depicting doing the laundry in her family’s Indooroopilly house, is permanently on display at the Gallery.