Important Works formerly in the Collection of Sir Keith and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Cruden Farm, Victoria

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Sir Keith Murdoch with artist Russell Drysdale in Melbourne,
looking at Drysdale’s, The Broken Windmill
Art Historical

Propelled by an untiring work ethic, chairman and managing director of the Herald newspaper group and founder of News Limited, Sir Keith Murdoch was a leading figure in arts administration in Victoria and became an inadvertent arbiter of taste in Australia mid-century. A connoisseur and passionate patron of the arts, Sir Keith Murdoch and his wife, the much-loved philanthropist Dame Elisabeth, acquired a fine collection of Australian, British and European paintings, prints and drawings alongside a remarkable collection of Chinese ceramics and antique furniture.1 These acquisitions were made from his own instinct and with the advice of friends, Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Daryl Lindsay, his newspaper critics Basil Burdett and Clive Turnbull and later, their neighbours, the McClelland family. His pictures included many works by Australian artists who were not widely recognised when he supported them.2

While his personal taste was moderate, cultural historians have recently recognized the magnitude of Sir Keith Murdoch’s contribution to the introduction of modern art to Australia, noting his ability to affect cultural policy by commanding political attention and endeavoring to educate and influence public opinion through his diverse media interests. Inspired by the work of Sydney Ure Smith in Sydney and in accord with established Herald policy, Sir Keith maintained and greatly increased publication space for the visual arts and appointed professional critics such as Basil Burdett to pen reviews and articles encouraging art appreciation amongst the general public.

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Sir Keith Murdoch and Elisabeth Murdoch and their children Rupert,
Helen and baby Anne onboard the SS. Mariposa at Melbourne returning
home from tour, c.1937

The patronage of the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, arriving in Adelaide and touring Australia throughout the war years, was one of Murdoch’s most memorable contribution to the cultural landscape. His own written introduction to the exhibition catalogue reveals the democratic and educational aims of his long-term efforts in the arts: ‘The collection is offered in the deeply felt belief that, through those who will observe and study it, a force will go forth in ever widening circles with useful effect upon Australian life.’3

In addition to his sponsorship of modern touring exhibitions, Sir Keith Murdoch was appointed the first chairman of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria after its administrative separation from the National Museum and National Library in 1945. He was instrumental in the choice of the site of the NGV, across Princess Bridge, ‘due to his conviction that a new art gallery and cultural centre at the entrance to the city’ was fundamental to Melbourne’s future.4

A cultural liberal, he voiced strong opinions in favour of modernizing and diversifying the permanent collection of the NGV, in direct opposition to the then director J. S MacDonald: ‘The needs of the gallery should be the guide… wide representation of periods, schools, and artists necessary to make the gallery representative to give it popular attraction and interest… it must have variety, true educational value and aim to be nationally important.’5

The innate sense of generosity that underpinned Sir Keith Murdoch’s efforts in arts administration was mirrored in his wife, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who devoted her life’s work to an extraordinarily wide-ranging philanthropy, particularly in the long decades after Sir Keith’s death in 1952. From the 1930s onwards, Dame Elisabeth centered her philanthropic attentions on children’s welfare, in particular at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, her efforts here led to receiving the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1968. She was also a patron of the arts in her own right, becoming the first woman to sit on the Council of Trustees of the NGV in 1968 and in 1976 co-founding the Victorian Tapestry Workshop.6 Living in Langwarrin, Victoria, Dame Elisabeth also was an active supporter of the local McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery.

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Elisabeth Murdoch with her husband Sir Keith Murdoch arriving at
Essendon aerodrome, Melbourne, January 1942

Sir Keith grew up in the- rural Camberwell, Melbourne in the exacting economy of a clergyman’s large family, ‘a family in which personal integrity and effort were valued for their own sakes’.7 His parents had migrated from Cruden, in Aberdeenshire in 1884. Later, in 1928, in addition to their Toorak family home, Sir Keith purchased a ‘small farm’ in Langwarrin as a wedding gift to his young wife – a property which soon acquired the name of Cruden Farm. This rural haven became a beloved weekend retreat for Sir Keith, Dame Elisabeth and their four children: Helen (later Handbury), Rupert, Anne (later Kantor) and Janet (later Calvert-Jones) and the long-term residence of Dame Elisabeth after the passing of Sir Keith.8 Following early extensions designed by Harold Desbrowe Annear, the garden was extensively developed and cared for by Dame Elisabeth and the property housed artworks that had not been dispersed in the Estate sales in 1953. This collection of paintings, including rare paintings by British moderns Walter Sickert and Samuel Peploe alongside Australian Impressionists Frederick McCubbin and Emanuel Phillips Fox, and modernist Eric Wilson have remained at the bustling bucolic Cruden Farm since the 1950s, cared for by the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, and later, her daughters and her grandchildren.

1. Many of these were sold during a three-day estate auction from their Toorak home in March 1953, and donated to state galleries, including another painting by Walter Sickert, Whistler's studio, c.1915-17, donated to the Queensland Gallery of Art, Brisbane by Lady Murdoch in memory of Sir Keith Murdoch.
2. ‘Keith Murdoch – A great Australian’, The Herald, 6 October 1952, p. 4 3.Chanin, E., and Miller, S., Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2005, p. 9
4. The Herald, op. cit.
5. Zwar, D., In Search of Keith Murdoch, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1980, p. 115
6. McCulloch, A., McCulloch, S., & McCulloch Childs, E., The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Australian Art Editions, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. 708
7. The Herald, op. cit.
8. Serle, G., ‘Murdoch, Sir Keith Arthur 1885 – 1952’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 10, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, entry 677