About Henry Gibbons

The following is Adapted from an article by Laurie Thomas - Sydney Morning Herald, date unknown (1960’s?) and was reproduced in The Newsletter of THE ART SOCIETY OF TASMANIA in 2008 and below this article is one written by Peter Kreet about his experience at Ashtons with Henry Gibbons.

When a Patriarch stood and clicked his heels

In his 85th year, Henry Gibbons looks and is a patriarch. When he eases himself out of the cane chair on his veranda, he would be even taller if it were not for old leg wounds returned to plague him.

Henry Gibbons
Photograph by Neil Stewart

Beyond, through the door to his study, hangs a double portrait of his two sons. In 1930 he gave up teaching painting to devote his time to them.

Julian Ashton used to say that Gibbons was an optimist - lived in the mountains and built boats. Gibbons purple blue eyes laugh, somehow visible amongst all that white hair, which flows round his head and far below his chin.

Gibbons says “Yes, I love talking. I think the reason I became a moderately good teacher is that I so loved talking” His is kindly, reminiscing, wandering talk. The years get hopelessly mixed up, and it is touched with just that tiny twinkle of malice, which enables him to bring to life with a few quick stokes, pictures of his associates and students. A picture, for example, of the original master of the Julian Ashton Art school, which Gibbons ran after Ashton died in 1942 until he himself retired about eight years ago.

He tells how he first met Ashton. Ashton’s was then known as the Sydney Art School and there was something of a feud between it and the Sydney Technical College where Gibbons was working. “I wanted to do drawing in a life class and Ashton’s was the one. So I went down one evening in April 1919. Ashton came in. Having been in the army I rose and clicked my heels. “I came down to see if  you have a vacancy for a student in your classes”. He said, “Have you ever done any drawing?” “Yes” “Where?” “In the Melbourne Gallery Schools “Under McCubbin?” “Yes” “Under Bernard Hall?” “Yes” “And when was that?” ”Up to 1911” “What are you doing now?” “I’m up at the Tech” “Teaching?” “I do some teaching there”

I watched the disapproval and then the hatred growing in his eyes. Trained under Bernard Hall and teaching at the Tech. His eyes blazed. Plainly I was an enemy alien, to be castigated until I was brought round to the right way of thinking. Even though he was now nearly blind he could recognise an enemy.

So that was that! He said I could join. That was the beginning of a two-year war. “Ashton was a great leader. He could pick men and handle them. When later I joined his staff he handed over to me the night classes and from them on never interfered with what I did” Twelve months from taking over the night drawing classes, Henry Gibbons suggested starting a Saturday afternoon class so that he could teach some of those night students to paint. The class started in February 1924. The first nine students were William Dobell, Douglas Dundas, John Passmore, Badham, Lawrence, Brackenreg, Byrne, Hubble and Cox.

The Ashton school had previously turned out two winners of the N.S.W. travelling Scholarship – George Lambert and Roy de Maistre. The four winners during the eight years from 1926 to 1933 all came from the school: Dundas 1927, Dobell 1929, Abbott 1931, Freeman 1933; and since then there have been three more – Wilson 1937, Greenhill 1942, John Henshaw 1956. Many others owe their training to the Ashton School; and more than a few of them, including scholarship winners, owe a good part of their training to Henry Gibbons.

Gibbons himself began to take drawing lessons when 18 under a monumental mason in Ashfield, then went to Frank Mahoney’s Art Society classes in Sydney where he was taught by A.J.Daplyn – ‘a handsome man with a grey, carefully trimmed beard and an artistic overcoat” – and then saw photographs of work by students of the National Gallery Schools in Victoria. “Here were the people who were in earnest and were not showing off”. With fifty pounds from his father, he went to Melbourne to join the school.

 “I hoped after a short time to make a living out of black and white – I started making drawings for the newspapers that kept coming up. It was the delight of my life when I had a drawing printed in Comments. The Bulletin never had a bar of me – until I got back from the war and sold three drawings to them – I was made! But having done that I never wanted to do any more illustrating, I wanted to do other things. “Towards the end of my Melbourne period I went into the stained glass studio of William Montgomery, for whom I made drawings, and learned something of the craft of window making”.

When I got back to Sydney in 1911 I spent three months seeking a living from my pencil or brush and decided to go to America. I signed on as a scullion in the Marama and went to Vancouver – I used to sit up on the forward hatch and write my diary.

“In the beautiful country of Canada I climbed Grass Mountain twice, up to Eaglehawk Neck and looked down on Vancouver City from 6000 feet up. With all the vanity of those days I said I’ve started on this and I have only to point my toe in front of me and I can go all over America – and that’s what I did – pointed my big toe and followed it”

 “In New York I worked at glass in the old firm of John Lafarge. In Boston I wasn’t able to get drawing work and went up to Nova Scotia and was in Halifax in 1914 when the war broke out…”

Gibbons enlisted with the 25th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force on November 4th and went to England and later to Belgium and France. He served for 3 ½ years and was twice wounded. He was invalided out in 1918 and returned home to Roseville, N.S.W. just before the Armistice. “Back in Sydney I suffered from that terrible feeling of frustration which I think was the lot of most returned service-men. I was bitterly conscious of the waste of my years and the disruption of my life by the war and the uncertainty of my future”

He took a job at the beginning of 1919 as assistant to the lecturer in charge of the art department at Sydney Technical College and soon after began his association with Ashton, first as a student and from 1923 as teacher. “Those were the days when a few artists could make quite a living out of art. Ashton had had a very big commission – a lot of paintings, 15 or 20 of them, for the Marble Bar in Adams Hotel”

“In 1921 George Lambert came back after 20 years absence. He needed an assistant for the large toll of work he had to do and I became his apprentice - and master of the stoves!”

The year with him was an exhilarating one – we used to crack jokes all day and Lambert thought he had a beautiful tenor – and I immediately began to model my art on the masters. “He demanded technique, technique all the time. To Ashton he said: ‘Not the artist but the workman, give me the workman all the time…’ Every student in Sydney tried to draw like George Lambert.

The time came when Ashton had to get out of the Queen Victoria building. I looked into every building in Sydney that had a roof – finally somebody put us on to the Mining Museum down at the far end of George Street. We got it for a peppercorn rental – and later, because Ashton seemed to know everybody, for nothing – rent free – and by Jove didn’t we need it. Though Henry Gibbons says he likes to talk about himself, his talk is practically always about others. “Teaching? Yes I can say something there. I don’t think I followed any one person or method. Every teacher I ever had influenced me to a degree. I was more interested in design than Ashton, and we often argued about that”

“I made mistakes that I would not have made had I dug more deeply into the sum of knowledge I had acquired from so many teachers and sources over quite a long period of earnest study. But I find again and again the student being caught up by his latest mentor, and all that has gone before being temporarily discarded. Assimilation of ideas is a lifetime process -to Ashton, art and artists, and especially the art student, were his life…”

Mr. Gibbons only neglects to add, with those smiling eyes, that they were his life, too.

Henry Thomas George C
Australian Male
Born; 1884
Birth Place; Balmain, Sydney NSW
Died; 1972 Sydney NSW
Travelled; United States/Canada 1911-14
Summary; Drawer, Painter, Printmaker, Teacher (NSW)


Julian Ashton Art School and Henry Gibbons

By Peter Kreet

Peter Kreet
Peter Kreet [Creet]
Drawing by Susan Dorothea White.  1961

Life is made up of many choices and often it is hard to understand why we make the ones we do. When I left seafaring as a career I had no fixed idea as to what direction my life should take. Douglas Dundas had recommended Julian Ashtons Art School as a good place to start an art career. In enrolling at the school I recall a lunch time discussion with Dick Watkins were he confessed that he could not make up his mind as to whether he wanted to paint or simply that he liked the idea of an artistic life style'.

When I enrolled in 1959, still very much still walking with a seamans' roll I was confronted by Henry Gibbons by then an institution at Ashtons. We got on very well from our first meeting no doubt his own experience as a spud barber helped [ peels potatoes on ships] when he worked his passage on a ship to America as a young man . Ashtons was very much a 19th cent academic institution were the drawing of classical plaster casts was mandatory such as Venus Di Milo and so on. This was considered the best way to train the eye to record accurately what was in front of you, after all the  subject matter could not move unlike humans.

Henery Gibbons
Henry Gibbons
Drawing by Susan Dorothea White.   1961

Henry would insist that your efforts in the cast room be put out in front, next door to the subject and then from a suitable distance ask "How do you think it looks"? Generally as a young student full of enthusiasm you would reply that it was not perfect, perhaps the right eye or ear were too high or low. To this the reply would be "Yes but what about the overall form or shape. He would then go on to explain that sometimes the eye would get in front of the hand in critical analysis, at others the hand would be in front, this would traverse throughout your drawing career, so there would always be this love hate relationship with your work. Some people draw naturally but unfortunately I was not one of them and I suspect Henry despaired at my efforts.

This philosophy about training the eye was central to the school whether it be tone, colour or form.

Henry Gibbons was somewhat deaf and often at lunch time a father would phone the school enquiring about the course before enrolling their daughter. In those days it was quite customary for fathers to do this sort of thing. The school had an old fashion telephone, one that was fixed to the wall and you had to shout at the fixed mouth piece, while the hearing section was located at the end of a long cord. Fortunately for the students the phone was quite close to the lunch room so whenever one of these calls came in we were all privy to the discussion. The conversations if I remember correctly went something like this.
H.G.  "What's that, can you speak a little louder. How long is the course? Well I have been here over thirty years." this would be followed by, "What do we teach? Nothing we only help people to see, yes to see. No there is no structure if you can't see you are not able to do anything."

As students we would be falling off our chairs with laughter particularly if we had spent the morning fighting our cast drawing. In retrospect one of the great tragedies of art education in this country has been the abandonment of this principle whether you work realistically or in abstract. I know not everyone will agree but without critical sight there is nowhere to go.




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