Sunday, 4 August 2013

G V F Mann (1863-1948): gallery director, architect and artist

Best known for being the first director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gother Victor Fyers Mann was also a talented landscape artist, architect and historian. The son of a prominent surveyor and explorer, Mann was born in Paddington, Sydney on 8 October 1863 and grew up living in Neutral Bay, then a small community, on the northern shore of Sydney Harbour. Known to his friends as Victor, Mann was educated at Sydney Grammar School and later trained to be an architect at the University of Sydney. After his formal studies he trained as an architect with Thomas Rowe. He was elected an associate of the Institute of Architects of NSW in 1886 and in 1887 he was awarded a gold medal by the president of the Institute of Architects for his draftsmanship. Mann later practised as an architect in Brisbane from 1888 to 1891 before returning to work in Bridge Street, Sydney.

G V F Mann
Image courtesy Art Gallery of NSW 

Mann’s involvement with the art world began during his time as an architectural student in the mid 1880s. In 1885 Mann met the English artist Charles Conder, and the two young men painted the Hawkesbury River district and trained under Julian Ashton. After Mann’s return from Brisbane in 1891 he studied with Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts at their Commercial Union Chambers studio in Pitt Street, Sydney. With such a high pedigree of talented teachers it is no wonder that Mann persevered with his art, and in 1892 he exhibited his first work (a watercolour titled 'At Bulli, NSW’) at the Art Society of NSW’s annual show. From 1894 to 1896 Mann was appointed Secretary of the Art Society of NSW. Mann’s time in office was a turbulent period in the organisation’s early history and saw a breakaway group of 'professional’ artists leave the Art Society in 1895 to form the new Society of Artists.

Tom Roberts (with pipe) and G V F Mann (right)
painting on the Hastings River in 1896
detail from photo in State Library of NSW collection
Mann began his association with the National Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) in 1896 when he was temporarily employed in cataloguing the collection. Perhaps with ambitions for the role of managing the AGNSW, Mann diplomatically exhibited his work with both the Society of Artists and the Art Society of NSW. With a good knowledge of art and the NSW gallery collection, Mann was appointed to the position of Secretary and Superintendent of the AGNSW in 1905. By the following year Mann, in association with the president of the board of trustees Eccleston Du Faur, published an updated illustrated catalogue of the Gallery collection. The works in the gallery at the time of Mann’s appointment were dominated by nineteenth century images sourced from British and French collections. The Australian collection was smaller than the European and did not include any works created by Aboriginal artists; their works were then consigned to the ethnographic museums.

The initial collection of the AGNSW had been established in the 1880s and 90s and the Classical styled sandstone building designed by W.L. Vernon was completed in 1909. The role of manager of the gallery was upgraded in 1912 and Mann became the first Director and Secretary of the AGNSW. In 1912 Mann was also elected to the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (CAAB), and from 1918 until his death was Chairman of the CAAB. This committee began to commission and collect works for the new national collection. Mann had two trips to Europe (1914 and 1926) where he purchased new pieces for the NSW collection. These purchases were mainly 'safe’ British and French works by established artists such as Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin, Alfred Munnings and W. Russell Flint. Other important works purchased during Mann’s time at the Gallery include the equestrian statues at the front of the gallery and Edgard Maxene’s 'The Book of Peace’ (1913).

Le Live de Paix, by Edgard Maxence
This work was purchased in 1913 during 
Mann's directorship of the NSW Gallery

Despite lack of funds during his directorship, Mann increased the Australian art collection at the AGNSW. Comparing the 1906 and 1928 Gallery catalogues the Australian collection of oils and watercolours increased from 183 paintings in 1906 to 314 works in 1928. Mann retired from the position of Director of the AGNSW on his sixty-fifth birthday on 8 October 1928. Mann was awarded the Society of Artists Medal in 1928 and in the following year he was awarded the C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

While he certainly increased the Australian works in the NSW collection, the main criticism of his period in office was that despite the emergence of modernism in Sydney during the post First World War art boom, hardly any examples of modernist works were included in the NSW collection while under his control. While Mann can be partially blamed for this lack of foresight, most of the collecting decisions at the gallery during this time were determined by the board of trustees.

While Mann had discontinued exhibiting with the Royal Art Society and Society of Artists after his appointment at the AGNSW in 1905, he was briefly involved with the short lived Australian Arts Club (AAC) at the end of the Great War. The AAC evolved out of the Sydney Sketch Club which was formed at the start of the war. By 1919 the original sketch club, now known as the Australian Arts Club, had a membership of about two dozen members and Mann was listed in catalogues as Vice-President. The club was restricted to professional male artists who were associated with the Club’s President, Sydney Ure Smith. At the first exhibition of the AAC in Melbourne, in April 1918, Mann exhibited ten paintings. Mann also exhibited nine works at the only AAC exhibition in Sydney in 1919. The Triad reviewer commented in July 1919 that Mann had 'several charming and intimate bits of adroitly appreciated beauty’. The artist did not submit works to the third and final 1920 AAC show in Melbourne although he was still listed as Vice-President on the catalogue.

In early May 1930, Mann held the only solo show of his career at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. Being a former director of the state gallery, Mann’s exhibition of 45 oils and watercolours was keenly judged by several Sydney critics, including William Moore of the Daily Telegraph (7 May 1930, page 10):

His collection of landscapes vary in quality, but in the best of his examples, Mr. Mann shows a sure, broad touch… The artist has a fine sense of colour, not of the flamboyant insistence of a Blamire Young, but a deep, rich quality of its own.

Part of the catalogue of Mann's 1930 show at the Macquarie Galleries

The June 1930 issue of The Home magazine reported that Mann had sold seventeen works at the exhibition. Most of his pictures were Australian, English, Dutch and Venetian landscapes supplemented by harbour views, seascapes and flower studies. The European pictures must have been painted during Mann’s 1926 visit to Europe. Two works, 'The Passing of the “Gabo” and the “Manly” ’ and 'Doorway to Banqueting Hall, Wardour Castle’ were purchased by the National Art Gallery of NSW. After the solo show Mann continued to paint during the 1930s, his later works being mainly views of old Sydney houses.

With the planned move to new premises at 252 George Street, Sydney, the management of the Bulletin decided to open a large gallery on the top floor of their new headquarters. Being the artistic arm of the fiercely nationalistic Bulletin, the Macleod Gallery was appropriately dedicated to showing Australian art. Now retired from the NSW Public Service, Mann was appointed as the Director of the new gallery, which was named in honour of the recently deceased Bulletin editor, William Macleod. Mann’s debut exhibition was a mixed show of many of the leading artists in Australia and to help him with selection he was assisted by leading painters, Sir John Longstaff and Will Ashton. B.P. Magazine dedicated three pages of their September 1932 issue to the Macleod Gallery, the feature included images of the large gallery and several exhibited works. Mann continued in the role of Director until the Macleod Gallery closed in 1936.

Mann seems to have had a long-term interest in history especially the architectural heritage of his home town. As early as 1902 he exhibited four views of The Rocks district to a special Society of Artists exhibition titled 'Pictures of Old Sydney’. Many of Mann’s later works had heritage themes, including an oil painting titled 'Milson’s Point, Fifty Years Ago’ which was reproduced in the 1932 B.P. Magazine feature. In late life Mann wrote an informative local history of North Sydney titled Municipality of North Sydney: History and Progress from the earliest Settlement 1788-1938, published by the North Sydney Council in 1938. Profusely illustrated with early photographs, the book also included three works painted by Mann. The artist continued to paint throughout the 1930s and exhibited some of his watercolours at several of the Australian Watercolour Institute (AWI) annual shows. His final public contribution was two works exhibited at the 1940 AWI exhibition. Little is known of Mann’s activities during his final years. He died, aged 85, on 12 November 1948 in Sydney. Mann was survived by his wife, Mabel Beatrice and a daughter.

© Silas Clifford-Smith 2013

This is an edited version of a Peer Reviewed article first published on the Design and Art Australia (DAAO) website in 2008


  1. Thankyou, Silas. I hate to say I've never heard of GVF Mann. There's much to chew on here.

  2. There are so many artists from the past that have been forgotten. Taste, like time, is always changing.


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