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The Boyd Dynasty

Guest blog by Geoff Harrison.

As author Brenda Niall tells the story in her 2002 book “The Boyds”, Australia’s most famous artistic dynasty began with four men; Victoria’s first Chief Justice, a convict turned successful brewer, a military officer and a doctor/squatter. Initially, reading this book brought back memories of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in that the reader is confronted with an enormous family tree that runs to three pages.

The scale of that tree can be attributed to the simple fact that most of them bred like rabbits. What is remarkable is the proliferation of artistic offspring produced by these various alliances; painters, potters, sculptors, writers and architects.

Minnie Boyd, 1875. Interior With Figures - The Grange. Watercolour.

There was scandal in the early years of the dynasty too. In 1855, William Arthur Callender ‘a’Beckett (son of Chief Justice Sir William a’Beckett) secretly married Emma Mills (daughter of former convict John Mills). Six children resulted from this marriage including Emma Minnie, arguably the first significant artist in the dynasty. In 1886 she married the painter Arthur Merric Boyd, one of 11 children and a distant descendant of military officer Major Alexander Boyd and squatter Dr Robert Martin.

We’ll leave the complications of the family tree there and focus for a while on the career of Emma Minnie Boyd.

With the a’Beckett fortune behind her, Emma Minnie (who became known as Minnie to avoid confusion with her mother Emma) lived a privileged existence both in Victoria and the UK. She spent six years at the Gallery School in Melbourne, as well as private lessons with none other than Louis Buvelot – the finest landscape painter of his generation. Her early interior scenes are my favourites, they depict scenes at the Boyd’s Tudor style mansion “Glenfern” in East St Kilda (which still exists) and “The Grange” at Harkaway (which doesn’t). They are small in scale but very intricate.

Minnie Boyd, 1887. Corner of a Drawing Room. Oil on canvas. Reproduced from NGV Website.

Minnie Boyd, 1891. To The Workhouse. Oil on canvas. Reproduced from Before Felton Website.

Minnie and Arthur Merric were contemporaries of the Heidelberg school artists; Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder etc. but being married, they remained on the fringes of that movement. Life in the male dominated artists’ camps of the late 1880’s was not a proposition for a lady and besides, the others were all single. She was fortunate to have a painter-husband who encouraged her in her career.

The Boyds moved to the UK in 1890 and their work was shown at the Royal Academy. They lived in relative comfort, but the poverty of rural England began to disturb Minnie. The industrial revolution had effectively destroyed cottage industries and Minnie was encouraged by a local vicar to take part in village life and charitable work. Her painting “To The Workhouse” is a reflection of these times. They moved back to Victoria in 1894.

Looking at Minnie’s early work, I’m left wondering why she didn’t become a more prominent artist, as she had been exhibiting her work from the age of fifteen. Being a woman in a male dominated profession only provides part of the answer. Once again, the family tree provides the other – she had five children. Still, she was one of those rare artists who was able to combine an artistic career with raising a large family. She was equally adept at watercolours and oils and was quite versatile in her output.

Niall goes into great detail in describing the lives of many of the Boyds and the houses they lived in, so within the limitations of a blog, it’s impossible to do Niall’s book justice, but it’s full of charming and revealing anecdotes. As the decades unfolded, the wealth of the Boyds gradually declined. Arthur Boyd was raised in a collection of cottages, studios and kilns called ‘Open Country’ in Murrumbeena in the 1920’s and 30’s – a site now occupied by blocks of flats. He found his first agent at the age of 10 – younger brother Guy. Arthur was producing drawings of the neighbourhood dogs but was too shy to approach the owners. So seven year old Guy would ring the doorbell whilst Arthur waited sheepishly at the gate. Prices ranged from sixpence to 1/6- per drawing. Guy went on to become a successful sculptor and father of seven (including two sculptors, a painter, a writer and a sculptor/potter).

Niall also relates an interesting story about the National Gallery of Victoria – the St Kilda Road complex that opened in 1968. We have all been told that Roy Grounds was the chief architect, which he indeed was. But Grounds was in partnership with two others; Frederick Romberg and Robin Boyd. The partnership became known as Gromboyd which won the commission to build the NGV in 1959. But Grounds set about sidelining the other two, setting up his own offices in Toorak and appointing his own staff, taking all the credit and pocketing all the profits.

Nation Gallery of Victoria. Reproduced from the NGV Website.

Romberg cut his losses and took up a professorship at the University of Newcastle. Robin Boyd’s career never recovered. Despite being in receipt of various honours as an architect, speaker and writer, his practice was failing along with his health. He died in 1971 at the age of 52.

At the end of this book you will find 23 pages of notes and the bibliography runs to 11 pages. So it’s well researched and an excellent read.


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