Vale Professor Virginia Spate

One of Australia's most respected art historians has died aged 85.
picture of art historian Virginia Spate

Like many who work in the visual arts sector today, the spawning of their careers came from a brush with the erudite Professor Virginia Spate AC FAHA (1937-2022). She was a giant in academic circles, and a steady, gentle mentor of creative thinkers and managers.

I join that alumni who studied under Spate, so am particularly saddened at the news of her loss this week, like others.

Spate took up the role of Power Professor of Fine Art and Director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney in 1978, and there she remained until 2004.

Her colleague Mark Ledbury, Power Professor of Art History and Director of the Power Institute writes: ‘We mourn the loss today of one of Australia’s most distinguished and best loved art historians, Virginia Spate, a brilliant and committed voice for the Power Institute, the University of Sydney and art history, and a progressive, caring and much-loved friend and colleague.

‘In terms of international recognition and depth of scholarship, Virginia Spate was among Australia’s most distinguished art historians,’ he continued.

Who was Virginia Spate?

Spate was born in the UK and spent her early years in Burma before moving to Australia in 1951. She studied at Melbourne University (1961) before heading to Cambridge to receive her Masters, and was later deferred her PhD at Bryn Mawr College, in the USA.  

But it was in the UK where she began her teaching career, which lead to three decades of shaping a new generation of art scholars in Sydney.

‘Through her teaching, research and service to the University of Sydney she helped to create and sustain a discipline, and shape a whole generation of art curators, teachers and writers,’ Ledbury said.

Spate also was elected fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1981, and was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge in 1998–99.

While art and French culture were her private loves and professional pursuits, Spate was also a keen activist. In the early 80s she bought a terraced house in the Sydney suburb of Pyrmont, and she was a fierce advocate against the impact of development.

Spate also played a role in advocating for a vibrant major gallery at Circular Quay, a location where all could access art. That gallery was the Museum of Contemporary Art (whose original name was the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art), which was seeded from The Power Bequest.

The internationally celebrated institution today was a hard fight to get off the ground, and Spate worked tirelessly with inaugural directors Bernice Murphy and Leon Paroissien, negotiating between University, City and State, to assure the MCA’s early future.

Spate, however, is perhaps best known for her own scholarship, including her incredible knowledge of French art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

‘Her first book, Orphism (1979) remains a classic and has not been superseded in the literature in forty years. Her next book, Monet: The Colour of Time (1992, Thames & Hudson) was received with worldwide acclaim and won the prestigious Mitchell Prize awarded to the best book in art history by the College Art Association.

‘Virginia is still the only Australian art historian to have received this high honour,’ explained Ledbury.

It was Spate’s command of language that bought a standard of academic rigour to a generation, but this was also her passion.

Many reviewers of Virginia’s work point to her beautiful, precise and poetic writing style.

Mark Ledbury, Power Professor of Art History and Director of the Power Institute

Ledbury says that, ‘This should also be noted, because Virginia passionately argued for clarity in writing from her students, and strove to ensure that good writing communicated complex ideas in ways that are comprehensible and elegant.  In an age of jargon, this is a priceless quality.’

Among her publications are monographs on Tom Roberts (1985) and John Olsen (1963), as well as countless contributing essays to other tomes of Australian art history.

An historian who celebrated culture beyond borders

Spate was not only an educator and historian but contributed to curatorial scholarship also. Her contribution to the blockbuster exhibition Monet and Japan (held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001), as well as French Painting: The Revolutionary Decades (1980) for the Art Gallery of NSW, were both highly regarded.

Ledbury described the NGA show as a ‘brilliant and incisive survey of French Revolutionary Art which anticipated many of the intellectual and methodological questions asked a decade later by art historians and historians worldwide.’

Spate was awarded a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2004, by the French Government.  

In social media outpourings this week, artist Ian Milliss shared the anecdote:

‘I remember a panel discussion with the pompously French critic Pierre Restany where he insisted that his English was inadequate and he had to have a translator…The process of translating everything into French for him then translating his replies back was very tedious …until when for a moment everything got a bit contentious and animated he suddenly interjected with some lengthy comments in English.

‘There was a stunned and rather pissed off gasp from the audience then in the following silence suddenly Virginia came in and translated everything he had just said into French to great applause. She was no one’s fool,’ recalls Milliss.

Indigenous literacy was another of Spate’s passions

Described as ‘an activist for communities, for reconciliation and for Indigenous justice and rights,’ she help curated the video interview series, Aboriginal Artists Speak.

She believed in a need to give voice back to Indigenous artists and creators. Her contribution to the humanities in Australia was recognised with a Centenary Medal from the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2001.

While many will remember Spate for her halo of willowy blonde hair and her soft knowing voice, they will also remember her caring nature.

Ledbury concludes, ‘I will remember her as a genial and benevolent elder, an inspiring and imaginative scholar, a twinkle-eyed raconteur, and a passionate advocate for a just, humane and culturally rich society.’

In 2018 Spate was awarded the highest civilian Queens Birthday honor of Australian Companion (AC). She also received the Mitchell Prize in 1992 and a Centenary Medal in 2001 for service to Australian society and the humanities in the study of art history.

Ledbury said that ‘Virginia suggested that friends might like to make a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation in her memory.’

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina