Tony Mackle’s interest in John Baillie (1868-1926) began 30 years ago while he was working at the National Art Gallery. Back then Tony noticed that 60 works of art accessioned in 1912 had come from The Baillie Exhibition. This exhibition had been an extraordinary event attended by 30,000 people who paid a shilling each to view 400 works of British art which had been shipped out from London, and were now for sale.

But who was this enterprising John Baillie? After years of research and more recently considerable help from Papers Past, Tony found out that Baillie was born in Wellington and had worked in his father’s photography and book shop at 39 Cuba Street. He was also active in the city’s cultural life as a painter of atmospheric watercolours. In 1896 he decided to go to London where he set himself up as an artists’ agent, moving on to ever more fashionable addresses. Described as “a man of taste and discoverer of artistic talent” he enjoyed considerable success.

In 1912, working with the NZ Academy of Fine Arts, Baillie shipped a collection of approximately 400 paintings, watercolours and prints by international artists to Wellington. In April the Baillie Exhibition opened in a Harbour Board building known as ‘Shed U’ on the Wellington wharves, as the Academy’s building on Whitmore Street was too small. Choosing the art with due regard for the conservatism of Wellington society, the works were late Edwardian and Victorian in style and carefully avoided the corrupting influence of painters such as Gauguin, Matisse or Monet. Nudity was allowed only in classical works, such as Diana and her Nymphs. Visitors could vote for their favourite works and local newspapers published the names of individuals and businesses who had contributed to the purchase of works, many intended for a national art gallery which didn’t as yet exist. The exhibition was hugely successful with some £6,500 worth of paintings bought for the proposed national collection with funds donated by the government, the Wellington City Council and public subscriptions.   Private and commercial donors probably brought the total worth to approximately £11,000. After moving the unsold works on to Dunedin, Auckland and then back to Wellington, Baillie returned to England. With his health in decline he eventually returned to New Zealand and for a time was City Librarian in New Plymouth.

While the name John Baillie was new to most in the audience, all went home with respect for his achievements and gratitude to Tony for telling us about him. For Tony however, the story remains incomplete, as he continues to track the story of the paintings in the exhibition and Baillie’s own life. The Wellington City Council has one of Baillie’s own paintings in its collection, but where are the rest? Perhaps you may know? Baillie had a sister whose married name was Stephens and lived in Cuffley, Hertfordshire, England. Her husband worked in Barclays Bank. A niece, Erica, married and went to live in America. As Mrs Francis Stone she lived in Huntington, Texas. It would be interesting to trace these relations and find more of John Baillie’s paintings.

Feature image: Following the lecture on 27 October, Research Associate,Tony Mackle talks with Friends’ President, Elizabeth Kay.