Janet Holmes á Court’s collection of Australian art is so extensive that works she owns the subject of two current exhibitions: Scratching the Surface at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth and Sung into Being at QAGOMA in Brisbane. And the Western Australian collector and philanthropist has just published a monograph, MUSE: A Journey through an Art Collection.

In the Introduction to the book, reproduced with permission below, Alan Dodge outlines how the Holmes á Court’s private passion for art grew in to collection with public significance.

MUSE: Introduction
Alan Dodge

The yearning chords of Transfigured Night floated across the room, building to a climax of revelation, then catharsis followed by a final wave of heartfelt resolution. A pause after the final phrase, silence, then a sudden burst of applause washed over the musicians – members of the Australian String Quartet plus two guest artists who made up the sextet required for Schoenberg’s early masterpiece. A large group of music lovers filled the massive room seated on neatly arranged rows of white wooden chairs. Behind the stage and around the walls hung a wide assortment of artworks from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection. The appreciative audience had imbibed glasses of sparkling wine in the tasting rooms before admiring the artworks and finding their seats for the concert. They were sitting in the Holmes à Court Gallery at the Vasse Felix winery located in the south-western corner of Western Australia.

Sandra Hill, Maid to Order / In Training, 2010.

Here was the ideal combination: a winery in the beautiful Margaret River region, a sampling of its tempting bounty, music of the highest order and a swathe of fine Australian art gracing the walls of the exhibition gallery at the Vasse Felix winery and restaurant. All this is the ultimate expression of the passions of Janet Holmes à Court, who, first with her husband, then on her own, has journeyed through a lifelong love of the arts.

Janet Lee Ranford grew up in the hills east of Perth, nurtured by a love of music, art and theatre.

Her education, all in Perth, culminated when she completed a degree in organic chemistry at the University of Western Australia, where she met the man who would become her husband in 1966, Robert Holmes à Court. Together, Janet and Robert raised four children while Robert moved from working as a lawyer to becoming an entrepreneur. Along the way, Robert became Australia’s first businessman worth over a billion dollars. As a venture capitalist, Robert acquired a host of companies and built up capital through corporate bids by the Holmes à Courts’ flagship company Bell Resources.

During this time, Janet and Robert built a sizeable collection of artworks, both Australian and European. Happenstance would lead to a wonderful core collection of Australian Indigenous work bought in London. Adventures followed, bidding at auction from across the world and marvellous acquisitions, such as the collection of batiks produced by the women of Utopia in early 1988. Called Utopia: A Picture Story, this survey so impressed the Holmes à Courts that they purchased the collection in its entirety.

The stock market crash of October 1987 and the untimely death of Robert in September 1990 had dramatic consequences for the company and the collection. Janet took over the company for the next five years, restructuring it to focus on key areas of interest. In the process, assets like the European works of art were sold off, but the collection of Australian art remained strong. As well, the stud farm remains in the family, as does the Vasse Felix winery in Cowaramup, where Janet has established her gallery to provide exhibitions drawn from the Holmes à Court collection and beyond.

A stocktake of the current collection reveals some stunning strengths. Australian Indigenous art holds pride of place, especially work covering what some have described as the ‘golden age’ of creativity in the 1980s and 1990s when contemporary works from a number of art centres reached a level seldom matched since.

As well, a keen interest in West Australian colonial art has yielded a fine collection. Key works from the mid-twentieth century and later constitute a brilliant group of works that, in concert, provide another strong point in the collection. However, what makes this collection unique, as with a number of private collections, is the dual role of emotional response and impulse as well as carefully thought-out concerns in acquiring works for the collection. In Janet’s case this process has spanned over four decades.

Eubena Nampitjin, Garnadi, 1999.

In the late 1970s, the Aboriginal residents of Utopia, northeast of Alice Springs, adopted a batik technique that they made their own and produced stunning images on silk. A result of this was the production of the 1988 batik silks collection and the subsequent transfer of their unique aesthetic traditions in batik to the art of painting in acrylic on canvas, beginning with another survey project at the end of 1988. From this talented group artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye evolved into a painter of the first importance. Janet’s collection holds much of this important body of work intact.

In addition to the earlier paintings and batiks Janet purchased an exquisite five-panel work by Emily, Alhalkere Country, 1990, which remains a favourite, usually hanging in her Perth home. Further, an entire body of important Australian Indigenous work from Papunya acquired in 1981 was the result of a chance visit Janet made to the Museum of Mankind in London. Separately acquired are a group of powerful paintings by Rover Thomas bought through his dealer Mary Macha.

One day while we were examining her holdings of Australian Modernism, Janet pointed out a seductively beautiful self-portrait by Margaret McPherson (later Margaret Preston). An early work in a soft, traditional style that contains little of the modernist language the artist would adapt to form her mature output, the self-portrait stands out as a marvelous painting in its own right. In the storage area, works of high quality from this period by Russell Drysdale, John Perceval and Noel Counihan also catch the eye as we pull out rack after rack in the compactus storage.

The output of West Australian artists or artists who spent time working in Western Australia are well represented in the collection. There are a number of works by Howard Taylor, Brian McKay and Karl Wiebke, artists whose work holds a certain fascination for Janet. The same is true for works by Brian Blanchflower and Harald Vike. Perhaps most spectacular is a large group of monumental paintings by Guy Grey-Smith. A major retrospective of Guy Grey-Smith at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2015 revealed the importance of the holdings of this artist from her collection. Every second wall in the exhibition featured a major painting borrowed from Janet Holmes à Court!

Margaret Preston, Girl with Hand Mirror, 1899.

The Holmes à Court collection not only has an active program of exhibitions at the HAC Gallery at Vasse Felix and elsewhere, but Janet also makes works from the collection freely available for loan to exhibitions around Australia and overseas. An important group of paintings by Emily Kngwarreye were loaned to a major retrospective of the artist organised by the National Museum of Australia in 2008, which travelled to Japan.

In 1998 I had the pleasure of working with Janet and her then Collection Manager, Belinda Carrigan, on a project, which went to Kuala Lumpur. Meetings with the Galeri Petronas, Malaysia Airlines, John Holland Asia and the board of the Art Gallery of Western Australia cleared the way for the Art Gallery of WA and the Holmes à Court Collection to put together an exhibition, which traced the emergence of Emily Kame Kngwarreye as a key artist from within the traditions of the people of Utopia. Janet’s interest in the exhibition opened a number of doors and it was not long before the Western Australian government and the then Minister of the Arts, Peter Foss, added their support.

Utopia: Ancient Cultures/New Forms featured a group of paintings by members of the community, responding to a painting by Emily plus a stunning selection of Emily’s paintings from a later period. However, the tour de force of the exhibition was the installation of a large selection of the Utopia batiks. Lengths of silk hung in a circle playing off the space of a round gallery. As they were not weighted, the silks moved slightly with shifts of air. The show opened in this room with officials from the Malaysian government and Minister Foss. Most memorable, though, was a dance performance by Indigenous actor, Trevor Jamieson.

As he wove in and out of the hanging batiks, the audience stood spellbound.

As part of the exhibition, a public education session and tour was held to provide further information. Many people came, driven by curiosity that a collection of batiks from Australia would be shown in a part of Asia where batik had flourished for centuries. The urge to criticise was quickly supplanted by a wave of enthusiasm for the freshness and intense beauty of the works.

MUSE: A Journey through an Art Collection is available for purchase in all good bookstores and online from UWA Publishing.

Book Extract