For more than 50 years, Watters Gallery was a prominent fixture in the Sydney art scene. Since it first opened in 1964 the now iconic institution drew on the diverse skill set of its three original directors: Geoffrey and Alexandra Legge (an economist and accountant respectively) and Frank Watters, a man who rejected his future as a coalminer and dedicated his life to his love of art.
Frank grew up in Muswellbrook, NSW, a coalmining district. Turning his back on that destiny he moved to Sydney and was working at Barry Stern’s gallery in Paddington when he first met Geoffrey, who was living next door. Three days after they opened Watters gallery in November 1964, Geoffrey and Alexandra got married, and together the trio formed both a lifelong business partnership and an unconventional family.
“I definitely think he was part of the family, says Zoe Legge, daughter of Geoffrey and Alexandra. As Zoe explains, she and her late brother Jasper “just thought he was our third parent.”
Both siblings joined the family business as gallerists in their own right when they formed Legge Gallery in 1990, and Zoe says that Frank exposed them to a broad interpretation of culture very early on. “When we were little he took us to see Lou Reed, to the ballet, to the Rocky Horror Picture show, to classical concerts,” she recalls. “He did definitely enrich our lives, but he enriched so many people’s lives.”
Watters Gallery finally closed in 2018. But during more than five decades of operation it helped to nurture the careers of some of Australia’s most respected artists including: Tony Tuckson, Robert Klippel, James Gleeson, Richard Larter, John Peart, Ken Whisson, Vicki Vavaressos, Helen Eager and Euan Macleod. And Watters formed intense personal relationships with many of the artists the gallery represented. As Zoe Legge says, “He was part of the family to other people too.”
When the gallery was closing, Frank decided to donate 67 works by 27 artists in his personal collection to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “It’s an eclectic donation which reflects Frank’s eclectic tastes,” says UTS curator Stella Rosa McDonald. “So it’s a very personal gift that really reflects the way Frank worked, which was quite unique.”
Frank Watters was awarded an OAM, honouring his services to the arts, and as McDonald points out, his gift helps to continue this service to future generations, and shares an important part of Sydney’s art history. The works tell “a very Sydney story” she says and the gift will help to maintain the legacy of both Frank the individual and the Watters Gallery.
After a short stay in hospital, on 21 May Frank Watters was able to die at home in Cassilis, NSW, peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by friends who considered him family.