Jim Alexander (1936-2021) exhibited works by some of Australia’s most accomplished female artists and was responsible for reintroducing many of them back into Australian art history.
Jim commenced his passion for art at a fairly young age, studying art at high school from, none other than, artist Justin O’Brien. The practicalities of life at the time, however, intervened and for the next ten years he worked on the family farm. After its sale in 1967, he moved to Sydney and rekindled his passion for art, attending art classes and commencing the buying and selling of art.
It was 1975, the International Year of Women, and Jim made the decision to set up an art gallery specialising in Australian women artists. He was supported and encouraged by a number of art dealers and galleries in the trade, and Important Women Artists officially opened its doors in Malvern in 1977.
The first artist Jim approached was the important modernist, Grace Crowley, who happily contributed works for his first exhibition in April 1977. The exhibition featured forty-six Australian women artists, many of whom were mostly unknown at the time but largely collected today. The Financial Review headlined an article on the opening as “Women at last taken seriously”.
From the inception of Important Women Artists, Sybil Craig became not only a regular exhibiting artist but also a dear friend of Jim Alexander. As Jim’s son, Tim, recounts – “Jim and Sybil met at a Melbourne Society of Woman Painters and Sculptors exhibition. Sybil was the first person that Jim noticed. She was wearing a brown beret, a long tweed coat, scarf and slacks. Jim’s first thoughts were that “she can’t be an artist because she looks too much like one’.”
Sybil and Jim became lifelong friends, and the gallery went on to hold three solo exhibitions of her work. The first one with Jim in 1978 came 30 years after Sybil’s last solo exhibition.
Another artist who became a close friend of Jim’s was Dr. Marguerite Mahood, who referred to Jim as “her archaeologist” as she felt he had “dug her up from the past”. Their professional and personal friendship is demonstrated through the gallery’s iconic logo, based on a Mahood ceramic.
Following his first few exhibitions, Jim endeavoured to look for artists that hadn’t been “found”. Within the world of forgotten Australian women artists, Jim identified an underappreciation for printmakers. In late 1977, he held a very successful exhibition entitled “The Printmakers”. The exhibition was largely prompted by a folio of prints that Evelyne Syme had left in her will to fellow artist and friend Anne Montgomery. As with many of the women artists of the early 20th century, works were often traded between peers and friends as a way of supporting one another when the art world failed to.
Jim ran his gallery from the family home in East Malvern. It was mainly open on Sunday afternoons and operated as Important Women Artists from 1977 to 1979 and after a break and a name change, continued to feature predominately women artists as Jim Alexander Gallery from 1982 to 1990. Just some of the artists that Jim exhibited included Frances Derham, Peggy Crombie, Sybil Craig, Anne Montgomery, Dora Meeson, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Florence Shirlow, Jessie Mackintosh, Eveline Syme, and Jessie Traill. His influence on the trajectory of many of Australia’s important women artists is profound, and yet, much like the female artists he ‘unearthed’, he himself has been often forgotten or under-recognised.
We would like to thank Jim’s son, Tim, for his assistance in forming this article and are honoured to be presenting works from the Estate of Jim Alexander in our 2023 Women Artists auction as lots 25-42.
OLIVIA FULLER / Head of Art
Banner Image (detail): Florence Shirlow (1903-1987) Hong Kong Peasants 1968 | $2,000-3,000