Story of a Bequest: Gwendoline West
One woman’s generosity and forethought have provided funds for some outstanding acquisitions.
Miss Gwendoline West's family migrated to Australia just over 200 years ago. Mr Thomas West of Sussex arrived in Sydney Town in 1801. One of her ancestors, he was an entrepreneur who became a major land owner, originally through the generosity of Governor Macquarie. His holding, Barcom Glen, effectively incorporated Rushcutters Bay, Kings Cross and large parts of Darlinghurst and Paddington. Several of the streets in this area are named after members of the West family.
Miss West’s grandfather inherited much of this estate, and it was the source of Miss West’s inheritance as well, her father being a man of 'independent means'.
Miss West was an only child, born in 1911 and educated at Ravenswood School on Sydney’s North Shore. She developed an enduring interest in art and design, becoming a commercial artist in her own right with a studio in the city and another at Newport. She was an inveterate traveller, never without her sketch book, and went on several trips organised by the Australian Museum. Miss West is said to have held strong views about the independence of women, but as with many women of her generation, disliked the term feminist. The Australian Museum was one of several organisations that she wished to support with a bequest.
Given the choice in where her bequest could best be used, the Museum decided on acquisitions, and was able to acquire a number of significant objects and artefacts for its collections. Without Miss West’s forethought and generosity this would not have been possible.
In 2008, the Museum had on loan a possum skin cloak made by Aboriginal artist Mor Mor (Maureen Ryland) whose country is around Lake Mungo. Her design on the inside of the cloak is representative of her feelings for her country. Traditionally, possum skin cloaks were utilitarian, providing warmth and shelter. This particular cloak, however, was made as part of a celebration and reclaiming of country by Aboriginal communities included in the 2006 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Melbourne. The event prompted the revitalising of cloak-making skills in several Indigenous communities in south eastern Australia.
As well as representing one artist’s self expression and connection to her country the cloak speaks to a broader historical movement. Miss West’s bequest gave the Museum a wonderful opportunity to acquire this unique artefact.
Another acquisition is a significant “find” from Kalgoorlie’s Golden Mile, an outstanding specimen of crystalline gold on quartz (9 x 4 x 3.5 cm). Until this acquisition the Museum had no specimens from the Golden Mile of this high quality (120 gms). Good specimens of crystalline gold are rare, and usually melted down for their monetary value. Chemists refer to gold as the “noble metal” due to the fact that it doesn’t tarnish, rust or decay.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes at the Museum, Miss West’s bequest also provided a much needed board room table. Commissioned from Wildwood, a Sydney furniture studio, the table is made from reclaimed Western Australian jarrah. Making the table, from selecting the log to designing, cutting, polishing and installing it on site, has been documented as part of the design process.
Mr Harry Brackstone, a close cousin of Miss West, and his wife, Wendy, visited the Museum in 2010 when I was trying to locate a photograph of Miss West. They brought several from their home in New Zealand, which revealed Miss West as a stylish young woman who was endearingly arresting in later life. We talked about Miss West’s life, her interests, and the various acquisitions which her bequest had made possible.
When shown the magnificent jarrah table, Mr Brackstone immediately said, “Gwen would have loved it”. He was also keen to see the possum skin cloak because he and his wife were visiting Lake Mungo the following week. Seeing the cloak gave added significance to their trip.
They were also thrilled with works of Badger Bates, which had been acquired in 2008 and included a series of six lino prints by the Barkindji (Darling River) artist. Much of Bates’ work emphasises his people’s “belonging” to the River and the importance of caring for the environment. His print, “No More Catfish”, portrays the catfish out of water, a certain future if we do not take care of our river systems.
Mr Brackstone and his wife were pleased that the Museum had taken such care in documenting the purposes to which the bequest had been put, and the effort staff had made to keep Miss West’s friend and executor informed about the acquisition decisions made in the last five years. He now looks forward to hearing more himself!
How You Can Make a Difference
In the future, the Australian Museum will rely increasingly on the generosity of private benefactors. We gratefully acknowledge what Miss West’s bequest has made possible, and welcome your enquiries about making a bequest or a donation to the Australian Museum Foundation. All enquiries are strictly confidential.
We'd love to help you. Please call:
Executive Officer to the Director
02 9320 6456
send an email.