Eliezer Levi Montefiore – Artist & Patron

From Australia’s Jewish Past:

Eliezer Levi Montefiore

talented artist and patron of the arts

First published in J-Wire November 9, 2021

Eliezer Montifiore
Eliezer Montifiore

Eliezer Levi Montefiore, the son of Isaac Levi and Hanna, was born in the West Indies in 1820.

Eliezer's wife (and cousin) Esther Hannah Barrow Montefiore
Eliezer’s wife (and cousin) Esther Hannah Barrow Montefiore

Hanna was a cousin of the philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore. Like his brother Jacob, he adopted the name of Levi Montefiore. He was educated in England and migrated to Adelaide in 1843, where he married his cousin, Esther Hannah Barrow Montefiore, daughter of Jacob Barrow-Montefiore. They had one son who was born in Adelaide.

In 1853 Montefiore went to Melbourne as manager of the Victorian branch of the family business J. B. Montefiore Graham & Company, a commission and shipping agency. He soon realised that this business wasn’t for him, resigned, and moved to become secretary of the Australasian Insurance Company.

In 1861 he was a member of the committee to arrange a celebration for the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. His primary interests were literature and the arts, thus in 1870 he helped to establish the Victorian Academy of Art and on its behalf presented the prizes at the International Colonial Exhibition in Sydney.

Ink drawing - Melbourne from the Falls 1837 - E L Montefiore
Melbourne from the Falls – E L Montefiore 1837

It was at the Victorian Academy that his first works were exhibited. In February he became a trustee of the Melbourne Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery but resigned early in 1871 and moved to Sydney.

His main occupation remained with the Insurance Industry and on moving to Sydney, he managed the Pacific Fire and Marine Insurance Company and, together with his love of the arts and a colleague, T S Mort and other friends, he formed in 1871 the New South Wales Academy of Art. Furthering this interest, in 1874 he became one of the original trustees for administering the funds voted by parliament towards establishing the National Art Gallery of New South Wales which was opened on 22 September 1880. Eliezer was keen to continue with his etchings and became a very talented black-and-white artist, illustrating the Gallery catalogues over a ten-year period. A number of his artistic works from this period of his life survive. Interestingly, two watercolours concern local Aboriginal life, though it’s not known if he observed the scenes himself or if they were derived from another’s work. The subjects of most of Eliezer’s paintings were observed landscapes or people, or were copies of other works of art, so it’s unlikely he conjured the scenes out of his imagination. He was very highly respected for all he was able to do for the art world and in 1875 was elected a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales, contributing to its journal such essays as ‘Etchings and Etchers’ (1876) and ‘Art Criticism’ (1879. His journey continued and in 1889 he became President of the Board of Trustees and served as the Gallery Director from 1892 to 1894.

Eliezer Levi Montefiore
Eliezer Levi Montefiore

Unfortunately, his art and all other commitments came to an abrupt halt, when in October 1894 at the age of 74 he passed away in Sydney. He was long remembered by his friends and colleagues, not only as a leading patron of the arts but also for his personality. It has been written that ‘although Eliezer never gained widespread fame as an artist and, in fact having worn a number of varied hats throughout his life, he was likely the first significant Australian Jewish artist in the colony, albeit an amateur one’. Contemporary obituaries noted that he had seen art, and artistic institutions, as bridges for bringing the colonies together in their formative years. Certainly, his exhaustive efforts to bolster public and private appreciation of the arts in not one, not two, but three of Australia’s major cities throughout his active life, are testament to his belief in the significant role of the arts.

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​