24 February 2024

Australian art dealer, collector, patron: Joseph Brown

Born Josef Braun (1918-2009) in Lodz Poland, he arrived in Aus­tr­alia with his father and siblings in 1933. At 15 he settled in Melbourne and attended Princes Hill Central School. Brown showed an early talent for drawing and was first exhibited at his school.

Bush track Dromana, 1875
by Louis Buvelot

Frederick McCubbin, Autumn Memories, 1899
donated by Brown to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2004

Farm landscape, 1905
by Sid Long, 

Self-portrait, 1906
by George W lambert

Along the way his surname was anglicised to Brown, and after school he began night art classes in painting and sculpture at the Working Men's College (RMIT Uni) in 1934 under artist Nap­ier Waller, and won a schol­ar­ship to the Brunswick Tech­nical College. But the ongoing Depress­ion forced him to abandon studies to help sup­port his family. By the late 1930s Joseph Brown was part of Melbourne’s artistic and intell­ectual circle and friends with Albert Tucker, Noel Counihan and Yosl Bergner etc.

Despite WW2 in 1939, Brown continued to make some art. Then in 1940 he enlisted in the Australian Army and served in the 13th Arm­oured Regiment AIF until 1945. After returning from war service, he became more invol­v­ed in the fashion industry. That year he married and set up J Brown Mantles, a fashion design business in Flinders Lane. He specialised in evening gowns, occas­ion­ally painting and sculpting.

He exhibited with the Victorian Scul­ptors’ Society in the 1960s but ul­tim­at­ely the demands from his growing fashion bus­in­ess made it diffic­ult to concentrate on art. Over the foll­owing decades, Brown established himself in the Australian art world as a collector-dealer. In becoming a leading art dealer and con­sul­tant, he promot­ed a wide range of Australian his­t­orical and contemp­or­ary artists. He recl­aimed the work of for­gotten artists, mentor­ed some new art­is­ts and was a great advocate for portraiture as an art form.

In 1967, life changed. He sold his fashion business, bought a Victorian mansion in classy South Yarra, and established himself as a commerc­ial art dealer in classy Collins St. Brown had found his vocation, and for the next 15 years the Joseph Brown Gallery held many mixed exhibitions of historical and modern art; plus solo exhibitions. His taste was broad, promoting many art­is­ts & genres that had become unfashionable to collectors & ac­ad­em­ics, including col­onial art, marine painting, women artists, scul­­­p­ture and portrait­ure. Meanwhile he’d created a striking private collection of Australian art.

Brown loved John Russell, Austral­ia's lost Impressionist who lived on Belle Ile off Brittany and was a friend of Claude Monet, Vin­c­ent van Gogh and Henri Matisse. In 1968 John Peter Russ­ell 1858-1930: Aust­ral­ian Impressionist opened at Brown’s gal­lery, with works received from the artist's fam­ily. Thus the reputation of one of Australia's most significant art­ists was rebuilt. Brown also supported and promoted living art­ists, and the many portraits painted of him offered a visual record to their affection.

 Portrait of Joseph Brown, 
 by Judy Cassab, 1996 

Brown also was the trusted adviser to many private individuals, corpo­r­at­ions and nearly all state, regional and univers­ity galleries, the Museum & Art Gallery of the Nor­thern Territory in particular. And collections assem­b­led by comm­er­cial organisations. People who collaborated with him to form signific­ant private collections included Marc & Eva Besen, Jos­eph & Gerda Brender, Dudley & Barbara Cain, John & Pauline Gandel, and Kerry Stokes.

From 1966 on, Brown donated 460 works of art to pub­lic collections! In 1973, he received the Order of the British Empire, then in 1990 by an Order of Australia and honorary doct­orates from Monash, Melb­ourne and La Trobe unis.

Over time, Brown built up a fine private art collections and made major contributions to the Australian art story. A major survey of his work, Dr Joseph Brown, a Creative Life: 65 Years a Private Artist, was presented by the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Mel­bourne Uni 1999.

With age, Brown became anxious to find a per­manent home for the rest of his collection of Australian art, and he was clear that the works would have to be disp­layed in ded­icated rooms. Luck­ily he was guaranteed that his works would rem­ain on permanent dis­play as a independent collection by the Nat­ional Gallery Victoria/NGV. So in May 2004 he made the lar­g­est and most generous gifts of 19th and C20th Australian art to any pub­lic Aust­ralian gallery: 154 works worth $35 million. This Joseph Brown Col­lection recorded the diff­erence he made to Australian culture.

Outlines of Australian art: Joseph Brown collection.
by Daniel Thomas, 
Melbourne: Macmillan, 1989
Just before he died, Brown supported the exhibition of Master­pieces of Australian Impressionism to raise funds for Cabrini Health. Then Australia's most generous and respected art dealer died aged 91, survived by his wife and large family. Including my closest friend, Joseph's niece.

An edition of the Joseph Brown Collection publication was pro­d­uced to coincide with the 2018 centenary of Joseph Brown’s birth. Photo credits: Joseph Brown Collection


Sandi said...

What talent!

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

What really nice art I like and such an intereting man, I have never ehard of him till now

roentare said...

This is good to learn Joseph Brown as impressionist representative in Australia

My name is Erika. said...

Brown did have a lot of talent. He's a new artist for me. Happy weekend to you.

AbeBooks said...

Outlines Of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection by Thomas, Daniel
Published by Macmillan Melbourne 1973

Colour illusts, very good+ hardback Brown took 35 years to assemble this collection of Australian paintings and sculpture, focusing on colonial, Victorian and impressionist works. The chapter headings are: romantic voyagers; convicts, amateurs, tradesmen; gold boom city; high Victorians; national figures & landscapes; expatriates; 20th century conservatism; modernism; expressionists & antipodeans..

Andrew said...

I wasn't really aware Joseph Brown was also an artist. He certainly deserves our gratitude for his generosity and public service. You concluded with a nice personal touch.

jabblog said...

A man of many talents and a generous spirit.

Hels said...


some people seem to succeed in whatever they do. The rest of us are grateful to succeed in one chosen area of talent. And Brown didn't get the finest university education either. He worked in the day and did art classes at night at the Working Men's College in 1934. Luckily he won a schol­ar­ship to a Tech­nical College.

Hels said...


In 2004 Joseph Brown donated the major part of his unbelievable collection of Australian art to the National Gallery of Victoria. Even though this was the most generous gifts of works of art ever made to an Australian public gallery by one man, I am guessing you are more familiar with the NSW art scene than the Victorian one.

Hels said...


for a young student who couldn't speak English, Brown made quite a life for himself over the years. And he spread his talents: he was equally skilled in collecting 19th century works and 20th century works.

Joseph Brown gave 75 art treasures to the University of Melbourne Art Collection, and 450+ works of art to Australian public galleries, especially the National Gallery of Victoria.

Hels said...


I think you would really enjoy the book "Outlines of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection", written by Daniel Thomas.

Hels said...


many thanks... I just recommended the book to one of the readers who has an art-related blog herself :) No wonder Brown took decades to collect such a wide range of art works... he covered a VERY large number of themes!

Hels said...


I also had very little knowledge of Brown as an artist himself. Brown was either very modest about his own work or he wanted to allocate the rest of his post-retirement life to collecting and donating masterpieces by famous "real" artists.

Next time you visit the NGV, see if you can find out which of their treasures were donated by this one, wonderful collector and patron.

Hels said...


generous beyond belief. The Sydney Morning Herald said from 1966-99, Brown donated 460 works of art to various public collections. Plus another very large donation in 2004, he gave 154 works worth $30 million to the National Gallery of Victoria. All tax deductible yes, but I hope his widow and children were at least acknowledged in his will :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - he certainly had a range of careers ... incredible man - and no wonder Australia is grateful for his care of art and its preservation. Thanks for introducing me to him ... cheers Hilary

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Judy Cassab's portrait shows a natty and interesting individual who looks like he still has a lot of adventures in him. That book of his collection looks fine, and I'll see about picking it up, but I would rather read a book about his life, the people he knew, and the amassing of that collection!

Luiz Gomes said...

Boa tarde e um excelente sábado minha querida amiga. Excelente matéria, obrigado por dividir conosco.

Hels said...


I can find various gallery catalogues from Joseph Brown exhibitions, but I cannot find any biographies. That may be because his collecting and patronage were achieved quietly at his home or business, and only when he mounted public exhibitions did the public see his lifetime achievements.

"Dr Joseph Brown, a creative life : 65 years a private artist" is also about exhibitions, but it does include bibliographical references.

Hels said...


Most of the great patrons and donors to important art galleries were undergrad and post grad students at famous universities, then worked with important mentors and curators. Joseph Brown had modest training and early work, then spent most of his career years sup­porting his family in the fashion industry.

Yet he achieved greatness, once he focused on building up a fine private art collections and making major contributions to our finest galleries. I wish he had been my uncle.

Hels said...


Brown knew he wanted to work in the art world from his late teens. So Australian galleries were _very_ lucky indeed that he finally find his way back to the art world later in life.

Katerinas Blog said...

Thanks for the post with the detailed information and beautiful photos. How wonderful to learn about Joseph Brown and his generosity! Apart from the talent, the offer also counts a lot for me. Have a good Sunday!

Margaret D said...

I have heard of Joseph Brown...an amazing man. Thanks for the story about him.

Hels said...


the National Gallery of Victoria is arguably the best gallery in Australia, but it was even more impressive after Joseph Brown's very important donations from the 1966 on. Rich yes, but passionate about art and generous.

Hels said...


I also knew nothing about Brown's art passions until the late 1960s.
Very often we don't know about important community-minded people and patrons until after they die. This is ironic because if a footballer is mega-talented, everyone in the country knows about him when he is 25. Or a famous tv compere. Or a film star.

Fun60 said...

Single handedly Brown seems to have done so much not only to promote Australian art but to preserve it for future generations.

Hels said...


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, young Australian artists studied and practised art for as long as they could in London and/or Paris. Some of their works did get back to Australia later, but you are right - Brown really did heaps to promote Australian art and to preserve it for future generations. I mentioned John Russell in particular, but there were other important artists he supported and patronised.

diane b said...

You make me feel ignorant because I had never heard of Brown as an artist or collector and generous man. I do like the early Australian artists even though they have been criticized for imposing English type landscapes onto Australian scenes.How lucky for you to know one of his relatives.

hels said...

Oh no, it wasn't me who made people feel ignorant. I too was much more aware of European patrons, collectors and donors than I was about Australian success stories.

I have written many blog posts about late 19th century Australian artists, but I can't remember knowing how the paintings arrived in galleries .

Thank goodness for the Daniel Thomas and other recent books.