From Australia’s Jewish Past: Eliezer Levi Montefiore — talented artist and patron of the arts

November 9, 2021 by Features Desk
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Eliezer, the son of Isaac Levi and Hanna, was born in the West Indies in 1820.

Eliezer Levi 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 in 1843 to Adelaide and 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 interest and love was for 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. 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.

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 over the course of his active life, are testament to his belief in the significant role of the arts.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page.

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