John Joseph Wardell (JW) Power was the eldest of six children (two boys and four girls) born into the Irish Catholic family of Dr. John Joseph Power and Mary Lucy (nee Wardell). His father was one a director of M.L.C., and his mother the daughter of the architect William Wardell who had designed many of Sydney’s Catholic Churches, including St. Mary’s Cathedral. She encouraged him to paint and draw as a child, and he even though he followed in his father’s footsteps and studied medicine, he was always inclined to art. Despite his parents’ devout faith he was educated at Sydney Grammar School before studying medicine at the University of Sydney, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine in 1905. He then sailed for London to further his studies working his tenure on the Miltiades as the ship’s surgeon. Upon the death of his father in 1906, Power became independently wealthy, enabling him in later years not to have to rely on the sale of his art for support. Granted licence in 1908 to practise as a Surgeon in London, he established himself in a private practice and as a medical researcher, developing vaccines for influenza. On 4th February 1915 in the registry office in Paddington, London, Power married the independently wealthy Edith James Mary Lee. A fellow Australian, he was twelve years her junior, there is no mention of any children. From April 1917 Power served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a physician, attaining the rank of Captain. It has been suggested his wartime experience was the reason Power abandoned his burgeoning medical career post-war to retreat into the intellectual and solitary world of art. An accomplished pianist, he maintained an interest in science, geometry and music throughout his life. These interests informed many of his works and writings.

The Powers left London for Paris in 1920 where Power entered the Atelier Araújo studying under Pedro Araújo, a Paris based Brazilian. Here he came in contact with pioneer artists associated with Cubism, De Stijl and Surrealism. His most prolific period spans the late 1920s to early 1930s. Although influenced by many styles, except the “filthy” Fauve technique [1], he is considered to be the first Australian-born artist to be influenced by Cubism. It informed his works until the 1930s when he briefly returned to the Baroque before adapting Surrealist techniques. He prepared numerous studies for his paintings based on the golden ratio and geometric proportion of Classicism. Attempting to preserve this tradition, Power self-published a text _Eléments de la Cunstruction Picturale _(Paris 1933). Written in French with a supplementary English translation, the text elucidates a geometric model for successful composition; it became incorporated into European art theory. Power also produced colour studies for teaching aids, with the view to further publications. His favourite medium was tempera and oil because of the colours which could be obtained. Between 1932 and 1936 Power regularly contributed articles to the Abstraction-Création publications.

The Powers preferred to make their home in quieter bourgeois locations; Power grew restless and fretted to get away after a month in a big town. However with the 1929 Depression Power suffered financially, prompting the move from Bournemouth to Brussels via Paris. Although Power owned a Parisian studio apartment for many years, he found life in Paris stimulating and too distracting to concertedly work on his art. Power actively maintained his artistic contacts in Paris and London and exhibited frequently, forever desirous of exhibiting with newly forming groups. His works were thus present in the public eye. Briefly represented in Paris by the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, he felt the pressure to produce on demand too great, preferring to sell his own works privately or in exchange as gifts with other artists. He frequently purchased contemporaneous works from Rosenberg. The extent of his collection was revealed posthumously at auction in 1962 after Edith’s death.

Largely unknown in Australia as an artist and rarely seen in Australian collections, his abstract compositions reflect a world familiar to the life inhabited by John and Edith Power. A life of leisure, steeped in the iconography of 1920s modernity, popular entertainment, theatre, music the seaside and landscapes. Often witty, always decorative, his choice of colour described as lurid, acidic or heightened, his forms fluid or biomorphic. Power’s works have an intellectual grounding and geometric form, extending to his monogram, the encircled five pointed star often inscribed with _J W P _or P O W E R. During a relatively short career Power developed a significant body of work including sketches, studies and drawings which lineally document the relationship between Power’s artistic practices, intellectual ideas and geometric concepts in depth.

In 1938 with the threat of German Occupation and Power’s health in decline, John and Edith moved again. With minimal income tax, a lower cost of living, no death duties and a refuge from World War II, Jersey seemed an attractive option. Power built a large studio on his property, rode his pushbike daily and became increasingly reclusive. Reportedly, many on the Island remained unaware of the wealth of the eccentric artist in their midst. When Jersey fell under German occupation in 1940, Power hid his entire collection of artworks. Because of the Occupation Power died in relative obscurity, succumbing to cancer on 1st August 1943. His death was not announced in the foreign press and the University remained unaware of the ‘Power bequest’ until the death of Edith in 1961.

When Power left Australia to continue his studies in Medicine there was no indication he intended to stay away indefinitely. In 1929 he wrote ‘if life were not so unendurable in my native land I would ( ) back there tomorrow’[2]. He never returned to Australia.

Synonymously Power is recognised as the philanthropist and benefactor of the generous cultural gift the ‘Power Bequest’. Power’s will of 1939 undertook 'to make available to the people of Australia the latest ideas and theories in the plastic arts by means of lectures and teaching and by the purchase of the most recent contemporary art in the world…suitably housing the works purchased’. Eventually this visionary gift enabled the establishment of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, incorporating the Power Department of Fine Arts, the Power Research Library of Contemporary Art (Schaeffer) and the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art the latter finding its permanent site in 1989 with the establishment of the Museum of Contemporary Art. The initial bequest was further enhanced in 1961 after Edith bequeathed 'all the pictures belonging to me…painted by my dead husband’ to Sydney University. The number of works approximates 1300, of which 300 are oil paintings. John Power’s personal library and ten hand-coloured prints by Picasso were subsequently bequeathed to the Australian National Library, Canberra following the death of Edith’s niece, Miss Ida Traill

  1. ^ Power to Bertram, Letter #25, 19/04/32
  2. ^ Power to Bertram, Letter #10, early January 1929

Hendrika Knoblanche
Joanna Mendelssohn
Date written:
Last updated: