Nicholas Draffin, who started his career as Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria, was the first Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was also an artist, painting meticulous icons in the Orthodox tradition and also Easter eggs
Nicholas Draffin was best known as a curator, but he was also a quietly distinguished (but deeply unfashionable) artist. He is most closely associated with his native city of Melbourne, but had his greatest curatorial impact in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Nicholas William Draffin was born in Sydney, on 26 October 1943, the third son of George Draffin and his first wife, Elizabeth. The marriage did not survive the War, and Nicholas spent his childhood in Melbourne, where he was educated at Melbourne Grammar and the University of Melbourne. His boyhood home was filled with art and he easily came to understand how ideas and emotions were often more readily conveyed through images than words. As a student studying fine arts and classics he came to know and admire the expatriate Bauhaus artist, Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack, who in his retirement gave occasional lectures.
In 1968, shortly before the new dedicated National Gallery of Victoria building was opened in St Kilda Road, Draffin was appointed Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings. The Department of Prints and Drawings had been the original preserve of the formidable scholar curator, Dr Ursula Hoff, and he benefited from her rigorous scholarship. In 1969 he travelled to London on the Sarah and William Holmes Scholarship, which enabled him to study in the print room of the British Museum for 12 months. In 1972 he was appointed the inaugural Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where he worked closely with the Senior Curator and curator of Australian Art, Daniel Thomas, the Assistant Curator of Australian Art Frances McCarthy (who he had known in Melbourne), the Curator of European Art Renee Free, and the Curatorial Assistant, Joanna Coleman. The Prints and Drawing collection was best described as sparse. Some fine prints had been bought earlier in the century, but few artists other than Sydney Long or Margaret Preston had been collected in depth. Draffin laid the foundations for both the European collection, and the Australian collection of prints and drawings. In the early 1970s the exhibitions budget was constrained. Many of his fine exhibitions of Australian and European prints did not have a catalogue, but were meticulously recorded in his microscopic writing in pencil. In 1974 he presented the ground-breaking exhibition of a long distanced creative friendship: Two Masters of the Weimar Republic: Lyonel Feininger and Hirschfeld-Mack. The catalogue for this was both written and designed by Draffin. The best indicator of the impact on Australian art scholarship lies in his picture book, Australian Woodcuts and Linocuts of the 20s and 30s, which was the first publication in this field, as well as being a record of many of the artists he was researching for the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection. Other artists were examined in depth through exhibitions included Napier Waller in 1977 which was the first significant exhibition of his work in New South Wales. His 1978 exhibition of Hilda Rix Nicholas’ work presented her as an artist of hitherto unrecognised significance and led to later research on her work by other scholars. With the European collection Draffin expanded on Lionel Lindsay’s tentative steps from the 1930s to buy works by Goya, Salvator Rosa and Tiepolo. In 1976 he used the excuse of the Art Galery of New South Wales’ centenary to begin a serious project in collecting French art. He concentrated on the relatively unfashionable 18th and 19th century artists – Fragonard, the Barbizon School and Daumier. One of his last exhibitions at the gallery in 1991 was Citizen Artist: Daumier and his time. By then he was appreciating the power of satire, as his erratic hours of work and caustic wit had made him few friends in the gallery hierarchy. After he left the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Nicholas Draffin returned to Melbourne where he was appointed Macgeorge Fellow at the University of Melbourne collection and advisor to the University’s Grimwade collection.
Draffin was a devout Anglo-Catholic, who also admired Orthodox Christianity, so every Easter he would hold a celebration where painted eggs were exchanged between Draffin and friends who included artists, curators and collectors. Towards the end of his life, when he realised the terminal nature of his cancer, Draffin donated his collection to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. He died in Melbourne on 10 July 1995. His funeral was held at his parish church, Christ Church Brunswick, where his icons of the Evangelists , painted in the orthodox tradition, hang on the side of the pulpit.