Unrecognised history

Delving into Lees and Brodzky

Henry Lew continues to celebrate unrecognised historical figures in his newest release, Australian Genesis and Exodus. He spoke to Hannah Schauder about the research...

Retired ophthalmic surgeon and author, Dr Henry R (Harry) Lew, has studied Australian artists, Derwent Lees and Horace Brodzky in depth for over five decades, explaining that their lives have been intricately intertwined with his own.

“I feel that I am writing more than simply the lives of two artists, Derwent Lees and Horace Brodzky. I am also writing about part of my own life’s story, because these two artists have occupied an integral part of it for at least 45 years,” he is quoted as saying on the Hybrid Publishers website.

Following eight previous non-medical publications, including books examining the work of Lees and Brodzky, Lew’s new publication, Australian Genesis and Exodus: The stories of Derwent Lees and Horace Brodzky, their lives, their families and their in-common friends and acquaintances, is a grand ode to these two early 20th century modernist Australian artists, and their triumphs in the modern art world, despite their being somewhat uncelebrated in Australia.

An art gallery opening in 1976 in Melbourne is what drew Lew into his fascination with the two artists, when he first caught a glimpse of an oil painting on canvas titled Self-portrait in the Café Royal by H Brodzky, a Jewish artist born in Melbourne.

“At that time, I thought all Australian artists born in the 1880s painted like Will Ashton, James R Jackson, Elioth Gruner or Dora Wilson to mention a few. This Brodzky, whom I had never heard of … seemed stylistically, in the context of his modernism, to be an Australian artist, who was some 30 to 40 years ahead of his time,” Lew told The AJN.

His fixation would follow two years later, in an art gallery in Leeds, where he would find himself immersed in Lees and Brodzky’s work once again.

“I had to travel halfway across the world and visit a truly significant public gallery in a major British provincial city to witness artworks by two fellow Australians, who I had never seen represented on the walls of any public gallery in Australia,” Lew recalled.

The book reveals achievements by the artists, including Brodzky’s accomplishments as the first Australian artist to produce an abstract work of art; the first man in Great Britain to do linocuts; and the first living Australian artist to have an overseas monograph produced about his work, among others.

Lew additionally expands on the artists’ significance in establishing international fame for other Australian artists.

“Few appreciate the role Brodzky played in getting artists like Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Arthur and David Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Fred Williams known in England before they returned to Australia. The fame that Brodzky achieved for them in England enabled them to return home as established overseas stars of Australian art,” Lew said.

Described as a very personal, detailed and fascinating dive into the lives and works of two little-known and unfairly neglected Australian artists, the book analyses Lees and Brodzky’s roles in embracing and immersing themselves in early 20th century European modernist ideas and techniques. The problem is, they are still relatively unknown on Australian soil. The book aims to rectify that.

To read Henry Lew’s new book, visit his website at

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