Tribute to John Schaeffer AO (1941 – 14 July 2020) from Mark Ledbury, Mary Roberts, Alison Inglis, Terry Smith, Donna West Brett, Tim Barringer, Ann Stephen, Daniel Robins, Robert Wellington,  Helen Ennis and Roger Butler. 


From Mark Ledbury, Director of the Power Institute

It was with shock and great sadness that we learned of the passing of John Schaeffer AO, a passionate collector, a friend and benefactor of galleries and museums both in Australia and in the UK, and one of our most important supporters at the Power Institute. His benefaction enabled the award-winning architectural transformation of the RC Mills building, and fittingly the result, our marvellous art library here on campus, bears his name. He also made substantial support available for fieldwork scholarships and for research relating to his central area of interest, nineteenth-century British art.

We send condolences to Bettina and to all his loved ones, and we remember his generosity, enthusiasm and humour. Over the coming week, colleagues who were close to John will share their memories on this site and on that of the Department of Art History. I will personally always remember how excited and animated John became when talking of art and beauty, his love of the ‘chase’ of art through the auction rooms of the world, and his deep desire to see the beauty and complexity of art he loved most (figurative art of the nineteenth-century) made available and accessible in the classroom and in the gallery. We will all miss him greatly.


From Mary Roberts, Department of Art History, University of Sydney

The tragic death of one of Australia’s great art collectors and generous benefactors, my friend, John Schaeffer, prompts the following tributes to his enduring legacy. At the Department of Art History we have been the beneficiaries of his extraordinarily generous support. The most tangible legacy is our beautiful Schaeffer library, but John supported our teaching and scholarly activities as well. He funded numerous academic workshops, publications and bursaries for our students to take part in the Department’s overseas study courses. John’s response when Mark Ledbury and myself approached him about funding a scholarly workshop on global art histories was characteristic of his expansive vision and generosity. In response to the request for support for one workshop he said, ‘why don’t you ask me to support three, that way you can really build something?’ And John’s support made it possible for us to create an extended dialogue involving many Australian and international scholars and curators.

Over the years John was often in dialogue with our students, hosting groups of us in his home and at the John Schaeffer Gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He was modest about his prodigious knowledge of nineteenth-century art, giving insights into the arcane world of auction houses and collectors. These events were always such fun because John combined gravitas with his trademark unpredictable, wry sense of humour. He spoke eloquently about how and why he acquired various paintings, regaled us with stories of the restoration of Leighton’s Athlete Struggling with a Python, and in one session even brought along a precious Pre-Raphaelite ring and passed it around the group. This ring was a gift by Millais to Holman Hunt in 1854 marking their enduring friendship. I remember how excited a group of my students were to hold this ring (it was matched by my own nervousness that none of us drop it!). These were always intimate encounters with art history animated by John’s passion.

John regularly attended and supported our academic programmes at the Power Institute and his quiet contribution persistently reminded us of the importance of the art. He loved to mark an occasion. For a paper I gave on Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall in our Department seminar series, John was moved to bring along his Leighton portrait print. For the duration of our conversations it hung on the seminar wall with the artist presiding over our conversations.  As a young scholar who got her career break as the John Schaeffer lecturer in British Art almost twenty years ago, like so many others, I owe a huge debt to John. My dialogues about art with him over this time in his home and in galleries of Victorian art – including our Art Gallery of New South Wales and Leighton House in London – have taught me so much about the practices and responsibilities of the modern-day collector. John had a keen sense of public duty as the custodian of works of art in his care and always linked his collecting with support for the arts, artists and art history.  Following are a series of tributes to John, by a few of so many in the art world who were touched by John Schaeffer’s kindness and generosity. We send our deepest sympathies to Tina, Jo, Pat and all of his family.

Image: John Schaeffer and Mary Roberts in the Schaeffer library, 2015


From Alison Inglis AM, Art History, The University of Melbourne

This country has a longstanding connection to the British artistic movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism, not least because one of the original founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, lived and worked in Australia in the 1850s. During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Australian art museums collected examples of Pre-Raphaelite art, and in 1962 one of the first major exhibitions to re-assess the movement’s historical significance was held in the Art Gallery of South Australia.  Another high point in this narrative of Australia’s engagement with Pre-Raphaelitism was without doubt the remarkable collection of these works formed from the mid-1980s onward by the late John Schaeffer AO, the businessman, collector and philanthropist.

I had the privilege of visiting John Schaeffer’s collection displayed it all its glory in his beautiful historic residence, Rona, on Sydney’s Bellevue Hill in the 1990s.  John has been described as the great competitor of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, another world-renowned collector of Victorian art, and I well recall my amazement at seeing so many Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces set alongside other major examples of nineteenth-century British and European art.  John was always very generous in granting access to his collection, and would kindly share his knowledge with curators, academics, students and fellow enthusiasts.  He was equally generous in lending works to Australian art museums, where their presence transformed exhibitions into the equivalent of international blockbusters.

The very sad news of John Schaeffer’s death brings to an end his important contribution to the history of art collecting in this country, but his legacy endures in a variety of ways, not least through his inspired acts of philanthropy. Many of our art museums had their collections enriched and buildings enhanced by John Schaeffer’s direct support, while the University of Sydney was able to establish an academic position in Art History through his benefaction.  John Schaeffer’s passion for art and for sharing that art with others has benefitted us all and will continue to inform and inspire future generations.


From Terry Smith, Director, Power Institute, 1994 to 2001

The later 1990s were exciting years at the Power Institute. Teaching was thriving in the Department of Fine Arts, as was staff research and publishing. The Public Education Program and Power Publications were attracting worldwide attention. The Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, after twenty plus years on campus, was completing its transformation into the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. One component of the Institute lagged behind: the Power Library of Contemporary Art. John Schaeffer’s generosity was to change that, to the lasting benefit of us all.

A library was an integral part of founding director Bernard Smith’s conception of the Power Institute of Fine Arts when it opened at the University of Sydney in 1968. Housed in one room, first beneath the Fisher Library stacks and then in a professorial suite in the Merewether Building, the Power Research Library of Contemporary Art was accessible only to honours and graduate students. More space was found when the Institute moved into the Mills Building during the 1980s. Even more space became a necessity in 1997 when Bernard Smith, by then Professor Emeritus, offered his personal collection to the Library.

Encouraged especially by Peter Burrows, energetic chairman of the Power Foundation (and, not coincidentally, his stockbroker), John Schaeffer became the major donor to the $2.2 million project. Tireless work by the Foundation vice-chairman, Frank McDonald, a leading art dealer, led to significant further donations from Brian and Gene Sherman, Terry and Lynn Fern, the Potter Foundation, the Toshiba International Foundation, and a donor (from a prominent Sydney newspaper owning family) who preferred to remain anonymous. The University contributed $1 million and the Library became possible.

I have always thought it fitting that, as a young man, John Schaeffer studied economics in lecture halls in the Mills Building, the structure which has, since 2000, housed the beautiful Library of Fine Arts that bears his name. Allen, Jack and Cottier’s brilliant design opened up two floors for book stacks, slide storage, reading spaces, and study rooms. I like to think that something of John’s tenacious, modestly manifest yet adventurous intelligence—qualities most evident in his audacious collecting of Victorian art and his persistent philanthropy of museums across the country—is manifest in the understated elegance of the Library’s rooms. John’s dream—one that we all shared—was that such qualities should permeate these spaces, subtly shaping the lives of those who work within them.


From Donna West Brett, Department of Art History, University of Sydney

The John Schaeffer Scholarships enabled 10 students to participate in the unique experience of engaging with Berlin’s world-famous art museums and cultural sites as part of a two-week winter intensive course for 30 art history students. From Egyptian, Islamic, Roman and Etruscan treasures such as the famous Nefertiti bust, art from the Renaissance, Classical and Modernist periods to palaces of Sans Souci and Charlottenburg—and the latest in contemporary art—the students experienced the history of art in specialist museums.

The history of Berlin was a perfect backdrop to the daily activities and at night the students explored the food markets of Kreuzberg, hunted down the best ramen and kebabs, and recorded it all in journals through drawings, photographs, and notes. The trip culminated with a dinner and dancing at the Clärchen Ballhaus in the old Jewish quarter with abundant smiles and laughter.

The scholarship beneficiaries put their full intellectual and physical energy into this challenging and rewarding experience aided by the generous financial contribution of John. I know from these students that the dream of seeing some of the world’s finest art in Berlin’s world-class museums would not have been possible without John’s generosity. As art historians, we know how valuable such an experience is, and observing these students as they studiously drew, photographed, and wrote about these works over the two-week trip was an absolute privilege. Many of them have become friends with each other and some have gone on to further art history studies and also honours. Having just taught a winter intensive on photography, the students that participated in the fieldwork have clearly grown enormous confidence in their observation, analytical, and interpretation of works of art from around the globe.

Image: Berlin 2019 group photo.


From Tim Barringer, Department of the History of Art, Yale University

I was terribly sad to hear of John’s death — he was such a wonderful vigorous presence and a true, passionate enthusiast. His collecting was that of an ardent believer in Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian paintings: like the original generation of collectors in the 1850s, he followed in his own judgement rather than that of orthodox critics, and made visionary acquisitions.  But unlike the Victorian captains of industry who turned their back on scholarship, John was enormously well-read and supportive of experimental thinking. The global art history workshops organized by Mary Roberts and colleagues with John’s support were such a high point for many of us. Few businessmen of John’s generation would have been comfortable in such company, encouraging young scholars, entering into the spirit and reminding everyone that, in the end, a love of the art must lie at the core of the scholarly project. It’s not often that a bunch of academics are completely lost for words – but we all were when John handed us the very gold ring given by Millais to Holman Hunt when he set off for the Holy Land in 1854, and insisted that we should all try it on. For a moment we were all Pre-Raphaelites – less than a handshake away from our heroes — and all lost for words! We’ll all mourn John.

Image L-R: Roger Benjamin, Tim Barringer, John Schaeffer


From Ann Stephen, University Art Gallery and Art Collections, Sydney University Museums

I was searching for a monumental allegorical figure to introduce the exhibition on French Australian artist Lucien henry at the Powerhouse museum in 2001, when the curator Nick Waterlow suggested that the only person who might help at short notice was John Schaeffer. While I knew of John’s reputation as a collector we had not met. I rang him out of the blue and without hesitation he invited me to Rona, his Victorian Rustic Gothic mansion. He walked me round the marble and bronze figures scattered through the garden overlooking Sydney Harbour, and after selecting a grand French Marianne sculpture, he gave me a guided tour of the house beginning with a billiard room converted into a gallery housing many small bronzes by the Australian expatriate sculptor, Barbara Tribe who John had supported. I finally left him that afternoon sitting in an upstairs office bidding for a beautiful Courbet portrait. I felt that I had briefly crossed the threshold into another world. It was the first of several remarkable visits I made to John’s houses. He was a most generous collector who always wished to share his great passion for 19th-century art.

Image: John Schaeffer at Bonnington


From Daniel Robbins, Leighton House Museum, London

John was exceptionally kind and generous to me as he was to so many others and a supporter of Leighton House for over twenty years.  He was making donations at a time when nobody else was nearly as engaged or committed.  John’s desire to see the museum flourish never wavered. He was a generous donor to the current capital project and I hugely valued our regular conversations as works progressed. It is a great sadness that I won’t be able to welcome him to enjoy the results.


From Robert Wellington, Centre for Art History and Theory, Australian National University

The name John Shaeffer loomed large in my mind long before I had the privilege of meeting the man. “Schaeffer,” was in some way abstracted for me as a synonym for philanthropy in the arts in Australia. I saw his name on the Schaeffer galleries in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, hung with extraordinary masterpieces of Pre-Raphaelite art that he had lent or donated. His name was given to the library where I passed countless hours in my undergraduate and doctoral studies—a chic oasis full to bursting with books and images for art historical training. We all profited from Mr Schaeffer’s largess in that way. But I was lucky enough to benefit more directly from his generosity when he sponsored three colloquia on global art history, two of which I co-convened with Professor Mary Roberts at the University of Sydney (2017) and the Clark Art Institute (2018). Sadly, private philanthropic support for our discipline is all too rare in Australia. He will be remembered fondly, and I hope emulated by others who might come to see him as a model for the generosity that we need more than ever now.


From Emeritus Professor Helen Ennis FAHA, ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory and Emeritus Curator Roger Butler AM, National Gallery of Australia 

We did not know John personally but were always well aware of his formidable contribution to the visual arts in Australia. His passion for art of the late nineteenth century was unusual in an era in which contemporary art invariably attracts more attention and more support from philanthropists. What also impressed us was John’s embrace of art across media, including prints and drawings, and of archival material. His passion gave rise to so many important initiatives. For us the Schaeffer room at the Art Gallery of NSW has been one of the highlights, with the works on display a continuous source of pleasure. As well as supporting the art museum and gallery sector John’s benefaction extended to the university sector. The establishment of the John Schaeffer Lectureship in British Art at the University of Sydney that eventually led to a Professorship in this field was an inspired decision. Our future visits to the Schaeffer room at AGNSW will take on added significance because of John’s untimely death and will give us an opportunity to acknowledge his extraordinary legacy. We send to his family, friends and colleagues our deepest sympathies.

Image: John Schaeffer with his print of Lord Frederic Leighton, University of Sydney