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Obituary: Alannah Coleman

CONTEMPLATING THE works of art or weaving in and out of the gossiping crowds at almost every private view of a new art exhibition of any consequence during the past four or five decades, you would see an elegantly dressed, seemingly ageless, very pretty woman with smooth silky blond hair: Alannah Coleman, a private art dealer and entrepreneur who fought constructively for the recognition of contemporary art in her native Australia before moving to London in 1950.

For the past half-century, this disarmingly quiet, calm, patient, and good-humoured Australian worked hard not only as a dealer on behalf of fellow Australian artists visiting or living in London - and in this capacity, Coleman was very often a financial lifeline - but also as an unofficial, gently persistent ambassador for Australian culture.

Disarmingly so, because, for all her habitual air of modest, slightly amused composure and self- contained reticence, Coleman had a typically Australian disregard for protocol, convention or any form of stuffiness. Her standards were always high; she had no interest in working as a dealer on a commercially broad front, with work of variable quality, simply as a money-making business. She dealt only with a comparatively small number of artists whose work she felt strongly about and whose careers and well-being she helped in many ways to further with a sustained interest and curiosity.

Alannah Coleman's most intense period of activity in London was during the Fifties and Sixties when Australian art came into its own through the increasingly popular work of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Charles Blackman, Lawrence Daws, Brett Whiteley and others. Australian culture as a whole seemed to spring into general awareness at this time, with the novels of Patrick White, the brilliant theatre designs of Loudon Sainthill and Kenneth Rowell and the work of many Australian actors, musicians and poets adding other dimensions to the fresh impact of the gifted painters.

The big show of Australian painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961 and the phenomenal success of Sidney Nolan's retrospective at the same gallery a few years earlier focused the attention of Londoners on a new element in contemporary art, mostly contained within a fresh and very passionate approach to figurative painting.

Alannah Coleman trained as an artist in Australia in the Thirties at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, and worked as an artist through the Forties; her flair for supporting fellow artists and encouraging art projects found itself through the energetic part she also played in founding the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne and helping generally to spread public awareness of developments in modern art in the city, which at that time would have been as philistine and isolated, in its own way, as London was, so far as contemporary art was concerned, during the war years.

In 1950, Coleman left Australia and settled in London, painting for a while but turning increasingly to dealing on behalf of her fellow artists. The Australian government asked her to act as Commissioner General to the Paris Biennale for Young Painters in 1963; she reactivated for a time Heal's Gallery in London with shows of Australian and British artists, and she returned for a year to Australia at the end of the Sixties to present distinguished shows at the Bonython gallery in Sydney.

Later, she organised shows at the always supportive Qantas gallery in London and the New South Wales House gallery, through the progressive policy of the state's public relations officer, Wilfred Beaver. She wrote occasional articles on contemporary art and artists for various publications in London and Australia and she was invited to become a member of the Inter- national Association of Art Critics.

Alannah Coleman married three times, with two children, but was essentially an independent woman with a genuine mission in life at a time when this role was not so easily embarked upon in her native country, and which she sustained through good and bad times in England with integrity and an unforced dignity and style, always abreast of the times, enjoying new books, theatre and travel. Her professional advice and opinions were sought by museums in Britain and in Australia until the end of her life and she was held in affectionate regard by several generations of English and Australian artists.

Alannah Coleman, artist and art dealer: born Melbourne, Australia 3 November 1918; married first Desmond Fenessy (marriage dissolved 1949); second Denis Sharman (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961), third John Newell (marriage dissolved 1970); died London 12 September 1998.