Professor Joan Kerr

Groundbreaking Australian art historian
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The Independent Online

Eleanor Joan Lyndon, art historian: born Sydney, New South Wales 21 February 1938; Research Professor in Art History and Theory, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales 1994-97, Visiting Professor 2003-04; Professor and Convener of Program in Australian Art, Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, ANU 1997-2001; married 1960 James Kerr (one son, one daughter); died Sydney 22 February 2004.

Joan Kerr was a scholar and teacher who made a considerable contribution to the cultural history of Australia. Thanks to her industry, enthusiasm, and warmth, and the devotion she inspired, her work reached a wide range of people in Australia and Britain, and she never lost her vision of the role art history could play in giving people an understanding of both present and past.

Born Joan Lyndon in Sydney, in 1938, she went to school at Somerville House in Brisbane and then studied English at the University of Queensland. It was after her marriage in 1960 to James Kerr, then employed by Qantas, that she became increasingly interested in art history. Qantas posted Jim to London and it was there in the mid-1960s that the couple attended the lectures given at Birkbeck College by Nikolaus Pevsner, who considered them among the most stimulating students he ever had.

Few people who met this contrasting couple, Jim immensely tall and reserved and Joan small, smiling, extrovert and dressed with an endearing indifference, will have forgotten them.

Exposure to Pevsner reinforced their interest in the rich but neglected architectural heritage of Australia. On their return home they campaigned against the needless destruction of Victorian buildings in Sydney from their period house in Cremorne.

In the summer of 1972 Jim enrolled on a postgraduate course in conservation studies which was being launched by the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at York University. He bravely threw up his career with Qantas, and moved to York with Joan and their two young children. When he was later accepted as a doctoral student there under Derek Linstrum Joan decided to follow his example and gained her doctorate in York with a thesis on the stylistic origins of church building in New South Wales.

Parts of her work on this topic appeared in a book she wrote with James Broadbent, Gothick Taste in the Colony of New South Wales, published in 1980 while Joan was a postdoctoral fellow at ANU, the Australian National University in Canberra. The following year she was appointed as lecturer in Fine Arts at the University of Sydney. In 1983 she organised an exhibition in Sydney at the S.H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery to mark the centenary of the death of the architect Edmund Blacket.

At the same time she became increasingly aware of the importance of amateur and women artists in 19th-century Australia, and this interest was reflected by the book she wrote in 1982 with Hugh Falkus, From Sydney Cove to Duntroon: a family album of early life in Australia, based on the drawings and watercolours of Sophia and Marianne Campbell.

The fact that so little was known about the artists, professional and amateur, who recorded 19th-century Australia led Joan Kerr to organise and edit her magnum opus - the compilation of which entailed too many late nights and too many cigarettes for her own good - The Dictionary of Australian Artists: painters, sketchers, photographers and engravers to 1870 (1992).

Five years later she had another spell in Canberra as a research professor at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at ANU. While there she was responsible for Past Present (1999), an anthology of essays on the feminist art scene in Australia, edited with Jo Holder, and Artists and Cartoonists in Black and White, the catalogue of a 1999 exhibition of humorous art held at the S.H. Ervin Gallery.

Joan and Jim Kerr then returned to Cremorne, looking forward to a productive retirement, but this was not to be as Joan was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2003. The general dismay following this news led friends and colleagues to organise a large dinner in her honour at Government House, Sydney, in June 2003 - an occasion which she used, not simply to say goodbye, but also to re-affirm in a moving speech her faith in the value of art history in helping people to arm themselves against the selfish materialism of the day.

David Alexander