Alfred Coffey

painter and etcher, was born in Limerick, Ireland. He came to Australia with his parents at the age of four; he was educated at St Aloysiius College. He studied art at the Art Society of NSW; in 1888 he was awarded the second Art Society of NSWPrize for Drawing from the Antique offered to students attending Art Society of NSWclasses. The following year, as a student of A.J. Daplyn at the Art Society of NSW, “Mr Coffey has been awarded the first prize for the antique”. “Mr Coffey shows considerable industry and ability in his drawing from life and in his painting, but only his work in the antique claims especial attention. It has merit. He handles his lines with fullness and grace, and the shading is well done”.

Coffey exhibited at the RAS in 1889. In a competition for art students held by the trustees of the NGNSW, in the studies from the antique section, A.R. Coffey “takes the first prize for a torso, which is very well executed; and his head of a Roman warrior (no.113) is also deserving of praise”. He also won second prize in the landscape section. “The first prize in drawing from the antique is secured by Mr A.R. Coffey for a torso, … and [in the sea or landscape done in the open air section] Mr Coffey, who takes the first prize for drawings from the antique, has the second one here for a sea and landscape in oil”. More re 1890 Art Society of NSW prizes: “It is well, in these hurried days when drawing is apt to be neglected for the sake of mere effect, to find such excellent drawing as that displayed in the studies from life by Messrs W.E. Chambers [q.v.] and A.R. Coffey, the winners of the first and second prizes in this class. In both cases the drawing shows careful attention to anatomy, skill in treatment, and sound, firm handling. Both gentlemen are students of promise… Mr Coffey carries off the first prize in the drawings from the antique, and the same young artist has some heads, studied from life, which do him credit”.

1891 Art Society of NSW student prizes: Antique Class – First Prize £3.3s A.R. Coffey; Life Class – Second Prize £1.1s A.R. Coffey; Painting Class – First Prize £3.3s. A.R. Coffey; President’s Prize – £5 A.R. Coffey ( Sydney Morning Herald 30 July 1891, 3; info. Ingrid Anderson). 1892 Art Society of NSW annual exhibition: “Alfred R. Coffey has good work, full of promise, in both oils and watercolours”. 1893 14th annual exhibition Art Society of NSW: “No.246 ‘Cliffs at Bondi’ [oil]: A very original conception, well painted and one of the cleverest Mr Coffey exhibits this year”; “Mr Coffey, in no.88 ‘Sketch near Randwick’ [watercolour], is also seen to advantage”. “Among the younger exhibitors who show that they will make their mark in the world before long are A.R. Coffey, whose ‘Bend of the River’ exhibits decided strength and appreciation of the beauties of nature”.

“Mr Alfred R. Coffey, whose name in the past has sometimes been crowded out by the stern exigencies of space, has made an advance, and is a force that must be reckoned with this year. ‘Hard Times’ (no.16) is a strong work, full of open-air feeling – the foreground of road a little careless and unfinished, but the whole wins acceptance. ‘In a thoughtful Mood’ (no.26) is a portrait of a child, the face partly in shadow, the light cleverly handled; and there are other promising contributions from Mr Coffey’s brush”. “’In a Thoughtful Mood’ (26), by Mr A.R. Coffey, a curly head and shoulders peering, nude, from out a mass of furs, displays some excellent drawing and good flesh tints. Other works of Mr Coffey’s are well deserving of attention, especially the upper portion of ‘Hard Times’ (16) with its excellence of color”.

At a meeting in June 1896 between the Art Society of NSW and the Society of Artists in an (unsuccessful) attempt to patch up differences, it was noted: “Mr A.R. Coffey proposed, as an amendment, – ‘That the members of the selection committee be artists, and be elected by exhibiting members from the council of the Art Society, or if there should not be a sufficient number of artists on the council, the deficiency to be made up from artists outside the council’. The amendment on being put was negatived, but the motion was only carried by a majority of one”. “Sir, – It is much to be regretted that Mr Coffey’s motion to amend the Art Society’s rules so as to provide for the election by exhibitors only of a selection and hanging committee failed to secure the requisite three fourth majority, since the absence of this provision is the only bar to the reunion of the two societies”.

Art Society Exhibition 1896: “Mr A.R. Coffey achieves a large measure of success in his ‘Le Papillon voudrait – sa gorge pour prison’ (no.83)”.

Art Society Exhibition 1897: “Mr Alfred R. Caffey [sic] has confined himself to figure subjects and portraits this year, amongst which will be noted a likeness of Miss Carrie Chisholm, and one of Miss Eva Bryan as ‘Queen of the Revels’”. “Mr Alfred R. Coffey sends in a number of figure-paintings of unequal merit. ‘Pets’ (no.17) a young girl bearing paroquets upon a pole, may be especially commended for the clearness of the flesh-tones; ‘Queen of the Revels’ (no.45) is a pleasing portrait of Miss Eva Bryan, a noted belle of North Sydney, in fancy dress, well treated except as to the chest, in which the effect is hard and the shadow too regularly defined. His portrait of Miss Carrie Chisholm has good points, but a falling-off is shown in Nos.120 and 109”.

At a Smoke Concert for the Art Society’s Sketch Club in July 1897, “The comfort and enjoyment of those present were carefully looked after by Mr Alfred R. Coffey, hon. secretary of the club … lightning sketches given by Messrs … Coffey …The result of the judging of sketches was Mr Alfred R. Coffey came first”. At a Smoke Night for the Art Society of NSW in September 1897: “But to draw lightning sketches, with all the disadvantages of brown paper, in front of a gallery of critics, and gain not only a favourable verdict but a storm of cheers – that is something of which to be proud; and so Messrs A.R. Coffey, Perry, Spence, Leon Pole, G. Taylor, and Salvana [qq.v.] are to be complimented on that often mentioned but seldom realised event – an artistic success”.

In 1895 Alfred Coffey was elected a Council Member of the Art Society of NSW and in 1898, 1899, 1900 (resigned December 1900), 1902 and 1903. He began making etchings in 1898 with Berowra Point on the Hawkesbury .

Garside notes that he taught for a time at Abbotsleigh Girls School on the North Shore where Grace Cossington Smith was among his pupils. (She also states that he had studied under Julian Ashton as well as the RAS but this has not been confirmed.)

At the 1898 Exhibition of Australian Art in London: “One has not the space to mention all the good things but I would direct the visitor’s attention to work by Messrs… A.R. Coffey”.

From Sydney, he exhibited with the Art Society of Tasmania in 1900.

A Chat on the Beach [identified as Ulladulla] 1919, oil on composition board (SU, bequest of Nell W. Buckingham, 1974) reproduced on invitation to Coffey exhibition SU 2001. Landscape 1921, a watercolour, was offered at Sotheby’s Fine Australian and European Paintings Melbourne, 24 November 1998, lot.334.

In March 1919 Coffey was appointed the first teacher of drawing in the newly created Faculty of Architecture, SU, lecturing one day a week for £200 p.a. In a letter to a painting colleague, Ashley Cooper, dated 5 January 1919, he wrote:

The whole thing resolved itself into a go between Carter nd myself and the University Senate appointed me by 7 votes to 4. I sent but one head that of a little Jewish girl. She looked alive and caught the eye of the Senate, several members of which expressed their admiration and liked it better than the serious portraits Norman Carter sent in.

And:

On qualifications there was no one in Sydney to come near me, as for years I was examiner in Geometrical and Perspective Drawing at the Technical College. The Pen and Ink Drawings and Etching of Buildings is one of my strongest points and while in England and America I had specially inspected the Art work in the Great Architectural Schools.

Coffey lived in Sydney for most of his life, exhibiting with the RAS and sometimes selling work privately from his house Ferndale in Trelawney Street, Woollahra. By 1921 he was able to give up teaching and pursue painting at his weekender at Tacoma on the Wyong River, eg The Entrance 1922 (Cooper family). He travelled several times to Europe, Ceylon and throughout the Pacific, eg Ceylon Beach n.d. (Cooper family). In May 1923 he probably became the first Australian artist to visit and paint in the Dutch East Indies (according to Garside), travelling to Borneo, Java, Balli and the Celebes where he was interested in the local cultures and religious ceremonies. He wrote about his experiences in a catalogue for an exhibition of 70 of his paintings of exotic places shown at Farmers Gallery, Sydney, in October 1923. Priced from ten to 75 guineas, they sold reasonably well. Two paintings, Reflections in the canal and The moss grown tiles , were purchased by the AGNSW, which already had 2 of his pastels and 10 of his etchings.

Coffey died in 1950. An exhibition of 55 of his paintings, etchings and drawings was held at SU in 2001, the first survey since he died.

Biography from Design and Art Australia online 2011