Henri van Raalte

Henri Van Raalte

Born: 1881

Died:1929

Henri Benedictus Salaman Van Raalte (1881-1929), etcher, was born on 11 February 1881 at Lambeth, London, son of Dutch-born Joel Van Raalte, merchant, and his English wife Frances Elizabeth, née Cable. Educated at the City of London School, St John’s Wood Art Schools and the Royal Academy of Arts schools, he became an associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Henri migrated with his brother to Western Australia in 1910 and on 6 July 1912 at the Claremont registrar’s office married Katherine Lyell Symers.

As a timber-getter he enjoyed ‘bush art-wandering’: in his eyes the tuart trees symbolized the grandeur of his adopted landscape and few of his Australian etchings treated the human figure as central. His first major gum tree etching, ‘The Monarch’ (1918), shown at the Royal Academy in 1920, realized a record price in Australia (£45) and his work was praised by (Sir) Lionel Lindsayin Art in Australia (1918); much of it had an imaginative, disturbed quality.

In 1914 Van Raalte had settled in Perth where, he claimed, ‘Art was dead’. He worked in a department store before teaching at several schools; his private classes grew into the Perth School of Art by 1920. In 1916, when Perth’s citizens had given him a printing press, his art appeared in the Westralia Gift Book. He held a successful, one-man exhibition in 1919.

Sending work to the Melbourne dealer W. H. Gill, he remarked: ‘Some of the stuff is good, some isn’t. I like it all because I did it. I regret I didn’t do it all better!’ It sold well. In 1920 and 1924 there were exhibitions of his work at Preece‘s Gallery, Adelaide. Van Raalte was a founder (1920) of the Australian Painter-Etchers’ and Graphic Art Society. Considered a pioneer of Australian etching, he also specialized in aquatint and drypoint: his distinctive transmission of mood was more expressionistic than that of his peers, although his prolific output sometimes degenerated to mere scene-recording.

Following Gustave Barnes‘s death, in 1922 Van Raalte went to Adelaide to become the curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia. His manner was volatile and outspoken, but the Advertiseralso found him ‘unaffected, courteous and a capital raconteur’. The gallery’s crypt was ‘a hopeless confusion’, with valuable canvases in the cleaners’ lavatory. Additional space, conservatorial and curatorial facilities, and extra staff were needed. The collection of works, Van Raalte said drily, made the gallery ‘a pleasant backwater’. He developed and catalogued the large print collection. A council-member of the South Australian Society of Arts, he was president of its offshoot, the Sketch Club, which he helped to found. He soon resigned from both the Society of Arts and the Painter-Etchers in protest against mediocrity and ‘the shackles imposed … by amateurs’. In 1924 the United Arts Club was formed in Adelaide, with Van Raalte as president; it ran a highly successful Artists’ Week which exhibited the work of interstate and local artists.

He had strong support among the art fraternity, but next year Van Raalte’s problems with some members of the gallery’s board intensified. During his absence, the chairman Sir William Sowden overrode his decision not to hang certain inferior works. In January 1926 Van Raalte resigned and issued a press statement calling the board ‘a company of ignoramuses’. In March Sowden also resigned.

The etcher retired with his wife, three sons and his press to a rented cottage at Second Valley, on the coast, where he produced some of his finest work. Alcohol became his demon. Despite his acceptance by the local community, to whom the dapper artist was a familiar figure in his old T-model Ford, Van Raalte’s melancholy was exacerbated by financial stress. On 4 November 1929, in his wife’s absence, he sent two of his sons for the doctor, then shot himself in the head. He died an hour later and was buried in the nearby Bullaparinga cemetery.

In December a memorial exhibition of his work was held in Adelaide. Van Raalte had influenced the development of print-making in Australia during the inter-war years in what was a world-wide revival and he had been one of the first to produce colour etchings. His work is in most State galleries, the National Gallery of Australia, the British Museum and in many private collections.