Sheila Cruthers leaves a legacy that “will paint Australian women artists back into our history”

When I saw the photo below I immediately thought, why is a priest and a woman holding a painting of a nude woman? This photo piqued my interest and I decided I needed to know the story behind this picture. The search for information revealed many remarkable stories and is a favourite of mine.

Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley, Sheila Cruthers with Freda Robertshaw's painting “Standing Nude” Circa early 1940s Credit Photograph: Barry Baker, courtesy the West Australian

The picture was from an article written by Clarissa Sebag-Montifore (The Guardian 28th May 2019) and depicts Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnley and Sheila Cruthers with Freda Robertshaw’s painting “Standing Nude” 1940.

Turns out that the painting was displayed in Carnely’s residence to raise money for breast cancer research in 1997.

The painter of  'The Nude', Freda Robertshaw deserves to star in her own right, as does the story behind this painting so we will pop her in the spotlight in a future blog. Today I will concentrate on the amazing Sheila Cruthers, an art collector and a philanthropist of note. What makes Sheila different to other art philanthropists is that she championed Australian women artists and she was almost aged 50 when she developed her interest in art, which I love.

Sheila Cruthers, Rottnest Island (Western Australia) 1946 Credit:

Born in 1925 as the ninth child of Italian migrants, Sheila Della Vedova left school at 14 to get a job to support the family. She quickly rose to become a legal secretary to Lawrence, later Chief Justice Sir Lawrence Jackson, at the law firm Jackson McDonald. In 1950 she married a young journalist, Jim Cruthers, and together they created a strong working partnership in which Jim forged a career as a media executive who, (he became known as the man who introduced television to Western Australia) for his working life, depended on Sheila as a sounding board.

Jim and Sheila -circa approx 1950s-St Georges Terrace, Perth, Photograph Henrik Tived Credit: The Guardian

Sheila developed an interest in art in the early 1970s when she began visiting Perth galleries with her son John, a student at UWA. From her first purchases in 1974, she collected art by women – drawn to the young women she saw staring at her out of their modernist self-portraits, possibly reminded of the plucky young woman she was as she embarked on a career. Sheila gradually built a unique collection, aided by her keen eye and her willingness both to purchase works by relatively unknown artists, and to commission new works.

John and Sheila Cruthers 1974 Credit the Guardian

During a period living in New York in the 1980s, Sheila – by then Lady Cruthers – provided a home away from home for many women artists visiting from Australia. She also began AustArt, a group that staged events to raise money for American museums to purchase Australian works of art. She invited Americans to view artworks that she had brought with her, and particularly a section of the collection she called “the artist and her work”: pictures paired with self-portraits that Sheila had sought out or commissioned. The collection, already well-known in Australia, began to acquire international recognition. Interestingly, The the artist and her work is exhibiting at the Lawrence Wilson  Gallery W.A. and along side is Philippa Nikulinsky AM, a Perth-based, internationally recognised botanical and wildlife artist who we will feature in a blog very soon.

Image left Tania Ferrier, Self Portrait,1985, Image right: Tania Ferrier, East River Salsa, 1996 Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, The University of W.A. Credits:- Courtesy of the artist

Back in Perth Sheila held an exhibition called In the Company of Women – 100 years of Australian Women’s Art from the Cruthers Collection, at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts as part of the National Women’s Art Exhibition. In early 2001 Sheila gave the keynote address at Modern Australian Women 1925-1945, the first museum exhibition of Australian women’s art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

"Now without question the whole country will get to know just how good our women’s art is. I’m overjoyed this has happened and pleased to be a part of it in my own small way.”  These words were spoken by Lady Sheila Cruthers in her keynote address to the symposium for the exhibition Modern Australian Women 1925-1945 held at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2001.

In 2007 the family realised their desire to share the collection with the public by gifting it to The University of Western Australia, where it now resides as the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery. Sheila took a back seat, leaving the Foundation to continue her good work. She passed away in December 2011, 10 months before the opening of Look, Look Again, the first major exhibition of the Collection at the University of Western Australia, and the publication of the book Into the Light – the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art.

Julie Dowling’s Wudjula Yorgah (White Woman) 2005, which Dowling calls a “token of respect” for Sheila’s unwavering support of her early career. credit:

Earlier this year John Cruthers, now 65 launched “Sheila: A Foundation for Women in Visual Art” – a new incarnation of the private Cruthers Art Foundation and will support female artists by purchasing and commissioning works; by providing scholarships for female art historians and curators; and by hosting an annual symposium on female Australian art.

I am sure we will return to discuss many of the subjects raised in this blog. But for now, the most important response is to acknowledge Sheila and the Cruthers family for establishing this important art collection and supporting Australian Women Artists both past and future.

Source of text not otherwise credited- &

Tomorrow we will take a look at the art works of Freda Robertshaw.