LADY SHEILA CRUTHERS
“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.”
Lady Sheila Cruthers, keynote address, Modern Australian Women 1925-1945, Art Gallery of South Australia 2001
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, for his working life, depended on Sheila as a sounding board.
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.
During a period living in New York in the 1980s, Sheila – by then Lady Cruthers – was 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. And 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.
Back in Perth Sheila joined the management committees of several local public art collections, and continued to build her collection in a more focused way. It was first shown publically in 1995. The exhibition was called In the Company of Women – 100 years of Australian Women’s Art from the Cruthers Collection, and ran 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. And in 2005 she was recognized in her own right by the awarding of a Chancellor's Medal from The University of Western Australia for her contribution to women’s art.
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.
Read more about Sheila here:
Victoria Laurie, 'Sheila's shelias', The Weekend Australian, 13-14 October, 2012, pp 5-6
Gail Williams, 'Portrait of a lady', The Sunday Times, 7-13 October, 2012, p 16
John Cruthers, 'Lady Sheila Cruthers (1925-2011)', Art Monthly Australia, Issue 248, April, 2012, pp18-19