William Montgomery – Biography


William Montgomery was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England on 2 November 1850, the third of five children born to John and Ann (née Cottingham).

At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to Henry Mark Barnett of Newcastle to learn the Art of Glass Staining ‘until he shall attain the age of twenty-one years’[i].  For the first six months his pay was two shillings per week, increasing over the years to seven shillings per week in his seventh and final year.  His father was required to provide ‘the said apprentice [with] sufficient meat drink washing lodging wearing apparel medical attendance and all other necessaries during the said term…’.[ii]

While he worked for Barnett during the day, he attended Newcastle School of Art and showed considerable talent,[iii] winning a National Scholarship to attend the Kensington School of Art (now the Royal College of Art) in London (1872-1874).[iv]  Montgomery’s usual practice  of signing his windows was probably learned from Barnett.  His extensive sketchbooks show him to be an able and diligent student in drawing from life, costume and casts.  Numerous sketching excursions gave him an opportunity to hone his rendering of architectural detail and to closely examine and reproduce stained glass windows – skills that became evident in his later works.

On completion of his course, Montgomery worked with the leading London stained glass firm, Clayton & Bell before joining Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich.[v]  At the time, English-trained artists were sought by German firms keen to extend their knowledge of British methods and skills in glass painting.  He remained with Mayer for about seven years, enjoying the artistic and social life in the cultural hub of Europe.

Letters from friends and colleagues show Montgomery’s intention to immigrate to Australia from 1884, but several important stained-glass commissions in England delayed his departure.   Notable among them was a three-light window in memory of the Marquis of Londonderry installed in Christ Church, Seaham (Colliery Chapel) near Newcastle.  He also designed a series of almost life-sized panels for the reredos of St. Paul’s Church, Batheaston and two, two-tiered, multi-light windows with extensive tracery for St. Mary’s Church, Gateshead.[vi]  At this time too he was employed by Arts & Crafts firm, the Gateshead Stained Glass Company, to produce sketches and cartoons for stained glass windows under their name.[vii]

Harriet reading 1884

William Montgomery, Pencil sketch of Harriet reading, 17 August, 1884, from one of a number of extant sketchbooks, now in the State Library of Victoria. 

It was during his years in Germany that he met an American artist from Burlington, Iowa, Harriet Postlewait,[viii] possibly through the Anglo-American Artists’ Club.  They shared a mutual enjoyment of art, theatrical performance and drama.  They were married at Brixen in the Tyrol (now a part of Italy) in September 1886 and emigrated shortly after a honeymoon in Venice, arriving at Port Philip on the Bothwell Castle on 18 December 1886.[ix]

Harriet Postlewait and William Montgomery c1884

Holzer photography studio, Munich, Harriet Postlewait and William Montgomery, carte de visite, 1884.

By February 1887 William had established a studio at 67 Flinders Street (later renumbered as 164).  He arrived with excellent credentials and letters of introduction and quickly secured several important commissions, including the entire cycle of windows for St. Michael’s Catholic Church (now Cathedral), Wagga Wagga and St. Augustine’s at Yass (NSW).[x] and windows for St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Richmond (Vic.), St. Columb’s Anglican Church, Hawthorn (Vic.) and St. Paul’s Anglican Church (now Cathedral), Sale (Vic.).[xi]

The devastating depression of the 1890s inevitably caused a decline in commissions for stained glass  – always a luxury item in any building program – but especially so in Melbourne, the financial capital of Australia at the time.  Montgomery maintained his business by opening branch offices in Adelaide and Perth, which were less affected by the economic downturn, and by his reputation with leading architects, principally for church work.  He had established an early relationship with Melbourne’s Anglican Diocesan architect, Alexander North in Tasmania and Victoria, and later worked with North’s partner and successor Louis R. Williams.

Harriet and William had one surviving child, William, always known as ‘Mont’, born in 1890.[xii]  Mont was enrolled at the National Gallery School in 1915 when he enlisted and fought at Gallipoli and in France with the 21st Battalion, 6th Brigade, AIF.  He was fatally wounded on 5 October 1918 in the last major battle of the war and one day before the Australian troops were withdrawn from the front.  Montgomery did not erect a memorial window to his son although he was commissioned for many soldiers’ memorials from 1915 until his death in 1927.  Among the most significant of these was the cycle of saints for All Saints’ Chapel at Geelong Grammar School, Corio (Vic.) (1917-21), all in memory of former students.  War memorial windows at St. George’s Presbyterian, Geelong (Vic.) and St. George’s Anglican Malvern (Vic.) show the image of a young Australian soldier with distinctive auburn hair, more than reminiscent of Mont.

Harriet died in 1900.[xiii]  In 1907 William married May Fraser Blacklock Rowed, an artist and trained kindergarten teacher, whom he met through the Frederick McCubbin family.  William and May had two children, Anne (often called Nancy) and Richard (always known as Paul), both of whom had strong artistic instincts.  Richard pursued his love of pottery while Anne was well known as an exhibiting painter and etcher, and as a highly regarded drawing teacher in the Architecture School at RMIT.

William Montgomery made a significant contribution to Melbourne’s artistic organisations.  He was a co-founder of the Victorian Artists’ Society, formed from a number of competing art groups in 1888, served on its Council for many years and then as President 1912-1916, a particularly difficult time in its history.  Among other activities he was a founding member of the Victorian Arts & Crafts Society, a Trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria (1916-1927) and a member of the Trustees Felton Purchase Committee, which liaised with the Felton Bequest Committee.  He was a member of the Victorian War Memorials Committee after the Great War until it was disbanded in 1922.

When William died on 5 July 1927 he was engaged on two major commissions; the seven-light Stevens’ window for Wilson Hall at the University of Melbourne and a cycle of windows for the new Bathurst Anglican Cathedral (NSW) designed by Louis Williams. Both were destined to be completed by other artists.[xiv]  His widow, May, continued to run the business with a small and loyal staff but ultimately all the stock, including most of the cartoons and sketches were sold in December1927 to Montgomery’s former competitor, Brooks Robinson & Co.

Portrait William Montgomery 2 n.d.

Pegg Clarke, Portrait of William Montgomery, possibly taken for his 70th birthday, around 2 November 1920.

[i] Indenture document dated 27 September 1864

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Results of examinations at the School of Art, Newcastle in 1868, show William Montgomery gained the Prize for Excellence in ‘Model Drawing’.  Newcastle Journal, 26 August 1868, p. 2.  Thanks to Ray Brown for drawing this item to the author’s attention.

[iv] It is worth noting that he was one of only three awarded throughout England in 1871 and there were only about fifteen National Scholars at any one time.

[v] Christopher Frayling, The Royal College of Art: 150 Years of Art & Design, p.63.

[vi] Sketch dated 20 September 1885.

[vii] A full inventory of the Gateshead Company has yet to be undertaken.  Thus far, none of the designs completed by Montgomery have been located in situ.

[viii] Spelt as ‘Postlethwait’ or ‘Postlethwaite’ on different documents.

[ix] Unassisted immigration records, Public Records Office, Melbourne.

[x] One letter of introduction to the newly elevated Cardinal Moran of Sydney furnished through his wife’s Catholic connections in America, may have been instrumental in securing these important commissions within months of his arrival in Melbourne.

[xi] The Builder & Contractors’ News, June 9, 1888.

[xii] Another son, Hugh, was born in 1894 but died a few month’s later; Montgomery donated a window in his memory to St. John’s Catholic Church, Heidelberg.

[xiii] Montgomery donated a stained-glass window in his wife’s memory at St. John’s Catholic Church, Heidelberg, not far from the earlier memorial to their son, Hugh.

[xiv] The Wilson Hall design was completed by M. Napier Waller and made by Brooks Robinson & Co.  It was lost when Wilson Hall was destroyed by fire in 1952.  Louis Williams was engaged as Architect to the Bathurst Diocese by its dynamic Bishop George Merrick Long.  Montgomery supplied stained glass for other Williams/Long collaborations at Nyngan and Marsden Girls’ School and was working on designs for Canowindra at the time of his death.