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Darling, Leonard Gordon (1921–2015)

Gordon Darling, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1994

Gordon Darling, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1994

National Library of Australia, 23399387

Leonard Gordon Darling, AC, has died in Melbourne aged 94 after a life that spanned war and peace, the inauguration of some of the country's most significant arts institutions and a business career during which he was the longest serving BHP director.

When he retired from the BHP board in 1986 after 32 years as the occupant of the "Darling seat" he had witnessed the company's expansion far beyond its relatively humble origins in Broken Hill to become an international conglomerate.

His grandfather John Darling jnr, son of the original John Darling who had established a flour milling and wheat trading business in Adelaide in the mid-nineteenth century, was an early investor in BHP, hence the family's claims to a hereditary seat.

Gordon Darling was also a director of Rheem Australia, amid a range of business interests public and private. He was an early post-war investor in Papua New Guinea.

This owed something to his wartime experiences on the personal staff of Australian commander Syd Rowell before he was re-deployed to the Middle East where he served as an intelligence officer.

Such was his affection for PNG that he confided to The Australian Financial Review in 2012 that if his house was burning down the one painting he would take with him was William Dobell's New Guinea Boy with Bird.

Gordon Darling may have been engaged in a long and successful business career, but it was the arts that animated his later years after he relinquished his BHP board seat when a hearing impairment made it difficult to follow board discussions. He found other outlets for his considerable energies, organisational abilities and strong sense of what is was to be Australian.

It is not an exaggeration to describe Leonard Gordon Darling as one of the most significant Australian philanthropists of any generation. He helped to nurture some of the country's most important artistic institutions.

He was the first chairman of the National Gallery of Australia from 1982-86. He was the inspiration – with wife Marilyn – for the National Portrait Gallery whose importance as a national institution grows in leaps and bounds.

"There have been very few people who have been lucky enough to open a national institution which is the flagship, the National Gallery of Australia, and to have a really memorable four years there, and then to be involved in the creation of the National Portrait Gallery," he told the Financial Review.

Leo Schofield, the arts impresario and former member of the NPG's board of trustees, said the gallery would stand as an "everlasting monument" to Darling's philanthropy, and a "phenomenally successful metaphor for his broad view of Australian life".

"He's had a lot of money and he's given away a lot of money," Schofield told the AFR. "He's had a patrician's sense of duty, but at the same time he's been the most judicious and egalitarian of our philanthropists."

Gordon Darling may not have dispensed the sorts of sums other prominent – more wealthy – benefactors have contributed to charitable causes, but his involvement in institutions like the NGA and NPG has been invaluable. 

Former Prime Minister John Howard credits Gordon and Marilyn Darling with the energy and foresight needed to get an institution like the NPG off the ground. Howard describes the gallery as one of his tenure's more significant achievements.

The Howard government allocated $87.8 million to the NPG, whose contents are drawn from gifts and purchases, including John Webber's striking portrait of Captain James Cook, painted in 1782, and bought with the assistance of Robert Oatley and John Schaeffer.

Son James, an artist and cattle breeder in South Australia, has said of his entrepreneurial father he had the knack of "moving into unoccupied space".

More than a century after Federation a national portrait gallery represented such "unoccupied space".

Gordon Darling was an early and enthusiastic collector of Australian art, including works by Albert Namatjira. He bequeathed his collection of Namatjiras to the NGA. 

These reside in the Gordon and Marilyn Darling Gallery – Hermannsburg School. It has proved one of the most popular gallery spaces since the NGA's indigenous wing opened in October, 2010.

Darling also contributed to the establishment of the NGA's print collection with a $1 million gift. The Darling print collection holds some 7000 prints drawn from the works of contemporary printmakers in Australia and the pacific, and is adding new works all the time.

Among his legacies will be the Gordon Darling Foundation, whose mission includes helping regional art galleries and art curators. This is ongoing work.

Gordon Darling was born on March 4, 1921 in a grand house near Hyde Park Gate in London where his father Leonard represented the family's flour milling and wheat trading interests. In later years, he liked to say he was born at the No. 74 bus stop. 

He was educated at British public schools – Highfield and Stowe – between the wars. He left for Australia at the onset of World War II.

His experiences during the war left their mark in more ways than one. His hearing loss was partly attributable to damage suffered in a badly pressurised aircraft while en route to join the allied war room for the southern Mediterranean campaign.

At the age of 89 he had a Cochlear implant that restored his hearing and enabled him to converse relatively freely in his later years. He regarded such advances in medical science as a minor miracle.

No less than other members of the Darling family, Gordon Darling has left his mark on the country of his family's good fortune. His forebears include great uncle Joe Darling who was Australia's most successful Test captain until Don Bradman's invincibles came along.

Leonard Gordon Darling is survived by his wife, Marilyn Darling AC, sons Michael and James, daughters Sarah and Clare, and 10 grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Australian Financial Review, 31 August 2015

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Darling, Leonard Gordon (1921–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/darling-leonard-gordon-23067/text32342, accessed 25 November 2017.

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