Charles Laseron was an early collector at MAAS and formative influence upon our applied arts collection. He was also present during the Gallipoli landings in 1915. In the week leading up to the ANZAC Centenary, we are publishing a series of posts detailing Laseron’s life. This post is the final in a series of three.
After his time as an Antarctic explorer alongside Sir Douglas Mawson and as a soldier in the Australian Imperial Forces on the shores of Gallipoli, Charles Laseron became a specialist in ceramics and applied arts. To this day, the Museum holds a world-class applied arts collection which Laseron helped to develop in its earliest stages.
In 1921, Thomas Lennard donated his significant collection of English ceramics to the Museum. Laseron classified the pieces and wrote a descriptive guide (Laseron, 1922). He then rearranged the Museum’s entire ceramic collection, disposing of many worthless pieces acquired in its early days. By 1922 he had founded the Collectors and Connoisseurs Society.
His growing reputation in the area of ceramics and Oriental antiquities was officially acknowledged with his appointment in March 1926 to the position of officer-in-charge of the Museum’s Applied Art section. In May that year, he secured the support of a number of prominent Sydney citizens to form the NSW Applied Art Trust. For Laseron, the work of the Trust became a passion and he was able to secure the donation of a number of valuable antiques which were housed for safe-keeping at the Museum.
Laseron became increasingly convinced that the people of Sydney deserved their own substantial applied arts collection. He felt that a separate museum should be built to house the growing collection of Applied Art Trust donations. In May 1927, Laseron’s Trust activities culminated in the highly publicised First exhibition of the NSW collection of applied art, held in the Exhibition Hall of Farmer’s Market Street department store.
The exhibition’s success was possibly the last straw for newly appointed Director, Arthur de Ramon Penfold. Unlike the previous Director, Richard Baker, who had encouraged Laseron’s various ventures, Penfold made no secret of his disapproval of these activities. No doubt threatened by the possibility of Laseron removing applied art from the collecting sphere of his Museum, Penfold reported him to the superintendent of public education. Laseron was officially reprimanded and told to cease his Applied Art Trust activities in museum time. The case ended up in the Arbitration Court. In May 1929, the position of officer, Applied Arts section, was abolished and Laseron was forced to retire.
Laseron spent the 1930s running his own fine arts and stamp auction businesses, giving them up at the outbreak of World War II to sign up as a map-reading instructor with the AIF. From 1948 he conducted studies of minute shells, many of which had been collected by his son, John. Laseron’s findings, in which he described hundreds of new species, are considered to be of great taxonomic importance. In 1953, he published his best-known book, The Face of Australia, which was an account of the country’s changing geography.
In 1953 Charles Laseron had this to say about his life:
“Looking back, a mixed sort of life, lots of mistakes, lots of failures, some successes, heaps of friends, just a few enemies (nasty chaps) to give spice, lots of fun, plenty to do in the end, hope it comes quickly” (Laseron, c 1953).
Laseron passed away on 27 June 1959. One obiturary stated he was “never a rich man, he nevertheless enjoyed a rich life.”
This post was adapted by Alli Burness from “The Many Sides of Charles Laseron” by Jill Chapman. The original chapter appears in Greame Davison and Kimberly Webber (ed.s), Yesterday’s Tomorrow: the Powerhouse Museum and It’s Precursors, 1880 – 2005, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing in association with UNSW Press, 2005, 124 – 125.
MAAS Archives, series MRS 268/28, C F Laseron, Descriptive guide to the collection of old pottery and porcelain donated to the Technological Museum by Thomas Handcock Lennard and Martha Lennard, Technical Education Series no 26, 1922.
Mitchell Library, series MSS 466/1, Laseron Papers. Laseron to the Bulletin, c 1953.