In January 1904, an elderly gentleman passed away in St Kilda’s Esplanade Hotel, where he had lived quietly for twelve years in a modestly furnished apartment. Never married, he had no living heirs; while he lived modestly, his rooms were full of the artworks he had collected during his lifetime.
A few months before his death, he had scrawled in a notebook “Wealth!! Get it spent.” He had spent much of his life as a quiet benefactor, following the guidelines he had laid out for himself – several years before he had determined to spend his money on “the sick and poor; on servants and employees; on art works, travelling, and also on desirable things — personal or other”. But Alfred Felton’s legacy after death was one of the richest and most remarkable in Australian history.
This image originally appeared in John Poynter’s short biography of Alfred Felton printed through the Oxford "Great Australians" series (1974). The following impression from a boy visiting the Esplanade Hotel is also taken from the biography:
His style of living was modest… Two rooms knocked into one, on the ground floor, made his living room, with a bedroom upstairs… Bookshelves all around, crammed elsewhere with disorderly heaps of books, papers and serials. Above, pictures, clocks, ornaments and rubbish; above that, on the walls, the earlier pictures, properly hung. In front, the latter pictures, leaning against the books, or a pedestal carrying a marble statue. Perhaps an ormolu timepiece, with its glass dome, and the action room number still on it.
The boy… would have twenty minutes to explore the large table in the centre before the old man would enter, dressed for town, in a dark Beaufort coat and a hard hat. Followed on his heels a frowsty waiter, with a large tin tray, commonplace china, and a battered tin cover keeping the whiting hot - 365 whiting and 365 chickens a year. Always whiting for breakfast, always chicken for dinner. No lunch.
The always crowded table was approached, and with the tray the waiter would push aside the ivory miniatures, the heap of unopened Spectators, the Bristol paper weights, and the wax phonograph cylinders, and in an Adam chair, and a hard hat, the day would begin.
Alfred Felton was born in East Anglia in 1831, and arrived in Australia as a young man. It is assumed that he emigrated in response to the gold rush, although it was not as a miner but as a trader that he spent his time on the goldfields.
After some time as a merchant in general goods, then an importer, he achieved his greatest success as a pharmaceutical importer, manufacturer and retailer. In partnership with F.S. Grimwade, he manufactured and sold popular patent medicines as well as chemicals required for manufacturing and medical purposes, essential oils for therapeutic purposes, perfumery and flavouring, and various items such as chemical apparatus and sponges. The partners established an acid works and a glass bottle works; Felton also expanded into property during the 1880s, purchasing property in NSW and Victoria.
Although he was not a recluse and enjoyed spending time at his clubs and with his friends and their families, Felton did not marry and did not serve on public boards during his lifetime. He enjoyed travel, cigars, racing and cricket, and was often seen driving a pony trap around Melbourne after attending his Sunday church service. At some stage during the 1880s, he began collecting works of art; his rooms at the Esplanade became cluttered with art, books and curios. During his lifetime he became the patron of at least one artist, Rupert Bunny, who was the son of one of Felton’s friends.
During his lifetime, Felton was a generous but discreet giver to a large number of organisations. In 1900 he read that another donor had given a gift of a thousand pounds to assist the Melbourne Hospital to remove their debt; he immediately matched it with instructions that he should remain anonymous; however, he was persuaded to make the gift public in order to encourage others.
Alfred Felton’s estate was valued at almost half a million pounds when he died in 1904. While he left some legacies to friends and relatives, the residue, which amounted to approximately £380,000, was left in trust. This was the equivalent of over $40 million in today’s money. Half the income was to be spent on charities in the state of Victoria, with special emphasis on those serving women and children; the other half was designated for the purchase of works of art for the National Gallery of Victoria.The National Gallery found itself suddenly in possession of enough funds to enable it to compete with many world class institutions; its purchasing power at the time was greater than London’s National and Tate galleries combined.
Felton left instructions that the Felton Bequests’ Committee must be satisfied that the works purchased were of educational value, and would “raise and improve public taste”; the committee was also required to take advice from the Gallery Trustees. Through the Felton Bequest, more than 15,000 works of art have been acquired for the Gallery, including some by Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Monet, Cezanne, van Gogh, Turner and William Blake.
The second half of the Bequest income has benefited a range of Victorian charities including the Mirabel Foundation, established to benefit children orphaned or abandoned through parental illicit drug use; the Ardoch Youth Foundation, established to support homeless youth; and the Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health.
The Bequest of a Century, The Age, November 2004
Honouring the philanthropy of Alfred Felton and the centenary of his bequests, Philanthropy Australia and ANZ Trustees, Melbourne, 2004
Poynter, John Great Australians: Alfred Felton, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1974
Poynter, J.R. Mr Felton’s Bequests, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2003
Mar. 02, 2007
Sign up to our weekly e-newsletter for sector news, expert opinion and resources.