The Ramsay's legacy

The passion for giving behind the nation’s biggest cultural gift

The evidence of a life-long philanthropic commitment to the arts is contained in James Ramsay’s elegant handwritten notes that were sent to the companies he and his wife Diana supported. On a significant day in the couple’s personal history, James wrote to the Australian Ballet: “As today is our wedding anniversary we can think of no more appropriate way to mark the occasion than to further give to the Australian Ballet Company of which we are so fond.” The note was accompanied by a $30,000 cheque.

James and Diana at their wedding

The couples’ generosity dates to the 1970s and has been estimated to total $80 million to a range of arts-based causes, medical research and initiatives. But their most extraordinary contribution was revealed at the weekend when it was announced the couple had made a $38 million bequest to the Art Gallery of South Australia, one of the largest cultural gifts ever made to the nation.

The gift’s closest comparison is with the Felton Bequest, which has been an integral part of building the reputation of the collection at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was the legacy of Melbourne businessman and druggist Alfred Felton, who left an estate of 383,163 pounds when he died in 1904. Felton’s will directed the income be held in trust in perpetuity, with half given to charity and the other half for buying works for the NGV.

The bequest was an inspiration for James and Diana, although they never believed their own generosity would rival that of Felton. “Decades ago, James and I admired the Felton Bequest, but we knew we could never match that, so we just thought along those lines as a guide on a very small scale and have managed to assist in areas where we possibly could,’’ Diana said at the launch of James and Diana Ramsay Foundation in 2008.   

Central to the Ramsays’ philanthropy was a mutual and assured sense of where to apply their generosity. It started in the 1970s with support for welfare organisation, local associations, the arts and medicine. The medical connection was through James’ father Sir John Ramsay who was a pioneering surgeon, a gifted hospital administrator and a valued member of the Tasmanian community. He is believed to have taken the first clinical x-ray at the Launceston General Hospital in 1897, one of the few surgeons anywhere to successfully resuscitate a patient by manual cardiac massage as well as being the first Australian surgeon knighted.

James and Diana Ramsay

The Ramsay family’s financial success was through the success of Kiwi boot polish, which was established by James’ uncle William.  But it was another uncle - Hugh - who cemented the family’s link with the arts. Hugh Ramsay was a gifted painter, who died tragically young, before his talents fully flowered. Australian artist and novelist Joan Lindsay wrote of a Hugh Ramsay retrospective exhibition: “The word "genius" has been badly overworked, but it is difficult to dissociate it from the name of the late Hugh Ramsay.’’

Diana was a Hamilton, from a winegrowing family, and she married James in 1960 with the confidence of knowing she had found her ideal partner. Diana explained some years later: “We instinctively knew that we were meant for one another. We… lived life to the full-on rather low means. We soon learnt to save money so we could redeploy some of it, to make more of it, purely to help others”.

Diana’s love affair with art began when she was only 10 and taken around the Art Gallery of South Australia by her father. It was the Nora Heyson painting Scabious that caught her eye back then. Years later, the donation of a Japanese lacquer tray dating back to the 1700s started the Ramsays’ journey of giving to the Gallery. It’s estimated that the couple bought 80 works in the Gallery’s collection. In 2014, Diana helped the Gallery buy the $US4.6 million painting Prairie a Eragny, painted in 1886 by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro. It was the most expensive purchase in the Gallery’s 133-year history.

The James and Diana Ramsay Foundation executive director, Kerry de Lorme, said the couple’s philanthropy increased as their investment income grew.

A Lady of Cleveland, USA, 1902 - Hugh Ramsay. The National Gallery of Australia is opening a retrospective of Ramsay’s work on Saturday, November 30.

 “This was particularly so with their philanthropy to the arts, because they both were exposed to the value of arts in society at a young age, and they believed the arts give you also sorts of interest, stimulation and they both appreciated quality and beauty, both in the visual and performing arts,’’ Kerry said.

The couple not only supported the Gallery and the Australian Ballet, but the Australian National Gallery, the Adelaide Youth Orchestra and the Helpmann Academy, among others. There was also support for medical research, at the University of Adelaide and at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.

Their financial commitments were matched by the time and engagement they had with a number of organisations: James was a member and life member of a large number of organisations, including Adelaide Festival of Arts, State Library of SA, Tasmanian Ex-Servicemen’s Club, the SA Jockey Club, Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of SA, Royal Sydney Golf Club, Art Gallery of SA, Adelaide Botanic Gardens, South Australian Cricket Association, The Adelaide Club and President of the Adelaide Oval Bowling Club.

The bequest was established in James Ramsay’s will in 1994, two years before he died. When Diana died in 2017, the entirety of James’s estate was bequeathed to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Combined with a portion of Diana’s estate, the result is one of the nation’s greatest cultural gifts.

Kerry said: “James and Diana were both of a conservative nature, and this shines through in the guidelines of this bequest, that is that the capital fund must remain intact and only the income can be spent on major works of art”

The couple had no children but in 2008 Diana established a foundation in her and James’ name, which she later recalled was “one of the proudest moments of my life.’’

“It is something that I never thought we could achieve, and the Foundation has already achieved so much, and I am delighted that the Ramsay name and our ability to assist others will continue on for a long time,” Diana said in 2010.

The Foundation supports the Gallery’s successful children and family programs, which have seen over 300,000 children and families visit the AGSA since inception in 2013.  And on Diana’s 90th birthday, the AGSA and the Foundation launched the $100,000 acquisitive Ramsay Art Prize in perpetuity, one of Australia’s most generous and dynamic art prizes, which will also enhance the collection of the AGSA. 

Kerry says: “James and Diana’s legacy is remarkable and will be treasured for generations to come. It is this spirit of generosity that will live on through the James and Diana Ramsay Foundation, through the visual and performing arts in South Australia and now spectacularly through the Art Gallery of South Australia in a very significant way.”  

See how Philanthropy Australia broke this story on 23 November here.

Become a member!

Our mission is more and better philanthropy. Be part of the journey.

Join now

Foundation Maps: Australia

Do you want to know who is funding what and where across Australia? 

Learn more