WHEN Morris Johnston walked into a thrift shop in his hometown of Bunbury back in 2002, a small painting immediately caught his eye.
“It intrigued me,” he said.
“The Aboriginal male in it was barefoot and carrying spears, yet he was wearing a bowler hat and a blue overshirt. The lady had on a straw boater and a traditional basket.”
Mr Johnston paid the princely sum of $90 for the painting and a companion piece.
On the back it read “Artist Daniel Clarke, October 23, 1879, W’bool”.
“I rang the Warrnambool Art Gallery and asked ‘do you know a Daniel Clarke?’ and they said ‘we have a section dedicated to Daniel Clarke’,” Mr Johnston explained.
“They asked ‘can we buy it?’ and I said ‘one day when I’m finished with it, I’ll gift it to the gallery’.”
Fourteen years later, that day has come. Mr Johnston and his wife Jan travelled from Western Australia to present the painting to the gallery in person.
The Friends of the Warrnambool Art Gallery offered Mr Johnston $500 for the painting, which he has insisted be donated to the Warrnambool East Rotary Club – it was a chance meeting with Warrnambool East Rotary Club member Andrew Coffey on a cable car in New Zealand last year that set the donation in process.
The WAG has nine works by Clarke in its collection and he is considered an important early European artist in the Warrnambool region.
Clarke arrived in the district in 1865 from Northern Ireland and was the first manager of the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve. He later operated a photographic studio in Warrnambool.
WAG director Vanessa Gerrans said the gallery was pleased to acquire the work.
She said Mr Johnston’s painting appeared to feature the same figures that are in another Clarke painting already in the WAG collection.
The WAG also has Clarke paintings of local dignitaries and landscapes, as well as a quirky portrait of Queen Victoria.
She said the Johnston acquisition would require some conservation work but was generally in good condition.
As to how the 1879 painting from Warrnambool ended up in a Bunbury thrift shop, Mr Johnston said it was believed to have travelled from Melbourne to Albany with an elderly couple who later donated it to the secondhand store.