Aeneas J. L. McDonnell ( 1904-1964 )
Aeneas John Lindsay McDonnell was born in Toowoomba, Queensland, in 1904. During his long career as an Australian archivist, art dealer, connoisseur and collector, he travelled widely across Europe, the Americas, and the Middle and Far East. McDonnell was educated at Cranbrook School, Sydney, where he developed an enduring love for art. Though his chief interest lay in all things French, he did not confine his studies to one nation or period. Rather, his impassioned connoisseurship led him to amass a collection of fine books, objects, and works of art from around the globe. In 1928, he became a partner of Macquarie Galleries in Sydney.
Prior to military service, McDonnell was private secretary to the Governor of Queensland. With the start of World War II, he joined the Red Cross in April 1940 and served in Africa and the Middle East until November 1943. He later enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in May 1944 as a lieutenant and was soon seconded to British forces for special duty. Due to his knowledge of art and fluency in French, McDonnell was assigned to the Civil Affairs Division of the Allied armies as an Australian representative to the SHAEF Mission to France in early 1945. At SHAEF headquarters in London, McDonnell was tasked with creating the MFAA Handbook for France alongside Monuments Officers Walker Hancock and Bancel LaFarge. Hancock and McDonnell would remain close friends for the rest of their lives.
Over the course of his service as a Monuments Officer, McDonnell travelled throughout the American and British Zones. In May 1945, he accompanied Lt. Cdr. Charles Kuhn, Deputy Advisor to the MFAA, on a ten-day inspection of the many art repositories located in Germany. He examined Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna at Altaussee and witnessed the massive collection of looted French art at Schloss Neuschwanstein. In June 1946, he led the first meeting of archivists of the British Zone at Bünde.
McDonnell was discharged from service in January 1947 with the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel. For his services, he was appointed as Officer of the Legion of Honour, and awarded the Australia Service Medal, the British War Medal with Mentioned in Despatches oakleaf, and the France and Germany Star.
Upon his return from Europe, McDonnell was appointed as adviser to the Felton Bequest of The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. For the next seventeen years until his death, McDonnell travelled the globe selecting works of art for the gallery’s collection. At the time, the Felton Bequest was considered to be largest sum of money devoted to the purchase of art in the world. In addition to the purchase of works by Poussin, Rembrandt and Gainsborough, McDonnell was instrumental in the gallery’s 1956-57 acquisition of Sir Thomas Barlow of Manchester’s collection of prints by Albrecht Dürer.
John McDonnell died in London in 1964.