The doctor will see (your art) now

Two decades ago, when Dr Geoff Forbes received a book on watercolours as a Christmas gift, he didn’t realise it would lead to him adopting a pseudonym. But now, as the owner of John Julius – one of Subiaco’s newest and most interesting art galleries – he is delighted that he discovered a soothing hobby to immerse himself in after the pressures of his day job as a physician. He is thrilled, too, that he now also has an interesting and rewarding side hustle showcasing the works of fellow creative members of the health profession including a nurse, midwife, physiotherapist, speech pathologist and a medical illustrator.

Their stunning pieces are on show in a lightfilled, renovated 1920s former home in Hay Street, which opened in July 2023 to provide a welcoming space for art lovers and health professionals to meet and discuss whatever comes up while looking at the diverse works featuring sculpture, ceramics, metalwork and acrylics. All indicate the wealth of creativity existing in a profession which is known for following a strict scientific method. Dr Forbes was not surprised to discover he is not the only one to counterbalance a rigid structure with an artistic bent. “It’s been a huge learning curve, opening up the gallery,” he says, as he tries to fit in his time in the gallery around his work in private practice. “I went into this field not knowing much about arts admin but I did know that nothing like this gallery existed,” he says. The self-taught artist knows, too, the soothing aspect of entering another world while painting.

For 20 years he would come home from treating patients at his then job at Royal Perth Hospital and swap his stethoscope for a paintbrush. Hours later the delicate water colour strokes had produced works with quirky titles such as Live Pots and Raw Pots (read backwards for the subtle message), Hung Parliament, Monkey Business, I/U and Migration. Underlying all the works is his keen sense of humour which has been compared to Leon Pericles’ style. And like Pericles’ art, the pieces are designed to make the viewer think. Mysterious quotes are dotted throughout the gallery. “A sparrow doesn’t maketh a spring, nor a poem an anthology. JJ challenges your lateral thinking in reading his poem.” Or “A traditional Icelandic dish, Svio (pronounced Svid or Svith) is the head of a sheep and some, apparently, consider the eyeball a delicacy.” Or this. “Some owls have asymmetric ear placement assisting in localising prey.” JJ is the pseudonym which Dr Forbes uses to sign his works – short for John Julius, which was, when you hear his story, is the obvious choice for the gallery’s name. In signing his works – and his emails – JJ, Dr Forbes pays tribute to John Julius Angerstein, who was the London businessman whose art collection became the basis for London’s National Gallery when he passed away in 1823.

Angerstein was chairman of Lloyd’s from 1790 to 1796 and counted King George III and British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger among his friends. Earlier purchases included The Rape of the Sabines by Ruben and some early sketches by Turner along with works by Rembrandt and Raphael. After he died, 38 of the paintings in his Pall Mall home were to be sold by his estate in 1824. The then King, George IV, joined forces with Prime Minister Lord Liverpool to buy the collection for £60,000 and the paintings became the nucleus of the National Gallery. Coincidentally, Dr Forbes – who was born in Scotland and moved to Australia as a child – married into a distant branch of the John Julius Angerstein’s family here in Perth. He became a prominent physician, and a huge admirer of the arts and was so taken with the story about the art collection that he wanted to pay tribute to the name and make it live on. So in July he opened John Julius Art Gallery and is thrilled at the response from the public. “We have heard very positive things from people,” he says. He stressed he wants to keep his professional working life and his artistic one separate, so visitors are not encouraged to mention their ailments, he says, with a smile. “We want to celebrate the artistic abilities of those who work in the health system,” he says. “For them, art is an interest, a joy, a release, a distraction,” He plans to hold educational evenings in the future and you may have met him as the artist-inresidence at the Subi Night Market at Market Square Park on Saturday evenings. Works by Ralph Baker, Michael Beinart, Clara Forbes, Eleanor Shenton, Kevin Singer, Susie Tait, Holly Thong, Alison Thorpe and Ida Woodward have already exhibited, with more planned for 2024. And JJ’s last word? “Perhaps a nurse, doctor, physiotherapist, orderly, or receptionist who in some way helped you . . . please visit!”

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