Joan Kerr was born on 21 February 1938 in North Sydney, NSW, the eldest of six children of Robert (Bob) Christopher Lyndon (1896-1963) and Edna May Richards (1907-1992), both from Queensland. The family moved to Cronulla where Joan went to primary school although severe asthma often kept her confined to bed. The Lyndons returned to Brisbane in 1951 and Joan attended Somerville House (1952-1955). In 1956 she commenced a BA at Queensland University, the first of her family to undertake tertiary education. She participated in debating and drama and was co-editor of the University’s student newspaper Semper Floreat. She graduated with a B.A. Hons (2) but did not complete her MA in English literature.
Joan Lyndon met James (Jim) Semple Kerr (born, Rockhampton, 6 July 1932) in 1956 at university. They were married at All Saints Church, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane on 30 November 1960 but settled in Cremorne, Sydney. Jim worked for Qantas in management, Joan as a junior journalist on the publication Weekend. Their daughter Tamsin was born on 11 April 1962. Qantas posted Jim Kerr to Geneva in 1963 where their son, James Semple Kerr was born on 21 August.
In 1964 Qantas transferred Jim Kerr to London, which gave the Kerrs the chance to explore England’s architectural heritage. Their formal study of architectural history began in 1966 with lectures on the great buildings of Europe followed by a two-year diploma certificate on mediaeval art and architecture at the Courtauld Institute. They also attended lectures by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) at Birkbeck College, University of London. It was he, Joan Kerr insisted, who transformed her from ‘housewife to historian’. They were unable to complete their studies in London as Jim was posted back to Sydney in 1968.
In 1969 Joan Kerr applied to the Fine Arts Department, Power Institute, Sydney University to undertake a Master of Arts (MA). Head of Department, Professor Bernard Smith insisted Joan first undertake Fine Arts I and II, which she completed in one year. After finishing first in both courses Smith offered Kerr a tutorship. She spent five years in the post unofficially assuming the duties of lecturer.
Kerr convinced Smith to allow her to undertake an MA on colonial church architecture. Her thesis – The Development of the Gothic Taste in New South Wales as Exemplified in the Churches of the Colony: from the Beginning of Settlement up to the Establishment of the Victorian Gothic Revival Style at the End of the 1840s (awarded 1976) – crossed academic boundaries between art, architecture and history before such practices became acceptable in Australian universities.
Jim resigned from Qantas and in 1972-73 completed a Diploma of Conservation at the University of York. The following year they both enrolled for doctorates at the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York. Joan’s D.Phil thesis, Designing a Colonial Church: Church Building in New South Wales 1788-1888, was based on her MA with an extension of the cut-off date. Both Kerrs were awarded their doctorates in July 1978.
In 1978 Jim Kerr became Assistant Director, Australian Heritage Commission in Canberra. Joan worked as a tutor in Fine Arts at the Australian National University (ANU) before being granted a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in history at the Research School of Social Sciences. In 1981 she was offered a lectureship in the Power Institute, Sydney University. She was promoted to senior lecturer (1983-84) and Associate Professor (1985-93). She was Acting Head of Department in 1983-84 and part 1991 and Head of Department, 1985-87.
Kerr left Sydney University in July 1993 and spent three years at the College of Fine Arts UNSW (COFA). In 1997 She was one of four senior academics appointed to the new Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at ANU. After her retirement in 2001 she returned to Sydney and was again appointed Visiting Professor at COFA. She was to give occasional lectures but her major task was to obtain an ARC grant to set up the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online.
In 2003 Joan Kerr was diagnosed with cancer. She died on 22 February 2004 and is survived by her husband, Jim; daughter, Tamsin; son James and her five grandchildren.


Joanna Mendelssohn
Date written:
Last updated: