Erik Langker was an influential member of the Sydney art establishment during the middle decades of the twentieth century. As well as being a leading arts administrator he was also a distinguished landscape and still-life painter.
Sir Erik Ziegler Langker was born in the Sydney harbour-side district of Balmain on 3 November 1898. The artist’s father, Christian Langker (1854-1914), was a Danish sailor from Schleswig-Holstein who jumped ship in Sydney fearing that he would be conscripted into the Prussian armed forces if he returned home. In his adopted land he pursued his association with the sea and became a master mariner. Christian met an Australian woman of German heritage named Elizabeth Rebecca Ziegler (1863-1936), and the couple married in 1882. Christian and Elizabeth had a large family and Erik was their sixth and youngest child.
Langker was educated at Balmain Primary School and later attended Fort Street Boys’ High School. While at high school he showed an aptitude for art and decided to pursue it as a career. After leaving school he studied with Julian Ashton and subsequently with A. Dattilo Rubbo at the Royal Art Society School. He also studied with J.S. Watkins and the marine artists James R. Jackson and Will Ashton.
In 1921 Langker began his long association with the Royal Art Society (RAS) when he exhibited two works, Haystacks and Sunlit Hills, at their annual spring show. The following year he exhibited twelve works with them and his seascape Clouds at Evening was illustrated in the exhibition catalogue. Despite his youth, Langker’s art showed promise to the leaders of the RAS and in 1923 he was made an Associate of the Royal Art Society (ARAS) and served a one-year term on the RAS executive council.
In preparation for his first major exhibition Langker purchased a horse and old caravan so he could visit isolated rural painting spots. During May and June 1924 he exhibited sixty-nine works at his first one-man show at Anthony Hordern’s department store gallery in Sydney. The event was reviewed by several newspapers including the critic from the (Sydney) Sunday Times on 12 May 1924: “Mr Langker is to be commended for his undoubted earnestness and industry. That he will reach a high place among Australian artists would seem highly probable from the present show.”
During 1928 Langker became one of the first Australian artists to be heard on the newly developed medium of radio. He gave several lectures on art and other subjects for the Sydney radio station 2FC. In August 1928 he exhibited forty works at Ormsby’s Galleries in Pitt Street, Sydney. He garnered a positive review in the Sydney Morning Herald (16 August 1928), but received a mixed notice from the influential landscape artist and journalist Howard Ashton ( Sun , 18 August 1928). In 1932 his oil Gathering Clouds was purchased by the (then National) Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Five further images were purchased by the AGNSW during the 1940s and 50s.
On 1 December 1928 Langker married Alice Pollock. The couple had two children, Robert Ziegler Langker (1929-2010), and Elizabeth Diana Langker (b. 1932). By 1934 the Langkers had built a cottage in Wollstonecraft, Sydney, which they named 'Lombardy’. Despite the Italian name of the house, Langker never travelled overseas and, according to his family, he had a lifelong fear of cars, boats and aeroplanes. Despite this he was a regular user of public transport and would accept lifts in cars.
In late life Langker described himself as a “middle period” painter of the impressionist school ( North Shore Times , 3 December 1980). His work was primarily in landscape painting with popular subjects including coastal scenes, cloud studies, and formally arranged flower portraits. His daughter tells that he especially enjoyed painting at Narrabeen Lakes (northeast of Sydney) where his friend, the artist Sydney Long, had a weekend cottage. Other favoured painting spots included the south coast of NSW, Tumut, and around the bays of Sydney Harbour. While never a keen traveller, Langker once visited the Barrier Reef on a painting tri
While painting was his main love, Langker supplemented his income for many years by working as an art valuer for the London and Lancashire Insurance Company. By the early 1930s Langker was re-appointed to the RAS executive council, a position he held for the rest of his life. As well as his council responsibilities he was also a regular exhibitor with the Society, and in 1936 he was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Art Society (FRAS), the group’s highest honour. In 1941 Langker was appointed joint Vice-President of the RAS with Sydney Long.
The late 1930s and early 1940s was a dynamic period within the Australian visual arts where realists battled with modernists for patronage and attention. After the retirement of long-time RAS President William Lister Lister in 1942, the leadership of the RAS was taken on by artist and reviewer Howard Ashton, who had been publicly critical of Langker’s early career work. During Ashton’s leadership the RAS took a defiant conservative stance against the increasing influence of modernism within the visual arts. In 1946 Langker replaced Ashton as President of the RAS, a position he held up to the time of his death. More progressive in his opinions than his predecessor, Langker set a more tolerant tone in the RAS during the post-war period, as can be seen in his 'Foreword’ to the 1952 RAS annual exhibition catalogue:
The Art here will, no doubt, be described by some critics as 'Conservative’ and this is so in the true sense of the word. We desire to conserve those qualities and standards which we believe to be necessary foundations of the pictorial arts. While we believe that experimentation is necessary, we do not depart too far to the left or right and the Society, for this reason, has been described as the “Centre of Gravity of Art” in this State.
In 1947, after the resignation of Sydney Ure Smith, Langker was appointed a trustee of the (then National) Art Gallery of NSW, a position he held until 1974. He worked well with the institution’s modernist post-war Director, Hal Missingham, and in 1958 was appointed Vice President of Trustees. Subsequently, in 1961 he was promoted to President of the Trustees. During his time on this board the AGNSW became increasingly welcoming of new modern styles of art. Langker acted as a mentor to emerging artists and musicians and advised them “to do what you have to do with zest” ( North Shore Times , 3 December 1980). His best-known pupil was Victor Cusack who painted two paintings a week for Langker’s approval during the late 1950s.
In 1952 Langker held his last one-man show at the Grosvenor Galleries in George Street, Sydney. The exhibition included thirty-one works and the show was opened by his friend B.J. Waterhouse. A mid-career assessment of his work came from Herbert E. Badham, the modernist artist and author of A Study of Australian Art , (1949, p. 152):
It is a long step from the “modern” to Erik Langker who renders landscape as did his fathers, literally and with respect to the broad Impressionist principles introduced to Australia by Tom Roberts. This is quite legitimate because much lovely subtlety and vital understanding of nature’s ageless facts are neglected in the restless search for new expressions. Langker has found enough significance for his practice in the painting of forty years ago, and aims to show the public what it is likely to miss by the pursuit of what seem to him false interests. His painting is direct, with some bravura and self-confidence.
Although best known as an oil painter, Langker also worked with watercolour. One such work, River Reflections, was purchased by the AGNSW in 1948. In 1970 Langker wrote an article in Art and Australia on the watercolourist G.K. Townshend ( March 1970, pp 338-341).
As well as his love of painting, Langker had a love of music and the theatre. He enjoyed playing the piano and wrote several compositions for the instrument. In 1949 he became actively involved in organisations that led to the establishment of the Australian Opera. He was also chairman of the Independent Theatre in Sydney. According to his obituary in Art and Australia , Langker “is regarded as one of the four pioneers of the Sydney Opera House the others being Clarice Lorenz, Joseph Post and Sir Eugene Goossens.”
While a trustee of the AGNSW, Langker was made an Ordinary Member of the British Empire (OBE), and in 1968 he was awarded a knighthood (Kt) for services to the arts. Although Langker was deserving of these honours, some family members have suggested that he was nominated for his knighthood by the NSW Liberal Party Premier, Robert Askin, after Langker (as president of the AGNSW trustees) allowed the Sydney Gallery to be used as the principal venue for the 1966 visit of USA President, Lyndon B. Johnson.
While his main exhibiting career ended in the 1950s, Langker continued to paint and show with the RAS up to 1980. While the rival Society of Artists disbanded during the 1960s, Langker’s major achievement with the RAS was maintaining the relevance of the Society during a period of radical cultural change. During his RAS presidency he purchased two houses in North Sydney, which, after conversion, became the new exhibiting headquarters of the Society. He was proud of his achievements at the RAS and the AGNSW and often judged regional art shows as well as the annual Archibald and Wynne competitions. Langker became ill in 1980, and died on 3 February 1982.