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James Montgomery Cant (1911–1982)

by Ron Radford

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Montgomery Cant (1911-1982), artist, was born on 27 November 1911 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, only child of James Cant (d.1917), a mining agent from England, and his Melbourne-born wife Annie, née Montgomery. When James was 2 the family moved to Sydney, where he attended several schools including, for two terms, Sydney Grammar School. As a boy he studied art at Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo’s Saturday morning class, and later at East Sydney Technical College and Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. In 1934 he left for London where the modernist artist Roi de Maistre, who had been an early influence in Sydney, introduced him to forward-looking art, artists and galleries.

In 1935-39 Cant produced the most adventurous art of his career. He experimented with the late cubist style of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso—reflected in his paintings `Still Life’ (1935) and `The Merchants of Death’ (1938)—and the surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, as revealed in `The Deserted City’ (1939). His most advanced works, however, were his `Found Objects’ and `Constructed Objects’, sculptures and assemblages that he exhibited in London in 1937 and 1938. Two three-dimensional creations, `Surrealist Hand’ (c.1936), and a collaged box of items entitled `Welcome to Empire Day’ (1938), survive from this period, and photographs exist of others such as `The Caged Bunyip’ and `Scarecrow’ (1937). These were the most avant-garde works of any Australian artist in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1937 Cant exhibited with de Chirico, Max Ernst and Paul Klee. He travelled to France and Spain and met many of the artists whom he admired including Braque, Picasso, Magritte and Joan Mirò.

Cant returned to Sydney in October 1939 and next year held a one-man show at the Macquarie Galleries. Enlisting on 9 May 1941 in the Citizen Military Forces, he performed camouflage duties with the Royal Australian Engineers in New South Wales and Queensland, and rose to warrant officer, class two, before being discharged on 18 May 1944. On 4 March 1942 at the registrar-general’s office, Sydney, he had married Noeline Woodard, a laboratory assistant. Seeking solace from the irrationality of surrealism and world events, he became interested in the more humanist and accessible imagery of social realism, particularly the powerful works of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Orozco. Nevertheless, in later life he was to declare his religion as surrealist. With other artists, including Dora Cecil Chapman, he helped to form the Studio of Realist Art in 1945. Divorced that year, on 30 June he married Chapman at St James’s Church of England, King Street. His major social realist works from this period include `The Lunch Hour’ and `The Bomb’ (1945). About this time both he and his wife joined the Australian Communist Party (Communist Party of Australia).

Employed by the Australian Museum as a display adviser, Cant also painted arid Australian landscapes and works influenced by Aboriginal art. At the suggestion of Charles Mountford, he produced reconstructions of Oenpelli rock art. In 1949 the Cants accompanied a display of these paintings to London. Remaining there for five years, Cant pursued a gentle form of social realism. Much of his work during this period was influenced by the populated streetscapes of L. S. Lowry; his wax-encaustic technique helped to give his paintings of London street scenes and industrial sites a subtle pearly tone.

Back in Australia in 1955, the Cants lived first in Adelaide, then in Sydney. Next year they settled permanently in Adelaide and Dora, who was to support her husband financially for most of their marriage, secured a teaching position at the South Australian School of Art. Cant’s intimate grey and damp London scenes gave way to large sunny and dry South Australian landscapes—close-up images of local grasses and brush. These highly textured, almost calligraphic, works were successfully exhibited around Australia. They included `Birds in the Bush’ and `The Yellow Hill’ (1959), and his ultimate `grass-scape’, `Dry Grass’ (1964).

Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, in the mid1960s Cant managed to execute broadly painted tree-scapes, but by the early 1970s he was unable to work. Survived by his wife but childless, he died on 26 June 1982 at Fullarton and was buried with Uniting Church forms in Willunga cemetery. The Art Gallery of South Australia staged a retrospective exhibition of his art in 1984 and a joint exhibition of his art and that of Dora Chapman in 1995. His work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia and all mainland State galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Radford, James Cant, 1911-1982 (1984)
  • C. Chapman, Surrealism in Australia (1993)
  • J. Campbell, James Cant & Dora Chapman (1995)
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. Cant (transcript, 1962, National Library of Australia)
  • M. J. Murray, James Cant (MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1994).

Citation details

Ron Radford, 'Cant, James Montgomery (1911–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


27 November, 1911
Elsternwick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


26 June, 1982 (aged 70)
Fullarton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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