Samuel Henry Ervin was born in Queensland in 1881, the youngest of four children of Samuel Ervin, a miner from Ireland and his German-born wife Mathilda. His father died when he was an infant, and in 1883 his mother married Ernest Rohde and the family moved to Sydney. The family home, ‘Tivoli’, was situated above Balmoral Beach, overlooking the harbour. It is said that as a schoolboy, Harry visited the artists’ camps at nearby Edwards Beach and at Little Sirius Cove where he met artists including Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. This connection with some of the most significant Australian artists of the late 19th century sparked his lifelong fascination with art.
After leaving Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) in 1895, Ervin began a career in the wool trade in Europe where he gained widespread experience. On his return to Sydney he acquired a business and later expanded to start his own wool broking firm, S H Ervin Ltd in 1927. In 1926 he married Muriel Gray (nee Aplet) who had two daughters from a previous marriage and in 1929 moved to Glanworth in Darling Point, where he lived for seventeen years. In 1946 the Ervin’s moved to The Astor apartments in Macquarie Street. Ervin lived at The Astor for the remainder of his life.
Ervin’s collection evolved as early as 1905, when he first acquired works from Charles Conder, J.J. Hilder, Norman Lindsay, Sydney Long, H.S. Power, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. Ervin continued to buy and sell paintings, furniture, porcelain and bronzes for most of his life. Ervin filled his homes with the paintings he bought from these artists, as well as those he and his wife collected by other luminaries of the Australian art world, including Hans Heysen, Will Ashton, George Lambert and Lloyd Rees. In 1955 an exhibition of the works in Ervin’s collection was displayed at the then National Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 1962 he gave a collection of sixty nine works to the Commonwealth of Australia to encourage the establishment of a national art gallery.
In the early 1970s, Ervin bequeathed to the National Trust a number of works from his extensive collection, as well as underwriting the cost of a gallery, dedicated to the display of Australian art. Ervin also bequeathed artworks, and the funds for the acquisition and restoration of Norman Lindsay’s home at Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains, now managed as a museum by the National Trust.
Samuel Henry Ervin died aged 96, in October 1977, seven months before the opening of the Gallery named in his honour.
Samuel Henry Ervin bequeathed to the National Trust of Australia (New South Wales) not only an important collection of Australian art from the late 19th to the mid 20th century, but funds to establish the S.H. Ervin Gallery as a permanent venue for the exhibition of Australian art. The generosity of this major bequest, which facilitated the realisation of one of Sydney’s finest and most popular cultural centres, was instrumental in influencing the New South Wales Government to make available the historic Fort Street School site as the National Trust Centre, of which the gallery is the centrepiece and public face.
We can appreciate from his collection that S.H. Ervin’s taste was for the traditional, a preference written into the terms of his bequest and one that accounts for the Gallery’s continuing emphasis on exhibiting Australian art of a recognised historical lineage. Subsequent additions to the Gallery’s collection reflect the discerning curatorial strategies instigated and facilitated by those to whom the Collection has since been entrusted.