In the present climate of increasingly virtual reality, it should come as no surprise that because I cannot be here in
Long before Queen Victoria signed into law the Commonwealth of Australia Act in January 1901, the last official act of her remarkable reign, all six of the Australian colonies had established in each port a bicameral parliament, independent courts of law, a philosophical and scientific society, a mechanics’ institute, a public library, a university, an art society, a museum of natural history, and an art gallery. The three most populous, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, also had many theaters, fiercely competitive philharmonic societies, separate museums of applied arts and sciences, half a dozen daily newspapers each, and many other public, charitable, and philanthropic organizations.
Fueled by the discovery of fantastic quantities of gold in 1851, in the second half of the nineteenth century all of these institutions served a rapidly growing, mostly white settler population, and reflected, obviously in miniature, the exact shape of
The story of these hugely ambitious beginnings was ably told by Ann Galbally and Alison Inglis in their brilliant 1992 exhibition The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s, in which the Anglo-Irishman, serial dueller and enthusiastic horse-whipper Judge Redmond Barry emerged as the unsung hero of art in Australia—the man who, these days, is more often remembered for having in 1880 sentenced to death the notorious bushranger Ned Kelly.
As a direct consequence of Barry’s vision, well before the end of the nineteenth century public art museums in
Anne Kirker and Peter Tomory’s handlist, entitled British Painting 1800–1990 in Australian and New Zealand Public Collections, which appeared ten years ago, demonstrates the degree to which over the past century, and despite a burgeoning sense of national identity, Australia and her art museums carried forward the Victorian art collecting project and now embrace works from every decade, every region, every major movement and strand of development in modern British art of the past 150 years.
The complex interrelationship between the settler colonies and the imperial capital was the subject of my colleague Patricia Macdonald’s fine recent exhibition Exiles and Emigrants at the National Gallery of Victoria (2005–06). In that show, the emphasis switched from immigration to the dry southern continent; the gloomy discovery of interior desolation, and the formative concept of “the tyranny of distance” (in Alan Moorehead’s memorable phrase), to the story of emigration—from
And just now, until the end of next month, supported by a grant in aid from the Paul Mellon Centre, the National Gallery of Victoria is showing in Melbourne a comprehensive survey of modern British art from 1900 to 1960, entirely drawn from local Australian and New Zealand collections—an exhibition for which Louis Duffy’s Christ Expelling the Money Changers from c. 1940, of which you see a detail reproduced on the cover of the catalogue, was especially acquired last year.
How did the process of collecting British art actually work between
In conformity with what was by 1899 an aggressive, ambitious and comparatively adventurous program of acquisitions of paintings in Sydney, and Melbourne, the
The committee met on five occasions, always in Sir Edward Poynter’s room at the National Gallery, and it is clear that, while their advice was on the whole conservative, and conspicuously included works painted by all three artist members, Gill felt free to strike out on his own. A side-trip to
The decision to buy contemporary or nearly contemporary works was not uncontroversial. There were opinions voiced in the South Australian Department of the Treasury that at least a portion of the Elder Bequest would be more profitably spent on copies after the Old Masters, but one is struck by how relatively unencumbered by restriction or dissent Gill’s London buying campaign of 1899 turned out to be.
All this changed in 1904 when Alfred Felton bequeathed to the National Gallery of Victoria in
It is here that we see the earliest occurrence of what we have already observed in Gill’s campaign of 1899, and crops up again and again right down to the 1960s: Namely, on the one hand, a determination to seek and follow the advice of well-connected British art-world celebrities based on-the-spot in London, and, on the other, having politely taken delivery of that advice, a counter-intuitive and equally irresistible urge promptly to reject it. In several instances, the trustees overruled Herkomer on the advice of young Australian art students such as John Longstaff, or, later, Rose MacPherson (who for reasons that should not detain us was better known as Margaret Preston). They, too, were for the time being based in London, and urged upon the trustees in Melbourne usually more expensive, more adventurous acquisitions, invariably British, than the formally accredited representative was prepared to recommend.
In this respect, the activities of the Melbourne trustees ran closely parallel with the entire operation of colonial government since the arrival of the overland telegraph cable in 1872, which had the effect of opening up two separate avenues of communication between each colony and the imperial capital: one by official dispatch to the colonial office via the local governor, and the other between elected colonial ministers, and eventually private individuals via telegraph to the agent-general in London, and thence to the Colonial Office. Five decades of chaos arose from the incessantly conflicting messages received in Whitehall by these two separate routes of communication, and the activities of the permanent Felton advisor in London and more informal representatives of the National Gallery of Victoria trustees created similar headaches in Melbourne until the crash of the Trustees and Executors’ Company in Melbourne in effect wound up the Felton Bequest in the early 1980s. Great purchases of British paintings nevertheless continued to be made, despite conflicting messages, advice tendered and rejected, or advice sought and occasionally withheld.
At a period when the Melbourne Gallery languished under the almost unbelievably inert directorship of the “tonalist” painter L. Bernard Hall, who had been in saddle since 1892 (and still regarded the New English Art School as a dangerous hive of radicalism). Meanwhile, the trustees were led by the Reverend Dr. Alexander Leeper, a Church of England New Testament Greek scholar of scarcely imaginable frugality, at all times alert to the agency of sin. The
To shift forward, in 1949 Sir Kenneth Clark agreed to act as the Felton Advisor and, accepted an invitation from the Melbourne trustees to sail to Australia, and better familiarize himself with what we would nowadays call the Gallery’s “needs.” The extremely positive account of that journey in the second volume of
In fact, for several years Clark had already been making informal recommendations to the
In 1929 Frederick Lessore, the brother of Sickert’s third wife Therese, and proprietor of the Beaux Arts Gallery in
In due course Sickert used that image to paint a large oil study directly onto the dark-red wallpaper in an arched recess at the back of his studio. The long format and framing potential of that recess may have been suggested to him simply by seeing the lay figure suspended so dramatically in front of it. At some point between 1932 and 1934 the wallpaper was painstakingly removed by the art restorers Messrs. Drown, and laid down on canvas. It was eventually owned by Sir Osbert Sitwell, and much later presented to the Art Gallery of South Australia by its benefactor, the late William Bowmore.
Here is the composite photograph, meanwhile, which is among the Sickert papers in the Islington Public Libraries.
Sickert then produced the much smaller tonal study to work towards the final, full-scale version, the largest picture he ever painted. Although in most respects it stayed close to the composite photograph, the impetuous, excited wallpaper sketch had altered the tonal balance created by the studio spotlighting, and cast a strong, slanting beam of light over the lower portion of the body of Lazarus, concealing in the dark, sepulchral gloom the artist’s own self-portrait as Jesus Christ. While returning to the more saturated tonal value of the original photograph, the smaller study, which is now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, also allowed Sickert to concentrate more on the diagonal creases, tautness, and undulation in the surface of the shroud, suggesting a greater twist in the body, and, in the final magnificent, opalescent Melbourne version (on the right), to clothe the living actors in this drama of death and resurrection with splendid colors of pink, and turquoise. The restive artist’s model, meanwhile, the Lazarus of scripture, stirs within a shroud of dazzling, pearly white. Clark purchased the painting for Melbourne from Major Lessore’s Beaux Arts Gallery in 1946, but to his irritation, having secured such a remarkable picture from Sickert’s bleak and lonely 1920s, a majority of the Melbourne trustees, chaired by Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s father, evidently did not like it, and it is a mark of Clark’s prestige that with some grumbling (“too big, “too flat,” “too long and skinny”) they decided to keep it. And it was partly to give Clark a sense of what the
The surviving correspondence shows that Clark enjoyed the easiest relations with
Six months later, in August 1950 Clark urged the Adelaide trustees to seize the opportunity to pounce on a group of three remarkable Tasmanian paintings by John Glover, clearly seeing their importance in the local context, and somewhat frustrated by Melbourne’s lack of enthusiasm—indeed with an apologetic chuckle the National Gallery of Victoria had actually passed. All three pictures, beginning with this Corrobery of Natives, are views of John Glover’s own property near Patterdale on the River Nile in the northern plain of Van Diemen’s Land.
There is not enough time to go into these paintings in any detail, except to note that they are among the finest, and most personally resonant views that the elderly Glover produced on his own land, and include a remarkable vision for the garden he proposed to create in front of his house and studio.
You see here the studio on the left, with its rather ingenious skylights, and the cleverly upward-sloping, south-facing verandah which Glover built so that he could work outside on warm afternoons. The studio has gone, but the house is still there.
The relations between Clark and
Whereas at first it had simply been a matter of going around the London dealers from time to time, by 1954 Clark was besieged with requests not merely from Adelaide, but from Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth as well to vet works of art about which the respective trustees had obtained information from other quarters—often from that remarkable London-based New Zealand dealer and fantasist, the self-styled Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell—or else found for themselves on increasingly frequent visits to London on their own account.
It is worth noting in conclusion that while Kenneth Clark was attempting to satisfy the increasingly impossible requirements of four competitive institutions in Australia, from his office at the Tate Gallery Sir John Rothenstein, apparently unencumbered by any sense that there might exist an almighty conflict of interest, was also advising the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand (and enjoying the benefits of a generous retainer). Moreover, in “one-for-them-and-one-for-me” mode, both men were also acquiring works for themselves, for their own private collections, from the very exhibitions from which selections were made for the Australasians, and in Rothenstein’s case for his own Tate Gallery as well. With increasingly professionalized staffing arrangements beginning to take effect in Australia from the 1960s onwards, such relatively elastic advisory services could not last, and, in any case, by then all of the Australian and New Zealand art museums had subscribed to the Contemporary Art Society, whose annual “gifts” today constitute an impressive hoard of School of London masterpieces, including this large Bacon in Melbourne, and much else besides.
Ten years ago, with a weak Australian dollar, declining state and federal budgets, a pronounced shift in cultural emphasis towards neighboring countries of Southeast Asia, it seemed as if contemporary British art was permanently out of reach. However, this gloomy assessment may yet prove to be premature.