Tuesday, December 16, 2008

From Hubert von Herkomer to Kenneth Clark: Buying British Art for Australasia, 1899–1954

In the present climate of increasingly virtual reality, it should come as no surprise that because I cannot be here in London this afternoon, my colleague MaryAnne Stevens has kindly agreed to channel me, and read this paper. While we do not look or sound very much alike, I have every confidence that if anyone can deliver a few “Australianisms”—and I have tried to keep these to a minimum—MaryAnne has what it takes. I thank her most warmly.

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 London, Edinburgh or Dublin prototypes. The first public art gallery was established in Melbourne in 1861, and was conceived as a kind of fusion of the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum, and all subsequent local public art museums in other Australian colonies followed this basic pattern. All were established before 1895, and their raison d’être was to present to the public, and to students in the related art schools, the finest available examples of British and continental oil painting, casts of ancient sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, glass, engravings, lithographs, illustrated books, drawings, and photographs.

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 Australia and New Zealand had already acquired impressive groups of pictures by prominent living artists, most of them British. That initial accumulation, with its overriding imperial emphasis, provided successive generations of twentieth-century museum trustees with tremendous forward propulsion.

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 England, Scotland and Ireland. In telling that story, patterns of local art collecting merge with the development of the hugely popular mid-nineteenth-century subgenre of the emigration picture. One phenomenon could not have happened without the other.

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 Australia and London? To what extent did decisions about what to buy merely reflect what is these days too often characterized as social and political conservatism, even philistinism; fear of the European avant-garde; a dubious, head-scratching, but overriding reliance upon the opinions of, for example, the Contemporary Art Society, or even (as regards the 1950s and 1960s) the ultramontane tastes of Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies? It is into these questions that I now wish to swan-dive, by looking at the state of play in 1899, the year in which Sir Thomas Elder bequeathed 25,000 pounds to the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, and then 1949, when Kenneth Clark commenced a fascinating five-year association with no fewer than four Australian art museums.

In conformity with what was by 1899 an aggressive, ambitious and comparatively adventurous program of acquisitions of paintings in Sydney, and Melbourne, the Adelaide trustees took the daring decision to invest only three fifths of the Elder Bequest for future purchases, and to spend two fifths of the capital straight away, in London. To that end, the honorary curator, Harry P. Gill, sailed to England and, over a period of five months, scoured the artists’ studios of London for suitable pictures. He was assisted in this enterprise by an ad hoc committee formed at the invitation of the Adelaide trustees. This consisted of Gill (naturally); the painter, Director of the National Gallery and since 1896 President of the Royal Academy Sir Edward Poynter; the landscape painter Ernest Waterlow, who had since 1897 been President of the Royal Watercolour Society; and Edward Gregor, the genre and portrait painter, since 1898 President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours. Finally, there was Sir John Cockburn, agent-general of South Australia in London, who handled the money, liaised with the colonial government, and provided Gill with an office in South Australia House in the Strand.

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 Brussels, for example, gave him the opportunity to snap up a small but vibrant painting entitled Ampelio, Old Fisherman of Bordighera by Émile Claus, and major pictures by Bouguereau, Giovanni Segantini, and other continental painters. In June 1899, Gill supervised the packing and dispatch of forty-two pictures (twenty-seven of them British), fifteen watercolours and thirty-six drawings, including works by Helen Allingham, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Aubrey Beardsley, Anning Bell, Brank Brangwyn, Edward Burne-Jones, H. H. La Thangue, Leighton (an early Shakespearean subject picture), Ricketts, Cayley Robinson, William Strang, and G. F. Watts.

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 Melbourne 378,000 pounds, far more than ten times the size of Adelaide’s Elder Bequest. From this point onwards the Melbourne Gallery could afford to employ a permanent representative, whose role was to act as its agent in London, and to make regular recommendations of suitable works for acquisition by the trustees. Previously, the Melbourne trustees had relied upon the intermittent services and recommendations of first, Sir Charles Eastlake, then G. F. Folingsby (who had promptly recommended his own extremely depressing and practically un-saleable Bunyan in Prison, 1864), and then Sir Hubert von Herkomer, who formed in the early 1890s a pioneering core collection of Master prints.

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 Melbourne trustees nevertheless purchased in 1924 Millais’ modern-life subject The Rescue. At this date, this remarkable, “transitional” 1855 Millais must have seemed about as far as it was possible to retreat from what little of the hedonism of the roaring twenties actually reached Melbourne, but it was fortunate for posterity that an acquisition of no doubt comforting Victorian sentimentality and moral seriousness, so thoroughly out of kilter with the tenor of the times—forget Picasso and Matisse—was nevertheless secured for the collection, despite misgivings as to the astronomical cost of 1,470 pounds sterling. (In 1911 the trustees had decided not to purchase The Carpenter’s Shop for 15,000 guineas.)

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 Clark’s memoirs, The Other Half (1977) is interesting for a number of reasons. Clark loved Australia and its people. “They are,” he wrote, “the only truly democratic and non-hypocritical people of the world. The settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in a semi-tropical climate has produced a magnificent physique…Sydney was full of talented young painters, [including Sidney Nolan] but the public galleries were Augean Stables.” Melbourne was not much better. Tiepolo’s famous Banquet of Cleopatra, which had been snatched by the Felton Bequest from right under Clark’s nose when he was director of the National Gallery in London, and exchanged for a suitcase containing 25,000 gold sovereigns which under deliciously cloak-and-dagger circumstances in February 1933 the Victorian agent-general handed over to a Soviet emissary on the other side of Trafalgar Square—that great picture hung opposite the stuffed carcass of the champion racehorse Pharlap. Clark mentioned that the Gallery’s director, Daryl Lindsay derived at least part of his unique authority from the fact that he had actually once ridden Pharlap. But although the museums were depressing, disorganized, and dull, Clark was intrigued by the arts of Aboriginal Australia, and the beauty of the landscape, which in a flight of fancy he compared to Piero della Francesca, and wrote about both with breathless enthusiasm in a long letter to Bernard Berenson at i Tatti.

In fact, for several years Clark had already been making informal recommendations to the Melbourne trustees, of which the most important was, and remains, Walter Sickert’s relatively late masterpiece The Raising of Lazarus.

In 1929 Frederick Lessore, the brother of Sickert’s third wife Therese, and proprietor of the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bruton Place gave the artist as eighteenth-century lay figure which was thought to have been owned by William Hogarth. It was an expensive, generous gift. According to the artist’s much younger friend, fellow artist, and protégée Cicely Hey, the idea for the Johannine subject of The Raising of Lazarus came to him when the lay figure was delivered to his studio at 1 Highbury Fields, wrapped in brown paper, and carefully maneuvered up the stairs. He thought it looked like a stiffened corpse. Not long afterwards, Sickert asked “Hey” (as she was known) to pose for him. Her account, transcribed years later by Denys Sutton, makes it clear that, in formulating the refining the composition, Sickert made highly creative use of photographs: “When she arrived…he opened the door and led her into a large long room ‘which was in total darkness except for a shrouded figure which hung in space with a spotlight on it.’ She was to take the role of Lazarus’s sister, and he posed her in front of the ‘corpse’, telling her how she ought to be feeling, as if he were a stage producer. He told her that in posing, as in acting, it is very important to get intense feeling. Models must be deeply and sincerely interested’. Once she was in position, a photographer took several shots of the composition…”

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 Melbourne trustees did like that the Australian journey of 1949 was eventually proposed. What they did not perhaps foresee was that Clark would be bouleversé by Sid Nolan, among other young Sydney painters, and by stacks of neglected Aboriginal and Oceanic bark paintings that then languished in the natural history museums, or that Clark would return to Britain having made a commitment not only to act on behalf of the Felton Bequest, but to recommend works for acquisition by the Sydney, Adelaide, and Perth trustees as well.

The surviving correspondence shows that Clark enjoyed the easiest relations with the Adelaide trustees chaired by the urbane, if somewhat garrulous and time-consuming Sir Lloyd Dumas, like Murdoch, a newspaper man. Dumas and the other trustees authorized Clark to spend 850 pounds a year “on contemporary European paintings, giving the word contemporary a fairly wide field, and with definite bias in favor of British paintings.” Within a matter of months Clark hoovered up a group of pictures by Gwen John, William Nicholson, John Piper, Ethel Walker, Mark Gertler, Murihead Bone, Carel Weight, Mark Fisher, Alan Reynolds, Christopher Chamberlain, Ambrose McEvoy, Ruskin Spear and Victor Pasmore, as well as this beautiful head by the young Lucian Freud, the first painting by Freud that was acquired by a public art museum.

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 Adelaide, and between Clark and the other nests of Australian trustees, eventually deteriorated for reasons that are ironic. The flow of “contemporary” or nearly contemporary pictures that Clark dispatched to South Australia actually emboldened the Adelaide trustees to make their own suggestions, commit more funds for acquisitions, and, in a pattern that we have observed elsewhere, ultimately to reject his recommendations. A spectacular Monet view of L’Estaque on offer in 1950 for 2,000 pounds was turned down because Sir Lloyd objected to the outrageous cost. Major paintings by Nicolaes Maes, Rubens, Paris Bordone, and William Hogarth—all of which appear to have been flushed onto the market by the dire economic conditions of post-War England—were also rejected on similarly penny-pinching grounds, and there were other missed opportunities that clearly irritated Clark.

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. Clark’s handwritten letters get gradually chillier, more infrequent, and eventually break into typed, two-line, six-monthly notes dictated to a secretary. In the end in 1954 he gave up all advisory work.

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. Australia is now more prosperous than ever before in her history. If the current success of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Modern British exhibition is any indication, it may be that as Australia and New Zealand continue to enjoy full employment, low inflation, and remarkably consistent economic growth, and attract what (surprisingly perhaps) still remains for us the largest single group of immigrants, that is, young professional people migrating from the British Isles, Australian public collections of British art will continue to accumulate. The signs are good, and I hope that this turns out to be true. I thank you.

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