Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sowing New Seed: Orpen, Ireland, and “Unsophisticated Colonials” in Adelaide, South Australia

Towards the end of 1913, acting for the trustees of what was then still called the Public Library, Museum, and National Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, two young Australian artists, Will Ashton and Rose MacPherson (who is better remembered as Margaret Preston), saw and admired a painting by William Orpen at the New English Art Club exhibition here in London. This startling square picture, which carried the cumbersome full title Sowing New Seed for the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, was last seen in Robert Upstone’s fine Orpen exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 2005. It was apparently conceived as an allegorical representation of what the artist felt was the depressing state of the arts in Ireland.

Meager government subsidies for art and art education were at that time directed from Whitehall through officials of the Irish Board of Agriculture, which was set up in 1899 by the Anglo-Irish politician Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, and incidentally included the father of Constance Spry, who, by 1913, when Orpen painted
Sowing New Seed, was the Board’s assistant secretary.

The picture was intended to make fun of this anomalous situation, which for obvious reasons favored agriculture at the expense of art. In it Orpen gathered five allegorical figures into the shallow foreground space. A partly clothed nude holds in her upturned palm a handful of seeds, and sprinkles them on the ground. As we shall see, at various times Orpen claimed she symbolized various different things, but initially, at least, he appears to have let it be known that she represented the spirit of new ideas, progress in art, modernity. She is accompanied by her intellectual progeny, the naked infants who play in the center foreground. The peasant couple standing next to the gnarled tree on the right—the man is dressed in “Sunday black”—reflects Orpen’s low opinion of the attitudes and policies of the agriculture department in relation to art—as indeed does the unpromising setting, a tumbledown farmhouse and pig-pen, an eyesore on the otherwise picturesque Hill of Howth, overlooking Dublin Bay.

Encouraged by her own considerable judgment and by favorable comment in the
Birmingham Daily Post, the Daily Chronicle, the Globe, the Ladies’ Pictorial Art, the Observer and other newspapers—the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury even described the picture as “an outstanding masterpiece”—Margaret Preston decided to buy Sowing New Seed for the National Gallery of South Australia at the relatively high price of 700 pounds sterling. She hoped it would stand for developments in modern and contemporary British art then associated with the New English Art Club. Critical comment focused on the inventiveness of its bright tonal scheme and tempera-like texture and coloring, and the eccentricity of its contrived, frieze-like composition. The Westminster Gazette noted the purchase with interest: “We would give a trifle to hear the comments of unsophisticated colonials when Orpen’s picture, Sowing New Seed, is placed before their admiring gaze.”

The painting reached Adelaide early in June 1914. Despite sharp division among the trustees as to its “suitableness for display,” the honorary curator (Edward Davies) insisted that the painting should be hung immediately. The situation was complicated by the fact that the picture was paid for with funds bequeathed to the gallery in 1899 by the wealthy grazier Sir Thomas Elder, a spectacular gift of 25,000 Australian pounds (still at that date tied to sterling at a premium, and worth 20% more), the income of which had never before been used for such an unconventional purpose. Clearly anticipating trouble, and in the absence at this date of any helpful statement by the artist, Davies arranged for detailed explanatory wall labels to accompany the painting. These were provided by himself, the local ultramontane naturalized German painter of landscape and gum trees Hans Heysen, and two anonymous, as yet unidentified commentators mysteriously described as “Adelaide layman” and “Adelaide laywoman.”

At first,
Sowing New Seed was received in Adelaide with cautious approbation. The favorable reviews which had appeared in the British press were quoted in the local press, which incidentally deplored the Westminster Gazette’s condescending remarks about “unsophisticated colonials.” The Mail somewhat ambiguously stated that “there can be no exception taken to the painting as a painting.” The Register suggested that “the right mental atmosphere in which to view the picture is that of a poem in color.” At the same time, however, the figure in black began to emerge as a cause of complaint, then bewilderment, finally dismay and outrage. He was mistaken for an “established” Church of Ireland cleric.

The critic of the
Mail explained: “Standing beside the tree is the representation of a cleric. His hand is upraised and in his eyes there is a shocked expression. Another woman, not in the nude, and presumably his wife, is trying to soften his anger, disgust, surprise, or whatever it might be. The assumption is that he is either shocked at the sowing of the seed or at the nudity of the sower and of the little folk who are trying to get the seed. If he is shocked at the former it must be inferred that he is antagonistic to the advancement of technical education in Ireland; and if he is shocked at the nudity we have two elements in the picture. There is something that shocks him, and something that arouses his approbation. In this way the picture becomes a problem and we fail to see in either direction that Mr. Orpen has realized his subject.”

Most unfortunately, the assumption that the man in black was a cleric was only partly refuted in the wall label provided by “Adelaide laywoman” who wrote: “The man in black is the starting point of the picture. He is not an incongruous element as he appears at first sight, nor is he ‘a comic cleric.’ He is a pathetic figure—the symbol of a religious ideal which was once of spiritual power, but is now a spent force.” Likewise, “Adelaide layman” actually reinforced the idea that the figure was a kind of religious symbol by pointing out that he “stands near the dead tree of old Shibboleths, and shows an affected horror of the naked truth as symbolized by the female figure sowing the seed of knowledge.”

Drawing attention in this way to the symbolic importance of the “man in black” caused outrage among members of the non-Catholic clergy. Writing to the
Register on 3 July, the Reverend Herbert Edwards expressed his disgust at the decision of the gallery to exhibit Sowing New Seed because it constituted a “libel on the ministry,” and added that if “the picture is kept for exhibition—although it ought not to be—an artist ought to be engaged to paint in the shadows and make it at least in that respect natural.” The couple on the right quickly became “the scandalized Chadband and his wife,” a “poor, half-demented curate and a milksop woman,” “an undesirable ‘wowser’ parson,” a “superannuated old parson dressed like a scarecrow,” “the old party, an antiquated parody of the usual scarecrow order,” “Dr. Crippen and his Morganatic typist,” and so on—(this from a correspondent who signed himself “Sherlock Holmes”—Dr. Crippen had been captured, tried, convicted, and executed, while his lover and accomplice Ethel le Neve was acquitted, in 1910).

Advertiser eventually summarized the rising chorus of protest against Sowing New Seed: “There is not enough culture even in Adelaide for the full appreciation of its vaunted beauties…It does not shock; it is simply a puzzle in paint, as difficult to solve as the question how the authorities came to pay 700 pounds for such a picture.” Or, as one perplexed correspondent, “M. W.,” put it, in a letter published in the Register a few days later, “What about the pig?”

The best efforts of Adelaide art-lovers – among them the cultivated correspondents “Flake White” and “Chiarascura” – to suggest less narrow-minded ways of reading the picture came to nothing. Even so,
Sowing New Seed attracted some distinguished and spirited advocates. In the same day’s Register, the young artist Bessie Davidson issued a strong defense of Orpen by invoking the memory of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a valuable reminder that some Adelaide artists were well aware of the comparatively recent developments and strands of influence on contemporary European art.

Only after the baffling problem of how to interpret the meaning of Sowing New Seed had been discussed at length in the newspapers did a trickle of complaints about the perceived obscenity of the figure on the left begin to flow from disgruntled correspondents, whose choices of pseudonym are telling. They included “Humiliated Australian,” “Matter-of-Fact,” “Teck-Neek,” “Puzzled,” “Conny-Sewer,” “Father of Four Girls,” “Father of Ten,” “Father of Forty-Two,” “Ex-Nurse,” “Humility,” Ignoramus,” “Disgusted,” “Another Disgusted,” “No More,” “Financial,” “Unsophisticated Colonial,” “A Woman,” “Hard-Luck Culture,” “Anti-Futurist” (interestingly), “Eyes to See,” and “Quack-Quack.”

Fortified in the time-honored manner by a strong headline in the
Mail—“Problem Picture or Cartoon?—and four hysterical subheads: “A Freak Purchase?” “A Humorous 700 pounds worth,” “Three nudes and a scowling parson,” this trickle of protest soon became a stream and then a torrent, eventually obliterating the original question as to the meaning of the subject. Anger—the nude was described as a “naked, misshapen wanton who is scattering freely the seeds of lust and license, foul seeds which will have all too prolific a crop”—soon gave way to outright ridicule. “The bird stands for wireless telegraphy, the modern wonder that helped catch Crippen” (this from “Sherlock’s Friend Watson”). Sowing New Seed had now turned into an “atrocious daub” that ought to be “hung “on the [clothes-]line” so as to be viewed without the risk of meningitis.”

With customary glee, in the Sydney the
Bulletin made fun of the proper citizens of Adelaide. “All the artists, headed locally by Hans Heysen, rave about the coloring. The public raves also. It calls the principal figure a shameless hussy and throws bricks at her that ought to go to the artist for making her so out-of-drawing.” Likewise, much later, in Melbourne, when the Adelaide Gallery tried to get the National Gallery of Victoria to take Sowing New Seed off its hands, and without having seen it, the Reverend E. H. Sugden, a trustee, felt able to describe the painting as “reeking with sexuality,” a complaint shored up by Melbourne Punch: “The picture belongs to dear, good little Adelaide…All the old ladies in luster gowns and elastic-sided boots who saw the picture pronounced it too terribly “Oh My!” and made an immense commotion until it was removed from the walls. It is evidently imagined that Melbourne’s morals can stand any kind of shock and so the picture has been offered to us.”

The caricature of Adelaide as prim and shock-able had its roots in the 1830s, when the colony of South Australia became the first to be established without the perceived stain of convict settlement, and has boasted about it ever since. But that is not entirely fair. Thirty In 1883, thirty years before
Sowing New Seed, the National Gallery of Victoria weathered a storm of adverse publicity when, after some initial hesitation, the trustees accepted on long-term loan this full-length nude by Jules Lefebvre, which now resides in the upstairs lounge bar of Young and Jackson’s Hotel on the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets in Melbourne.

Chloe had won for the artist the Grand Medal of Honor at the Paris Salon of 1875, and remained a major celebrity when she toured to the Sydney and Melbourne International Exhibitions of 1879 and 80 (which between them attracted 2.4 million visitors). In Melbourne she won another gold medal and was purchased for 850 guineas by the splashy local surgeon and Victoria Racing Club stalwart, Thomas N. FitzGerald. Dr. FitzGerald offered the picture to the N.G.V. because he planned to take his family home to spend a year in Ireland. As soon as Chloe took up residence at the Melbourne gallery she became entangled in the scandalous religious question of Sunday opening, and was immediately sent home to Dr. and Mrs. FitzGerald.

Just prior to their now delayed departure for Britain,
Chloe was offered instead to the Adelaide gallery. Initially vetted by the Adelaide trustees William Everard, M.P., and Archdeacon G. H. Farr, Chloe was placed above the principal entrance to the picture galleries, where she posed, scandal-free, for three years. “This picture caused a great deal of discussion when it was sent to the Melbourne Gallery, as to the propriety of placing it there,” remarked the Adelaide Observer rather drily in April 1884. “There can hardly be two opinions about its merit as a work of art.” In other words, what solidified in the weeklies after Federation in 1901 as somewhat self-serving caricatures of Raffish Sydney, Cultured Melbourne, and Prudish Adelaide were certainly not true in relation to the display of nearly contemporary European works of art, on the contrary.

Yet the hostile reception in Adelaide of
Sowing New Seed thirty years on was very different from that of Chloe. Towards the end of June 1914, after the painting was hung, gallery attendances soared from an average of 486 people a day to an unprecedented 5,000. According to one estimate in the Mail, by the end of the first week in July 25,000 visitors had crowded around Sowing New Seed in the previous seven days, and as many as 87,000 by the end of the third week. The painting became so notorious that is was used for advertising:
Sowing New Seed is in the Adelaide Art Gallery. Sowing New Seed, accompanied by Wallaroo-Mt. Lyall manures is the attraction in the country.
Similar ads were hurriedly assembled for Perfection Seeds of King William Street, Black’s Shoes, and this one for Blossom Tea.

In 1913, the National Gallery of Victoria’s sentimental English deathbed painting,
The Crisis by Frank Dicksee, inspired a 3000-foot motion picture melodrama by the Melbourne cinematographer W. J. Lincoln, in which the action of the film sought to flesh out a narrative context in which to place the solemn subject of the picture. Now, in Adelaide, at least three motion picture comedies focused on the juicy subject of the Art Gallery’s scandalous new painting.

The first,
Distributing Wild Oats, “a cleverly worked local satire,” played to thousands at the Empire Theatre in Grote Street on July 21 or 22, 1914. Another, Sowing New Seed, “a riot of laughs,” screened at the “Pav” in Rundle Street between the 22nd and the 24th, but was apparently closed by the police, who seized “Pav” banners—in effect copies of the painting—and temporarily closed the premises. Finally, Sowing New Seed, “taken by our own cinematographer from life,” was featured at West’s in Hindley Street at about the same time. This is as much as we know about all three. They have vanished, though some remnants may survive among the miles of un-catalogued film fragments that are today preserved in refrigerators at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

More sinister even than the closure of the “Pav,” an incident of which there is no record in the police archives, was an attack on the painting by “some person of prurient mind, or possibly of fanatical, if not criminal, tendencies, during the temporary absence of a caretaker from the bay of the Art Gallery concerned.” The vandal, who was never apprehended, defaced or “filled in” the figure of the standing nude with an “indelible aniline pencil.” When the painting was taken down to be repaired, the Board found it necessary to deny that it had invented the story in order to create a pretext for permanently removing it. After it was repaired, glazed, and returned to the gallery, the Board finally yielded to mounting political pressure, and consigned
Sowing New Seed to a basement store room.

After the Melbourne gallery finally turned it down in 1917, the painting was returned to the artist in London, and it was agreed to accept in exchange a dreary copy by Orpen of his own portrait of Marshal Foch, which today slumbers peacefully in off-site storage.
Sowing New Seed was purchased in the late twenties by the newspaper proprietor and arch-rival of Sir Keith Murdoch (the father of Rupert Murdoch), Senator R. D. Elliott of Victoria. Elliott, whom Murdoch’s newspapers never failed to refer to as “ex-Senator Elliott” brought the picture back to Melbourne, and eventually gave it to the Mildura Art Gallery in the Riverina, where it remains today.

Although in 1914 the curator of the Adelaide gallery defended Margaret Preston as best he could, the astonishing scale of the public reaction to
Sowing New Seed exasperated her. “I’m sick of South Australia,” she wrote from London. “The Board said in one letter ‘Masterpieces’ and why not a sample or example of all the latest schools? I give it up…They say Orpen has no reverence. Bosh, bosh. The trouble is that the one fine original British painter is… an Irishman. I feel ashamed and miserable at my Adelaide’s behavior—however it will do one thing, prevent my ever coming back.”

Preston’s opinion that
Sowing New Seed was rejected in Adelaide because Orpen was Irish, or because of what the picture might have to say about the political and cultural situation in Ireland was not justified. It is remarkable that within less than a year of the defining moment of Australian and New Zealand national identity (the Gallipoli landings of April 25, 1915) and barely a year or two before one of the bitterest political battles ever fought in Australia along sectarian lines—the enormous political struggle in 1916 and 1917 to resist conscription, successfully led by the young Irish catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix—the Irishness of Sowing New Seed was apparently only mentioned once in the Adelaide press: “Surely the significance of this much debated picture is purely political,” ventured ‘Commentator,’ “in that it represents the sowing of the seeds of civil war in Ireland. The nude female represents Mr. Asquith, who is now doffing the dark cloak of duplicity.”

This reference was to the Prime Minister’s 1910 election commitment to a new Home Rule Bill, which, following the Parliament Act of 1911, was much discussed and debated in the Commons in 1912 and 13, but de-railed—conveniently for its most committed opponents—by the outbreak of war in August 1914. Yet, while it is telling, this single reference among the hundreds of articles attacking
Sowing New Seed was obviously intended to parody previous attempts to interpret the subject, and did not even pretend to object to it on serious political grounds.

In fact, throughout the controversy, with that rising panic displayed by quiet institutions that suddenly find themselves at the center of an unexpected storm of adverse publicity, the Art Gallery Board sought a detailed, authoritative interpretation of the painting, or even merely a statement, from the artist. This proved to be difficult. Margaret Preston confided to Hans Heysen that she had only managed to speak to Orpen once in London “and then he was curt and abstracted but perhaps he dislikes women. He will certainly hate them after this.” Nevertheless in due course the Board finally received a letter from the artist in which he gave the following account:
The scene is Dublin Bay, painted from Howth, with Kingstown, Bray and the Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background. The figure in black represents the several heads of the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland, which board, beside their agricultural and technical duties, have control of the money for, and the management of, art in Ireland. The lady “sowing the seed” represents myself, or any other unfortunate, trying to introduce more modern movements or fresher life and thought to the schools under the board. But anything outside the conventional red tape method is not tolerated by the board. Yet “Young Ireland,” the children, receive it gladly. The lady leaning on the department’s arm is the very ordinary departmental wife, who understands nothing, but wishes to be on the safe side, and is afraid perhaps that her husband has not noticed the “sowing lady” at all. The decayed tree is the department and the single magpie is “bad luck to it.”
This was markedly different from a slightly earlier account hurriedly drafted by Margaret Preston under considerable pressure and published in large type in mid-July under the banner “Sowing New Seed, The Meaning of the Picture. Special Cablegram to the Mail”:
Mr. Orpen’s idea in Sowing New Seed is as follows: The nymph in the nude on the left-hand side of the picture represents youthful vigor sowing new ideas. The peasant in his Sunday black represents middle-aged ignorance and superstitious dislike of progress. The disinterested woman beside him is meant to depict the tendency to indolence of the Irish as a race. The naked babies represent the interest of the rising generation in the importance of new movements, and the tree is the barren tree of the past. The bird perched on its limb is ready to fly down and eat the seeds when sown, as a skeptic is ready to destroy the spirit of every new thought.
So much for the cleric, and for any suggestion of lewdness. Discussing Orpen’s own statement, the Art Gallery Board remained skeptical. According to the minutes:
The President said the letter certainly did not err on the side of excessive illumination. (Laughter.) But it was characteristic of the personality of Orpen. It was curious to notice that the master’s interpretation of his work differed from the explanations of it which had been given by writers, as much as they differed from each other. (Laughter.) The question now arose whether the letter, either in full or abridged, should be attached to the picture. In the discussion which ensued it was pointed out that Sowing New Seed was still attracting many people to the Art Gallery. (Laughter.)
His 1913 fine Self-Portrait with Sowing New Seed, now in St. Louis, demonstrates the importance Orpen attached to the picture, but also the degree to which he was prepared to play games with it. The enormously intensified coloring conveys a completely different impression from the original, and in this respect the strategy runs parallel with the games he was also prepared to play with its meanings. Much later, in 1922, recently knighted, Orpen was photographed in his studio for the Sunday Express, turning away from the painting in mock disgust. In the accompanying interview, the blasé correspondent “Bax” made it clear that Orpen saw the Adelaide episode as a joke:
“It has come back!” he declared dramatically, offering me a cigarette, indicating the whisky decanter, and shaking hands—all more or less in one motion.
“What has?” I inquired…
“My picture, my immortal masterpiece,” said Sir William. “Australia won’t keep it any longer. I am branded as immoral. I have been refused a certificate of character ‘down under.’ How have you been since I last saw you in Paris?...”
Responding to further questions, Orpen claimed that on the second day it was shown in Adelaide, the painting attracted 78,000 people, an absurd exaggeration. He also made fun of the Gallery’s effort to repair the damage done by the indelible pencil. “They gave her a new coat of paint, but I have restored her character. Such artistic taste. Terrible people, the Australians! How do you like those cigarettes?” The most interesting part of the interview, however, concerned the meaning of the subject:
“By the way,” I said, as I prepared to go, “has the picture a title?”
“Certainly,” answered Sir William. “It is called ‘Sowing the Seed.’ Don’t you think the Board of Agriculture should buy it?”
“And the meaning?” I faltered. [Elsewhere “Bax” had made it clear that he hated the picture.]
“The new Sinn Féin movement,” said the artist, becoming serious for a moment. “The girl represented the spirit of Sinn Féin in 1914, sowing the seed. You see the crop springing from it while the older ones look on.”
“And the bird chirruping on the twig…Is that De Valera?”Sir William crinkled his nose—an Irish nose, by the way—and mentioned a cigarette. “Where is the picture going?” I asked.
“It’s off to Pittsburgh,” answered Sir William, “to be exhibited there this spring. Apparently they can stand anything over there…”
Obviously from the vantage point of 1922, the Sinn Féin remark bears little or no relation to the original circumstances in which Orpen conceived the subject, yet he was happy enough to convey that very impression not merely to the readers of the Sunday Express but also to visitors to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where the title of the picture was amended to the more topical Sowing the Seed of the Irish Free State. Presumably that was part of the game.

There is a curious footnote to the story. In January 1928, Senator Elliott of Victoria sent a telegram to Orpen requesting an explanation of
Sowing New Seed. It is possible that the senator had not seen the painting for some time, and that his memory needed jogging. Orpen responded by sending a rapid pen drawing with the following notes jotted beside the relevant figures:
The explanation is simple. The picture is about new growth of culture in the arts…Scene: Dublin Bay from the Hill of Howth. Black figure represents the Board of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland. They governed art at that time. He is taking no notice of new seed being sown. This is his wife saying to him “Can’t you see what is going on?” Adult sowing the seed. Young child pointing out to his sister the golden seed falling. Is all that clear?
In his 2005 essay on “Orpen and the New Ireland,” Roy Foster rightly underlines the degree of Protestant, upper middle-class Anglo-Irish disengagement, but also the generous dash of skepticism that also characterized the artist’s handling of questions of Irish nationalism in paintings such as Sowing New Seed, and this bizarre, more complex 1916 allegory The Holy Well in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Certainly this group of paintings deserves a more measured assessment than the off-hand remark in their 2002 book Ireland’s Painters by Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin to the effect that they are “poor, but very interesting” and that “Orpen was unable to handle the complex ideas he introduced into them.” It is the artist’s very ambivalence towards the notion, for example, that the disheartened, impoverished west was the true, heroic Ireland, with its incalculably ancient Gaelic heritage, that makes them so intriguing.

In any case, while the political and social battle lines were being drawn and re-drawn along class and sectarian lines between the Catholic Irish and non-Irish Protestant camps in the distant, newly federated Australian states—and in 1901 nearly 300,000 Australians in a population of 3.7 million were actually born in Ireland, and a far greater number claimed Irish descent—the degree of ambivalence about Irishness, even the very existence of that issue, made little impact upon the reception of
Sowing New Seed.

Instead, apart from the erroneous complaints about anti-clericalism and the usual lightning rod of obscenity, the underlying anxieties appear to have related far more to the condescension obviously shown by the capital toward its imperial outpost. This, despite the best efforts of its public art gallery—which, in effect, constituted a type of miniature fusion of the South Kensington Museum and the National Gallery, transplanted into a replicant, fledgling society of largely British settlers on the other side of the globe—despite the gallery’s best efforts to reduce that psychic distance by prudent purchases of contemporary art. Not merely through young artists acting on its behalf on the spot in London, but by daring gestures such as the 10,000 pound buying spree of 1899 by which the Adelaide trustees decided to spent two fifths of the entire Elder Bequest on immediate purchases of mostly late Victorian pictures from artists living and working in London.

The irony is that that late Victorian and Edwardian colonial self-confidence and determination withered after the First World War and lay fallow through the first half of the twentieth century. By 1949, when, touring Australia, Kenneth Clark made some unflattering remarks in the local papers about recent purchases of European paintings, the trustees of the Art Galleries of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia toppled like ten-pins in his smooth and genial path, eventually seeking Clark’s services as a purchaser of pictures on their behalf in London. (Sir William Rothenstein was engaged by the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, and the arrangement proved a convenient source of extra income for other London art world figures acting on behalf of Canadian, South African, Australian and New Zealand public art galleries.)

It would be several decades before the successors of those trustees recovered full confidence in the judgment of home-grown artist-representatives at large such as the adventurous Margaret Preston, and in a few cases, amazingly, we are still waiting for that to happen. That is another story, but it demonstrates a failure of nerve that the
Sowing New Seed fiasco of 1913 did nothing to forestall.

Fortunately in this later phase, Kenneth Clark was able to “repatriate” to Australia three remarkable Tasmanian paintings by John Glover, including this one, A Corroboree of Natives near Mills’ Plains from about 1832—a scene that Glover never witnessed but reconstructed after the genocide had been accomplished, and only a handful of Tasmanian Aborigines survived in appalling conditions on Flinders Island—and to acquire respectable and entirely inoffensive nearly contemporary British pictures such as this version of Gwen John’s Convalescent subject (for 260 pounds), as well as the first painting by Lucian Freud that was ever acquired by a public art gallery, Boy with a Scarf from 1949, which Clark purchased for Adelaide at the extremely advantageous price of 75 pounds early the following year. Most unfortunately, this did not stop the trustees from emphatically turning down the opportunity to purchase for 2000 pounds in July 1949 a coastal landscape by Claude Monet that Kenneth Clark urged upon them.

In February 1916, in a rambling article about the New English Art Club, which he wrote in Bath for the
Burlington Magazine, Walter Sickert remarked upon what he regarded as the dual aspects of the ageing artistic personality. “The one is the abstraction that may be identified as the standardized ancien–jeune. This one sees in the rising tide of the young nothing but a vaguely disquieting threat which makes his life a misery. The other and saner self sees in the achievement of the rising generations the natural unfolding of seeds sown by himself, and, to that extent, an amplification of his own existence and a consolation for the fact that his personal powers must inevitably decline with time.”

Whether or not he had Orpen in mind, Sickert’s use of the language of sowing and germination, here, in relation to the New English Art Club, about which he had written regularly since its establishment in 1889, is not without parallel elsewhere in Edwardian art criticism. And
Sowing New Seed, which Sickert must have seen in London, deployed that imagery with particularly literal bluntness, and at a time when Orpen’s career was rapidly overtaking Sickert’s, and the younger artist was effortlessly claiming his place in the metropolis as the rightful heir to John Singer Sargent, and incidentally enjoying his new Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost motor car.

The reception of
Sowing New Seed in Adelaide, and its subsequent history sheds further light on the strange artistic, political and cultural synapses firing, in this instance, between distant colonial societies and the imperial capital to which all three men—the naturalized Dane, the Anglo-Irishman, and the expatriate American born in Florence—demonstrated such a powerfully localized attachment.
This paper was delivered at State of the Art: Collecting Art and National Formation, c. 1800–2000, a three-day international conference at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, on Thursday, July 19, 2007.

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