Still contemporary: Joshua McClelland Print Room.

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Title

Still contemporary: Joshua McClelland Print Room.

Author

Kelly, Philippa.

Source

Australian Print Synposium

Details

2004

Publication date

2004

Type

Conference paper

Language

English

Country of context

Australia

Full text

Still contemporary: The Joshua McClelland Print Room
By Philippa Kelly

The Joshua McClelland Print Room began when my father, Joshua McClelland, opened a small gallery in Little Collins Street, Melbourne in 1927. When he died in 1956 my mother took over the business and still runs it today, with my sister Patricia. My mother, Joan McClelland, is 90 and would be far better than I to talk today about survival except that she really does not like public speaking. I am a local and so, for today, the family spokesperson.

Amongst the good times in a story of seventy-seven years of business were the early collecting years of the National Gallery of Australia and there are many prints and paintings in the collection here that came from the Print Room. Roger Butler has of course been curator of prints since the opening of the NGA, and has had a many dialogues with the print room. He was the first to tell me that it was the oldest continuously-operated gallery in Australia, which made me a bit proud. I did work in the print room in the late fifties, organised a few satellite exhibitions and just last year catalogued the catalogues, so I was very pleased to get the chance to look back over those seventy-seven years with the major help of my mother and sister and divine what might possibly make up the survival kit of an art gallery/ print gallery.

For it must be said at the outset that the name is a bit of a misnomer. It has never exhibited solely prints. Nor has it ever been solely contemporary.

But prints were always a core part of the business and do form a sort of continuum. What is perhaps interesting then is to look at the changing taste in prints that were exhibited and, in parallel, how the gallery adapted to, followed or led such changes. I always see my mother as a person going on her idiosyncratic way, usually against the tide!

Much of the obvious art of re-arranging happened with the various moves. The gallery moved six times, dictated by the expansion and contraction of the business, landlords demanding space back and buildings being pulled down. However all the spaces have been in either Little Collins or Collins Street, and both my mother and father early on lived in flats in the area. In some ways these changes mirror the social and architectural evolution of the city of Melbourne.

My father had grown up in Flinders Street, in a large old house where the Herald and Weekly Times offices were later built. (and just up from Citylights’ Hosier Lane) He and his younger brother were thrown out of the house for raffish behaviour - not of course for skateboarding - but for racing their horses along Swanston Street. So I fondly think of him as a fine combination of rebel and aesthete.

Melbourne of the period obviously suited his spirit. Hal Porter, the writer, described it: 'Within the inner city there are still nineteenth-century cottages, terraces of attics, old warehouses, hay lofts and de-licensed pubs, all to be rented....The attics and back rooms of Little Collins Street are rented by young artists of every sort...'

In 1927 my father opened The Little Gallery, Little Collins Street behind Georges department store. Then, early in the 30s he moved to an upstairs room further down in Little Collins Street, opposite Joel’s and Decoration Auction rooms. It apparently was hugely popular with his friends in winter as it had an open fireplace and it became something of a gathering place.

I have an image of inner city Melbourne in the thirties, that is perhaps a bit romantic: poor but cosmopolitan with a lively café culture: Café Petrouchka, Fiesoli's and Ristie’s, Gino Nibbi’s famous Leonardo bookshop, Cynthia Reed’s contemporary design, and the Primrose Pottery shop which sold young potters’ work. Add a mixture of National Gallery School artists and quite a few more of those who had dropped out. The Eastern Market was just around the corner and that wonderful old Victorian warren also had flats above it. All the framing for the business went on in a workshop there.

My father’s interests were then antiquarian. The first exhibition was tantalising called rare lithographs, and we can only speculate that they were probably English and topographical.

But I recently saw, going through the print cabinets in store, a selection of what was then popular and mentally I labelled it ‘The gentlemen’s study’ because in the same cabinet I came across a photograph of my grandfather’s study at Oxford. The sort of things on the wall included: A sporting print, which might be an Alken steeplechase or a cricketer, a topographical print, a Samuel Prout lithograph. There might be a Vasari print of a Leonardo, an Arundel heliogravure, or a line engraving of a piece of classical sculpture; caricatures were popular, so a Rowlandson or a Hogarth: Rakes’ Progress, or a portrait of someone illustrious, in this case Garrick in the role of Richard III. The Sandby design for a magnificent bridge is a watercolour but suggests the sort of subject popular and the taste for the eighteenth century.

In 1936, the year my parents married, my father moved to 79 Collins Street, a long narrow street level shop, very light with a beautiful façade, where he had furniture, silver, porcelain and paintings. Next door at 81 was the downstairs, basement gallery/storeroom.

No 79 was a convenient dropping in spot for many of the Collins Street doctors, the major inhabitants of that part of town, many of them collectors. You could park at the door without trouble and there were various popular lunch places nearby and the Oriental and Occidental hotels. The Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Daryl Lindsay, would drop in, to discuss a new acquisition. So nothing much had changed, but it was definitely more upmarket.

So even in those days what was to become the print room was used as a special exhibition gallery that included prints but was not exclusively so. In the early 1950s as the bank wanted to take over the premises my father decided to sell up the antique furniture side of the business and concentrate on using the basement as a permanent gallery.

Why did he call it The Print Room? I am actually conjecturing here. In the forties and fifties I believe there was a climate of great respect for the print. There was the fabulous print room at the National Gallery of Victoria supervised by Ursula Hoff. It was the highlight of a fine arts course to have tutorials in the print room and pour over the William Blakes. There was the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society, which had been going since the early 20s. There were avid collectors who bought from my father who had their own print rooms, usually libraries come print rooms, whose evening’s entertainment would be to invite guests after dinner to look through the print cabinets, of say, early Australian historical maps and prints.

It was through these two decades that he was exhibiting such members of the Australian Painter Etchers Society as Lionel Lindsay, John Shirlow, Sydney Long, Sydney Ure Smith and Henry van Raalte. There were many others for instance Penleigh Boyd, Napier Waller.

At the same time there were exhibitions of old master prints, Edward Lear drawings, Fred McCubbin paintings, mixed exhibitions of Heidelberg School painters and younger artists such as Arthur Boyd. My parents’ links with the contemporary Angry Penguins was through the Reeds, John and Sunday, who, interestingly enough, also collected earlier painters such as Roberts and Streeton.

When my father died in 1956 my mother decided to carry on the business with prints, paintings and Chinese porcelain as the basis, which, as she explained, seemed manageable. She was greatly helped in this by several collectors who generously traded pieces through the Print Room and greatly helped in her education in this field.

Several other timely events helped my mother in those early days. A friend of hers Harry Tatlock Miller, had gone to London and was working with the Redfern Gallery and she arranged to have several exhibitions of French prints and posters. It was quite a radical departure and I remember clearly my favourite works from that first exhibition were by Maurice Esteve and Pierre Soulages.

To quote my mother again: ‘Against all this my real interest was in Australiana – the prints from the early voyages and early topographical prints. In my view the pre-eminent Australian print is not one of the early Sydney views, but the marvellous West Australian panorama ‘View of King George’s Sound’ by Robert Dale, 1834. I first saw the Dale in a private collection and wanted it passionately. Some years later I found it at an Antiquarian Book Fair for $2,000. Being a trader, I traded it on, regrettably, as it has since sold for as much as $90,000. But it has a good home in the Ballarat Art Gallery. The appeal for me was not only in the quality of the print but the fact there were aboriginal families and soldiers fraternising, there is the great variety of flora that is quite identifiable, the wonderful striped numbat dashing across the rocks.’

There was a real interest in historical prints in the sixties, seventies and eighties. There was a period of pride and confidence in our history. There was a distinctly humanist element in the collectors of those days. They were deeply interested in the early voyages and the contemporary science and the quite unsurpassed images of many of those early artists.

There was a similar resurgence of interest in Australia’s flora and fauna. At the heart of this interest in natural history would have to be the prints of John Gould. Much of the history of Australian ornithology began with John Gould who scientifically described Australian birds for the first time in the seven volume Birds of Australia published between 1840 and 1869. The wonderful illustrative plates were prepared by Gould, his wife Elizabeth, and a few by Edward Lear and others.

My mother has always had a strong interest in natural history. Her favourite is Charles Leseur who came with the French navigators whose work she finds amazingly delicate.

Some other non-print examples: Margaret Stones, the botanical artist, living in Kew Gardens for many years, asked the print room to represent her in Australia. Charles McCubbin, grandson of Frederick McCubbin and the person who designed the butterfly house at the Melbourne Zoo exhibited his butterfly paintings for several years.

The Print Room stayed at Number 81 until 1979, when Conzinc Riotinto came to the rescue and gave them the front first floor of 105 Collins Street, which they intended to demolish in due time to rebuild a high-rise tower. (I was reminded of The Empty Show talked about yesterday – this was an empty show that just happened to go on for six years…) The building was only partly occupied and they could change anything they wanted in their area. They had the Print Council of Australia in the basement, for company, a couple of other congenial tenants in the background and free parking at the back. The rent was reasonable; she had two assistants and could travel. This was when my sister Patricia joined the Print Room. It was clearly a favourite time.

It was around this time that my mother started to exhibit the group of women printmakers, who worked mainly with relief prints, (linocuts of the machine age as Stephen Coppel puts it). Her sympathy with them seems to me natural. She belonged in spirit at least to the same generation. She had an interest in international events, was curious about any major new development projects, Yallourn, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and in flying, she obtained her pilot’s licence in 1936. The very year that Margaret Preston made her woodcut The aeroplane, she would been flying her gypsy moth over Essendon paddocks. As a journalist, she would have enjoyed this print by Ethel Spowers. These printmakers also enjoyed experimenting with sporting images, or children at play. There are ‘women’s work during the war’ subjects such as Dorrit Black’s quilt makers. Jessie Macintosh’s and Dorrit Black have for me perhaps a jokey attitude to house and garden work, here spring-cleaning and the lawnmower…

My mother persuaded Helen Ogilive that there really was a market for her tiny wood engravings, which she had put away for many years, and she sold them regularly over quite a long period.

I think the Print Room from this time on was quite rare in that it alternated exhibitions of historical works with exhibitions of individual artists and then perhaps a mixture of both.

On the subject of historical prints my mother has said: ‘The Australiana market is a wayward business with highs and lows, especially lows, of varying dimensions, and I felt the need to encourage younger printmakers to exhibit, which we do, with varying success.’ (Personally, I believe there are several reasons for the lows, and its not just postcololonial theory, but that rash of bank calendars and table mats with historical views; Add to that what might be called ‘the Bicentennial overload.’)

When 105 finally came to demolition, they really wanted to stay in Collins Street and on the sunny side. 15 Collins Street was built as flats but failed to sell (people were not ready to move back into the city to live) and so metamorphosed into an office precinct. The major appeal of the second floor that they eventually took is that has a large balcony overlooking Collins Street which is great for exhibition openings.

It would be true to say that at least half of the business of the Print Room is Asian art, which includes Chinese porcelain, Japanese lacquer and Japanese woodblock prints and recently South East Asian textiles. The first separate exhibition next door at 81 Collins Street was a very good collection of early Chinese porcelain collected by Captain Layton, captain of a riverboat on the Yangtse when excavations for airfields due to the Japanese invasion, brought up quite a lot of treasures. I grew up with Japanese prints and I particularly love the classical early ukioy-e. My mother recalls an exhibition of Japanese prints ‘which sold out immediately due to a member of the Japanese consulate who took the red stickers and placed them firmly on 25 prints in the first five minutes causing a rush by other collectors.’ A recent exhibition did not sell at all well, suggesting that public interest is waning. So even if you believe some work is exquisite, interesting and valuable, sometimes the market inexplicably drops away. Another Asian print show was one of Chinese folk art woodblocks and paper cutouts that I had collected in Hong Kong in the seventies (held in Hobart),They were very popular. Recently my mother was particularly pleased to have the work of a young Pakistani girl, Nusra Latif Qureshi, now resident in Australia, who has been studying the work of the Indian miniature painters and adapting her own style to these colourful images who is currently being exhibited at Smith College in the USA.

Some contemporary printmakers the Print room has sold or exhibited recently are: Aileen Brown, Tim Winters, John Scurry Jeffrey Smart, John Brack, Marc Jurt (of Switzerland) (now with Marc Jurt Foundation encouraging young artists), Angela Newberry, Fred Williams, George Baldessin. Patsy Payne and Rosalind Atkins might be the only ones in the audience today…. Since exhibiting John Scurry (head of the Print Department of the Victorian College of the Arts) there have been a new generation of student printmakers bringing their work into the print room, and this is exciting. The current exhibition is Drawings by Janet Dawson.

Can you make a living with a print gallery? I think the answer might be: If you are eclectic, flexible, explore new avenues, (this month the Print Room goes to the Affordable Art show in the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne, this is a first) and have other work. As my mother says:

To quote my mother again: ‘It is probably true that we would not have survived if we had dealt only in prints. Every now and then an important painting, or a fine piece of Chinese porcelain would make a difference. Tom Roberts’ Coming South, and Russell Drysdale’s Maria are works that saved the day.’ (It was not always the case. This Glover, The Bath of Diana, did not sell and was returned to its owners. Wouldn’t it be good to have that back again.)

But both my father and my mother have done work outside the gallery. Throughout the thirties my father wrote a weekly column for The Argus, titled Treasures of the National Gallery, each about a particular object in the collection of the NGV. He continued this on into the 1940s (1940 at least) with The Herald. He wrote another column for The Argus, twice monthly, called Art and Antiques, local and international art news. 1935 – 37. Another column was called Art in the Saleroom which ran from 1933 to 1934).

He also catalogued a number of large collections such as the Keith Murdoch Collection.

In the late 60s my mother was asked to be Christies’ of London fires representative in Melbourne. Her first job was to get paintings in for an auction to be held in Sydney in 1969. She organised auctions for several years but as the work increased and storage diminished she decided it best to concentrate on the Print Room and Christies’ found a space further down Collins Street.

Another important source of income is doing valuations for insurance – some of these are large, such as the complete University of Melbourne Print collection, or for the cultural gifts program valuing work gifted to public institutions under the tax incentives scheme. She and my sister also advise collectors and bid for them at auction.

My mother told me two interesting things at separate times. ‘I have always wanted a small gallery with a small number of quite beautiful works.’ The other is not quite the same. ‘The London gallery I would like to be equated with is the Fine Art Society in Bond Street, which has an interesting and varied stock of minor art works, always with something unexpected and surprising.’ I think she has managed to do both and maybe that’s her secret.

A few years after taking over the business, my mother heard that ‘The trade’ had given her six months before folding. It’s coming up for forty-eight years, so there must be something to the Joshua McClelland Print Room’s particular art of rearrangement.


© Philippa Kelly, 2004
Paper presented at The Fifth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2004