Prints at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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Prints at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


Vernon, Kay.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Kay Vernon: I should say at the outset that I’m a bit of a ring–in here

Prints at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

by Kay Vernon



I should say at the outset that I’m a bit of a ring-in here. Nicholas Draffin was, of course, asked to give this talk originally and he couldn’t make it, so then they asked Henry Kollenberg, who’s the new Curator of Australian Prints, Drawings and Watercolours at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and he couldn’t make it either. So, in desperation they turned to me, and here I am.

I should also add that since I’ve been in Prints and Drawings at New South Wales for the past eighteen months, the presence of Daniel Thomas has always been there looking over my shoulder. Every second catalogue card that I go through has Daniel’s annotations scrawled all over it in his unmistakable hand, so it was with some trepidation that I agreed to give this talk on early print purchasing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as it’s a subject that Daniel knows much more about than I do. In fact he has, inevitably, covered some of the ground already this morning in his usual erudite way.

The period I’m going to cover, the first 61 years of print purchasing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales may, on the face of it, seem rather too ambitious to cram into the 15 or 20 minutes allotted, but I thought that it might be interesting to cover, albeit very briefly, what I believe to be the main tendencies in the rather haphazard formation of the print collection.

These four main tendencies and the dates they were introduced were: reproductive prints from 1874-76, contemporary overseas, specifically British prints from 1898, contemporary Australian prints from 1911-12, and old master prints from 1937.

The beginnings of the Art Gallery of New South Wales were inseparable from the New South Wales Academy of Art, which was founded in 1871. In 1874, the Government voted £500 towards the formation of a gallery of art, and it was decided that the money be put in the hands of trustees which would appoint a committee of selection in London, the trustees to have liberty to invest some portion of the amount in the Colony, should it be deemed advisable.

Five trustees were appointed, all of course from the Academy of Art, and in 1876 the Gallery was properly established with the formal appointment of trustees, and the official opening was in September 1880.

So, that was really the unofficial policy that governed the acquisition of works at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for many years. Very early on there was a decision not to purchase reproductions of old masters. Priority was given to the purchase of modern overseas work, mostly British of course, and local work was purchased when it was considered of sufficient quality.

The first work that came into the collection, in fact, was a watercolour by Conrad Martins, Apsley Falls, commissioned by the trustees in 1874. There was an early emphasis on the purchase of colonial watercolours but this was probably due more to the small amount at their disposal, and a burning desire on the part of the trustees to support local art.

I think I should explain at this point, although Daniel’s already covered some of this ground, that for many years the trustees not only chose the works that came into the collection, but they also administered the Gallery as well, and there were no professional curators in those days, as Daniel has already pointed out.

The Gallery’s selection committee in London – note that it was, of course, specifically London – were Nicholas Chevalier and Colin Smith, who were directed by the trustees in 1877 to spend £800 on two works which were not to be historical or sculptural subjects.

They were to restrict their selection to the English School. They were to choose figurative works or figures combined with landscape and they were to select works for their finish and quality, rather than size. These instructions may have been related to the fact that the major purchase during the previous year was Ford Madox Brown’s Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. So, it’s obvious that the acquisition of prints didn’t enter the consideration of the trustees in those early days, and when the Gallery opened in 1880 a summary of works in the collection was prepared by the trustees.

I’ll just list some of them. Under the heading ‘Acquisitions’ there were 44 oil paintings, 33 watercolour drawings, 13 sketches from The graphic magazine, one fusain drawing.

One proof engraving et cetera. That was ‘Reproductive’.

Under the heading ‘Presentations’, prints fared a little better. There were 20 engravings from etchings by James Barry, presented by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, London, one proof engraving by Dore, three sketches from The graphic, and two oil paintings. There were two frames of etchings and another proof engraving by Dore on loan.

Well, if this was a pretty dismal representation of prints, the situation over the next 18 years didn’t improve much. One of the problems I had preparing this paper was trying to decipher the excruciating records of purchases from the Board minutes, the only consistently documented source of acquisition information until the 1930s.

Very often no medium is given, or it’s wrong anyway. There’s often no artist or title. So, given the difficulties of actually identifying the material, it would appear that for the first few years, the comparatively few print purchases that were made were practically all reproductive. In fact, the first print that came into the collection appears to be an engraving after Dobson’s Peace be to this house, purchased for seven guineas.

As for the rest, there were two after–Leighton paintings, and one after- de Neuville’s Rourke’s Drift, the most popular painting in the collection, a Dore engraving after Bourne, an etching after Brali, an engraving after Holman Hunt and, of course, several relating to Queen Victoria.

The Queen receiving the Holy Sacrament at the Coronation. Her Majesty in early life and Prince Albert. Both of these were engraved after Vinterhalder.

And, the inevitable engravings after Lancier, H.M. in Windsor Forest, and H.M. at Osbourne.

I might add that most of these works have since disappeared from the collection. They were transferred either to the State Education Department or to Vaucluse House, or they have vanished without trace.

So, why the emphasis on reproductive prints, and mostly reproductions of Victorian paintings at that? As with most things colonial we probably have to look to Britain to supply us with some of the answers. In nineteenth century Britain there was a growing interest in art on the part of the rapidly growing and increasing bourgeoisie. Moreover, the tastes of the new middle and artisan classes were more inclined towards modern British art, particularly subjects that were in some way related to life as they experienced it. Their interest in art was fostered by the cheap illustrated periodicals and manuals that were so prolific in the nineteenth century, by the growth of art institutes, exhibitions and art unions, as well as by that apogee of mass instruction in the fine and decorative arts, the Great Exhibition of 1851.

All this, of course, led to a great surge in the popularity of the reproductive print after modern British paintings, for the decoration of the houses by the bourgeoisie.

Much of this applied also to the colonies, where attitudes of the bourgeoisie were naturally deeply rooted in the prevailing attitudes of their class in the mother country. Some of the trustees of the Art Gallery thought that its main objective was an educative one, and reproductive prints of the sort that found their way into the Gallery would certainly have had a role to play in this.

As one of the founding trustees, Edward Combe, who incidentally was an amateur artist, wrote and I quote:

The more cultivated a person becomes, the more he enjoys the landscape and the more skill he acquires in the imitation of nature, the more exquisite is his enjoyment of it’s beauties. Wherever skill has been attained, it necessarily follows that a discipline of both hand and heart has been necessary; that passions have been brought under subjection, and that in all probability the successful art student becomes not only distinguished and able, but a better man and citizen.

The catalogues of the art sections of the International Art Exhibition in Sydney in 1879, and the one in Melbourne in 1888 revealed the dominance of the reproductive prints in all the exhibits. So, given all that it was inevitable in those early days, with the emphasis on acquiring early British work, that some reproductions after famous paintings would find their way into the collection. Even so, the number of reproductive prints actually purchased by the trustees in those early days was slim indeed, and perhaps one could fantasise that it indicated some distaste on their part for such material.

It may seem strange that one of the founding trustees, Eliezer Montefiore, who was an amateur etcher of some distinction, should not have exerted some influence towards the purchase of original prints, or even for that matter Nicholas Chevalier in London, who was a lithographer as well as a painter.

But the purchase of overseas work was certainly confined to high status Victorian paintings. Prints would not have been considered unless they were high quality reproductions of the famous paintings, and contemporary British ones at that. As far as original printmaking in Australia was concerned there was very little of it anyway during the first years of the Gallery’s existence, but there was a great number of excellent reproductive prints produced for nineteenth–century Australian or colonial viewbooks and journals.

Of course, this material is coveted today by curators in Australian galleries but in the early days of the 1880s and 1870s it probably would have been deemed to be more suitable for a library than an art gallery.

Then in 1898, in an astonishing outburst of creative purchasing, the trustees acquired a group of 13 original etchings, mostly by artists associated with the etching revival in Britain, such as Whistler, Strang, Frank Short, D.Y. Cameron. Whistler was represented by five etchings, Limehouse the most expensive at £8.15, Street at Saverne from the French set of 1858. Bibie Lalouette of 1859, Hurlingham, and The little master of Venice of 1856.

D.Y. Cameron was represented by three etchings, Strang, Watson, Short and Willey all by one. Tissot’s The immigrants of 1880 was also purchased.

And, before attempting to subscribe to the trustees a blinding flash of recognition of the true merits of the etching revival, it was actually at the instigation of the print–sellers Robertson and Moffat in Melbourne that these prints were sent to Sydney for inspection by the trustees. But it is also true to say that they may have been already favourably disposed towards the purchase of original prints.

The etching revival in Britain had begun to take off in the 1850s and 1860s, and was popularised through some of the art magazines that would have been read by interested persons in the colonies and, again, there was the collection of important etchings by Whistler, Meryon and Haden et al, which were purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1891, and the influence of these prints on artists like Lionel Lindsay certainly had an impact in Sydney.

All these factors would have contributed towards an interest in the etching revival overseas but what about Australian etching? Livingston Hopkins, who was regarded as the father of Australian etching, came to Australia in 1883 and taught etching to a number of Australian artists including Julian Ashton, who had begun making etchings in 1983.

So, by the time of Ashton’s appointment as a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1898, etching in Australia was still in its early stages and probably not visible enough to force it’s acceptance upon the trustees.

Selective purchasing of etchings by artists associated with the etching revival took place over the next few years. More Whistlers, Camerons, Shorts, Hadens, Macbeths, all purchased from Robertson and Moffat in Melbourne.

But it was inevitable, with the colonial necks of the trustees firmly craned in the direction of the mother country that they purchased nothing to indicate that the origins of the etching revival were really in France, not in Britain. There was nothing by Merian, Manet, Pisarro, or Degas, for example.

The lithography revival of the 1870s in France, with its creative and colourful efflorescence in the 1890s was, of course, totally ignored by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

So, having succumbed to the purchase of original prints in 1878 the trustees must have lost their collective nerve, because after 1903 there is a lull in the purchase of original prints and reproductive prints start to dominate the proceedings again.

Two engravings after Edward Long, purchased in 1901 for £20.

Ten Arundel Society reproductions were purchased in 1903, which indicated a shift in the original decision not to buy reproductions of old masters. Engravings after Leighton, Holman Hunt and Herkomer were all purchased between 1903 and 1909.

In 1910, the Vasari Society and Medici Society reproductions of old masters were brought into the Collection through gift and purchase, as were four engravings after Raphael.

In 1903, 17 chromolithographs were purchased, but no artists or titles were given for these.

So, between 1901 and 1910 very few original prints were purchased, but why this should have been the case is difficult to discover. And, apart from etching by Hall Thorpe; Synagogue, purchased in 1900, and etchings by the trustee, Eliezer Montefiore, which were given to the Gallery, there were probably no Australian prints in the collection although, as I said before, the uncertainty of many of the entries makes this impossible to assess accurately.

Julian Ashton’s appointment to the Board of Trustees in 1889, that being the direct result of political agitation on the part of the Art Society of New South Wales, of which he had been vice–president, local artists were concerned that the art gallery was neglecting local work in favour of overseas work. Naturally, they wanted a bigger slice of the cake. It was Ashton’s role to convince the trustees of this.

In fact, much of the credit for the early purchasing of the Heidelberg School by the Art Gallery of New South Wales can be given to Ashton’s vigorous campaigning for Australian art. For example, Streeton’s Still glides the stream was purchased in 1890, the year after Ashton became a trustee.

So, the climate was obviously favourable to the purchase of Australian art, and the burgeoning of etching that took place in Australia after the turn of the century, as well as the formation of the Society of Artists in Sydney in 1907, which included etchings in their exhibitions, eventually led to the acceptance of Australian prints by the trustees, and in 1911 and 1912 the first significant purchases of Australian prints were made, five etchings of Old Sydney by Lionel Lindsay and two by Alfred Coffey, and two etchings by Bruce Robertson of European scenes for the remarkable sum of ten guineas each.

After this initial acceptance of Australian prints there was a steady stream of Australian etchings into the Collection, which soon turned into a flood dominated by the Sydney urban scenes of Lionel Lindsay and Sydney Ure Smith, with Alfred Coffey following not too far behind as well as Julian Ashton, Sydney Long, Arthur Fulwood, Edith Grüner, Livingston Hopkins, and the first etching by a woman to come into the collection, Jesse Traill’s Tea–tree frieze purchased in 1920.

The formation of the Painter Etchers Society in 1920, and a growing number of exhibition outlets ensured the continuation of this abundance of etching purchases by the Gallery, and the Board minutes list numerous etchings by all those artists that I’ve already mentioned and more, with the exception of Jesse Traill, nearly all of them purchased from the Painter–Etchers Society exhibitions.

The appointment of Lionel Lindsay as a trustee in 1918, and Sydney Ure Smith in 1927 obviously helped to ensure the maximum representation in the collection of prints by local artists. It was mainly local art that the trustees were interested in. Very few prints by Australian artists outside New South Wales found their way into the collection.

Australian etching, particularly etching by local artists, certainly dominated print acquisitions between the years 1911 and 1936, but there were ongoing purchases of work by contemporary overseas artists. In 1915, two lithographs by the American artist Joseph Pernell were purchased, and there was the inevitable steady but persistent trickle into the collection of British artists associated with the etching revival; Frank Brangwen, Strang, Short, Martin Hardy, Edmund Blampied, Seymour Haden, F.L. Griggs et al.

Muirhead Bone’s Justiciary buildings, Glasgow, was purchased for 42 guineas, but there were still no major modern European print–makers represented in the Collection, apart from the limited selection already mentioned. No etchings still by Millet, Manet, Pisarro, Degas, Munch et cetera. The list of omissions is endless.

The failure of the trustees to consider art made outside Britain as worthy of consideration was a feature of the Gallery’s purchasing, generally. Indeed, in 1911 D.S. McCole, who was some sort of representative in London for the Gallery, wrote to the trustees lamenting the poor quality of the works in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the lack of masters such as Monet, Degas, and Manet which he said could have been obtained cheaply when the Gallery had the money.

But what of Australian relief prints of the 1920s and 1930s? Sydney etching was very well represented in the collection, but relief prints were noticeable by their absence. Two wood engravings by Lionel Lindsay came into the collection in 1922, although as a gift, not a purchase. Three woodcuts by Napier Waller were purchased in 1923, and Margaret Preston’s Wheel flower was purchased in 1929.

But, despite the boom in relief prints in Sydney in the late 1920s and 1930s, the trustees were obviously not interested. In 1923, Tyrells in Sydney held an exhibition devoted exclusively to relief prints by Lionel Lindsay, Napier Waller, Roy Davies and Margaret Preston amongst others. This exhibition, as well as the promotion of the medium by Lionel Lindsay and Sydney Ure Smith through Art in Australia, contributed greatly to its popularity in Sydney.

It’s strange, then, that with both Lindsay and Ure Smith as trustees the Gallery did not purchase heavily in this area. Wood engravings by Lionel Lindsay continued to be purchased while Lindsay was a trustee, but not much else. Part of the reason for this could have been the fact that a great deal of relief printing during that period was associated with modernism, as in the woodcuts of Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Adelaide Perry for example.

The fact that they were women would also have militated against their acceptance by the trustees. The enormous number of etchings, both British and Australian that had been pouring into the collection reflected a conservative bias, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. It was probably largely for this reason that they were so readily accepted by the trustees. Modernism was a completely different matter altogether.

The continuing purchases of Lionel Lindsay’s conservative relief prints and the omission of more adventurous work was testament to this. The first old master prints to come into the collection were quite isolated examples. Two engravings by Dürer were purchased in 1928, and the first Rembrandt in 1933.

And then, in 1937, the trustees purchased a collection of prints through Harold Wright of Colnagis in London and this signalled a major shift in the Gallery’s policy of buying only contemporary original work. Amongst the 44 prints and six drawings purchased there was an engraving by Breugel, etchings by Callow, Canaletto, Van Dyke, Holler, Rembrandt, Tiepolo and Goya, as well as other sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch and French artists.

But, by far the biggest representation of all in this collection was of British etching revival artists. Muirhead Bone, Francis Dodd, Alphonse LeGros, James Bay, Whistler, and one French, Fĕlix Braquemond. More Harold Wright purchases followed in 1941.

Although this was, in some ways, a promising beginning to widening the parameters governing the collection, it can also be seen as a slightly retrograde step, a strengthening of traditional values in art which would have bolstered the already conservative bias in the print collection.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that in 1937, the year these old master prints came into the collection, and with a vast amount of original material already in the collection, that the Gallery’s Annual Report for that year should state, under the heading ‘Print Room’, and I quote: ‘Early in the year a portion of the basement previously used to store paints was equipped with artificial light and converted into a print room. This has proved a great attraction to students and art lovers and contains some particularly fine reproductions made by the following well–known firms; Piper, Brown, Arundel, Vasari and Medici.

Thank you.


© Kay Vernon, 1989.
Paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.