Australian prints - making a national collection.

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Australian prints - making a national collection.


Butler, Roger.


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



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Roger Butler: Just something to look at for the moment

Australian Print - making, a national collection.
by Roger Butler


I’ve called this Australian Printmaking, a national collection. Very short. Let me say right at the very beginning of this talk that I consider myself incredibly lucky to be working at the Australian National Gallery.

There’s very few galleries in Australia that have such a broad collecting policy and this is directly the result of the Director here, James Mollison. It’s his support of works of art on paper particularly which has been absolutely exemplary, and this support goes whether it be photographs, whether it be drawings, or whether it be prints.

His interest in printmaking goes back a long time. We’ve already heard that he haunted the Print Room at the National Gallery of Victoria but not many people know that he actually produced etchings as well. He was quite a good etcher. He actually sometimes says now ‘Oh. That looks interesting on the wall but gee, the things I did were as good as that.’ Not that he’s let any into the Collection yet. We’ll have to twist his arm enough for it.

There was also his friendship with Fred Williams, of course, a very long friendship, and it did result in the first modern–day catalogue raisonné of an Australian print artist, a very important achievement and a change in direction for Australian print–making. It was a sense of professionalism that started to emerge with those sorts of books coming out.

And of course a bit later on his practical support in the terms of Gallery A and Gallery A Print Workshop, where lithographs were printed under the care of Janet Dawson. James’ interest in printmaking, works of art on paper as well, is reflected in the whole policy of this gallery, reflected in the staffing of the Gallery. In Australian Art there’s curators for photography, there’s curators for prints, there’s curators for drawing.

Even after 200 years of European settlement in Australia this is the only gallery in Australia that considers Australian printmaking important enough to actually have a Curator of Australian Prints.

What we’ve got here is a National Gallery. I mean, we did have the National Gallery of New South Wales. That was its original title before the ‘national’ part was got rid of, by Daniel [Thomas], maybe, and there was also the National Gallery of Victoria, still is the National Gallery of Victoria. But these are very different concepts to a national gallery like the ANG.

The Australian National Gallery’s not been confined by any barriers; any artificial State barriers, or biases for that matter. It’s very easy for someone in Melbourne to forget, and I was in Melbourne, that’s where I came from. I knew the work of Ethel Spowers, which is on your left, but I certainly didn’t know at that time the work of Webb, working in Western Australia but doing very similar things at similar times. And this is the, sort of, only place in Western Australia you can actually get a sense of all those different things that were happening, and we’re now trying to collect across those time boundaries, those space boundaries that are so artificial.

The ANG is an incredibly young gallery. We really didn’t start collecting seriously until the 1970s. This means, of course, that if we’re going to have a representative collection we’ve got a tremendous amount of back–buying to do, a huge amount.

The bulk of the collection of Australian prints, and there’s about 14,000 individual Australian prints now, and there’s also a large collection of posters and illustrated books, which mainly dates from post–1880.

The early work; early colonial work is mainly taken care of by the National Library, particularly the Nan Kivell Collection. That’s interesting. That collection of historical prints was originally meant to go to a future national gallery, but possession is nine tenths of the law and it remains there at present. It’s very close and yet it would be very good if it were housed in the Australian National Gallery as well.

This very late start has got advantages. It means that we’ve been able to look afresh at the whole history of Australian printmaking. If we haven’t got a collection in the first place we don’t have to try to fill in gaps. We’ve just got one big gap. We started in looking in all directions at once.

Jesse Trail’s been brought up more than once today. Jesse Traill on your right, and Lionel Lindsay on your left. Everybody knows the work of Lionel Lindsay. In Art in Australia he gets hundreds of illustrations. Every collection in Australia, I should imagine, has Lionel Lindsay but very, very few galleries collected Jesse Traill when she was producing her prints, which were [at] exactly the same time as Lionel Lindsay. In fact, she started producing prints in 1904 and kept on working up until the 1950s.

Very few galleries purchased work, and Trail was so put off by the galleries that when she finally died she left her work to the Mitchell Library and the Latrobe Library, thinking that they were far more likely to take care of her prints than any of the galleries that were collecting at that time. It’s a very sad thing to think, that these works escaped the galleries at the time.

One could catalogue a whole range of printed images which are rarely seen in galleries, or rarely put on gallery walls in Australia, and yet they’re very much part of our printing tradition; printed images. These two wonderful trade cards for printers in Australia, Moffat on one side and Wilson on the other, (who) were both working in the 1830s in Sydney. But that elegant engraving; it’s an eighteenth–century tradition, but such a great belief in the power of the printed image that they were putting forward (in) these little tiny trade cards. They were trade cards that they would give out.

One completely forgets that there’s a very strong nineteenth–century portrait tradition in Australia. People have become inclined to think that once the camera was imported to Australia, which was very, very early (in the) 1840s, that portraits in print–making ceased to exist.

Here are just two examples, one by Nicholas in 1842, and the other one is by Schoenberg, of Ludwig Becker, which was presented to members of the German Society after Becker died.

Newspaper illustrations. It made up a huge bulk of the engraver’s art in the 1870s and 1880s. The first supplements to illustrate a newspaper appeared in the 1870s in Australia and they were one of the major parts of engraver’s work. These engravers quite often were the originators of the designs.

In this case we’ve got Calvert engraving both of these.

Posters. People forget that the poster tradition in Australia was very quick to arrive here. We had direct responses. People like Blamire Young actually worked with the Beggarstaff brothers in London, in the 1890s. That’s a Blamire Young book cover of Albert McDonald, who rode from Darwin to Adelaide in 1898, but you can see that’s firmly in the English tradition.

On the other side we’ve got a Ruby Lind, a poster. Again, a very decorative work. But again, we don’t realise that European works did come out here very quickly. In 1898 in Sydney there was an exhibition of posters, which included work by Joseph Christian Leyendecker, who was an American poster artist, as well as some of the English greats as well. In Australia, they were actually owned by Australian artists who had brought them back with them.

Political posters. Of course, we know the 1970s. I’m not going to mention those, but even the 1930s; we think about the Depression era and we think of Noel Coonihan. We think of the limited edition prints of the 1930s, but how often do we start thinking of the hundreds and hundreds of prints which were reproduced by people like the Workers Art Clubs, for rather ephemeral publications like Proletariat, which was [published by] Melbourne University, and The stream which ran for just three issues in the 1930s.

I shan’t go on, but I urge you to go and have a look at the exhibition upstairs, just to actually see the richness of the Australian printmaking heritage. It should be obvious, in looking at that collection, that I am very interested in contemporary problems; things like gender balance in our Collection, things like politics, things like prints by Aboriginals, things like prints by migrants, other minority groups.

These are things that have to be searched out, not necessarily that land on your doorstep. And they are things that are not just happening now. I mean, we think about Aboriginal prints in the last couple of years, but they were happening in the 1970s. We think about the interest in multiculturalism now, but we fail to think about Henry Salkauskas doing prints in Canberra in 1950, when he was working in the stone quarries in Canberra. There was an exhibition in Canberra in 1952 called An exhibition of new Australians’ art work, and he exhibited prints in that.

Also, one of the things that comes across, I think, in the exhibition is that I’ve tried to present that the history of art is not just the heroic march of individuals across the years, but it’s themes which quite often make the individuals. It’s the times that [makes] the individuals.

It’s one thing to form a vast national collection, but how does the Gallery make this national collection available to the nation? Australian prints are normally displayed in the Australian Galleries, alongside drawings, photographs, decorative arts, paintings, sculpture. It’s a complete cultural unity.

It was a decision not to have an Australian Print Gallery. If prints are to be considered seriously as works of art, and this is one of the things that some of the speakers have talked about yesterday, they must be considered alongside other works of art, must be seen in relation to other works of art, and this is something that rarely happens in Australian galleries. It’s happening a lot more overseas.

Quite often prints are hidden away in inconspicuous ‘print rooms’, out of the way places, and become more like glorified stamp collections than actually having any relevance to the rest of the collection. And, of course, it should be remembered that artists themselves very, very rarely are just single–media people. It seems to me quite ludicrous to have Margaret Preston’s paintings on one floor, her pots on a second floor or third floor, and her prints in a ‘print room’.

These were all the products of one artist, and she considered them very much as a unified production. But, in saying this, I do realise that prints have very, very special needs. Conservation needs are the ones most frequently cited. They can’t just be left up indefinitely. They can’t have a huge amount of light et cetera and, of course, the ANG does put on exhibitions, Australian print exhibitions.

There is a tradition, a very strong tradition in Australian prints, which needs these sorts of exhibitions to get them across, and I think this is what’s happening upstairs at the moment. For the first time, I think, you can see some of those long-term themes, which start in the 1820s and are still going in the 1980s. Exhibitions like the Margaret Preston touring exhibition - these are a couple of Margaret Preston prints here - they are touring nationally, and do get those prints across.

Of course another aspect of print collection is the publication of works on that collection, and the Margaret Preston catalogue is the Australian National Gallery’s first try at a very detailed catalogue of one artist in the Print Collection.

The Australian Print Collection is also a resource collection. It’s been designed as a resource collection. It’s silly for every gallery in Australia to have the same prints. It’s a waste of money. State galleries could very profitably represent the art of their own State in great detail but not need to have prints from everywhere like a national gallery should.

Our holdings of, for instance, George Baldessin are very strong. There are about 300 prints by Baldessin in the Collection, and so (with) an exhibition like the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition of Baldessin a few years ago, of course many of the items came from this collection.

This is how the National Collection should work. It shouldn’t just be contemporary prints either. When the Grüner exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was on, a couple of years ago, again we supplied the etchings for that exhibition. It’ll happen in other exhibitions too. Queensland is now working on a Jessie Traill exhibition and there’s also going to be a Bea Maddock exhibition where, again, we hold the major collections of those artists.

Of course, the great question about this is how is it all funded? People are inclined to think that the National Gallery has huge amounts of money to spend. It’s just not true, not true in Australian print areas in any case. In the past, the Australian Print Collection has been funded by government funds but in the last two years we’ve had no government appropriation funds whatsoever. The only money Australian Prints gets is from door takings, and that’s only - this has happened for the last two years - it’s only door takings and it’s only a percentage of those door takings, which is quite small.

That money’s being used to buy historical works and, as you no doubt know, [to try] to buy nineteenth century works. For instance, there’s a copy of Lysett’s Views for sale in Sydney at the moment, which is $52,000. That would be twice my budget, at least.

The prints of contemporary artists are being funded privately. We’ve got a very generous donation from our ex–Chairman of the Council of the Australian National Gallery, Gordon Darling, who’s given a capital fund we get interest from, and that will supply us with enough money to purchase contemporary works. It is indeed a very, very generous gift.

But over 40% of all acquisitions of the Australian National Gallery in Australian Prints actually come as gifts. Sometimes these are gifts from collectors. We had a collection of 850 Lionel Lindsay prints given to us, for instance. Sometimes they come from the artists’ families, after they have died. The family has realised that these works need to be preserved in a national institution, and they quite often come here.

However, a huge amount of the gifts of Australian prints come from artists themselves. It is their good will towards the gallery and their belief that a national collection is actually desirable, and also achievable, that counts the most.

I’ll just leave you with the thought that a great deal has been done, but there is still a huge amount to be achieved.


© Roger Butler, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.