Prints at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
Prints at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
SourceAustralian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.
Country of context
Prints at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
by Ron Radford
It is frustrating, and indeed depressing, for any very young curator or regional director to face a financial year with no acquisition funds. For that matter, it’s still depressing for aging curators and directors. That was the situation [in] which I found myself at the beginning of 1973. I had become Director of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, the oldest, largest, and one of the poorest of the regional galleries in Australia.
I’d hoped to be able to add to the Victorian English collection of paintings, particularly landscapes, [of] which the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery had a very good collection, but my knowledge of prices was 18 months too old and 18 months too late.
In that time prices [for] Victoriana, which had been so low for so long, had begun to soar. I had especially hoped to add to the collection of colonial paintings and drawings, particularly the early colonial period, pre–1850, but also the 1930s and the 1940s because these periods, I perceived, were the weaknesses in the Gallery’s otherwise fine collection of Australian painting and drawing.
But that year, 1973, record prices were fetched for colonial art, and the 1940s had been expensive for a very long time. It seemed at the time, but I was wrong, that I could not contribute in any way to Ballarat’s highly distinguished collection. Then I hit on the idea of creating a unique, comprehensive collection of the history of Australian printmaking.
I’d always been interested in prints and, apart from the prints of Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor, which were always expensive, it was a very economical way to build a fine collection. Prints by distinguished printmakers of the past, like Ethel Spowers, Napier Waller, Lionel Lindsay, Helen Ogilvie, could then be purchased for about $20 each.
The Ballarat Gallery already owned an interesting, but then unused, collection of early Australian books. Early Australiana, illustrated with original engravings and lithographs, some hand–coloured, some depicting the first European glimpses of Australia and its original inhabitants, its flora and its fauna. Many of those individual images are in this particular exhibition. These valuable books form part of the generous Curry bequest, which came to the Gallery in the 1940s.
The Gallery had become renowned for its large Lindsayana collection. I used to call it the ‘Lindsay Mania’ Collection. [It] was made possible through the large bequest of money during the 1960s by Mary Lindsay, sister to the Lindsay artists. As is well known, the prints of Lionel and Norman Lindsay are [of] central importance to the history of Australian printmaking.
Through the 1920s and 1930s the Gallery had acquired many works, many prints, many of them gifts by the artists themselves, van Realte, Victor Cobb, Napier Waller, John Shirlow, Harold Herbert and others.
In the mid–1960s the M.V. Anderson Bequest added other significant prints, especially etchings of this period. From about 1969, the Gallery began to acquire a fair number of fairly contemporary prints, and purchased some earlier prints by Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor. Furthermore, to complement this possibly balanced collection of Australian prints, the Gallery owned a small collection of European prints, particularly English from the eighteenth century, including Hogarth, Gilray, Turner, Whistler, Harding and Proctor, about 200 works in all. This could have been used for good comparison material.
All this seemed to be a very sound basis on which to build, at very little cost, a fairly complete record of the prints of this country. A print acquisition policy and shopping list was duly formulated and accepted by the Council of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery Association in May 1974, just over a year after I became Director.
With the help of numerous donors from Ballarat and outside Ballarat, including artists and also the Caltex Oil Company, the collection of Australian prints grew rapidly. By mid-1976, when the Gallery staged the first survey of Australian prints, the real predecessor of this current excellent show we see here in Canberra, the Gallery had acquired an additional 250 prints.
This 1976 survey entitled Outlines of Australian printmaking, including 300 prints from the early colonial period to the mid–1970s took up the then four ground–floor galleries of the building. The display and catalogue were divided into four sections; a room with partitions for each section.
They were: prints from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, etchings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, woodcuts and linocuts mainly of the 1920s and 1930s and contemporary prints of the 1950s to the 1970s.
Visitors were supplied separately with sheets explaining the different media and techniques. The display of 200 years of Australian prints was quite a revelation to all those who viewed it. Who would have thought that prints about Australia and prints made in Australia were often of such high quality, and looked so handsome and meaningful together? Who would have seen any continuation in the tradition, before laid out in such a large show?
Thirteen years later, I still feel proud of that exhibition. The illustrated catalogue, which by the mid-1970s standards of exhibition catalogues was elaborate and included much new material, was the first attempt to write the history of Australian print–making. However, I’m not so proud of that catalogue now. Much new information, including some of my own research, has superseded it by now, and most valuable has been the research done in this field by Roger Butler, of the Australian National Gallery.
My trustees of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery were pleased with the show, as they could now clearly see where the Collection had been going. They had had their doubts as I confronted them, month after month, with scores of what, to them, were unknown and obscure works of printmakers. They become, however, a little more reluctant when I informed them immediately after this exhibition that the exhibition was not the climax of our spending on prints, but instead merely the public announcement of our print acquisition policy; that now the really comprehensive collecting would begin.
They were, obviously, very suspicious because the large exhibitions displayed less than a quarter of the collection, and that did not include the numerous individual prints in the Australiana books.
As I mentioned, prints up to that time were very cheap by anyone’s standards. It was fun finding them in second–hand shops, book dealers, old people’s homes… It was delightful making new discoveries, finding artists whose names I had never known before. It was a case of buying cheaply as one was learning the history of Australian printmaking.
Nicholas Draffin, the Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was the only other active procurer of prints in a museum at the time, and he particularly was interested in the 1920s and 1930s. We shared excitements of new discoveries and new information.
It seemed at the time we were working in a vacuum of information. We would ring each other up with new discoveries, and names of good artists we had never heard of before. The one–upmanship began to get out of hand, however. We both began to suspect that each other were inventing names to taunt and confuse one another. For instance, Nicky, knowing my love of food phoned me one day and said I must come up and see his ‘luscious pie’ collection meaning, I found out later, the prints of Mabel Pye.
I did not believe she existed. I retorted with ‘You must come down and experience my Maude Glover Fleay. He was sure that I’d just invented the name. By and by, we began to realise the less plausible the name, the more plausible the artist.
The friendly rivalry ended, along with the fun in collecting huge numbers, when prints suddenly began to get expensive. Many dealers began to enter the field in a big way, particularly Frank McDonald in Sydney and Chris Deutscher in Melbourne. Prices for colonial prints and prints from the 1920s and 1930s such as I mentioned earlier, like Napier Waller and Ethel Spowers, jumped up 1,000% and more in just six months.
I resented this enormously. Nicholas Draffin sensibly refused to buy any more. I didn’t give up so easily. The collection was not finished. Is any collection ever finished? I began to ask myself, however, had I started something I couldn’t complete? Was my own enthusiasm in fact contributing to the jumped–up prices?
I began to get nasty, particularly to dealers. I particularly gave Frank McDonald the sharp edge of my tongue. That didn’t work. I even tried on the ‘poor, struggling regional gallery trying to help the masses’ routine. He seemed unmoved. Once, when I confirmed by phone a time for (a) visit to look at his ‘tatty prints’, as I said, he informed me that he and his staff were busily tidying up to conceal any evidence that they could conceivably make a profit.
I eventually accepted the fact of prices. I diligently or, should I say more accurately, desperately, began the fund–raising campaign for prints. I managed to persuade, and I won’t tell you how, the local Apex Club to come to the party. Caltex continued to be supportive. My chairman at the time, a doctor, managed to purloin a number of unsuspecting doctors to give thousands of dollars for prints.
A great supporter and donor to the Ballarat Print Collection was an avid Melbourne collector called Ronald Wrigley. He died in 1979 — nothing to do with me — and left a large number of colonial prints and prints of the 1920s and 1930s. By the end of 1980 the Australian Print Collection at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery numbered several thousand. It had become the most balanced collection of Australian printmaking in existence.
It was about this time I began to seek very large sponsorships, sponsorships on a scale hitherto unknown to me. I wanted large sums of money, not only to fill the remaining significant gaps but to help safely maintain such a large collection. I was even willing to consider naming rights for such a collection, if I could secure enough money. Can you imagine? The ‘Golden Circle Ballarat Print Collection’, or the ‘Village Bike and Company Print Collection’.
By this time, as you will have seen, I was desperate and suffering from a severe dose, not unknown to curators, of ‘gaposis’. This surprisingly un-rare disease of ‘gaposis’ is caused by the alarming knowledge that every gap filled in the collection causes gaps on either side.
Therefore, the more one acquires, the disease takes over at a frightening rate. Fortunately, circumstances saved me, and I was transported to the warmer and safer climes of Adelaide. However, I am pleased to report that the collection has continued to grow at a more sensible rate. Important key prints of the past have been added to the collection in the 1980s and numerous contemporary prints added.
Naturally, the Ballarat collection of prints could not now hope to compete with the huge resources of the Australian National Gallery Canberra, nor was the collection, even at my most maniacal, ever intended to be (encyclopaedic) as the latter is. Canberra’s collection is, by now, far the most comprehensive collection of printmaking and will rightly always remain so.
Ballarat’s collection, however, does retain some exceedingly rare prints, a very good survey, and some unique impressions. But the area where Ballarat’s collection will, perhaps, always hold its own is in the area of early colonial printmaking. It is the only extensive, balanced collection of Australian colonial printmaking in an art museum. Colonial print collections, unfortunately, mainly reside only in Australian libraries.
I now have the luxury and distance of time to look back at the Ballarat print experience. Was it all worth it? Should a low–funded regional gallery have a comprehensive print collection? Of what relevance is the collection to Ballarat and its good citizens, who pay for the Gallery and its maintenance?
Works on paper, as Daniel [Thomas] has mentioned, require far too much labour for regional galleries to successfully maintain large collections. Prints have to be constantly re–mounted, put in and out of temporary display frames, changed every six weeks or so, stored in easily accessible, expensive Solander boxes. Furthermore, they need large, dark and dry storage areas. Ballarat didn’t have any of those facilities nor the staff necessary, at the time that I left. Fortunately, the Gallery’s new extensions include the good storage and a special print gallery.
But now, I wonder if I would have pursued this vigorous print acquisition policy at the beginning of 1974 if I could have foreseen – one, the astronomical rise in the cost of prints in the second half of the 1970s, two, if I knew better at the outset the vast territory the history of printmaking covered, three, if I had foreseen the huge resources needed to responsibly maintain such an expensive collection, on balance I must now confess if I were only able to buy prints in my role as Director to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, I think the extensive print collection would have been a mistake.
A history of printmaking was not the most pressing need for the long–established collection of Australian art at Ballarat. However, by the mid–1970s I had learnt the art of extracting money, and works. I was able to add extensively to the weaknesses in other areas of the Australian Collection. These areas included colonial painting, especially early colonial painting pre–1850, paintings of the 1930s and 1940s, early Australian sculpture, Australian ceramics, drawings from all periods and, of course, contemporary art in all media.
It is vital to note here that only in colonial painting and painting from the 1940s, of all the areas mentioned above, were prints actually cheaper. The most highly sought–after prints became by 1980, and 1981 for a short time, the most expensive areas in Australian art.
In the end, the main usefulness of Ballarat’s print collection is that it complements the full history of other media in Ballarat’s collection, thereby adding vitally to the full story of Australian art. Perhaps Ballarat’s print collection is no more than what should exist, but does not exist yet, in all State galleries, to document this important part of our visual culture.
As one museum director, not an art museum director, said in a conference in the late 1970s, ‘If the seas quickly rose to destroy the low lying cities of Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide, and if the shores of Lake Burley Griffin rose up to destroy Canberra, there still would be intact one complete collection of Australian art in all media, saved on high, inland, frozen ground at Ballarat.’
Thank you. Let’s have some slides. This is part of the Curry Collection, this wonderful print which is also in Roger [Butler]’s show. All these prints I just selected, I noted yesterday, are in Roger’s show.
Naturally, Ballarat has a large collection of goldfield prints. This is by Thomas Ham, after a work by Tulloch. Benjamin Duterrau, the famous etchings, one of the earliest etchings in Australia. I think there [were] six in this series of the Tasmanian Aborigines. Ballarat has the only complete collection in Australia of the six Aboriginal etchings.
A wonderful little etching, a very rare etching by Conrad Martins, which I’m delighted to see in this show. I did think when I purchased it for the Ballarat collection it was a unique impression, but I’ve found three since.
A unique print by Lionel Lindsay. It never got much better than this. This is 1898. It’s a very little print and it’s very, very powerful. It’s part of that ‘black and white’ tradition that Daniel [Thomas] talked about. This is years before he really got involved in printmaking, and of course, one of the most famous prints, I think, in all collections of Australian printmaking is in this classic.
Margaret Preston, one of her rarer stencil prints.
Ethel Spower. It’s this area of Melbourne printmaking of the 1920s and 1930s that was particularly rich in Ballarat. It’s one of the great areas I lavished lots of attention on. It was great fun, putting the collection together. Ethel Spower again, one of her fine industrial images. And, Eveline Syme, her friend.
Napier Waller, either side of Christian Waller. These were illustrations from the Outlines of Australian print catalogue.
And, of course, George Baldessin and Fred Williams from the 1950s and the 1960s and, of course, the 1970s, Bea Maddock.
© Ron Radford, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.