The true beginnings of the National Gallery of Victoria’s print collection.

view larger image


The true beginnings of the National Gallery of Victoria’s print collection.


Zdanowicz, Irena.


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



Publication date



Conference paper



Country of context


Full text

Irena Zdanowicz: Daniel, with his characteristic thoroughness, in hisintroductory talk covered quite an important part of the subject matter of mypaper, but the 1891 acquisitions for the Melbourne Gallery, which Kay Vernonhas also mentioned, obviously

The true beginnings of the National Gallery of Victoria’s print collection.

by Irena Zdanowicz


Daniel [Thomas], with his characteristic thoroughness, in his introductory talk covered quite an important part of the subject matter of my paper, but the 1891 acquisitions for the Melbourne Gallery, which Kay Vernon has also mentioned, obviously were acquisitions of enormous and very widespread importance.

The subject of my paper, therefore, is the beginnings of the Melbourne print collection. The true beginnings of the National Gallery of Victoria’s print collection have long been identified with the great 1891 acquisitions of engravings and etchings by Dürer, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, Meryon and Klinger, which were augmented in the following year by a group of 15 etchings by Whistler, and 12 by Seymour Haden.

These were the first recommendations made from London by Sir Herbert Herkomer, the painter and graphic artist who had just been appointed advisor to the Art Museum in Melbourne, and all were works of exceptional quality.

The Dürers were, as has been mentioned, the three so–called ‘master engravings’, Night, death, and the devil, Madame Collier 1, and St Jerome in his cell. The Rembrandts included key works such as The three trees, The 100 guilder print, The Goldware’s field, and a rare touched proof of the 1639 self–portrait At a window sill.

The Meryon etchings were uniformly beautiful impressions of early states, including some dedicated proofs. The Max Klinger etchings were from the portfolio On death 1, first published in Rome in 1899, but begun considerably earlier in 1882. They include some of the earliest pulls taken from the plates, all of them dated precisely to certain days in March and October of 1889. That is, a full nine years before the release of the first portfolio edition.

By any standard, then, this was an important group of works. It acknowledged both the old and the modern masters. It was clearly the result of a careful selection, and it paid proper regard to quality of impression. It also established the pattern for future acquisition policies and for the traditionally broad span of Melbourne’s collecting ability.

These purchases were significant for an additional reason which has long been recognised, namely the seminal influence they exerted on the formation of an Australian school of etching in the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Dürer, Van Dyke and Rembrandt prints all came from the collection of Sir Francis Seymour Haden. Seen from this point of view, Haden’s role in the Australian etching revival is thus indirectly as important as it had earlier been in Britain where he was the chief protagonist in the revival of British etching.

Victor Cobb, in his 1907 article published in The Lone Hand, in effect itemised the very prints which the Gallery had acquired in 1891–92, as worthy exemplars of etching. In addition he quoted Haden as an authority on what etching should aspire to. Lionel Lindsay acknowledged their impact in Art in Australia in 1922, and William Moore referred to their importance in his Story of Australian Art, published in 1934.

Moore also considered Seymour Haden’s role significant enough to draw attention to him in connection with James Oldham, a friend of Victor Cobb’s who had known both Haden and Hamerton, the writer of one of the fundamental treatises on etching. All the major accounts of the history of the Melbourne collection comment on the quality and importance of Herkomer’s first recommendations.

In her recent book, The first collections, Ann Galbally also considers these purchases in a broader context, as a time of the maturing of the institution’s attitudes and policies, made on the eve of Bernard Hall’s directorship which, as Daniel [Thomas] said, began in 1892.

Everyone agrees that they mark a crucial turning–point some four years before the windfall of the Felton bequest. Alfred Felton died in 1904. The significance of these acquisitions lies not only in the selection itself — it was a very remarkable group of prints — but in the fact that it marked a dramatic break with what had been procured earlier in the three decades since the founding of the institution in 1861.

In this short paper I would like to give a more detailed account of the pre–1891 print acquisitions and also suggest an explanation for the character of the early collection. But first, it is important to briefly reiterate some salient facts about the history of the institution, and give some indication of its earliest inventories.

Like most other Australian state galleries, the National Gallery of Victoria’s beginnings were symbiotically bound to those of the state public library. During the period that concerns us, the Art Museum shared the same council of trustees and its director, who was also master of the Schools of Art, could officially communicate with the trustees only through the chief librarian. This continued for quite a number of decades.

This blurring of administrative boundaries affected the location of the objects acquired by the various institutions. A word of warning, therefore: some, quite a number in fact, of the items listed in the National Gallery of Victoria’s early stock books are thus no longer in our collection but have remained with the Library, or have been loaned to other institutions.

Similarly, some works which one might expect as much to find in an art museum as in a library were in fact acquired by the Library, and were not duplicated by the Gallery later. This is so with Gould’s publication of The birds of Australia, which Dr Leonard Cox, in his standard history, described as one of the Public Library’s most treasured possessions, when it opened in 1856.

By the same token, early Gallery stock books also include unexpected items such as nine physiological maps, among those works acquired before 1861. The listings in these early inventories are inconsistent, to say the least. Titles are usually given, as well as some indication of technique. Method of acquisition is also commonly, but by no means invariably, noted. Often, the artist’s name is omitted entirely.

The emphasis on titles alone reflects the importance placed on subject matter in pictures, and suggests that the prints were viewed as documents, like visual encyclopaedias.

In some of the lists there is an attempt to establish a rudimentary taxonomy. For example, etchings and engravings are often listed separately from lithographs. Photographs are also listed separately, as are other categories of objects. We should, I think, guard against interpreting the information solely in terms of established hierarchies according to which, for instance, intaglio prints were considered intrinsically more important than lithographs, but rather appreciate these early attempts at organising information.

The pre–1890 acquisitions for Melbourne were virtually all reproductive prints. They included copies after contemporary paintings such as Britain Rivierre’s Daniel in the lion’s den, presented by Agnews in 1876 and one of the most popular Victorian images, as well as copies after the old masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Guido Reni. Portrait engravings of distinguished worthies in the British and European royal families formed another distinct group.

Prints after select famous history paintings were acquired. The Death of Nelson after McLees, and the Death of Captain Cook after Webber are examples of this. There were selections of scenes of Australian life, and views of Melbourne and early Sydney, as well as other major centres in the Colony. In 1868, shortly after the publication of von Gérrard’s Australian landscapes, no less than two sets came into the collection, and both sets were purchased.

Large numbers of photographs of works of art from some of the major European collections were acquired, including a set of the Adolphe Braun photographs, which were expressly designed to form a kind of ‘museum without walls’, accessible to a potentially limitless public, and made use of not only by the general viewer but by the educated one. The Braun photos were very high quality facsimile reproductions after drawings in the great European collections. Ted Gott, writing in the Australian Journal of Art in 1986, has shown that the Braun photos were used by Odilion Redon in Paris at the same time that they were available in Melbourne.

Alison Inglis, at the Department of Fine Arts at the University [of Melbourne] is about to publish an important article on the subject of prints, after European pictures in Victoria, in the period before 1870. She has very kindly allowed me to read this paper, [in which] she considers the prints in the wider context of the status, function and influence of the reproductive printing in the nineteenth century, and more particularly to the situation in Melbourne. The article, it is hoped, will be out in May this year.

The article also provides a useful indication of some of the earliest collections in Melbourne, and notes that reproductive prints were amongst the first examples of art to be brought into the Colony; the district of Port Phillip. John Pascoe Faulkner, a founding father of Melbourne, who organised the town’s first display of pictures in 1839, advertised the fact that it included some quote: ‘first–rate engravings and paintings of Martin and other artists’.

Faulkner is later listed in the Gallery’s stock books as amongst the earliest donors. In 1868, the year before he died, he presented a group of some 13 lithographed views of Melbourne, three drawings and 12 engravings, mostly of European or English subjects. Alison Inglis has also quoted the opinion of Sir Edmund Barry, who played such a crucial role in founding the Public Library and Art Museum in Melbourne, and in establishing the first collecting policies.

Around 1864, Barry wrote that ‘An engraving may convey a more careful representation of a form, composition, drawing, grouping light and shade, than an ordinary painted copy, inasmuch as [for] success in the first rank of engravers more genius is required than is usually possessed by mere copyists.’

Barry took more than an academic interest in prints. His pedagogical zeal encompassed practical matters. In 1871, he presided at a lecture and demonstration in the Museum, which was conducted by the lithographer Cyrus Mason, whose work is represented in Roger [Bulter]’s exhibition.

The Argus of May 12th, and remember this is 1871, reported this event enthusiastically. It’s quite a long account but it’s tremendously interesting and I’ll quote it extensively:

The lecture hall was densely crowded, large numbers being unable to obtain admission. The subject of the lecture was multiplying art, principally in connection with lithography, etching, engraving and printing. The lecture was one of the most interesting and practical yet delivered. The lecturer not only spoke of etching but did it before the meeting, impressions being taken from the work executed before their eyes, and distributed amongst those present. Lithographs were also distributed in the same manner, Mr Mason being assisted by a machinist on the platform. The lecture was listened to most attentively, and the lecturer frequently applauded. At the conclusion, Sir Edmund Barry, in proposing a vote of thanks to the Chairman, took occasion to refer to the progress of the fine arts in this colony, and instanced the great surprise of many people in London at seeing at the International Exhibition a lithograph in colours executed by Mr De Gucci.

Whilst not ignoring the pleasure principle or the means of ‘elegant recreation’, as it was then called, it is the didactic intention of the collections which pervades the National Gallery of Victoria’s early history. In the trustee’s words of 1859, the collection was designed to ‘adopt the plan of illustrating the historic development of art, and to trace the outlines of a scheme of public instruction to be filled up at a later time, valuable in many ways whereby a new stimulus may be given to intellectual culture, to the general elevation of taste, and to the full appreciation of the pure, the beautiful and the true.’

This intention governed the selection of the first museum’s acquisitions; the plaster casts of classical statues shipped out in 1860, and it is implicit in the purpose of decorative art reproductions, as well as printed ones. It lies behind the purchase of the prints published by the Arundel Society, whose educative aims paralleled those of the Gallery’s earliest trustees, their object being, quote ‘…to preserve the record and diffuse a knowledge of the most important remains of painting and sculpture, and to contribute to the illustration of the history of art, and to elevate the standard of taste in England.’

Many of the Arundel prints were chromolithographs, chiefly of quattrocento Italian paintings, printed in vivid colours. In 1870, they were hung in a room in the Public Library called the Arundel Room where, according to the Argus, they were arranged in strict chronological order and carefully labelled. The Arundel Society’s reproductions also included the Van Eyke Adoration of the Holy Lamb masterpiece, whose iconography and historical significance were explained in considerable detail in the Argus, in 1870.

I should like to finally single out two further groups of works acquired before 1890. In 1879, a collection of over 150 French engravings was presented by G. Collins Leavey, who had acquired them the previous year at the International Exhibition in Paris. They date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and are largely portrayals of grand architectural and ornamental schemes of French palaces, the Louvre, the Tuileries, and Versailles. They also include representations of pageants, and eighteenth century reproductive engravings after paintings in the French royal collections.

The latter are, with one exception, restricted to the Italian Schools. I do not know why Leavey chose to buy these works and donate them to the Gallery. They certainly stand out in the field of acquisitions listed in the first stock book. Perhaps, and this is a surmise, they too reflect another of  Edmund Barry’s beliefs, namely that architectural illustrations ‘…are likely to be highly valuable as furnishing hints for our builders, of which they are indeed in want.’

In 1881, two years after the Leavey gift, the National Gallery of Victoria was presented by the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce with another impressive group of prints, a set of 29 etchings by James Barry, who died in 1806. The stock book, incidentally, describes them as ‘steel engravings’.

A set of these prints had been included in the British section at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879, with the note that they would be presented to the Government of New South Wales at the close of the exhibition. As far as I know, this particular set hasn’t been located.

A set of the Barry etchings was next seen in the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880, and on this occasion as well the catalogue noted that the prints would be presented to the National Gallery of Victoria when the Exhibition was over. Adelaide also acquired a set in 1882. These prints belong to the posthumous 1872 edition of Barry’s etchings, reprinted by the Royal Society. They feature Barry’s mural cycle, depicting the progress of human culture, with its beginnings in Greek mythology, to its flowering in it’s achievements of the British enlightenment in the late eighteenth century.

They also include his illustrations to the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, the relevant texts being the Book of Job, Paradise lost, and King Lear.

Included amongst the prints after the mural designs is one called The Thames, or The triumph of navigation, which depicts personifications of the River Thames, the four major trading continents of Asia, Europe, Africa and America — Australia doesn’t figure — and portraits of five of the great English navigators, including Captain Cook, whom Barry inserted in the mural upon hearing of his death in 1779. These etchings differ from most of the other reproductive prints acquired in the Nineteenth Century, in that they were etched by the artist who was responsible for their original design.

James Barry took up making prints in the mid–1770s because he wanted to increase his audience, as well as his income. Of all the National Gallery of Victoria’s print acquisitions, it is these etchings which, together with some of the Boydel Shakespeare engravings, are most regularly exhibited nowadays.

The context in which they are shown now is usually that of Melbourne’s [William] Blake collection. Barry was a passionate believer in the didactic mission of art, and his account of the progress of European civilisation would have struck a particularly sympathetic chord with the Gallery’s early trustees, who were anxious that the process be carried through to the Colony of Victoria. A little over a decade later, in 1891, Sir Herbert Herkomer’s recommendations succeeded in re-orienting the direction of collecting for the Melbourne gallery. In addition to choosing reproductive prints, which remained important for their educational value, and examples of contemporary art, the Gallery now embarked on acquiring select works by some of the acknowledged masters of European art, specifically the great printmakers Dürer and Rembrandt.

The emphasis of collecting expanded from predominantly didactic and documentary to one that recognised and differentiated outstanding aesthetic merit and achievements. It acknowledged that art has a history; that it is part of a tradition, many traditions perhaps, but it is not only a document of it’s time, but exists as an object, a document in time. It also acknowledged the independence and intrinsic significance and importance of printmaking in European art.

Thank you.


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