Australian Art and Britain

Memorial by Bertram Mackennal

The interest of Australian art to these pages - largely concerned with British art of the 19th Century - lies in the important pictures which went to the new Australian art galleries of the late 19th Century, and the artists who came from Australia to Britain.

Galleries and Pictures

Melbourne was the earliest of the Australian colonies to establish an art gallery - the National Gallery of Victoria, established 1850, though with a permanent home only in 1861. Tasmania was next with its Museum and Art Gallery put up in 1863. In the 1870s Sydney (National Gallery of New South Wales) and Adelaide (National Gallery of South Australia) followed, and Perth and Brisbane established their collections in the 1890s.

Melbourne Art Gallery, 19th C view

The galleries built up local collections, but from the first were keen to establish collections of British and European work, partly to inspire and teach their own students. This followed traditional methods in more established centres. Sydney, for instance, obtained a grant of 1000 for an art gallery in 1875, received its first pictures after a loan exhibition in 1879, and formally opened the gallery in a permanent building in 1883, as the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. By then, an annual grant had already been made available to buy in London and Paris, first watercolours, then, as the grant increased, oils.

Other galleries followed a similar route, not always successfully. An English commentator in 1888 wrote that

'The purchases have been ignorantly or mistakenly made ... the pictures were with 2 or 3 exceptions by inferior artists ... the prices given were excessive... and the picture are not very instructive or suggestive to a student.'

The largest purchases in the early years were probably those of Adelaide's National Gallery of South Australia. In 1898, Sir Thomas Elder left 25,000 to the gallery to buy works of art. The gallery promptly sent a Mr Gill to Europe, where with J. A. Cockburn, the Agent General for South Australia, and the helpful advice of the President of the Royal Academy, the President of the Royal Watercolour Society and the President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour (respectively Poynter, Waterlow and Gregory at the time), spent 10,000 on oil paintings, watercolours and drawings.

Looking at the lists of early pictures bought by the Australian galleries, there is a mix of the famous and the almost forgotten - but certainly no worse than that of the Chantrey purchases for the more or less contemporary building of the national collection of British paintings as selected by the Royal Academy.

A few early pictures are:


Melbourne: Adelaide: Canberra:

Pictures going the other way were few - the first serious exhibitions of Australian work in London were as late as the 1890s - the Colonial Exhibition and the Grafton Exhibition. Comment in the English art magazines was positive, but tending to the patronising: 'the typical work of a school which is in its earlier stages of development.' There was approval of the portraits and landscape work, though regret at the lack of truly exotic pictures, and a general looking down on the faithful depiction of nature, which might have won much more praise if the works had been seen 20 years earlier, when the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite School was strong.

Regrettably, there is no obvious place to see Australian 19th Century paintings in England, and although the occasional picture surfaces in the odd exhibition, it is not possible to go and see the works of Streeton or Phillips Fox, Lister-Lister or Tom Roberts here in the way that one can for European work. This is an enormous shame, as what little I have seen of original work, and the rather more in copy, demand at least one room in one major London gallery to be able to see Australian 19th Century artworks.


John Longstaff

As in other towns, Melbourne, Victoria was concerned to foster local talent, but as well as buying pictures as examples, established generous scholarships to send students abroad to study - it is from Melbourne that several eminent Australian artists were 'sent to Paris to learn, and then to London to sell', and then to settle. Rupert Bunny, John Longstaff and Bertram Mackennal were perhaps the most distinguished of those who took the Melbourne - Europe route. Rupert Bunny (1864-1947) had only a short stay in England, during which time he did some illustrative work, before settling in France and marrying there. His dreamy, symbolist paintings seem to have largely ended up in Australian galleries, as in old age he returned to Australia, where he became greatly respected. John Longstaff (1862-1941), largely a portrait painter, became established enough in Britain to warrant a knighthood in 1928. The sculptor Bertram Mackennal (1863-1931) became the most successful of all, after he achieved fame with his sculpture Circe in 1893.

Rupert Bunny

We may also mention two or three artists travelling the other way - from England to Australia, and then returning. Thomas Woolner, the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, left for Australia in 1854, inspiring his Pre-Raphaelite brothers to paint a well known set of portraits of one another, and stirring Ford Madox Brown to conceive his famous picture The Last of England. Woolner did so well in portrait medallions in Australia that he was able to return, with a good reputation, to England in 1857, leaving behind him an important statue of Captain Cook in Hyde Park, Sydney. Thomas Strutt, who went to Australia a few years before Woolner, in 1850, and stayed there for over a decade, is worth a mention, because he produced the first illustrated periodical there, the Illustrated Australian Magazine.

Illustration by Abbey Altson

Abbey Altson went to Australia in the early 1880s, studying at Melbourne, and taking the traditional route back via Paris to London, where he became a prolific illustrator and portraitist. Still on illustrators, we conclude with an artist who visited Australia much later for just a couple of years from 1886 - Phil May (1864-1903), an important humorous illustrator, who in his time in Sydney produced the better part of a thousand drawings, and had some large influence on black-and-white artists there.

Black and white art by Rupert Bunny

So where does that leave us in terms of 19th Century art with an Australian connection to see in England? The occasional picture by Strutt in a provincial gallery, the odd Rupert Bunny as part of a loan exhibition. But a much better situation with sculpture, with works by Mackennal, the young Woolner, and the two sculptural groups by Harold Parker outside Australia House (noted on the Strand walk on these pages).

For completion, and the interest of those from Australia visiting England, we may round off by noting that there are some rather good sculptural groups as symbols of Australia dotted around. In London, on the front of Whitehall's magnificent Foreign and Colonial Office (see Whitehall page), Australia is shown as an allegorical girl with kangaroo and sheep. Among various monuments with Australia represented, a perhaps typical example is the Queen Victoria monument on the esplanade in Brighton, which has on the principal frieze an Australian next to the British soldier to the right of the young Queen, balanced by an African and Indian to her left, to depict Empire.

This page has led to a pleasing level of interest from Australian fellow-travellers, leading to two articles kindly contributed by Donald Richardson: war sculptures by Bertram Mackennal in Australia, and Paul Raphael Montford in Australia.

We may note a couple of links to museum sites where images of Australian 19th Century artworks can be seen:

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