Sunday 29 March marks 120 years to the day since the doors opened on a room in Brisbane’s Town Hall dedicated to the putative Collection of the Queensland National Art Gallery. On that day, Governor, Sir Henry Wylie Norman, “in the presence of a large gathering”, officially opened an exhibition consisting of “thirty-eight pictures, many of which were only on loan to the Gallery, one marble bust, and seventy engravings.”
It had come about thanks to Slade school graduate Richard Godfrey Rivers who, building on the earlier advocacy of artist Isaac Walter Jenner, Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave and the Queensland Art Society, had petitioned the Government to display a small collection of works left to it in a bequest from pastoralist and legislative councillor Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior. Alongside some loans from individuals of note in the colony, it formed the basis for that first exhibition. In fact, in a brief prequel, the gallery had a few months earlier been given a temporary site in a committee room in the new wing of the Parliament House. Visitors required a pass from the Speaker to view the works, and then only on week days. Needless to say these conditions would hardly deliver on today’s standards of accessibility! Rivers strongly suggested that mayor Alderman Robert Fraser make a space for the collection in Old Town Hall, advice that was promptly and wisely taken.
Murray-Prior’s gift of modest paintings – eight of which feature in the exhibition ‘The Founding Years 1895–1915: A Collection for Queensland’ which opened in the Glencore Queensland Artists’ Gallery this weekend – set the stage for a substantial story of giving, and indeed many philanthropic gifts boosted the fledgling Collection. The spirit of giving was taken up by artists who contributed their own works: Rivers’ Woolshed, New South Wales, the only Australian picture in the inaugural exhibition, Jenner’s Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador and Oscar Fristrom’s Duramboi were among those to enter the Collection in early days.
With a modest budget to buy works for the Collection, new acquisitions had to be undertaken strategically, as we might likely say today. Blandford Fletcher’s Dickensian 1887 scene Evicted had been shown at the Royal Academy, London and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair before it was earmarked as our first purchase at the Hobart International Exhibition in ’95. Another painting in ‘The Founding Years’, Thomas Couldery’s highly detailed watercolour The legitimate drama, returns to display thanks to some welcome conservation attention after years of seclusion in storage.
Many of these works reflect the Victorian tastes and fashions of the era, but this was also the time of Federation, and we find a gradual emergence of Australian identity through landscapes such as Albert Hanson’s Fair droving weather and John Ford Paterson’s Lake Catani, Buffalo Mountains. This exhibition confirms that late 19th century art institutions in colonial Australia were close reflections of their British progenitors, albeit fulfilling very different societal needs than they do today.
Public art galleries then were very much places of quiet contemplation, study and learning; places in which to admire the achievements of great artists. They were also cornerstones of civic pride, monuments to a civilising force among the rough and ruddy scrabbling for settlement and wealth in the new Queensland. Their displays confirmed the harshness or beauty of the landscape; they could ennoble the human spirit and extend its horizons. They were not places, at that time, to be confronted by conflict and Indigenous dispossession, for example – moreover, they ‘elevated’ the gaze. The primary social purpose of the art institution then was to speak with authority not to challenge it, to enrich more than confront.
We’ve come a long way – as a nation and as an institution. ‘The Founding Years’ is a chance to travel back in time and think about the roots of the Collection and just how far we’ve come.