Dale Harding discusses his incredible year


Dale Harding graduated from the Queensland College of Art in 2014, yet his opportunities and achievements since speak to a much longer practice, indeed a ‘cultural continuum’ to which he is connected through country. His artwork includes wall murals, sculpture and installations which are an exploration of the political histories and presence of his family and his Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples and their network of cultural sites spread across the central Queensland sandstone belt.

This year, aged 35, he has been included in documenta 14, the 11th Gwangju Biennale, Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia and The National in Sydney. The first book on his work, Dale Harding: Body of Objects was published by Griffith University, and a wall painting by Harding is an integral part of the conceptual rethink of the Queensland Art Gallery Australian art reimagined permanent display, launched 30 September. Some of the works Harding has produced this year are collaborations between Harding and his family, particularly mother Kate Harding, uncle Milton Lawton, and cousin Will Lawton.

Louise Martin-Chew met with Harding and found out what he gained from this incredible year and what he plans to do next. This is an extract from the interview published in Art Guide Australia.

Dale Harding introducing Wall Composition in Reckitt’s Blue 2017 commissioned for the reimagined Australian collection display at the Queensland Art Gallery / Photograph: Brad Wagner © QAGOMA

Louise Martin-Chew | Your work has attracted attention since very early in your artistic career. Yet you didn’t start studying art until you were in your early thirties. What did you do prior?

Dale Harding | I had great advice from a couple of teachers at school, which was to get your 20s out of your system and then go to art college. I was quite conscious of that and I kept my hands and mind busy, working in the paint industry with commercial house paint sellers, and making art at night.

LMC | Your family connections to country are strong and you view your work as an artist and researcher as an extension of this cultural continuum. How is this made manifest in your practice?

DH | I gathered the language and concept of cultural continuum from fellow artist Warraba Weatherall and his family, and their discussions around cultural practice and repatriation. It has allowed me to frame what I do as one stream in my family’s continuation of cultural practice. Everything I make springs from a discussion with family. We are all moving in the same direction with the other family members who are also makers.

LMC | Where do you hope this direction will take you?

DH | We are maintaining a sense of who we are in ourselves and growing that in each other and particularly in the young people who are around. Times are constantly shifting in the way in which we are seen as a family and cultural unit as Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples and in the larger network as a community.

LMC | Your country includes Carnarvon Gorge, and a large area of cultural sites in central Queensland, with a legacy of some 20,000 years of Indigenous occupation. Is that daunting?

DH |  It is daunting in the sense of approaching it with a very profound respect, reverence and care. Sometimes that respect, reverence and care, and wanting to do the right thing, has petrified my hand. But it is not daunting in the sense of claiming culture. I do that now so as not to undermine or diminish or trade on the cultural practice as practiced by previous generations, and how we do it now for ourselves and continue what they have given us as well.

LMC | This year you have had incredible opportunities both national and international. Yet it is only four years since you graduated. How does the academic process impact your work?

DH | I’ve been conscious for some time of senior practitioners like Judy Watson, Julie Gough and Fiona Foley. These artists have led research-based arts practices around an artwork, and bringing that to life has been influential. The academic framework supports that and a depth of enquiry that I really enjoy.

Dale Harding working on his commission Wall Composition in Reckitt’s Blue 2017 onsite at the Queensland Art Gallery / Photographs: Chloe Callistemon © QAGOMA

LMC | Your wall painting/installation for the Queensland Art Gallery is part of the new hang of the reimagined Australian collection. What shaped your decisions about this work?

DH | I’ve been sharing with curator Bruce McLean, who is from the Wierdi people of the Birri Gubba nation of Wribpid in central Queensland, around material choices. The use of Reckitt’s Blue in this wall painting springs from some of our discussions. Reckitt’s Blue is antiquated and known for being a laundry whitener. It has many different histories, including its introduction to Indigenous painting in the Carnarvon palette in the mid 19th century, and it remains visible on historic clubs and shields. I have used it sprayed on the wall to form a composition that is referencing, more than imitating or copying, the lineage of a long landscape format along a plaster board wall at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Dale Harding working on his commission Wall Composition in Reckitt’s Blue 2017 onsite at the Queensland Art Gallery / Photographs: Chloe Callistemon © QAGOMA

LMC | It includes motifs that are different to the traditional Aboriginal objects (boomerangs, woomera, spears and shields) in your previous work. What informed it?

DH | In many ways it is a notional shift in the way I was working, although with each work my family could speak about its intent in five different ways on five different days. It is the same with the Queensland Art Gallery painting. The water story of Carnarvon tells that the rain that falls from there ends up ultimately in Brisbane’s Moreton Bay. The painting speaks of abstraction and registers of the body over generations, using my body. Warraba Weatherall has lent his support in the making of this work and it is a register of our two bodies on the wall in that space. The imagery is a move away from material culture. This time, I have used a shovel from the Taubmans paint factory.

LMC | Griffith University Art Museum director Angela Goddard described you as ‘the man of the moment.’ What will be next?

DH | This year has been a year of discussion, discussion shared with curators and artistic directors and other artists. I start to see the beauty of the year in the genuine discussions and generosity shared with me. I can’t frame it well enough. If there had been a fire in the middle of the space in which we were sitting, there could have been no less warmth.

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Lousie Martin-Chew is an arts writer based in Brisbane
This is an extract from the interview published in Art Guide Australia.
Feature banner detail: Dale Harding, Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples, Australia b.1982 / Wall Composition in Reckitt’s Blue 2017 / Reckitt’s Blue laundry powder, charcoal and Grevillea robusta resin, incision into wall / Commissioned 2017 with funds from anonymous donors through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / © The artist

Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser is a spectacular colonial narrative


As we take a reimagined view of the Australian Collection, we revisit Sidney Nolan’s painting Mrs Fraser and its captivating story as it returns on view. This blog is an extract from Lynne Seear’s essay ‘A wave to memory: Sydney Nolan Mrs Fraser’ published in Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998.

Installation view of the Australian Collection
Installation view of the Australian Collection, Queensland Art Gallery

In 1947 Nolan spent an extended period in Queensland, including several weeks in Brisbane and on Fraser Island (formerly known as Great Sandy Island). In Brisbane’s John Oxley Library he read, among other things, accounts of the shipwreck of the English brig, the Stirling Castle, off the south-east Queensland coast in 1836. Nolan was intrigued by the story of Mrs Eliza Frasers survival after the wreck, her captivity (or salvation) by local Aborigines and her controversial return to England.

Portrait of Mrs Fraser
Portrait of Mrs Fraser, page 117 of John Curtis Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle, George Virtue, London, 1838. Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

This spectacular colonial narrative of the displaced gentlewoman, made vulnerable to both the material primitivism and the perceived sexual savagery of ‘native’ life, proved an ideal source for Nolan. It continued the project he had begun a couple of years earlier with the ‘Ned Kelly’ series, in which he merged motifs from popular culture with modernist aesthetics; and it provided him with imagery which allowed for some personal blood-letting.

And in this sandy forest
a ganger takes a part
of a sprig with a flower
and wears it in his hat,
wears it all day,
a wave to memory setting him apart.
Barrett Reid, Fraser Island, looking west 1

Nolan had left Melbourne for Queensland in early July 1947. Specifically, he fled the ‘huge emotional climate’ of Heide, the home on the banks of the Yarra River he had shared with art patrons John and Sunday Reed for eight years.2 It has become acceptable now to openly acknowledge that Nolan and Sunday Reed were lovers and that he lived with the couple in a passionate and ultimately harrowing ménage à trois for almost a decade. For a long time, however, the domestic details of this intensely influential period of his personal and working life were excluded from commentaries on his work. Inserting Sunday Reed back into the picture enables us to observe the symbiotic relationship between Nolan’s Eliza Fraser and the woman who has recently been termed his ‘monstrous muse’.3

Mid-1947 was an opportune moment for Nolan to heed the call of the culturally influential Australian Geographical Walkabout Magazine to ‘know his country’.The dynamic atmosphere of crisis and creativity that had been so much a part of wartime Melbourne was on the wane. The Contemporary Art Society, the formal structure used by the Reeds to promote ‘modernist’ art practice in Melbourne, had (temporarily) ceased operations, and other core members of the Heide ‘group’ were dispersing — Albert Tucker left for Europe; his estranged wife Joy Hester was living with Gray Smith in Sydney. In 1945 Nolan’s younger brother Raymond had drowned while on secondment with the navy in Cooktown, North Queensland, and the artist declared that he needed to make an investigative pilgrimage to the site, to pay tribute to his brother and to find out as much as he could about the incident for the sake of his parents. In this way, Nolan was able to initiate what would eventually become his permanent exile from Heide. Needless to say, he arrived in the north (after his first trip in a plane) with plenty of emotional baggage on board.

In Brisbane, Nolan stayed with the precocious young poet Barrett Reid (who had been the youngest contributor to the modemist aesthetics journal, Angry Penguins) and it was with Reid that he made the trip up the coast to Fraser Island.5 Nolan first heard of Fraser Island from his friend Tom Harrisson, a former British army major who trained parachute commandos there during the war. His descriptions of the island’s exotic beauty had been one of the factors that enticed the artist north. On arrival, Nolan was not disappointed:

No wonder Harrisson was impressed … Ninety miles long and 30 miles wide … it covers a lot of country. Strange coast line, medium sized cliffs covered in small thick scrub, but the most impressive part is the way in which great cliffs of sand make a pattern against the scmb … The size of the island has rather taken me back.6

At this time most of Fraser Island was a Forestry Commission reserve and travel to the area was restricted. The island’s Indigenous owners, the Ngulungbara, Batjala and Dulingbara peoples, had long since been forcibly resettled and the atmosphere in the loggers’ camps, where Nolan and Reid were accommodated and where they socialised, was relentlessly male and more than a little eccentric — images of the hard-working, hard-drinking timber workers sporting wildflowers in their hats would creep into the work of both Nolan and Reid after this trip. Everywhere in the surrounding landscape the historical spectre of Eliza Fraser, naked and cowering in the mangrove swamps and merging into the rainforest, became a focus for Nolans powerful and bitter imagination.7

The great achievement of Nolans art during this decade (but perhaps never after with the same astonishing effect) was to relate the landscape, that key signifier of ‘Australianness’, to the concept of modern life. He accomplished this with a degree of menace and vernacular confidence that astounded the likes of the influential art historian and taste maker Sir Kenneth Clark.8 Nolans work of the 1940s features a single theme in a recurrent trope — the outsider set against an environment which resists occupation. The artist explored these ideas in three famous series which deal with historical characters given mythic status by the cultural claims made on their behalf — the outlaw Ned Kelly, the failed explorers Burke and Wills, and the amoral, unreliable widow Eliza Fraser.

When Nolan turned his attention to Mrs Fraser he was thirty years old, absent without leave from the army (he would be dishonourably discharged the following year) and miserably, angrily in love — at an emotional and artistic crossroads. Even the normally reticent Sir Sidney Nolan later admitted that this combination was an ideal genesis for a new and riveting series of works:

With these ghosts as his familiars, Nolan settles back, his eyes lost in a reverie of assessment and recalls the displacements of Eliza Fraser … ‘I’d painted her as someone who’d turned in her convict rescuer; she is called a traitress… In 1947 she was of interest to me because she was bound up with an emotional state I was in.’9

Mrs Fraser

Nolan’s initial group of twelve paintings on the adventures of Eliza Fraser were first exhibited at the Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, in February 1948. In these works Nolan grappled both with the exotic, new landscape, its lush vegetation and brilliant blue lakes, and with the Fraser legend, which told (in various permutations) how the survivors of the Stirling Castle shipwreck were captured, stripped and enslaved by the island’s original inhabitants. The ‘modernist’ content of the exhibition provoked the usual conservative backlash in the local press, despite a catalogue introduction by critic Clive Turnbull pronouncing Nolan to be ‘the most interesting of all the younger Australian painters.10 Only two works sold — one, Fraser Island, to the poet Judith Wright, who conducted a spirited defence of Nolan in the Courier-Mail. However, the most startling and successful painting in the series, Mrs Fraser 1947, was not for sale. Indeed, it remained in the artist’s estate until 1995, an indication of its status for Nolan as a raw and private signifier.11

Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Mrs Fraser 1966
Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Mrs Fraser 1966 / Water-based fabric dye on paper / Purchased 2003. The Queensland Government’s special Centenary Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate /www.bridgeman.co.uk

Mrs Fraser is one of Nolan’s most disturbing works. A submissive, faceless female is placed on all fours in a mangrove landscape made impenetrable to her view. She is collecting wood for her captors’ fire, and the sticks are scattered in her path like bones thrown out for a dog. The painting is cut across by a low horizon punctuated by three tall palms, testifying, with the intense, unclouded sky, to the vivid tropical geography she so desperately inhabits. Two of the sentinel palms extend up beyond the picture frame, reasserting the endless perspective stretching above and over her, and emphasising her imprisonment in the foreground. The taut skin of her figure is painted with touches of yellow, white and blue, a cold and grisly palette. Nolan plays his favourite technical hand — he builds a narrative out of abstract shapes and spatial ambiguity.

In this depiction of Eliza Fraser, Nolan appears to have been particularly inspired by a 1937 account of the convict John Graham’s experiences, written and illustrated by Robert Gibbings. (In some versions of the tale, Graham was the convict who rescued Eliza Fraser and led her to freedom.) Nolan borrows from John Graham (Convict) 1824 — An Historical Narrative both the compositional device of the painting (as in the reproduced etching) and the overall pathos of the subject:

It was a source of continual ridicule that when gathering firewood she was compelled to bend down and collect it with her hands instead of just picking up the sticks with her toes as she went along … Twice daily they plastered her hair with gum, fixing in it the teeth and bones of animals and fish; twice daily they rubbed fish oil into her skin and painted her body with clay.12

Nolan focuses attention on Mrs Fraser as abject victim. Her body is harshly lit at the centre of an oval format and she is offered to the spectator as if through the sharp, personal viewpoint of a telescopic lens or, as Jane Clark has suggested, ‘down the barrel of a gun’.13 Nolan used this framing device on several other occasions, as in his adaptation of the oval-shaped convention of the historical, family portrait in Portrait of Barrett Reid 134714 Later, he made the subjective intent of this pictorial manoeuvre explicit in a studio photograph, taken in London in 1957, in which he pointedly glares at Mrs Fraser through a pair of binoculars.

Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Portrait of Barrett Reid 1947
Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Portrait of Barrett Reid 1947 / Oil on cardboard on composition board / Purchased 1984 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate /www.bridgeman.co.uk

There is no doubt that what we are being coaxed to witness here is a vision of humanity forced down the evolutionary scale; more precisely, a woman of ‘culture’ descends, too hastily, into ‘nature’. This is the kind of ‘primitivism’ made famous by the Euro-American avant-garde, a highly sexualised account of transgressive aesthetics. When Willem de Kooning’s first ‘Women’ series was introduced to New York critics in the early 1950s, the images were greeted with lurid excitement. For supporters like Artnews critic Thomas Hess, de Kooning had wrestled ‘his girl’ on to the canvas and shown her who was boss. A similar feverishness afflicts some of the critical forays around Mrs Fraser:

her plight arouses not pity but the sense of her openness to sexual assault. She is a woman liable to be taken from behind, like the women in some of the Pompeiian wall paintings, with no preference and no certainty on the part of the taker as to which passage is being penetrated. She would spit and snap like a female dingo, without offering resistance.15

This, then, was Sunday Reed’s punishment — to be characterised as the savage nymph. She was so ambitious for Nolan, though, that one senses she would not have objected too strenuously to her identification with this withering masterpiece.16

And what of the real Eliza Fraser, whoever she might have been? By the time she had returned safe, but probably not all that sound, to England, several versions of the story (including her own) were appearing in the popular press as far away as the United States.17 Nothing could expose what Jim Davidson has called the ‘soft underbelly of imperialism’ as vividly as tall tales about white women held captive in the wilderness.18 Over the past 150 years, there have been many more recountings of the legend, few of which match in even the basic details. Eliza’s cultural interpreters have ranged from filmmakers, to librettists, to feminist historians. Her manifestations in the more contemporary reconstructions of the story cast her as everything from ribald temptress to complex class heroine.19

Too many have claimed a piece of her, to trust any single version of her ‘history’; the accretions of paint, legend, gossip, analysis, film and music are too dense to see through. But if half the stories are true — if she really did give birth to a child ‘born drowned’ in a long boat, up to her waist in sea water, surrounded by terrified and useless men; if, when taken into captivity by the rightfully suspicious and curious local tribes, she was forced to suckle their children with the milk her body doggedly produced for her own lost baby; and if, on her return to ‘civilisation’, she was treated with the prurience and morbid fascination that we have been educated to expect of nineteenth-century audiences — then it seems quite logical that she would be shrill in her demands for a free ride for the rest of her life.20

Sidney Nolan, Mrs Fraser and convict 1962-64
Sidney Nolan, Australia/England 1917-1992 / Mrs Fraser and convict 1962-64 / Oil and enamel on composition board / Purchased 1988 with the assistance of David Jones Australia (Queensland Division) and Sir Sidney Nolan to mark the company’s 150th anniversary, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Courtesy of the Artist’s Estate /www.bridgeman.co.uk

It is likely that Sidney Nolan changed his mind about her too. In interviews towards the end of his career Nolan made explicit his sense of connection with Eliza Fraser and her arduous, long-deferred journey home.21 He had returned to the Fraser legend for a further two series in the mid- 1950s and early 1960s. The final images, such as Mrs Fraser and convict 1962-64 (used as the cover image for Patrick White’s acclaimed historical adaptation of the subject, A Fringe o f Leaves, first published in 1976), feature an increasing lyricism; the medium and format change and the works become larger in scale. In this group of works, Eliza Fraser and her convict lover are battered and weathered, but they have endured. No longer alien, or separate, they are made of the same stuff as the landscape itself. They almost seem to belong.

1 Barrett Reid, ‘Fraser Island, looking west’, In Making Country, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney, 1976, p.106.
2 For the most up-to-date account of the relationship, see Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed, ed. Janine Burke, William Heinemann Australia, Port Melbourne, 1995, pp.17ff.
3 Burke (ed.), Dear Sun, p.28.
4 M. E. McGuire discusses the Influence of Walkabout on Sidney Nolan and Australian Modernism In general in his article ‘Whiteman’s Walkabout’, Meanjin, vol.52, no.3, Spring 1993, pp.517-25.
5 Nolan visited Fraser Island on two occasions, in late July 1947 and again in October 1947.
6 Sidney Nolan, in a letter of 30 July 1947, quoted in Jane Clark, Sidney Nolan: Landscapes and Legends. A Retrospective Exhibition 1937-1987 [exhibition catalogue], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, p.91.
7 Jane Clark, p.90.
8 Sir Kenneth Clark visited Sydney in 1949, during the time that he held the position of Slade Professor at Oxford University. He sought out Sidney Nolan and bought a painting from him, leaving a deep impression on the young artist. For an account of this visit see Brian Adams, Sidney Nolan. Such Is Life: A Biography, Hutchison Australia, Hawthorn (Vic.), 1987, pp.103-105.
9 Nicholas Rothwell, ‘Nolan: The artist in exile begins his long journey home’, Weekend Australian, 15 July 1989, Library press cuttings, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
10 Clive Turnbull, Introduction, in Paintings by Sidney Nolan [exhibition catalogue], Moreton Galleries, Brisbane, 17-28 February 1948, unpag.
11 The painting was exhibited as cat. no. 2, under the title ‘Urang Creek’. See Paintings by Sidney Nolan [exhibition catalogue].
12 Robert Gibbings, John Graham (Convict) 1824 — An Historical Narrative, Faber & Faber, London, 1937, p.81.
13 Jane Clark, p.91.
14 Nolan also used an 1871 photograph of the revolutionary French poet Arthur Rimbaud as a compositional source for his painting of Reid. For a reproduction of the original photograph see Jane Clark, p.38.
15 Sidney Nolan Paradise Garden, ed. Robert Melville, R. Alistair McAlpine, London, 1971, p.7.
16 The final break with Sunday Reed did not come until after Nolan’s marriage to Cynthia Reed (John Reed’s
sister) in 1948. At Christmas 1947, Nolan presented one of the Fraser Island series to Sunday Reed (Lake Wabby) as a Christmas gift.
17 See Kay Schaffer, ‘Eliza Fraser’s trial by media’, Antipodes, vol.5, no.2, December 1991, pp.114-19.
18 Jim Davidson, ‘Beyond the Fatal Shore: The mythologization of Mrs Fraser’, Meanjin, vol.49, no.3, Spring 1990, p.450.
19 For comprehensive overviews of Eliza Fraser’s use as a cultural icon see Kay Schaffer, In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995, and Chris Healy, ‘Eliza Fraser and the impossibility of postcolonial history’, in From the Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp.160-89.
20 On her return to England (so the legend has it) Eliza Fraser sold her story to passers-by in Hyde Park, and was continually asking for public funds in compensation for her trials.
21 Rothwell, ‘Nolan: The artist in exile begins his long journey home’.

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Lynne Seear
Extract from Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998
Feature image detail: Sidney Nolan’s Mrs Fraser 1966

William Dobell and Modern Mannerism


We take a look at Wiilliam Dobell’s The Cypriot 1940, a portrait of his friend Aegus Gabrielides which is a strange and complex painting with an equally intriguing history. The Queensland Art Gallery’s painting is the last of six known portraits of Gabrielides done by Dobell over a period of several years.

This blog is an extract from Timothy Morrell’s essay published in Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998.

In general Dobell is best known for lively and apparently spontaneous paintings, either small, rapid, sketch-like studies or larger bravura portraits. In The Cypriot, however, the outcome of so much preparatory study is not a finished portrait done with the well-rehearsed but brisk confidence of a first sketch; this is a painting in which every detail of the composition and nuance of the sitter’s character is minutely considered. The gradual evolution of the image into the intense final portrait may reflect the changing circumstances of the relationship between the two men, as well as the developing aspirations of the artist to create a portrait of enduring psychological power.

Dobell first painted Gabrielides in 1934. In this early version, the sitter meets the viewer’s gaze in an open way, hands on his hips, giving the portrait a slightly cheeky air. This reasonably straightforward recording of the man’s features was to culminate, six years later, in one of the most penetrating individual studies in Australian art.

The strength of Dobell’s best portraits lies in his determination to understand and, if necessary, to exaggerate details of the sitters’ appearance which distinguish them as individuals. It was this aspect of his art which, in the celebrated court case over his Archibald prize-winning Portrait of an artist (Joshua Smith) (private collection) in 1943, caused him to be branded a caricaturist. The brooding image of The Cypriot, however, is anything but a caricature. It is a severe, hieratic portrait which reveals more directly than any of his other works how much Dobell gained from the observation of old master paintings. It marks an important transitional point in the development of his technique from the relative sharpness and clarity of the more thickly worked, coarse-grained London paintings of the 1930s, in which paint was applied almost directly from the tube, to the feathery surfaces that came to distinguish his later work in Australia.

William Dobell in his studio with Portrait of an artist (Joshua Smith) in 1943 / Photograph courtesy: Betty Churcher / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Dobell admitted that his art was generally rather at odds with twentieth-century Modernism. However, in The Cypriot it is possible to find, in embryo, the personal mannerisms of strong colour, the flurry of light brushstrokes and the bodily distortions (qualities he brought to his art from preparatory studies) with which Dobell would strive to make his work progressive.

All the studies for The Cypriot were made in London, presumably from the sitter. Back in Sydney, away from Gabrielides, this image of the man in a chair, impressed on Dobell’s memory from repeated depictions, could be manipulated according to his imagination. Dobell’s progress towards the final portrait is particularly well recorded in the preliminary versions he brought home from London. They allow us to see the finished picture taking shape and offer a glimpse into the artist’s private laboratory.

The starting point is a classically stable triangular composition, with the sitter placed symmetrically and looking directly at the viewer with a rather matter-of-fact expression, seated in a tall, button-tufted Victorian armchair. The chair-back rises above his head beyond the picture-frame. The transformation of the subject from a familiar waiter to a glamorous courtier was achieved through fairly subtle modifications. The upholstered chair was evidently of the rococo-revival design, its back topped with a circular curve that made a halo shape around the head of its occupant. This is how it appears in the first, 1934, version. In the final portrait, the pyramidal composition is destabilised by emphasising the vigorous outward thrust of the man’s bent elbows and repeating it in other details. The sitter seems taller, and he occupies the chair with greater authority. The shape of his hair is made to rhyme with the shape of the chair-back and the angles of his elbows. This exaggerated side-to-side lunge is charted like a seismographic movement by the pattern on his tie, and the jagged lines are combined with circles to create a frenetically unsettling design (although the gaudy, wide neckties of the 1940s make this detail plausible).

The strong outward movement of drapery folds and stripes in the shirt is interrupted and made more complex by buckled armbands, making the garment slightly reminiscent of a Renaissance doublet. The hands, which were originally placed at the same level, are enlarged and positioned asymmetrically, so that the hand on the right is advanced forward, is larger and lower, and hangs above the bottom edge of the painting like a claw. Dobell increased the arch of the sitter’s brows and deepened the shadows around his eyes. The fixed gaze and haughty pose seem rigidly frozen, yet the composition generates a force that pushes outward from the frame. The acanthus spirals, which spin like Catherine wheels on the ends of the chair’s arms, are a dramatically amplified variation on the relatively demure neo-rococo tendrils copied from the actual chair in earlier versions. These whorls of paint, and the urgently scribbled lines running down the necktie, are abstracted from the real motif.

William Dobell, Australia 1899-1970 / The Cypriot 1940 / Oil on canvas / Gift of the Godfrey Rivers Trust through Miss Daphne Mayo 1943 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Queensland Art Gallery
El Greco, 1541–1614 / Portrait of the Grand Inquisitor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara c.1600 / Oil on canvas / H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Appropriately for the ‘Greek’ subject, the single greatest influence on this painting seems to have been the Renaissance artist El Greco, whose work provided a prototype for the highly charged variant on the classical formula of triangular portrait composition. The Cypriot is very similar to El Greco’s glowering portrait of the head of the Spanish Inquisition, Portrait of the Grand Inquisitor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), painted in Toledo, Spain, in about 1600, a suitable subject for Dobell to use as a model for his darkly evocative character study. El Greco’s Portrait of Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino c.1610 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) would have been another obvious stylistic source for The Cypriot.

Of course, The Cypriot is also a picture of someone who seemed to Dobell to be interesting and perhaps attractive because of his foreignness. Gabrielides may have represented a kind of exoticism to Dobell. When he painted the final portrait back in Sydney, where Southern European faces were uncommon before postwar immigration, The Cypriot evoked a distant cosmopolitan world left behind in London, the world of great museums and old master paintings that had sustained the young artist.

As well as the paintings and drawings that have approximately the same composition as The Cypriot, in 1936 Dobell painted a picture of Gabrielides known as The Sleeping Greek (The Art Gallery of New South Wales). In this painting of the man’s head in extreme close-up with the brown upholstered chair as a background, Dobell captured him completely unaware, like a wild animal in repose. Dobell’s fascination with this natural sensuality is a recurring aspect of the small, brilliant character studies he made of other London personalities.

It is very possible that Dobell and Gabrielides were lovers. No other individual sat so often for Dobell, in the intimacy of his flat, over such a long period (at least four years). The closeness of their friendship is evident from the fact that Dobell was asked to be one of seven best men at the Greek Orthodox wedding of Gabrielides. In fact, Dobell went to the ceremony but did not participate, instead sitting at the back of the church, and knowingly or otherwise casting an inauspicious omen over the marriage by destroying the important numerical composition of the rites. Soon after this he returned to Australia. The exact nature of their relationship, and how Dobell regarded Gabrielides when finally he painted him from memory, can only be a matter for speculation. Much later, during an interview in the early 1960s, Dobell characterised his leading sitter as ‘dignified’, but also as a ‘coward’.

Despite being so well documented, The Cypriot remains an enigma. It is a completely uncharacteristic, even somewhat bizarre work. The sitter’s ambiguous expression is ultimately indecipherable. This is, of course, one of the reasons why it is such a successful portrait.


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Timothy Morrell
Extract from Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington (eds). Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850-1965, Queensland Art Gallery, 1998
Feature image detail: William Dobell’s The Cypriot 1940

Not unlike the myth, ‘Narcissus garden’ mesmerises


Future Collective member Rosemary Willink shares some thoughts on her Collection favourite — Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus garden 1966/2002.

Yayoi Kusama is everywhere right now. By this I mean she is the subject of large retrospective exhibitions worldwide and her work is captured, circulated and seen by millions of people every day on social media. So why choose a work from the Collection that has most likely already been ‘liked’ by everyone?

For three years I had the pleasure of working in the Queensland Art Gallery building, designed by architect Robin Gibson, AO (1930–2014), and recently placed on the Queensland Heritage Register. From my vantage point, I could peer down into the Watermall, a particularly challenging space to exhibit artworks. More than the logistics of installing precious works of art over water, the space itself — its visual logic of filtered light and coarse concrete surfaces — places its own demands on the works displayed.

Huang Yong Ping’s Ressort 2012, the serpent spiral, faced this challenge head on through its menacing scale and sense of movement, while Ai Weiwei’s chandelier sculpture Boomerang 2006 emanated an incandescent glow that, on its own terms, measured up to the Watermall.

Huang Yong Ping, China b.1954 / Ressort 2012 / Aluminium, stainless steel / 53m (length) / Commissioned 2012 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist / Photograph: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA
Ai Weiwei, China b.1957 / Boomerang 2006 / Glass lustres, plated steel, electric cables, incandescent lamps / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2007 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

For this reason, I’ve selected Kusama’s Narcissus garden 1966/2002 as my favourite Collection work. Narcissus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a beautiful youth who rejected the nymph Echo and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. He pined away and was changed into the flower that bears his name’. Comprised of approximately 2000 mirrored balls, the work is shaped by both the currents and the limits of the water. Clusters and constellations are formed, reflecting the building’s architecture back onto itself from an infinite number of angles. Not unlike the myth, there is a dreamy yet sinister aspect to the work — it mesmerises at the same time that it forces one to look away. Narcissus garden has appeared in other gallery spaces, but the challenge and metaphor of the iteration in water make it my favourite.

So I admire this work from a safe distance — a distance that allows me to consider and reflect on the expanding role of architecture in art or, indeed, architecture as art.

Installation view of Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus garden 1966/2002, QAG Watermall 2017 / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc / Photograph: Chloe Callistemon © QAGOMA

Rosemary Willink is a PhD candidate at the School of Architecture, University of Queensland, and has been a member of the QAGOMA Foundation’s Future Collective since 2016.
Feature image: Yayoi Kusama, Japan b.1929 / Narcissus garden 1966/2002 / Stainless steel balls / 2000 balls (approx.) / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2002 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc / Photograph: Ray Fulton © QAGOMA

Investing in the development of QAGOMA’s Collection


Now in its third year, QAGOMA’s youngest supporter group, the Future Collective are putting their combined might behind Australian artists and investing in the development of the Gallery’s Collection. The group met at GOMA last month to discuss all things commissioning and hear from the artist they voted to commission two new works by in 2016, Helen Johnson. We asked Future Collective member, Kamillea Aghtan to reflect on the event.

The Future Collective members on tour with Geraldine Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art viewing Pinaree Sanpitak’s Noon-nom 2016 / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

On our way into GOMA we pass the fibrous form of Judy Watson’s Tow Row, which weaves a silent reminder in bronze of the Kurilpa Point’s history as a sacred meeting site along the banks of the Brisbane River. A short moment later Geraldine Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art, takes us on a journey: past Carsten Höller’s interactive helices of steel, Left/Right Slide 2010; through the slicing sheets of light which inhabit Anthony McCall’s Crossing 2016; down a sugary forest of Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir’s rainbow-bright Nervescape V 2016; and over eighty voluptuous ‘breaststupas’ composing Noon-nom 2016 by Pinaree Sanpitak. And finally, we settled attentive at our destination for the evening: a conversation with the artist of the Future Collective’s nominated project, Helen Johnson.

Future Collective Artist In-Conversation Helen Johnson with with Dr Kyla McFarlane, Acting Curatorial Manager, Australian Art / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

The thread that ties all these artists together at QAGOMA is commission. Each has been asked to consider a particular space and time at the Gallery, and to produce a work that intimately interrelates with it. Helen Johnson’s artwork, yet to be realised, is only the second project to be supported by the pooled funds of the Gallery’s newest supporter group, the QAGOMA Future Collective. It promises to open up a unique conversation – one which carefully considers QAGOMA’s Collection as well as its own place in it, and which responds to two much-loved works owned by the Gallery: Vida Lahey’s iconic Monday Morning 1912 and A M E Bale’s Leisure moment 1902.

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Monday morning 1912 / Oil on canvas / Gift of Madame Emily Coungeau through the Queensland Art Society 1912 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
A.M.E. Bale, Australia 1875-1955 / Leisure moments 1902 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1973 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Helen cuts a modest figure under the auditorium lights but she fills the room with her subject matter. She has spent days carefully researching QAGOMA’s Collection in the Gallery’s Research Library narrowing the scope of her endeavour down to these two works and investigating their unspoken contexts. In conversation with Dr Kyla McFarlane, Acting Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, Helen helps us approach some of the beautifully detailed works which feature in her most recent exhibition at the Institution of Contemporary Arts, London and in The National: new Australian art, at  the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Her paintings there, a mélange of images often inspired from archival sources, are juxtaposed, layered and mapped in order to expose different narratives of colonisation, politics and society barely hidden under the glossy surface of sanctioned history.

In 2015, the QAGOMA Future Collective voted to support the Gallery’s purchase of five compelling and challenging photographs from emerging  Perth artist Abdul Abdullah’s ‘Coming to terms’ series 2015, which were displayed in ‘The 8th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8), an exhibition viewed by over 600,000 visitors. The Future Collective’s 2016 decision to support a commission of Johnson’s work was no less daring. We don’t know what forms will be depicted in the two large-scale, double-sided hanging canvases that the artist will produce, or what messages or stories. It is like a test of faith between us, and a thrum of excitement grows in the room, redoubling between artist and Future Collective members, as we realise the depth of influence and inspiration that can emerge between works in the Gallery’s Collection and Helen’s practice.

Our decision to fund a project by the Melbourne-based female artist was also very much in line with one of the group’s driving motivations – to support exciting contemporary Australian art and artists as they gain their footing and momentum, and hopefully to provide a midway launching platform during their ascendancy. Before the close of the conversation, Helen thanked the Future Collective for enabling her the opportunity to create works for QAGOMA and explained what it means to her as an artist at this point in her career. By this time, of course, we feel equally privileged to be right there with her – sharing her ambitions, hopes and creative futures. This may have been a daring Future Collective investment, but its pay-off in artistic passion and possibility feels nothing short of immediate.

Kamillea Aghtan is the Director, Finance & Operations, Westan Australia Pty Ltd and a member of the Future Collective. She also works as an independent scholar in Brisbane and has published on regulatory and sensual ethics in a variety of platforms including academic journals, books and blogs.

Feature image: Geraldine Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art takes a tour past  Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir’s Nervescape V 2016 / Photograph:  Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

A cultural centre for Queensland


Since the Queensland Art Gallery opened in 1982, the Cultural Centre has evolved into the arts and culture centrepiece of the state. The Gallery and the Cultural Centre is architecturally significant and demonstrates the evolution of modern landscape architecture in Queensland. Having recently entered the Queensland Heritage Register, we look at the many proposals to get to where we are today.

Throughout the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the major Queensland cultural institutions were accommodated in a range of facilities throughout Brisbane: the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery in the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace, the State Library in William Street while performing arts companies utilised a variety of venues including the concert hall in the Exhibition Building, Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the City Hall (from 1928).

Queensland Art Gallery, 1982
Architectural drawing, Queensland Art Gallery, 1982


The idea to amalgamate two or more of the key cultural institutions in Brisbane was first proposed in 1889 when, the Queensland Department of Works held a competition for the design of a museum, art gallery and library. The competition was won by Charles McLay who proposed an imposing neoclassical building on a site in Wickham Terrace above Central Railway Station. Tenders were called for the project in March 1891 just as the government was facing a financial crisis and construction did not proceed.1

Plan of proposed Museum, Wickham Terrace by Charles McLay, 1891 (QSA Item ID108156)
Plan of proposed Museum, Wickham Terrace by Charles McLay, 1891 / QSA Item ID108156

The idea of a cultural centre was again canvassed in 1927 when Raymond Nowland, architect and town planner, addressed the Town Planning Association of Queensland on the development and beautification of North Quay. Nowland proposed an ambitious scheme that involved removing unhappy structures fronting the Brisbane River and replacing them with an enlarged public library and an art gallery.2 Nothing eventuated but in 1934, Nowland re-visited the concept when working as a senior architect in the Department of Works. He was responsible for a scheme involving the redevelopment of Wickham Park fronting Turbot Street. Nowland proposed an ambitious project of three new public buildings: a dental hospital, art gallery and public library. The Courier Mail enthused about this ‘Civic Cultural Centre’, claiming that ‘at last a Queensland Government has been brought to recognise the State’s need of a national public library and a national art gallery worthy to bear those names, and to admit, also, some responsibility for repairing a long neglect of public cultural facilities in Queensland ‘s capital’.

Wickham Park aerial view with proposed Dental Hospital, Art Gallery and Public Library, 1938 / QSA Item ID328720
Wickham Park aerial view with proposed Dental Hospital, Art Gallery and Public Library, 1938 / QSA Item ID328720

The Dental Hospital was built (completed in 1941) but not the art gallery or library. They would have to wait.

Brisbane Dental Hospital and College, June 1940 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland #54384
Brisbane Dental Hospital and College, June 1940 / Photograph: State Library of Queensland #54384

As Brisbane emerged from war-time restrictions on construction and public works projects in the later part of the 1940s, attention turned to major civic improvement schemes including beautifying the city and cultural facilities. In 1948 a scheme was proposed to move the Supreme Court buildings further east along George Street and create a square with an art gallery and new state library.4 In the following years, the Lord Mayor, Alderman Chandler, proposed a scheme of creating a wider tree-lined Albert Street from the City Hall to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens and that ‘the Art Gallery and Conservatorium should be housed near the gardens, as well as an opera house and library’.5 Again, these schemes remained but dreams.

The idea of locating the art gallery near the Botanic Gardens continued to be canvassed in the 1950s. To celebrate Queensland’s centenary in 1959, a proposal was submitted to Cabinet for the construction of a new gallery on a site near Government House at Gardens Point. The government responded enthusiastically and the Premier announced that a world-wide competition would be conducted for the design of the complex. The scheme quickly expanded into not only an art gallery but also a multi-purpose hall with seating for 1500 patrons for use for musical and dramatic presentations.6 This building was to be known as ‘Pioneers’ Hall’. The complex would be funded by a mix of public donations and government assistance. A committee was established comprising prominent identities associated with the arts and chaired by the Premier. Problems, however, soon emerged with the proposal. First, the Brisbane City Council announced in April 1959 that it was considering extending George Street through to the river for a new bridge at Gardens Point. Consequently, the area of land for the proposed Cultural Centre would be curtailed. Secondly, potential art-loving benefactors were concerned that their contributions would be devoted to the ‘Pioneers Hall’ and not a new art gallery. After the euphoria surrounding centenary celebrations had subsided in 1959, the scheme was eventually abandoned.

Another site in the Brisbane CBD soon emerged as the possible location for a Cultural Centre. The Brisbane Municipal Markets had operated from a site fronting Roma Street since 1881 and in 1960, the Market Authority decided to relocate to a new site at Rocklea. A range of uses for such a prime site were soon forthcoming, including a proposal by the Brisbane Women’s Club that it be reserved for a ‘Cultural Centre, together with a self-governing Art Gallery with adequate car parking facilities provided’.7 The State government commissioned the architectural firm, Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners, to prepare a master plan of the Roma Street precinct. The plan included a new State Gallery and Centre for Allied Arts located on the market site.8 While the government endorsed the plan and the location of an art gallery on Roma Street, the Brisbane City Council, who by this time had responsibility for the former market reserve, opted for a park.9 The council’s view was that a cultural centre was best suited in the Botanic Gardens as it had aspirations of developing a new botanic gardens at Mount Coot-tha.10 So like all previous proposals for a cultural centre, the Roma Street site had been abandoned by the end of 1968.

Within the Department of Works, however, the concept was still alive. The need for a new art gallery was a priority, but in late 1968, Roman Pavlyshyn, senior architect in the Works Department wrote to David Longland, the Director-General of the Works Department suggesting that the gallery ‘should be part of a complex of buildings dedicated to cultural purposes, including an opera and drama theatre and the Queensland Museum’.11 Longland pursued the idea with his Minister, Max Hodges, who then raised the matter with the Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Hodges urged that a Select Committee be established to examine the need for a cultural centre, investigate the most appropriate site, and recommend methods of financing.12 The Premier then referred the matter to the Treasurer, Gordon Chalk. Although in general agreement with the concept, Chalk maintained that a new art gallery was a ‘matter of urgency’.13 Chalk was concerned that establishing such a committee would potentially delay for several years a new art gallery.


From its beginnings in 1895, the Queensland National Art Gallery had occupied a succession of spaces in various public buildings. From 1930, it had been accommodated in the former Concert Hall in the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace. These facilities were less than adequate and the Board of Trustees lobbied the Queensland government over an extended period for a purpose-built gallery. Finally in November 1968, the Board convinced the government to act.

The Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building in a large upper room placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane
The  Queensland National Art Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building in a large upper room placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council / Photograph: State Library of Queensland

In November 1968, prominent Australian art critic and historian Professor Bernard Smith visited the Gallery and told the Courier Mail that ‘one only has to be inside this gallery— even for 24 hours—to see that art in this institution is in a pretty sorry position’.14 The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Sir Leon Trout, agreed. He asserted ‘the gallery is hopeless’ and publicly supported Smith’s claims that art in Queensland was ‘weedy and malnourished, and in a sense, suffering from cultural rickets’.15 These very public disparaging comments prompted an immediate response from the Government. Within two days, the acting Premier, Gordon Chalk, announced an investigation into the future of the Queensland Art Gallery.16 In January 1969, Cabinet approved the establishment of the Queensland Art Gallery Site Committee.17


Overlooking South Brisbane, site of the future Queensland Art Gallery, 1950s
Overlooking South Brisbane, site of the future Queensland Art Gallery, 1950s

The committee examined twelve possible sites, and then reduced the number to three for more detailed consideration: Holy Name Cathedral site, Fortitude Valley; Brisbane City Council Transport depot, Coronation Drive; and Riverside Drive, South Brisbane.18 The committee agreed that the site at South Brisbane bounded by Melbourne and Grey Streets and the Brisbane River was the most suitable and in every way it appeared to be the most viable:

It was the Architecturally-preferred site;
The Brisbane City Council would be making a valuable contribution;
It was the site which would do most for the City of Brisbane;
There was potential for use of a similar block on the other side of Melbourne Street for cultural facilities.19

Some of the land was already in public ownership—State and Brisbane City Council—but a substantial number of privately owned allotments had to be acquired for the project. This became a lengthy process and some owners objected to the valuations.

Aerial view of South Brisbane c.1969
Aerial view of South Brisbane c.1969

Not until most of the land had been acquired did the government appoint a Steering Committee to provide a comprehensive report on the various requirements of the new Art Gallery, ‘sufficient to form the basis for the preparation of the design and for the development of planning and construction documents for the new building’.20 The committee was appointed in July 1971 and was chaired by Roman Pavlyshyn, Assistant Under Secretary in the Department of Works.21 Pavlyshyn was the principal author of the report and went on to play an influential role not only in the development of the Art Gallery but also the Cultural Centre.22

Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The report was comprehensive and included recommendations on space requirements, costs, method of planning and construction and a detailed planning brief. The committee concluded a building of 140 000 sq feet (13 000 m²) at an estimated cost of $4.5 million was required.23 The report alluded to the possibility that the site could be used to accommodate other cultural activities. The committee recommended that a two-stage architectural competition be held to select an architect for the design of the new gallery.

The planning brief was concise but thorough. It emphasised ‘that the gallery should be an active and human place to which the visiting public will be attracted to participate in the enjoyment of the facilities provided by the gallery’. The brief, also noted, rather presciently, ‘that it is possible that the future activities and requirements of the gallery may call for facilities which cannot be foreseen at present’.24 Significantly, the Planning Brief not only addressed issues such as functional requirements, the site and town planning issues, but also focused on desired design criteria. They included the following principles:

It is desirable that the building itself should be of the highest possible standard of architectural design. This does not mean that it should be either monumental or pretentious in character. It should be a building of its time incorporating the best techniques and materials available within the economic limits of the project.

A public gallery is a symbol of artistic and cultural development. It should have human qualities and attractions of a kind which encourage people to visit the collection, and to take pleasure in being in a place where the artistic achievements of the community are effectively but unostentatiously displayed for their enjoyment.

More informality should be the keynote which should also take advantage of the subtropical climatic conditions which prevail in Brisbane. The site on the Brisbane River selected for the building, suggests that it should be outward looking to take advantage of the views of the tree-clad hills which form the setting for the city of Brisbane. The gallery will be seen to great advantage in views from across the river and from other vantage points in the city.

The fine, Mediterranean-like quality of the Brisbane climate is such that a building, light in colour, but carefully modelled to give interesting effects of light and shade might be most suitable…

The landscaping proposals for the site should be an integral part of the total design. Courts for the display of sculpture and shaded areas for rest and relaxation should be included. The paving, lighting and furnishing of these areas to the relationship of the building and its setting to the river are all matters of particular design importance.25

The design principles also addressed issues of space, volume and scale. The planning brief stressed that the ‘relationship of the exhibition spaces or galleries to each other is of great importance’ and that ‘areas linking the display galleries should be attractively arranged, where possible, with views outside the building to provide contrast and to avoid museum fatigue’. The brief highlighted the importance of access and circulation, stressing that ‘it is of the greatest importance that a major public building of this kind should have an appropriate address’ and that ‘the main public entrance should be clearly identifiable and attractively designed’.26

The planning brief submitted in March 1972 was a key document in the successful design and development of the art gallery, due to its clarity, vision and understanding of the context and requirements for a modern art gallery. It was accepted by Cabinet and approval given to proceed with the project.27


As recommended by the Steering Committee, a two-stage design competition was conducted. The assessors panel consisted of Sir Leon Trout, Chairman of the Queensland Art Gallery Board of Trustees, Roman Pavlyshyn, Assistant Under Secretary, Department of Works, and Stanley Marquis- Kyle, representing the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. The first stage was to invite ten firms on the register for Queensland government work with the Works Department to participate in the competition. These firms were all well respected Brisbane-based architectural firms.28 The first stage closed in November 1972 and the names of the three firms proceeding to the second stage were announced in the following month. They were:

Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners; Robin Gibson and Partners; and Lund, Hutton, Newell Paulsen. The second stage closed on 1 March 1973 and the winner of the competition, Robin Gibson and Partners, announced on 16 April 1973.29 The assessors concluded that the ‘winning design exhibits great clarity and simplicity of concept and relates admirably to the environment and site’.30 Gibson later commented to the Steering Committee for the new Art Gallery that in ‘developing the design to final completion it was necessary to keep in mind the original basic design philosophy’ that had been articulated in the Planning Brief.31 Gibson began working on the detailed design for the art gallery but the program was delayed when the question of a cultural centre re-surfaced as a definite project.


While the art gallery project had been the focus of the government’s attention, the plans for a cultural centre were not entirely abandoned. In March 1971, Allan Fletcher, Minister for Education and Cultural Activities submitted a proposal to Cabinet for the acquisition of two blocks at South Brisbane for the State Library and Museum. Fletcher had the support of the Brisbane City Council, but the proposal was rejected.32 By early 1974, the emergence of a range of issues coalesced to bring the need for a cultural centre at South Brisbane to the government’s attention.

G H M Addison, Australia 1858-1922 / (Architect’s drawing of Exhibition Building, Gregory Terrace) c.1890 / Pen, ink and gouache on light-brown heavy smooth paper / Gift of Herbert S. Macdonald 1958 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
G H M Addison, Australia 1858-1922 / (Architect’s drawing of Exhibition Building, Gregory Terrace) c.1890 / Pen, ink and gouache on light-brown heavy smooth paper / Gift of Herbert S. Macdonald 1958 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Just as much as a new art gallery was a priority, it had become increasingly clear that a new museum, state library and a state-of-the-art performing arts centre was also needed. In 1973, the Board of Trustees of the Queensland Museum had commissioned a feasibility study on the re-development of the Queensland Museum as the conditions in the Exhibition Building were less than adequate.33 The study investigated a range of sites and recommended a site within Albert Park with a building of 216 000 sq feet (19 565 m²) floor area.34 This study provided a compelling argument for a new museum. Similarly, the State Library, occupying a building erected in 1879 with extensions in 1959, was in urgent need of additional space, not only for the collections but also for users. The Works Department commissioned Robin Gibson and Partners to undertake a feasibility study to demonstrate how the existing building in William Street could be extended.35

Although the state government did not own or operate a major performing arts venue, the sale of Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1973 was cause for grave concern about the future of the performing arts in Brisbane. The building had been the main venue for opera, ballet and dramatic performances since 1888. The new owners intended to demolish the building and re-develop the site.36

Model, Queensland Art Gallery 1973 / Photograph: Richard Stringer
Model, Queensland Art Gallery, 1973 / Photograph: Richard Stringer

In February 1974, Alan Fletcher the Minister for Education and Cultural Activities, submitted to Cabinet a proposal for the acquisition of a site for a performing arts centre. Unlike the previous occasion when he sought Cabinet approval for land for a new library and museum, on this occasion approval in principle was given to investigate the question.37 The suggested site was at South Brisbane to the north-west of the Art Gallery site. Two months later, the Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced that ‘Brisbane may get an Arts Centre’. In a media release he said the centre could incorporate the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, a concert hall and facilities for live theatre, ballet and other performing arts. The Premier said he had asked the Coordinator General to undertake a feasibility study into the planning and financing of the centre.38

The member for Chatsworth, WD Hewitt, expressed his concerns in a speech in the Legislative Assembly in September 1974. He commented:

It is obvious that Brisbane needs a cultural centre and that urgent attention must be given to this matter…Recognising that Her Majesty’s Theatre is presently under the threat of the wrecker’s hammer, I submit that some action must be taken to fill the vacuum that its closure would cause.39

Hewitt surprisingly would not wait long for an answer, the Treasurer, Gordon Chalk, had engaged Robin Gibson and Partners to assist in the development of a brief and prepare sketch plans and a physical scale model Cultural Centre at South Brisbane.

Model of the Cultural Centre prepared in 1974 / Courtesy: Richard Stringer QPACA
Model of the Cultural Centre prepared in 1974 / Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA

Chalk announced his presented scheme to the public on 14 November 1974 as part of the Liberal Party policy launch for the State election in the following month. Chalk said the complex would comprise a museum equal to any in Australia; an outstanding art gallery; a performing arts centre; a new public library; and restaurant’.40 On the day of the announcement, Chalk unveiled in his office a model of the complex prepared by Robin Gibson and Partners. The Courier Mail declared that leading figures in the arts community were unanimous that this was an ‘imaginative and exciting project.’41

Cultural Centre model 1975/ Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA
Cultural Centre model, 1975/ Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA

The initial plans and scale model of the Cultural Centre differed in some key elements from what ultimately eventuated on the site. The general location of the principal four buildings was as finally determined. However, the 1974 model was distinguished by triangular and trapezoidal building forms, unlike the later simpler rectangular expressions. The gallery was diagonally aligned to face Melbourne Street and the river and stepped to a plaza. An overhead walkway over Melbourne Street linked the two parts of site.

Model of the Cultural Centre c. 1977 with more detail than shown in the 1975 model / Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA
Model of the Cultural Centre, c. 1977 with more detail than shown in the 1975 model / Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA

Chalk presented his proposal for a Cultural Centre at South Brisbane to Cabinet on 18 November 1974.42 The submission outlined the current needs of the various cultural institutions and the advantages of an integrated and coordinated complex. Co-locating an art gallery, museum, library and performing arts centre would mean the sharing of car parking facilities, restaurants, mechanical services and some staff resources. In addition, the close proximity of the institutions had the ‘potential for much needed interaction’. The total cost for the Cultural Centre including land acquisition, car parking and site works was $45.4 million.43 

Aerial view of the Cultural Centre, 1978
Aerial view of the Cultural Centre, 1978

Cabinet agreed to the project and the following immediate action:

(i) Acquire the necessary land as urgently as possible
(ii) Establish a body for the Performing Arts Centre
(iii) Establish a coordinating and planning management body for the overall cultural complex.

Queensland Art Gallery
Queensland Art Gallery, 1982

The question remained—would this be the scheme that came to fruition? The Courier Mail editorialised that ‘Queenslanders understandably have become cynical after 79 years of promises…[and] there is nothing like an election to get things moving’.44 But in this case they did.

Queensland Cultural Centre, 1982
Queensland Cultural Centre featuring the Queensland Art Gallery, 1982

This is an extract from the Queensland Cultural Centre Conservation Management Plan (published 2017), prepared by Conrad Gargett in association with Thom Blake, Historian and heritage consultant. Thom Blake researched and wrote the chapters on the history of the Cultural Centre and revised statement of significance. The individual building’s architecture, the site’s setting, landscape and fabric were investigated by Luke Pendergast with principal support by Robert Riddel. Alan Kirkwood and Peter Roy assisted with advice on the design approach and history of the planning and construction of the Cultural Centre.

1  Brisbane Courier, 2 October 1889, 7 November 1889, 25 March 1891.
2 Brisbane Courier, 27 February 1927.
3  Courier Mail, 13 November 1934.
4  The Sunday Mail, 14 March 1948.
5  The Sunday Mail, 30 October 1949.
6  Australian Institute of Architects, ‘Application for entry of a State Heritage Place, Queensland Cultural Centre,4 August 2014’ww, p. 22.
7  Proposed use of former Municipal Markets Reserve, 15 January 1969, QSA Item ID961644.
8  Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners, Plan for Redevelopment of Roma Street Area City of Brisbane, Department of the Co-ordinator General of Public Works, Brisbane, 1967; Courier Mail, 11 January 1967.
9  Courier Mail, 16 November 1968.
10  Australian Institute of Architects, Application, p. 23.
11  Pavlyshyn Memoirs.
12  Minister for Works and Housing to Hon. Joh Bjelke-Petersen, 10 January 1969, QSA Item ID957244.
13  Gordon Chalk to Hon. Joh Bjelke-Petersen, 21 February 1969, QSA Item ID957244.
14  Courier Mail, 14 November 1968.
15  Ibid.
16  Courier Mail, 16 November 1968.
17  Cabinet decision No 12536, 14 January 1969, QSA Item ID541022.
18  Queensland Art Gallery Site Committee, ‘Proposed Art Centre Site Investigation’, March 1969, QSA Item ID 961664. The initial sites considered were: Exhibition building site; Albert Park, Old Markets Roma Street, Botanic Gardens, Central Railway Station, block bounded by Wharf, Adelaide and Ann Streets, Holy Name Cathedral, Isles Lane, Treasury Building, Lower Edward Street, Riverside Drive near Victoria Bridge, Brisbane City Council Transport depot Coronation Drive.
19  Ibid., p. 2.
20  New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID961664.
21  The other committee members were: AE Guymer, Director General of Education; Sir Leon Trout, Chairman of the Board of Trustees; AJ Stratigos, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees, James Weineke, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, Professor GE Roberts, Professor of Architecture, University of Queensland; Peter Prystupa, Supervising Architect, Department of Works. (New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID961664. p. 2).
22  Although Pavlyshyn is not specifically identified as the author, it is clear from other reports he wrote and also the minutes of the Steering Committee on 26 October 1971, that he was responsible for drafting the text on which the committee then provided comment (Minutes of Steering Committee, 26 October 1917, QSA Item ID601046).
23  Land acquisition, site works and a car park were estimated at $2.5 million, Ibid, p. 6.
24  New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID961664, Appendix C, p. 4.
25  Ibid., pp. 7-8.
26  Ibid., p. 9.
27  Cabinet decision No 16829, 21 March 1969 QSA Item ID601046.
28  These firms were: James Birrell and Partners; Bligh, Jessup, Bretnall and Partners; Consortium of Codd, Hopgood and Associates, HJ Parkinson and Associates, Blair M Wilson; Conrad, Gargett and Partners; Cullen, Fagg, Hargraves, Mooney and Cullen; Fulton, Collin, Boys, Gilmour, Trotter and Partners; Robin Gibson and Partners; Hall, Phillips and Wilson; Lund, Hutton, Newell, Paulsen;and Prangley and Crofts (Under Secretary, Department of Works, 15 August 1972, QSA Item ID601046).
29  Courier Mail, 17 April 1973.
30  The Australian, 17 April 1973.
31  Minutes of the Steering Committee for the new Queensland Art Gallery, 10 January 1974, QSA Item ID601046.
32  Architects Institute of Australia, Submission, p. 24.
33  Fulton, Collin, Boys, Gilmour, Trotter & Partners, Feasibility Survey Re-Development of Queensland Museum, 1973, QSA Item ID315623.
34  A total of 17 sites were considered and three short-listed: Albert Park, Woolloongabba Rail Yards and Toowong East (currently bush-land between Old Mount Coot-tha Road and Birdwood Terrace).
35  Plans, State Public Library feasibility study, QSA Item ID121879.
36  Courier Mail, 28 June 1973. Her Majesty’s Theatre was finally demolished in 1983 and the Hilton Hotel and Wintergarden Shopping Centre built on the site.
37  Cabinet decision No 20057, 5 February 1974, QSA Item ID569765.
38  Media release, 28 April 1974, QSA Item ID569765.
39  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, 11 September 1974, p. 720.
40  Courier Mail, 15 November 1974.
41  Ibid.
42  Cabinet decision No 21481, QSA Item ID541022.
43  Ibid.
44 Courier Mail, 16 November 1974.