Queensland Art Gallery: Celebrating 125 years in 2020


In the late 19th century, Queensland artists Isaac Walter Jenner and R. Godfrey Rivers successfully lobbied for the creation of a state art gallery, with the Queensland National Art Gallery established in 1895. The new Gallery was opened by the Queensland Governor, Sir Henry Wylie Norman at temporary premises in old Town Hall on Queen Street with an inaugural display of 38 pictures, one marble bust, and 70 engravings. It occupied a series of temporary premises prior to the opening of its permanent home at South Bank in 1982, joined by the Gallery of Modern Art in 2006. Together the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) celebrates 125 years on 29 March 2020.

Queensland National Art Gallery’s opening display 1895

The Queensland National Art Gallery’s opening display recorded in the Queenslander, 13 April 1895 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Lagging well behind the state galleries of Victoria (founded in 1861), New South Wales (founded in 1871) and South Australia (founded in 1881), Queensland’s National Art Gallery opened more or less permanently to the public for the first time on Friday afternoon, 29 March 1895. Hung in temporary quarters in the upstairs room of the Town Hall, the Collection consisted of a curious mixture of Old Masters and contemporary works and included both copies and originals.

Brisbane Town Hall

The now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane

The Queensland National Art Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council. Occupying a modest space on the first floor, the Gallery’s collection comprised 24 pictures, one marble bust, 70 engravings, and 27 pieces of Doulton ware. This room quickly became cramped and in 1905, the Queensland Government offered the Gallery a large room on the third floor in the recently completed Lands and Survey Offices (later Lands Administration building) in George Street. Although it provided more space than the room in the Town Hall, it still had limitations as an art gallery. The room was not easily accessible by the public and soon became cramped as the collection expanded.

First Acquisition

In 1896, a year after establishment, the Queensland National Art Gallery acquired Blandford Fletcher’s Victorian painting Evicted 1887. Depicting the plight of a mother and daughter, it is still one of the Gallery’s most popular works with visitors. The painting displays an interest in the human stories associated with English village life, and typify late Victorian appeals to the social conscience in an age of rapid industrialisation, reform and economic hardship.

Evicted presents the narrative of a dispossessed widow and her child, forced to leave their home while a top‑hatted bailiff and the other villagers look on. The location has since been identified as Steventon in Berkshire, where the same lime-washed houses still stand.

Paintings such as Evicted fell out of favour in the early years of the twentieth century. With the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the emerging prosperity and relative peace of the Edwardian era, images of childhood and poverty suddenly seemed sentimental.

Blandford Fletcher ‘Evicted’ 1887

Blandford Fletcher, England 1858–1936 / Evicted 1887 / Oil on canvas / 123.1 x 185.3cm / Purchased 1896 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

In 1905 the Gallery relocated to the Executive Building (Land Administration Building) in George Street followed in 1931 to the Exhibition Building Concert Hall at Gregory Terrace. In 1969 the South Bank site was purchased for the development of the permanent Gallery building and in 1975 moves to temporary premises in M.I.M building, Ann Street before permanently settling in South Bank.

Executive Building (Land Administration Building)

The Executive Building, renamed Lands Administration building, Brisbane / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

On 18 December 1905, the Gallery reopened in a purpose-designed room the length of the third floor above George Street in the recently completed Executive Building where it remained until 1930. During construction it was known as the New Lands and Survey Offices. The renamed Lands Administration building is a four-story building occupying a site bounded by George Street, Stephens Lane, William Street and Queens Gardens. The building currently forms part of the Conrad Treasury Casino and houses a five star hotel. The form and scale of the building complement the former Treasury Building and the former State Library located nearby. The building was designed by the Queensland Government’s chief architect Thomas Pye in the Edwardian Baroque style and was initially intended as offices for the Queensland Government’s Lands and Survey Departments. When finished and occupied in 1905 as the Executive Building, it accommodated both the Lands and Survey Departments and offices of the Premier and Executive Council.

Exhibition Building

The Exhibition Building when it was occupied by the Queensland Art Gallery from 1930 / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane

The Exhibition Building’s Concert Hall provided the Gallery’s premises from 1930 to 1974. The Old Museum was originally called the Exhibition Building and Concert Hall. It was built in 1891 for the Queensland National Agricultural and Industrial Association after Brisbane’s first exhibition building which had occupied the land, was destroyed by fire on 13 June 1888. The new exhibition building was designed by the architect George Henry Male Addison (1857–1922), the style of the building may best be described as progressive eclecticism. In 1899, the Exhibition Hall became home to the Queensland Museum, with the museum remaining in the building until the museum’s relocation to South Bank within the cultural precinct in 1986.

MIM Building

Postcard highlighting the Australian School Galleries, Queensland Art Gallery, MIM building / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

While progress on the design and development of the art gallery at South Bank continued, in the early 1970s, conditions in space occupied by the art gallery in the Exhibition Building were rapidly deteriorating. In March 1974, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Leon Trout, wrote to the Minister for Education and Cultural Activities about major problems with water leaks during the floods in January 1974, and also fire hazards due to faulty wiring. Following a report from the Department of Works, the Government decided to act and close the Gallery. Temporary premises were obtained on the fifth and sixth floor of the MIM building, Ann Street. The Art Gallery remained there until the opening of the new building in 1982.

Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank

Queensland Art Gallery at South Bank under construction, with architect Robin Gibson AO (left) and then Gallery Director Raoul Mellish, c.1981 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / Photograph: Richard Stringer
Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), South Bank 1982

The Queensland Art Gallery at South Bank was designed by architect Robin Gibson AO (1930–2014), the building still admired since its opening on 21 June 1982, winning The Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture the same year, recognised as Australia’s leading award for public buildings. Gibson looked to modernist international precedents to design the Gallery and surrounding Queensland Cultural Centre that has since become integral to Brisbane’s identity.

The Silver Jubilee Fountain

The installation of a fountain in the Brisbane River in front of the Queensland Art Gallery was not part of the original plans for the Cultural Centre. When the Queensland Government became aware that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was to visit the state in 1977 as part of her Jubilee celebrations, it was keen to have her visit the Cultural Centre site even though only preliminary site works would have been completed.

Robin Gibson had worked for leading British architect Sir Hugh Casson in the 1950s, and he sought his opinion about what would be appropriate. Casson advised that the Queen would be reluctant to just lay a foundation stone, so Gibson proposed a large fountain in the river in time for the Queen’s visit. Queen Elizabeth II activated the Jubilee Fountain on 11 March 1977 and laid the foundation stone.

The Fountain was a triangular shape with 30 large pipes that shot water high into the air, and at night it lit up the city skyline with more than 90 lights. It quickly became a landmark in front of the Gallery until it was decommissioned in 1985.

Queen Elizabeth at the Queensland Art Gallery site, 11 March 1977 for the Silver Jubilee Fountain celebrations / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Fountain celebrations at the Queensland Art Gallery site, 11 March 1977 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
A view of the Queensland Art Gallery from Victoria Bridge, Brisbane, June 1982 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library / Photograph: Richard Stringer

South Bank Opening Acquisition

As part of the opening function of the Cultural Centre Jubilee celebrations, a new acquisition for the Queensland Art Gallery was officially unveiled – Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian) c.1629-30 by Peter Paul Rubens, made possible through a gift by the Gallery’s Foundation. Young woman in a fur wrap is one of the Gallery’s most important old master works and is a copy after Titian’s work Girl in a fur wrap now in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian)’ c.1629-30

Peter Paul Rubens, Flanders 1577-1640 / Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian) c.1629-30 / Oil on canvas / 91.8 x 68.3cm / Purchased 1980. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The Queensland Art Gallery was opened by the Premier of Queensland, the Honourable Joh Bjelke- Petersen on 21 June 1982. As part of the opening function, the Deputy Premier, the Hon. Llew Edwards unveiled the acquisition Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian). As part of the opening celebrations five international exhibitions were opened at the gallery which attracted more than 50 000 visitors in the first ten days.

For northern painters of the sixteenth century, the work of the Italians was a necessary course of study. One travelled to see and study and copy these objects at close quarters. Rubens’s copies were more than slavish imitation however, his talent and mastery of his medium was accomplished and confident when he experienced their work in Italy, Spain and England.

Rubens, like Titian was a court painter to kings, dukes and princes in Italy, Spain and England, he studied and copied the work of many Italian painters, though it was Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1488–1576) that Rubens appeared to have held a particular fascination and admiration. At the time of Rubens’s death in 1640 there were 33 copies of Titian’s works in addition to eight paintings and two sketches by the Venetian master in the inventory of Rubens’s estate.

Young woman in a fur wrap anticipates the sensuality of his late works, he is unable to resist endowing the Titianesque beauty with that slightly quizzical inviting glance that so often marks his women, Rubens has changed the face, and in particular the eyes and there are significant differences when the two paintings are closely compared. As well, the girl in our painting bears some family resemblance to Rubens’s second wife Hèléne Fourment.

Titian inspired Rubens to paint a tribute of love and tenderness that he kept until his death and stated in his will that it not be put up for sale. He left it to his wife Hèléne, too intimate a work to be sold to another. But, of course, it was.

Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)

Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Only 150 metres apart, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art are two vibrant architectural sites, the two galleries each with their own distinct personalities.

In July 2002, Sydney-based company Architectus was commissioned by the Queensland Government following an Architect Selection Competition, to design the Gallery’s second site.

On 1 December 2006 the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) opens with ‘The 5th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT5); and a new Robin Gibson-designed entry from Stanley Place opens at the Queensland Art Gallery to connect both buildings.

Robin Gibson’s new entrance to Stanley Place including the curved glass addition to the Queensland Art Gallery building, 2006 / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Now Queensland’s premier visual arts institution, the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), connects people and art through a dynamic program of Australian and international exhibitions that showcase works from a diverse range of historical and contemporary artists.

Enriching the cultural life of Brisbane, these two galleries offer distinct, yet complementary experiences. Glimpses of Brisbane and the river that flows past continue to anchor you to the subtropical city from inside each gallery. Both riverside galleries are now home to more than 17 000 artworks, a globally significant collection of contemporary art from Australia, Asia and the Pacific, built over the past 125 years.

Watch | GOMA time-lapse

Additional supplementary material by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer QAGOMA, sourced from archival material in the QAGOMA Research Library.