To celebrate the 120 years of the Queensland Art Gallery, we present an exhibition of the state collection’s earliest works. Not only is the exhibition an opportunity to learn about the Collection and about this slice of Queensland’s cultural history, but also it has resulted in the conservation of many of our oldest works, preserving them for the enjoyment of future generations. Here, we elaborate on the ‘humble beginnings’ of what is now a collection of more than 16 000 works.
Thirty-four years behind the colony of Victoria, and a decade on from New South Wales, the establishment of the Queensland National Art Gallery in Brisbane was an event of significance when it opened in March 1895. While earlier moves had been initiated by individuals and art societies as early as 1883 (Isaac Walter Jenner), the Queensland Governor, Sir Anthony Musgrave (1884) and the Queensland Art Society (founded in 1887), real progress was made by the end of 1894 when Richard Godfrey Rivers, graduate of the Slade School, London, and then President of the Queensland Art Society and Art Master at the Technical College, proposed in September of that year that a group of engravings and a bequest to the Government of 11 Netherlandish and Italian paintings — gifts from pastoralist and Legislative Councillor Thomas Lodge Murray-Prior — might form the basis of a state gallery, together with a loan collection in the possession of certain individuals in the colony.
Rivers was informed that an expenditure of £20 would be granted to mount and frame a selection of the engravings, and that a room in the Parliament building would be made available on weekdays only as a temporary gallery space, with admittance by order of the Speaker. This complicated and inconvenient arrangement which limited access for working people met with resistance and criticism from the public. In response, Rivers persuaded Brisbane’s mayor, Alderman Robert Fraser, to provide a room in the Town Hall that could be fitted out appropriately to accommodate the fledgling collection.
The Governor of Queensland at the time, Sir Henry Wylie Norman, officially opened the Queensland National Art Gallery on 29 March 1895, with a Board of Trustees under the chairmanship of Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Queensland, with Godfrey Rivers as Honorary Curator. In the spirit of philanthropy that accompanied the occasion, gifts of works by Godfrey Rivers (Woolshed, New South Wales 1890), Oscar Fristrom (Duramboi 1893) and Isaac Walter Jenner (Cape Chudleigh, Coast of Labrador 1893, re‑worked 1895), added to the ‘humble beginning’ of the Collection. An estimated 20 000 people took the opportunity to view the collected paintings, prints, decorative arts and sculptures within the first 15 months of their display, at a time when the population of Brisbane was less than 60 000.1
One of the objectives of the Queensland National Art Gallery — and an aim in keeping with many nineteenth-century public galleries, both in Australia and overseas — was to educate and elevate public taste. The inclusion of painted copies of works by Raphael and Botticelli, and engravings after Rubens and Poussin, indicated the intention on the part of Rivers as curator to present works that reflected the idealised traditions of Renaissance art and taste. An article in the Queenslander of 13 April 1895 opened with the observation that the Gallery’s Collection, ‘bids fair to become a favourite Saturday afternoon resort for our citizens’.2 The article was, however, accompanied by an illustration by Gasking, the newspaper’s cartoonist, depicting a classically attired woman standing in a decorative and decidedly unpopulated portal of an imagined gallery space. She gazes at the city’s crowds thronging to buy lottery tickets, oblivious to the higher calling on offer.
While funds for the purchase of works were limited, a number of large pictures by British artists — of subjects that reflected the Victorian taste and fashion of the time — were secured in the first years of the Gallery’s establishment. For 300 guineas, Blandford Fletcher’s Evicted 1887 was our first purchase, from the Hobart International Exhibition of 1895. The painting, which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, presents a Dickensian narrative of hardship in the wake of industrialisation. Other works with popular Victorian themes include the history painting of Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, parting with her younger son, the Duke of York when Elizabeth learned that the Prince of Wales had fallen into the power of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester 1893; the Shakespearean vignette of Hamlet – the churchyard scene 1902 by Frank Cadogan Cowper; and Frederic Goodall’s contemporised religious subject, The Holy Mother 1875.
While ‘The Founding Years’ exhibition, presented in QAG’s Gallery 14 from 28 March to 14 June 2015, does not attempt to emulate the founding collection, it does, however, include many of the works that constituted it. Significant works from the Murray-Prior bequest are also available for viewing in the newly installed international and Asian collections in QAG’s Philip Bacon Galleries (7, 8 and 9). Presenting the exhibition has also prompted significant conservation treatment of works that have been in the Collection since the early 1900s. The frames for Hamilton MacCallum’s Sunday afternoon parade 1896 and Giacomo Maes’s undated View in the Campagna, Rome have been cleaned and re-gilded, while the conservation and stabilisation of works on paper, such as the large watercolour The legitimate drama c.1880–93 by Thomas W Couldery, has enabled these works to be displayed in an appropriate context after many years in storage.
1 Bettina MacAuley, ‘A humble beginning for Queensland’s National Art Gallery’, Brisbane History Group, Papers no.3, 1985, p.115.
2 ‘New pictures at the National Gallery’, Queenslander, 13 April 1895