Once upon a time… there was a Golden Book of Gifts…
Imagine our surprise when The Wolfsonian–Florida International University Library in Miami Beach, Florida contacted the QAGOMA Research Library seeking information on the John Darnell Bequest and an item in their collection The Golden Book of Gifts.
Delving into the Library archives revealed a strange tale of how a specially designed and produced object of Queensland artistry and craftsmanship that was meant to promote a public art gallery for Brisbane ended up in the collection of an American university library.
Cover: The Golden Book of Gifts
John Darnell (1854-1930), a wealthy businessman and benefactor from Wynnum, a coastal suburb of Brisbane, was largely identified with the Commercial Travellers’ Association of Queensland, of which he was a life member and the Aged and Indigent Fund of which he endowed with a considerable sum of money. Darnell was the son of a London boot and shoe manufacturer who came to Australia in 1878 to establish his fortune.
The Golden Book of Gifts story begins in 1931 with a bequest of ₤10,000 (which would equate to almost AUD $1,000,000 today) in Darnell’s will ‘for the establishment and maintenance of a National Picture Gallery in Brisbane’, provided that another ₤10,000 was raised by public subscription, or otherwise, within five years of his death. This amount was also to include ₤5,000 to the Brisbane City Council for the maintenance and support of the Randall Art Gallery.1
Golden Book of Gifts
As a result of the bequest for an art gallery, the ‘Golden Book of Gifts’ fund was created under the Patronage of His Excellency the Governor of Queensland, The Right Hon. Sir Leslie Orme Wilson, to raise another ₤10,000 to secure the John Darnell Bequest. The nominated organiser and publicity officer was Frederick L. Thomson, with all donations to be sent to the Queensland Trustees Ltd., Brisbane.
At a special meeting of the Trustees of the Queensland National Art Gallery held on Monday 8 October 1934, Thomson outlined the plan of campaign. It comprised the preparation of an artistic register to be named the ‘Golden Book of Gifts’, in which all subscribers to the John Darnell Bequest would be recorded.2 The following Trustees were also appointed to the art committee for the ‘Golden Book’: Mr George Comrie Smith ― painting restorer, and artists William Bustard ― known for his stained glass work and illustrated books, and Edward Colclough ― known for his watercolours.
In this special meeting of Trustees, The Golden Book of Gifts is described in glowing terms as:
‘A fine example of the goldsmith’s artistry… the precious stones in the cover of the book were donated by Messrs Staines & Hardy Brothers Jewellers [Founded in 1853, Hardy Brothers is an Australian goldsmith and jeweller known for quality and craftsmanship. It is the only Australian jewellery business to hold a Royal Warrant]. The modelling was done by W. Harvey and the book prepared by Watson Ferguson Co. [Established in 1868, Watson, Ferguson and Co. is the longest running printing company in Queensland.]’ 3
A Brisbane Telegraph newspaper article of 9 October 1934 describes the book measuring ‘12 inches by 15 inches and is entirely a product of Queensland craftsmanship, with the exception of the outer binding of dark red morocco leather. Its front cover consists of a sheet of plated gold, adorned with symbolically artistic designs and with Queensland gems set around the edges. Inserted between plates of flashing dark opal are blue and green turquoises, topazes of varied hues, amethysts, zircons and tourmalines. The inside leaves, numbering about 300, are of the finest art hand-made paper, with sheets of white silk between them, and it is intended that each leaf shall be designed or decorated by an Australian artist, with the object of making the work not only a compilation of the donors to the fund but as well a permanent record of contemporary Australian art for the National Gallery’.4
Among the Royal Queensland Art Society artists who illustrated the sample pages were commercial artists and watercolourists Percy Stanhope Hobday, Augusta Hobday, Gladys H D Powell, and Peter Smith Templeton.
The first two pages of The Golden Book of Gifts (illustrated) feature a poem by Queensland poet George Essex Evans (1863-1909), his Queen of the North: A Jubilee Ode was first published in The Brisbane Courier 7 August 1909, part of Queensland’s fifty year celebration of its existence ― on 6 June 1859 Queen Victoria signed Letters Patent to form the colony of Queensland.
The borders of Peter Smith Templeton’s illustrations feature Eucalyptus leaves and Gum nuts, the hard woody fruit of the tree. The first plate is in recognition of the states outback pioneering spirit and its contribution towards developing Australia as a nation. In the second plate Poinciana and Jacaranda trees populate the rosy view toward Brisbane pictured from Mt Coot-tha Lookout, featuring the clock tower of the recently opened Brisbane City Hall — the heart of Brisbane at the time — as the 91 metre City Hall was the city’s tallest building for decades after its completion. Both plates symbolising the contribution of the arts both past, present and looking toward the future.
In addition, Queensland symbols are embossed on the cover — Queensland’s state badge, the Maltese cross was adopted in 1876. The gilt cover also includes Queensland’s rural and mining symbols such as a wheat sheaf, sugar cane stalks and farming animals of a bull and ram.
It was proposed to give each donor of £50 and more a separate page (illustrated), while each person who subscribed £12 10s and over was to have a quarter of a page. Donors of £1 or more would receive a sufficient space to include the name and particulars of the gift.
Illustrated sample donor page
The ambitious project was received with considerable enthusiasm and many leading Brisbane firms contributed to the manufacture of the Golden Book of Gifts. Plans were made for the book to be displayed in the windows of jewellery firms in Brisbane as described in the Brisbane Telegraph newspaper article of 9 October 1934.5
However, there soon appears to be a dispute over the money that the Trustees were prepared to pay for creating the book and one of the last mentions of the book in the Minutes was on 11 March 1935 when it was handed over to the Trustees. The last mention of the Golden Book of Gifts in the Courier Mail newspapers was on 5 February 1935, three months before the deadline of the Bequest conditions of 10 June 1935. The Golden Book of Gifts seemingly disappears from public view until it was purchased in 1985 from Robert Miller, a commercial art gallery dealer from New York. Sufficiently intrigued by this object in their collection, The Wolfsonian–Florida International University Library made contact.
Despite this, in 1935 the John Darnell Bequest was obtained for the Queensland National Art Gallery, largely through the efforts of local artists Daphne Mayo and Vida Lahey (illustrated), who co-founded the Queensland Art Fund. They lead the public appeal for the ₤10,000 needed to secure the Darnell Bequest, an amazing success considering that this amount was raised during the Depression years of 1934-5.6
Some 235 works in the QAGOMA Collection have been purchased with the John Darnell Bequest.
Cathy Pemble-Smith is Senior Librarian, QAGOMA Research Library. Additional research and supplementary material by Elliott Murray, Senior Digital Marketing Officer, QAGOMA
1 Smith, Robert (compiler). Synopsis of Development of Queensland Art Gallery. [unpublished typescript, Queensland Art Gallery, nd.], p.2; Wales, 1975, p.9.
2 ‘Darnell Bequest Fund: “Golden Book of Gifts”’, Courier-Mail, 18 April 1934, p.6.
3 ‘John Darnell Bequest: Minutes of a Special meeting of the Trustees held on Monday 8th Oct  at Mr [MS] Herring’s [treasure’s] office’, in the book of the Minutes of the Meetings of the Trustees Queensland National Art Gallery, 22 December 1930 to 18 May 1935’, p.178. QAGOMA Research Library
4&5 ‘Golden Book of Gifts play to raise funds for Art Gallery’. The Telegraph (Brisbane). Tuesday 9 October 1934, p.6.
6 McKay, Judith. Daphne Mayo: let there be sculpture. Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2011, pp.69-70, 76.
Randall Art Gallery
Richard John Randall (1869-1906) was a Brisbane based artist known for his watercolours and paintings of Australian landscapes. After studying abroad from 1891 and exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, he returned to Brisbane in 1899 and was the Royal Queensland Art Society vice-president from 1903 until his death aged 37 on 15 October 1906. In 1909 the South Brisbane Town Council was persuaded to accept 600 of Randall’s works in perpetual trust, with the Randall Art Gallery opening in 1914.
To understand why the Gallery was included in the Darnell Bequest, this excerpt in the Queensland Figaro in 1926 goes some way in enlightening us. ‘The Randall Art Gallery is one of Brisbane’s most beautiful possessions, and a gem of loveliness which her citizens should be proud to possess and love. It is a deplorable fact that Brisbane has no suitable [National] Art Gallery… with its badly-lighted, over-crowded room… the Randall Art Gallery puts to shame the National Art Gallery, and further, shames all the art-loving community that we are tolerant of the indignity put upon our city by the fact that there is no adequate provision in a decent National Art Gallery for a gift like the Randall Collection to he housed therein.’
In 1893 the South Brisbane City Council occupied the corner site at 472 Stanley Street, and in 1897 the complex became the South Brisbane Municipal Library and Technical College, also known as the South Brisbane School of Arts. In 1909, when the council acquired the Randall Art Collection, it converted the library on the first floor into an art gallery (illustrated).
In 1925 the Brisbane City Council took over the structure including the Collection and eventually it was transferred to be displayed on the fifth floor of the Brisbane City Hall after the building was completed in 1930. More works were added through gifts and purchases when the City Hall Arts and Historical Committee became responsible for development of the art collection, now housed in the Museum of Brisbane located on the top floor of the City Hall.
Temporary premises 1905-30: Queensland National Art Gallery
The Queensland National Art Gallery established in 1895 still occupied temporary premises at the time of the Darnell Bequest. On 18 December 1905, the Gallery relocated to a purpose-designed room the length of the third floor above George Street in the recently completed Executive Building where it remained until 1930 (illustrated, the Gallery was on the left side, facing the building). The renamed Lands Administration building is a four-story building occupying a site bounded by George Street, Stephens Lane, William Street and Queens Gardens. In 1931 the Gallery moved to the Exhibition Building Concert Hall at Gregory Terrace where the Queensland Museum occupied the Exhibition Hall from 1899.
John Darnell Fine Art Collection
Darnell was also a generous benefactor to the University of Queensland, whose bequest endowed a chair in English and the John Darnell Fine Art Collection, which later became the University of Queensland Art Museum.
Daphne Mayo & Vida Lahey
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Photographs of The Golden Book of Gifts, c.1934 are published with the permission of The Wolfsonian – Florida International University (Miami, Florida)