Politics, Patriotism and Painting: the acquisition of British pictures by Australian National Galleries, 1860-1949

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Arts, Design and Social Sciences


My project develops new approaches for explaining the formation of complex cultural identities by correcting normative assumptions about how and why British art was collected in Australia. My research demonstrates that the common idea that collecting was effectively a Hobson's choice (with Australian galleries acquiring works of British art selected by controlling London agents) is not a true reflection of the facts. In fact the opposite was true: British art was acquired enthusiastically according to a logical and autonomous schedule of acquisition that interpreted British standards for an Australian situation. British art was viewed by Australian galleries alongside alternative models of European and Australian schools of art as part of a synthetic process for constructing new British identities more appropriate to Australian artists and their gallery-going public. This represents a case study for 'translating cultures' in which universal values were translated and re-formed by sub-groups within a wider globalised imperial community.

Present theoretical frameworks are inadequate for explaining the role played by British art in the formation of cultural identities within a global context. Classic post-colonial theory of the 1970s has been adopted by art historians to identify the universalising 'imperial claims' of modernism and the related chauvinism of Western art historical perspectives (see Griselda Pollock, 'Beholding Art History: Vision, Place and Power', 1995). Such a dichotomisation fails to explain adequately how culture 'performs' alternative identities that subtly differ but ultimately rely on common foundations and create a spectrum of British identities in the British World. My project will provide a solution to this important and urgent research problem: this case study will have a broader impact in promoting a new way of thinking about imperial relations between alternative British groups in the UK and Australia.

Post-colonial art history has made the research of such relationships more complicated due to the introduction of modernism into its narratives. Issues of cultural identities have been sidelined through the promotion of stylistic factors and/or geopolitical drivers. This continues the patterns set by post-Commonweath developments in Australian policies and critical practices. The rise of modernist values and shift in Australian political allegiances to America after 1950 led to earlier acquisitions of British pictures being dubbed 'old-fashioned' and 'bad'. My project will recover the collecting of British art from an anachronistic elision that has imposed the values of the period after 1950 on the historical study of the period preceding that date. The desire to collect a painting by Constable is interesting not for the cultural conservatism it represents (for example, its Romantic brushwork) but for the wider values and principles that informed its purchase. The key aim of this project is to explain the reception history and rhetorical agency of collecting. In a crucial period of Australia's cultural history from the inauguration of Australia's National Galleries (the first being the NGV in 1861) to the London Declaration and the birth of the modern Commonwealth of Nations in 1949, why did Australia want to collect British art? How did the desirability of British works change in response to geopolitical, social and economic factors? What does this tell us about the evolution of multiple and synchronous British identities in art?

The discipline of museum studies has done much to promote art galleries as proactive agents in cultural politics rather than merely reactive repositories of objects. The archives and collections of Australian art galleries thus offer an ideal opportunity for exploring how concepts of national identity were articulated in an antipodean context with British artworks becoming tools in the construction of alternative and equally valid forms of British identity.

Planned Impact

This project represents a major paradigm shift for museums and curators in how they present and interpret works in their collections. The British works in Australian art galleries are a significant proportion of these institutions' collections and many are on permanent display. At present however there are few attempts to situate these works within an interpretive framework that engages with the concerns of the modern public. Using the methodologies, theories and empirical data from this project curators will be able to demonstrate to their audiences that the issues of identity and ethnicity that are addressed by modern public-policy makers were just as relevant in guiding nineteenth- and twentieth-century curators and their audiences.

This research will create better academic understandings of post-colonial culture - encouraging undergraduates and postgraduates to realise that British objects going abroad become part of identity-forming processes in other countries - and will also challenge public perceptions of internationalist and global cultural exchanges and encounters. This is true not only in terms of the potential benefits to curators of Australian institutions but also reciprocally in Britain. At present there is no attempt to draw attention to other variants of British visual culture in UK-based collections or exhibitions. Works by Australian artists like Rupert Bunny, John Longstaff, or Tom Roberts do not feature in the collections of the Tate or National Gallery, London, and the history of the competitions over acquiring important Pre-Raphaelite works that took place between the Tate and the National Gallery of Victoria are all but forgotten. The sole attempt to incorporate imperial visual culture into broader British narratives on art takes place within the displays of the Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

I will utilise internet resources to allow my work to reach the wider public. I will approach Australian and UK gallery curators to explore the possibility of hanging labels next to paintings on display which relate to my research. These will incorporate invitations to the public to think about the works in relation to themes of identity and Britishness and respond via an accessible medium, such as a Facebook social networking page. It will be an important means of gauging the impact of my project and help to inform a later stage of curatorial application of this research.

Towards the completion of this project I will approach the curatorial teams of Tate and the Australian galleries (Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art Gallery of South Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Queensland Art Gallery) with a proposal for a touring exhibition based on key case studies in which British art was part of a series of complex cultural negotiations between London and, variously, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. This exhibition would provide opportunities to hold study days and public lectures further promoting the project to the public and helping the museums to achieve their goals regarding outreach strategies.


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Description I have been exploring the way collecting practices in Australia have affected notions of British cultural identities.
Exploitation Route Issues of cultural studies with relation to hybridized identities (e.g. multiple versions of cultural identity created especially within diasporic and post-imperial cultural environments)
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description This grant looked into art gallery acquisition (museum) practices in Australia in the historic period 1861-1953
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural