Art Gallery of NSW: Victorian Watercolours – In the Beginning

Dante Gabriel Rossetti    - The wedding of St George 1864, watercolour and bodycolour with gum and scraping out over traces of pencil courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased with funds provided by John Schaeffer 2003
Dante Gabriel Rossetti - The wedding of St George 1864, watercolour and bodycolour with gum and scraping out over traces of pencil courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased with funds provided by John Schaeffer 2003
God of Peace

Gilbert Bayes (1872- 1953), God of Peace outside Art Gallery of NSW

Like many Sydney born residents, I grew up learning about art mainly through visits to the Art Gallery of NSW with my Nan.

As a small child the sculptural reliefs and also the great statues of horses bearing the gods of war and peace in front of its noble façade, which towered over my world, fascinated me.

Inside, in the spacious Galleries that today make up the set of rooms known as Grand Court, it was the sculptures, which particularly won my heart as a medium, along with that of watercolours.

“There is not in any private collection in the English-speaking world outside of England, as far as I know, as fine a collection of water-colours as is possessed by the people of New South Wales…” said the Sydney Morning Herald art critic in 1890.

Myles Birket Foster, Barking, Springtime circa 1885, watercolour and body colour, 78 x 110 cm, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Commissioned 1883, received 1887

Myles Birket Foster, Barking, Springtime circa 1885, watercolour and body colour, 78 x 110 cm, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Commissioned 1883, received 1887

He was talking about the first works of art purchased following the gift of a grant in 1874 ‘towards the formation of a gallery of art’ in the colony.

The sum of 500 pounds went a long way towards establishing the collection, which now contains many works that will more than likely be regarded as priceless in years to come such as Thomas Miles Richardson Jr Evening, Loch A’an, Grampians, Aberdeenshire 1883, one of those purchased in 1890

A favourite of my Nan, watercolours always seemed to have an additional quality to those painted in oil… a luminosity or certain je ne sa quois brought about by the translucent nature of their colours and vagaries of light, dependant on the time of day.

Grand Courts AGNSWSure to be a hit, after decades in storage, over eighty beautifully restored watercolour works from the Art Gallery of NSW collection will be showcased in the Grand Courts of the Gallery June 2 – December 3, 2017. They will be placed in a crimson-walled Victorian setting, complete with sash curtains, palms and period-style seating.

Dr Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of NSW believes that Victorian watercolours in the collection are a celebration of these formative acquisitions, which for this exhibition will be complimented by recent watercolour acquisitions.

Wildflowers Watercolour AGNSW

Andrew Nicholl, a distant view of Derry through a bank of wild flowers c1830s, watercolour, 36.6 x 53.4 cm, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Parramore Purchase Fund 2015

This will include Charles Andrew Nicholl’s A distant view of Derry through a bank of wildflowers c1830s, which is the sort of image that would have inspired those aspiring to develop ‘culture in the colonies’ and take it to all new heights

The more English a home was in the nineteenth century in Australia, the more respectable was the family who lived in it. The people who lived in Sydney’s new suburban houses did not like the idea of change.They were loyal to Britain and Queen Victoria and did their duty.

Victorian-FederationThe characteristics of the European design styles, which were re-interpreted, distilled and decanted into something unique in the architecture of Australia, included inner city living in terraces, bungalows and turreted fantasies, or at the beach, in the bush and in large or small country homesteads or latticed Queenslanders.

Unlike the earlier factory worker’s house, new houses enjoyed separate bedrooms for parents and children with velvet curtains with matching cushions, a sure sign that they were moving up in the world. Great fortunes were made in the heady days of the gold rush and in the capital cities in Australia, large estates were established. The owners were looking for ‘art’ for their walls and watercolours also represented good value when compared to the cost of oil paintings and very desirable.

George John Pinwell     A seat in St James's Park 1869    watercolour, 41.9 x 60.2 cm  courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Purchased 1886

George John Pinwale, A seat in St James’s Park 1869 watercolour, 41.9 x 60.2 cm courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Purchased 1886

A publication for the exhibition, which is FREE has been produced by curator Peter Raissis: Victorian Watercolours, will feature over 120 colour illustrations. Raissis is the curator of European prints and drawings and he noted the “watercolours by living artists were actively acquired – mainly in London, but also in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and New Zealand.

Greatly appreciated in their day, the aim of the artists of the time was to endeavour to equal the achievements that oil painting”, which they had done over the preceding centuries. Among the ranks of Victorian watercolourists was Dante Gabriel Rossetti , whose work evoked inspiration. He was all about originality, revealing to us today in his works, his evolving technique. Rosseti was himself a youthful romantic, part of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, who shared a total disregard for the academic ideals of beauty by championing uncompromising realism.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti    - The wedding of St George 1864, watercolour and bodycolour with gum and scraping out over traces of pencil courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased with funds provided by John Schaeffer 2003

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The wedding of St George 1864, watercolour and bodycolour with gum and scraping out over traces of pencil courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales Purchased with funds provided by John Schaeffer 2003

His ideal of womanhood exemplified the treasured image shared by most men of his age. She was a medieval damsel, the guardian angel of the hearth and upholders of the sacred values of the Victorian home.

During the late nineteenth century in England beauty it seems was hard to find in a world bent on industrialisation. Those leading the creative impetus in London, included art patron and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) who certainly had a great deal to say. His ideals led to an aesthetic of individualism that became a hallmark of the late 20th and early 21st century art and design.

The romance with Egypt continued unabated throughout the nineteenth century, with a fixation on Cairo and the Valley of the Kings. English landscape and orientalist painter Edward Angelo Goodall (1819-1908), who travelled a great deal during his lifetime, recording his impressions in sketchbooks now in The British Library.

Watercolours 1

Edward Angelo Goodall, Interior of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, Cairo 1880, watercolour and bodycolour with scraping out over pencil underdrawing, 75.5 x 116.5 cm, courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales

The interior grandeur of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan one of the largest mosques in the world was painted in 1880, at the height of the Empirical reign of England’s Queen, when her relatively small island nation was able to dominate world politics. Islamic architecture had been influencing European architecture since the days of the Crusades.

Goodall would have been like so many others of his day also influenced by the publication in 1856 of The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones. It established Owen Jones reputation as a design theorist and pioneer of modern colour theory, confirmed by both artists and the architects George Aitchison (1825-1910) and Halsey Ricardo (1854-1928) in their work at both Leighton House and Peacocke House in London.

Leighton House, the Arab Hall

Leighton House, the Arab Hall

All the exotic imagery he had drawn was embraced with alacrity.

A two-year conservation process was required to restore many of the gallery’s watercolours to their former glory. Undertaken by their own staff with help from the Women’s Art Group, who were also generously supported by the Conservation Benefactors and individual benefactors Susan Rothwell, the late Joyce Sproat, Ruth Vincent, Philippa Warner, Joanna Coghlan and Liz Laverty, the team have brought these wondrous works back to life.

Thomas Miles Richardson Jr Evening, Loch A’an, Grampians, Aberdeenshire 1883, watercolour, bodycolour, pen and ink over pencil underdrawing with scraping out, courtesy the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased 1890

Thomas Miles Richardson Jr Evening, Loch A’an, Grampians, Aberdeenshire 1883, watercolour, bodycolour, pen and ink over pencil underdrawing with scraping out, courtesy the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased 1890

Additional gilded frames were also reproduced for those that no longer have their original frames. Showing them off on a ‘crimson’ red wall as that great landscape and history painter, master draughtsman and watercolourist extraordinaire JMW Turner advised, will ensure they will be revealed as the treasures they are.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

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