Portraiture is, and always has been, an important component of the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). A strong and representative survey of Australian portraits is displayed at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square as part of the permanent collection, while a fine array of European portraits is one of the highlights of the collection at NGV International. The depth and breadth of the holdings of portraits was clearly revealed in 2011, when a large exhibition of artists’ self-portraits was compiled almost entirely from the permanent collection – in what one reviewer described as a ‘huge … internal blockbuster’.1 Robert Nelson, ‘Review – The Naked Face: Self-Portraits’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan. 2011. The exhibition was curated by Vivien Gaston.  The vast majority of these works were purchased during the twentieth century, with funding sourced from either Alfred Felton’s great bequest of 1904 or the later bequest of Everard Studley Miller of 1956, which was noteworthy for being dedicated to the ‘purchase of portraits of individuals of merit in History painted, engraved or sculptured before A.D. 1800’.2 Will of Everard Studley Miller, 22 March 1956, cited in Paul Paffen, ‘Everard Studley Miller and his bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, no. 35, 1994. (available online at https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/everard-studley-miller-and-his-bequest-to-the-national-gallery-of-victoria), accessed 25 May 2018. Will of Everard Studley Miller, 22 March 1956, cited in Paul Paffen, ‘Everard Studley Miller and his bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, no. 35, 1994. (available online at https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/everard-studley-miller-and-his-bequest-to-the-national-gallery-of-victoria), accessed 25 May 2018.

A colonial portrait gallery 1861–1900

The history of the NGV’s acquisition of portraits prior to the year 1900 is less well known, but deserving of greater attention. The types of portraits collected, of course, were closely influenced by the Gallery’s original location within a larger library-museum complex in Swanston Street (fig. 1) that was overseen by Trustees who sought to connect the different cultural collections housed under one roof – namely, to ‘create and promote a sympathy between the different branches of literature, science and art’.3 ‘Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria … for the year 1870–71’, John Ferres, Melbourne, 1871, p. 24.

These early hybrid collections have been studied in considerable detail.4 See, for instance, Christine Downer & Jennifer Phipps, Victorian Vision: 1834 Onwards: Images and Records from the National Gallery of Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985; Ann Galbally & Alison Inglis, The First Collections: The Public Library and NGV in the 1850s and 1860s, University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1992; Kathleen M. Fennessy, A People Learning: Colonial Victoria and Their Public Museums 1860–1880, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2007. Art historian Ann Galbally, in particular, has reconstructed the important collection of plaster casts of works of art acquired by the first Trustees, of which hardly anything remains today.5 Ann Galbally, ‘The lost museum: Redmond Barry and Melbourne’s “musée des copies”’, Australian Journal of Art, vol. 7, 1988, pp. 28–49. During the mid nineteenth century, however, the cast collection was one of the most important artistic displays in the building. It included plaster copies of Classical statuary and busts of famous men, portraying both historical and contemporary figures (fig. 2). This acquisition of a ‘hall of fame’ in portrait busts continued over several decades. In 1871, for instance, twenty-four new casts were ordered from Brucciani’s of London, of politicians, writers, artists and scientists such as Benjamin Disraeli, William Wordsworth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Michael Faraday and W. M. Thackeray.6 ‘The National Gallery’, The Argus, 22 February 1871, p. 7. That year also saw donations of portraits of eminent colonial figures in the form of marble busts by the Australian sculptor, Charles Summers, of Captain Hovell and the Honourable John Pascoe Fawkner, both presented by Captain Hovell himself.7 ‘Report of the Committee of Trustees of the National Gallery for the year 1871’, Melbourne, 1872, pp. 2–3, 15.

These portrait busts were exhibited throughout the Library building, from the ground-floor sculpture gallery to the first-floor Queen’s Hall (fig. 3). The latter location, which displayed busts placed on pedestals between the bookshelves, emulated famous libraries in Europe, such as the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin, the alma mater of Melbourne’s President of Trustees of the Public Library, Sir Redmond Barry.

Complementing this focus on sculpture was a parallel initiative to acquire photographic portraits. Art historian Christine Downer has documented Sir Redmond Barry’s passion for commemorating colonial dignitaries through photography. For instance, a collection of carte de visite portraits of leading civic figures, including their autographs, was initiated by Barry in 1864 and subsequently placed in a bound volume entitled Fasti Victorienses, A Collection of Cabinet Photographs of Victorian Men of the [18]50s and [18]60s.8 Christine Downer, ‘Notes on Barry and the origins of the Picture Collection’, La Trobe Journal, no. 73, Autumn 2004, p. 96.

Even more ambitious was the so-called ‘Oval Portraits’ series of Australian governors, commissioned by the Trustees for display in the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition in Melbourne. Owing to the Trustees’ concerns about the quality of local portrait painting, it was decided to acquire painted photographic portraits of the colonial governors, which also allowed a more comprehensive survey as such works were less expensive but even more accurate. Redmond Barry proudly declared in 1866: ‘We may make a striking & interesting collection of portraits (photographic) of the different Governors of the Australian colonies for our future Picture Gallery in humble imitation of the Hall of Marshalls at Versailles’.9 R. Barry to J. G. Knight (Secretary to the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition), 13 June 1866, cited in Downer, p. 96.

Downer has observed that this portrait series of Australia’s colonial governors, handsomely displayed in oval gilt and gesso frames (fig. 4), provided:

an interesting guide to officially perceived hierarchies of art … and the appropriate way to depict important men of the day. Photography fulfilled the Ruskinian criterion of fidelity to nature, but the status of the sitter warranted a higher art form. The painted photographic portrait seemed to meet both requirements.10Christine Downer, ‘Portfolios for the curious: photographic collecting by the Melbourne Public Library 1859–1870’, in Galbally & Inglis, pp. 75–6.

Like the Gallery’s ‘hall of fame’ of plaster and marble busts, additions to the ‘Oval Portraits’ were acquired over some decades, with fifty-three works in the series by 1880.

These examples demonstrate that the NGV, from its earliest days, perceived itself as filling the role of a national (not just Victorian) portrait gallery. In fact, by the last decades of the century, the Melbourne Trustees determined that the ever-growing collection of portraits needed its own dedicated space within the building. At the opening of the Library’s new Barry Hall in 1886, the President of Trustees, George Verdon, announced that the south wing extension currently underway would include ‘rooms … available for watercolour drawings and for a portrait gallery’ (fig. 5). He continued:

We possess some interesting paintings of distinguished persons – some of them founders of the colony – and we think that they would be more appropriately exhibited together, and apart from the general collection of pictures in the National Gallery.11 George Frederic Verdon, Opening of the Barry Hall, Public Library Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1886, p. 19.

This decision – to separate the portraits from the ‘general collection of pictures’ – would have profound ramifications for the future. At the time, however, it could be seen to reflect the status and size of Melbourne’s portrait collection, which they felt clearly deserved its own allocated space. The focus on this specific collection also could reflect an awareness of the growing reputation in the 1880s of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Yet the separation of the colonial portraits from the art collection, and their later retention in the State Library after the Gallery moved to St Kilda Road in 1968, helped contribute to the widespread twentieth-century belief that the early history of Australian art is largely understood through developments in landscape painting; a perception that persists despite the fact that during the first half of the nineteenth century, it was portraiture that dominated art production in the colonies.12 See Ron Radford & Jane Hylton, Australian Colonial Art 1800–1900, Art Gallery Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1995. The depiction of landscape certainly remains a prominent theme in the early colonial galleries of The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square even today, although mitigated by concerted efforts in recent decades to expand the holdings of colonial portrait paintings and sculpture.13 Important portraits – including those by Augustus Earle (Captain Thomas Valentine Blomfield, 1827), Georgiana McCrae (Self-portrait Georgiana Huntly Gordon, 1829; Lucia, 1843), Robert Dowling (Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware, 1856) and Theresa Walker (Sir John Franklin, c. 1846) – have been added to the collection since 1995, while portrait busts of Edmund FitzGibbon and Sarah FitzGibbon, 1877, by Charles Summers were purchased in 1996.  Moreover, while many colonial portraits remain in the State Library Victoria, some also are located elsewhere in the Gallery. The institution’s focus on the artist’s country of origin, rather than the sitter’s, in determining where works are placed has meant that certain portraits of colonial individuals, painted by European artists, such as John Millais’ portrait of Cecil Webb of 1887, are displayed in the NGV’s international collection at St Kilda Road.

British Old Masters portraits

During the first five decades of the NGV’s history, a large number of painted portraits entered the NGV Collection from various sources – both Australian and international, by purchase and by gift – and while the majority were contemporary, a small but significant number were from the eighteenth century or earlier. In fact, one of the first paintings to be acquired locally in 1865 by the Commissioners of Fine Arts for Victoria was Portrait of a lady (fig. 6), then believed to be by Sir Joshua Reynolds (and possibly depicting Lady Hamilton), but now attributed to William Beechey. It might seem surprising to find a Regency portrait of this quality in the colony of Victoria. However, if one examines photographs of the major exhibitions of the day, such as the loan exhibition of art treasures in Melbourne in 1869, numerous portraits can be seen on display (fig. 7), many of them Old Masters, or copies of such. The exhibition catalogue lists, for example, a work called Portrait of a lady by Van Dyck alongside two works by unknown artists –  Portrait of Charles II and Portrait of Lord Bacon, 1614. Some works were apparently heirlooms – such as the group of works simply titled Three family portraits, 1786.14Catalogue of the Works of Art: Ornamental and Decorative Art Exhibited by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum, Melbourne, 1869.

A number of historical portraits, especially British paintings, entered the NGV Collection as gifts. For instance, during the 1880s, Portrait of a lady, c. 1680, from the studio of Godfrey Kneller, was donated to the Gallery by prominent colonist Robert T. Litton Esquire FRGSA, while politician and barrister the Hon. William à Beckett presented a copy of the portrait of Sir Richard Steele by Jonathan Richardson. Some donated works were chosen for their connection to the colony – such as Sir William Clarke’s gift in 1884 of Robert Dowling’s portrait Lord Melbourne, 1884. The colonial provenance of these British portraits in the NGV Collection has begun to be recognised more widely as catalogue details of the works (including donor and acquisition date) are now available on the Gallery’s website. Another discovery to emerge from this online information is the fact that local donations of portraits increased as the nineteenth century progressed – especially gifts of portraits of Australian sitters by local and foreign artists.

A gallery of Australian portraits

One of the earliest paintings by an Australian artist to enter the NGV Collection was the 1863 portrait of Dr John Maund, a leading medical practitioner in the colony. After his death in 1858, aged only thirty-five, the Committee of the Melbourne Lying-In Hospital and Infirmary for Diseases of Women and Children (later the Royal Women’s Hospital) set aside a sum of money for a posthumous portrait by Nicholas Chevalier, which was given to the Gallery by Maund’s sister in 1863. The Trustees, in turn, lent the work in perpetuity to the Victorian Medical Association – perhaps understandably in view of its uneven quality. This donation was the model for subsequent philanthropic gifts from civic-minded individuals or groups of subscribers who presented portraits of historically significant fellow colonists.

The Victorian government was active in reinforcing this initiative, donating two portraits in 1865 of the departing governor, Sir Henry Barkly: a marble bust and a large painting. These portraits dramatically expanded the original photographic ‘Oval Portraits’ series, and later governors, such as Sir Henry Loch, continued this trend, with his gift to the Trustees of his own large portrait by Robert Dowling in 1890.15Richard Aitken et al., The Art of the Collection: State Library of Victoria, Miegunyah Press and State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007.

Groups of subscribers also presented portraits of colonial pioneers – such as Bishop Perry, J. P. Fawkner and Sir Redmond Barry – throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, at a time when these foundation figures were beginning to die. Some of these works were of good quality, others less so, as seen in the example of Edward à Beckett’s rather stolid portrait of the pioneer Francis Henty, gifted by Henty’s daughters in 1892. Pointedly, the following year, the Trustees adopted a new rule, which stated that any portrait accepted into the NGV Collection must possess ‘special excellence as a work of art’ over and above the eminence of the subject, and that henceforth, only portraits of deceased persons could be considered.16Andrew Grimwade & Gerard Vaughan (eds), Great Philanthropists on Trial: The Art of the Bequest, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. 17.

The interesting fate of two quality portraits – a donation by subscribers to the ‘Joint Trustees’ (of the Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria) – in 1897 of businessman and politician Frederick Sargood, and astronomer Robert Ellery, respectively, both by E. Phillips Fox, is worthy of note. One work, the portrait of Ellery, is retained in the NGV Collection to this day, while the other, depicting Sargood, is held in the State Library Victoria’s collection. This later split reflects one of the impacts of the Library’s segregation of the portrait collection from the ‘general collection of paintings’ since the 1880s. The portrait collection was increasingly viewed as being primarily of historical rather than aesthetic significance, and thus regarded as the responsibility of the Melbourne Public Library rather than the Gallery. That this attitude was widespread at the time is evidenced by the numerous colonial portraits held in the collection of the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney.

Because of this policy, the NGV no longer possesses several interesting portraits of important sitters. Some of these are by women artists, like Mathilde Philippson, whose portrait of an Australian writer, Madame Couvreur ‘Tasma’, 1890, was formally transferred from the Gallery to the Library in 1930. Other omissions from the Gallery’s collection include portraits of colonial artists, including Charles Summers, 1866, by Margaret Thomas, and Alice Panton’s portrait of her father, Joseph Panton, painted around 1900. More striking still is the loss of the portrait of the Gallery’s master of the School of Painting and first appointed director, George Folingsby, painted by his pupil John Longstaff around 1886 (fig. 8).

Folingsby, while best known today for his historical paintings, was in fact a fine portrait painter, whose services were in high demand in colonial society. Under Folingsby’s leadership at the NGV (1882–91), prizes were awarded to students for ‘Best Portrait’, and his studio collection – which was purchased by the Gallery in 1891 – contains many portrait studies and copies of contemporary and Old Masters portraits. In addition, it was on Folingsby’s recommendation that the National Gallery School’s Travelling Scholarship was established in 1886. It is thus no coincidence that many of the requisite copies of Old Masters that winning students sent back to the NGV were portraits – especially copies of the Spanish master, Diego Velázquez, the inspiration of contemporary portraitists such as James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent.17 See the Old Masters copies sent back by James Quinn, National Gallery of Victoria, ‘Collection online: James Quinn’, NGV, Victorian Government, , accessed 25 May 2018.

In conclusion, this survey of the Gallery’s early acquisitions of British and Australian portraits has sought to convey something of the colonial enthusiasm, not to say craze, for portraiture, which occurred in Victoria during the nineteenth century and was especially a feature of the collection of the Library-Museum complex. It can be argued that it was the isolation of the portrait collection as a distinct component in the Library that also led to the retention of many of these works in that institution in 1968. Nevertheless, the NGV has continued to build up its holdings of portraits during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the British and Australian portraits forming a particularly distinguished group, as the other essays in this issue of Art Journal will demonstrate.

Associate Professor Alison Inglis, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne
Dr Vivien Gaston, Honorary Fellow, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne
Deirdre Coleman, School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne

Notes

1

Robert Nelson, ‘Review – The Naked Face: Self-Portraits’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan. 2011. The exhibition was curated by Vivien Gaston.

2

Will of Everard Studley Miller, 22 March 1956, cited in Paul Paffen, ‘Everard Studley Miller and his bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, no. 35, 1994. (available online at https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/everard-studley-miller-and-his-bequest-to-the-national-gallery-of-victoria), accessed 25 May 2018.

3

‘Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria … for the year 1870–71’, John Ferres, Melbourne, 1871, p. 24.

4

See, for instance, Christine Downer & Jennifer Phipps, Victorian Vision: 1834 Onwards: Images and Records from the National Gallery of Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985; Ann Galbally & Alison Inglis, The First Collections: The Public Library and NGV in the 1850s and 1860s, University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1992; Kathleen M. Fennessy, A People Learning: Colonial Victoria and Their Public Museums 1860–1880, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2007.

5

Ann Galbally, ‘The lost museum: Redmond Barry and Melbourne’s “musée des copies”’, Australian Journal of Art, vol. 7, 1988, pp. 28–49.

6

‘The National Gallery’, The Argus, 22 February 1871, p. 7.

7

‘Report of the Committee of Trustees of the National Gallery for the year 1871’, Melbourne, 1872, pp. 2–3, 15.

8

Christine Downer, ‘Notes on Barry and the origins of the Picture Collection’, La Trobe Journal, no. 73, Autumn 2004, p. 96.

9

R. Barry to J. G. Knight (Secretary to the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition), 13 June 1866, cited in Downer, p. 96.

10

Christine Downer, ‘Portfolios for the curious: photographic collecting by the Melbourne Public Library 1859–1870’, in Galbally & Inglis, pp. 75–6.

11

George Frederic Verdon, Opening of the Barry Hall, Public Library Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1886, p. 19.

12

See Ron Radford & Jane Hylton, Australian Colonial Art 1800–1900, Art Gallery Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1995.

13

Important portraits – including those by Augustus Earle (Captain Thomas Valentine Blomfield, 1827), Georgiana McCrae (Self-portrait Georgiana Huntly Gordon, 1829; Lucia, 1843), Robert Dowling (Masters George, William and Miss Harriet Ware with the Aborigine Jamie Ware, 1856) and Theresa Walker (Sir John Franklin, c. 1846) – have been added to the collection since 1995, while portrait busts of Edmund FitzGibbon and Sarah FitzGibbon, 1877, by Charles Summers were purchased in 1996.

14

Catalogue of the Works of Art: Ornamental and Decorative Art Exhibited by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum, Melbourne, 1869.

15

Richard Aitken et al., The Art of the Collection: State Library of Victoria, Miegunyah Press and State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007.

16

Andrew Grimwade & Gerard Vaughan (eds), Great Philanthropists on Trial: The Art of the Bequest, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. 17.

17

See the Old Masters copies sent back by James Quinn, National Gallery of Victoria, ‘Collection online: James Quinn’, NGV, Victorian Government, <https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/artist/485/>, accessed 25 May 2018.