fig. 12 
Charles Meryon

In 1891 and 1892 the National Gallery of Victoria, then an institution barely thirty years old, purchased a group of sixty-four original old master and nineteenth-century engravings and etchings. The newly acquired prints included three of Albrecht Dürer’s most famous engravings, three portrait etchings by Anthony van Dyck and eleven Rembrandt etchings, all (with the possible exception of two of the van Dycks) bought at the sale of the distinguished print collection of Sir Francis Seymour Haden.1 N. Draffin’s article ‘Francis Seymour Haden: Surgeon, Collector and Etcher’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1969–70, pp. 14–21, includes a focus on the Gallery’s purchases from the Haden collection and lists the prints by Haden that were acquired by the Gallery in 1892. See also the introduction to R. S. Schneiderman, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Prints of Sir Francis Seymour Haden, Robin Garton, London, 1983; K. Lochnan, The Etchings of J. McNeill Whistler, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1984, esp. ch. 1; and F. Lugt, Les Marques des collections de dessins et d’estampes, Amsterdam, 1921, pp. 216–17.In addition, eight etchings by Charles Meryon were bought from the dispersal of the collection belonging to his friend Gustave de Salicis, and twelve etchings by the contemporary German artist Max Klinger were acquired from an unknown source. The purchase was rounded off with a group of etchings by Seymour Haden himself, and with James McNeill Whistler’s Thames set, bought from the Fine Arts Society in London (for a complete list of the 1891–92 acquisition, see Appendix).

This acquisition (figs 1 & 2) marked a distinct and sudden break with the Gallery’s initial collecting policies, which had focused on copies – painted, engraved and cast – rather than on original works of art; it reflects the degree to which the institution, and the society it served, had matured.2 The most complete account of the Gallery’s early collecting policies occurs in A. Galbally & A. Inglis, The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s arid 1860s (exh. cat.), The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1992. See also A. Galbally, The Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, esp. ch. 1; and A. Inglis, ‘Art at Second Hand: Prints after European Pictures in Victoria before 1870’, Australian Journal of Art, vol. VII, 1988, pp. 50–63. L. B. Cox’s The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, [1970], remains an invaluable source for all aspects of the Gallery’s history. However, although the significance of the purchase has frequently been remarked on – and its importance assessed in the context of the history of the Gallery, the development of its policies, and the impact the etchings had on local artists – it has never been described in detail.3 The entire group of sixty-four prints, together with the prices paid for them, has recently been published in the exhibition brochure Great Impressions: A Centenary Exhibition Celebrating the Founding of the European Old Master Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 16 September-23 November 1992. Other assessments of this acquisition may be found in Cox, ch. 5, and Galbally, ch. 1. The person responsible for recommending the works was Hubert Herkomer (1849–1914), a well- known English social realist painter, illustrator and teacher, of Bavarian origin, who was then at the height of his renown; it was Herkomer who first alerted the Melbourne Trustees to the sale of Seymour Haden’s print collection to be held in London in June 1891. The events that led to Herkomer’s appointment to the position of adviser to the Trustees, and the circumstances surrounding the acquisition, make what at first seems a straightforward affair into something far more complex and interesting. The purpose of this article is to give an account of these events, to endeavour to place them in the historical context of Melbourne in the 1890s, and to demonstrate, with specific examples, the impact that the new acquisition exerted on the local artistic community.

 

Background 

Hubert Herkomer’s initial contact with the Gallery occurred in early 1889, when he was commissioned by the Trustees to paint a portrait of Queen Victoria. While agreeing in principle to the portrait, the Queen refused a personal sitting just as she had refused all similar requests since the death of her husband in 1861. After considerable discussion the Trustees agreed that Herkomer should base his likeness on Alfred Gilbert’s statue of her. Alfred Taddy Thomson, who at the death of Sir Charles Eastlake in 1865 had succeeded him as London-based adviser to the Gallery, offered to assist in any further negotiations for the commission.

The desire to own the reigning monarch’s portrait was appropriate enough for the leading cultural institution in the colony of Victoria, which, after all, was named after the Queen. And, occurring as it did at the end of the boom decade of the 1880s, the commission may be interpreted as a symbolically fitting act, which crowned a decade of rapidly growing prosperity. But it also came at a moment when the circumstances of the colony were about to change drastically. Between the issuing of Herkomer’s commission in early 1889 and the arrival of the portrait in Melbourne in 1892 the colony’s fortunes altered radically.4 For an account of Melbourne in the 1890s, see particularly G. Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988. The collapse of land values in 1889 brought about a fast slide into economic recession, a recession that deepened with the retrenchments of 1892. Confidence was so undermined that by early 1893 a number of the leading banks closed their doors, causing widespread panic. It is ironic that in 1889, the very year that had witnessed the end of the building boom, the Victorian government had committed itself to funding new extensions to the buildings occupied by the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery. The sum of £90 000 was allocated, half of which was intended for the construction of two additional galleries and a museum at the north end of the existing buildings. By 1892 the economy had failed to such an extent that the government substantially cut spending and instructed the Trustees to retrench in every possible way. The initial allocation for the extensions to the Library, Museum and Gallery was slashed to £55 000, but by this time the new galleries had been started and were awaiting completion.5 The figures quoted for the rebuilding are cited in E. La Touche Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria 1856–1906, Melbourne, 1906, pp. 61, 67.

Since its founding in 1851 the Public Library – joined in 1861 by its offshoots, the Art Gallery and the Museum – had been energetically championed by a patrician civil service, dedicated to shaping the institution into an instrument of education and taste, as well as of social and moral improvement and the young city’s fledgling cultural institution quickly assumed a significant identity and role. In 1882 it was decided to appoint the painter George Folingsby as the Gallery’s first Director. Between 1890 and 1892 over half a million people annually are estimated to have passed through the institution’s doors, an astonishing figure given that the total population of greater Melbourne was just over 491 000 in 1891.6 The number of visitors to the institution is recorded in Andrew Garran (ed.), Australasia Illustrated, Picturesque Atlas Publishing Company, Sydney, 1892, p. 457. Of those who attended, three-fifths are estimated to have used the Library. Population statistics cited here come from the Victorian Year Book for 1890–91, p. 216.

In the midst of the increasingly difficult situation of the early 1890s the Gallery suffered a personal blow with the sudden death of Folingsby on 4 January 1891. The search for a new Director was begun immediately; however, it would be a full year before a replacement was found. In the meantime the institution’s activities were not suspended entirely. The painter Frederick McCubbin, Drawing Master at the National Gallery Art School, took on the duties of Acting Director, and the Trustees continued to pursue acquisitions, to develop policies and to negotiate Herkomer’s increasing fee for his portrait of the Queen (which rose from 600 to 900 guineas).7 See Public Library Register, Inward Letters 1889–93, item 663, Public Record Office, Laverton, which refers to a telegram of 14 March 1891 acceding to Herkomer’s request for the additional 300 guineas; information also cited in Armstrong, p. 65. They also took every opportunity to obtain professional advice. Their President, Sir George Verdon, had been abroad for six months in 1890, reporting in July of that year that he had met with the Gallery’s advisers and consultants in London and had visited the chief officers of the British Museum, consulting ‘with them and other authorities on various matters affecting the welfare of the institution’.8 Armstrong, pp. 62–3. Another opportunity for professional consultation occurred closer to home, within weeks of George Folingsby’s death.

Louis Fagan, an Assistant Keeper in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, was at the time visiting Melbourne, presumably for personal reasons,9 In 1887 Fagan had married Caroline Frances Purves of Melbourne. For Fagan, see The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. S. Lee, vol. 1, Supplement, January 1901–December 1911, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969 (reprint of 1912 edition), pp. 2–3; and Cox, p. 47. and the Trustees decided to ask him to speak to them. A special meeting was held on 12 February 1891. The interview extended beyond the field of prints and drawings into other aspects of the collection, as well as matters of policy, and so impressed the Trustees that they would take the unusual step of publishing it.10 The printed interview is pasted into the Trustees Minute Book, 1883–1904, pp. 192–4. (The early Trustees minute books are held in the Manuscripts section, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.) Cox, pp. 47–8, quotes several passages from Fagan’s interview. As the author not only of the first guide to the British Museum Print Room but also of a general guide to the Museum’s entire collections, Fagan could be expected to speak with some breadth. He was questioned about acquiring paintings, watercolours, prints, coins and books. When asked about how to proceed with buying pictures he forthrightly urged the Trustees not to buy directly from dealers, but to put their trust in advisers and to buy, whenever possible, from artists themselves; the Gallery would get a better price that way. Fagan advised the Trustees to follow the example of the British Museum Print Room and not acquire works by living artists, as this would inevitably provoke jealousy. When asked who might be approached to act as an adviser on acquisitions in London, he suggested the Slade Professors of Art in Oxford and Cambridge.

One can imagine the Trustees’ satisfaction on hearing this, since Fagan’s advice would have confirmed their recent decision. Some two months earlier, on 18 December 1890, they had decided to ask the two Slade Professors – John Henry Middleton in Cambridge and Herkomer in Oxford – to form a committee to scrutinise the recommendations of the Gallery’s recently appointed London agent, the dealer(!) Thomas Wallis. The Trustees were already in contact with Herkomer, who was then still working on the Queen’s portrait.

With so many people involved in the process of selecting works, it comes as no surprise to hear that difficulties soon emerged. First, the two Slade Professors found that they were unable to work with Wallis, who thereupon resigned. Next, they found that they disagreed with one another. At this stage, to the Trustees’ bemusement, they both resigned, but Herkomer was eventually prevailed upon to continue, and found himself entrusted with the responsibility of being the sole adviser in London to Melbourne’s Trustees. His appointment was approved in April 1891.11 These events are described in Cox, p. 47. See also the National Gallery Minute Book, vol. 58, 1883–98, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria (hereafter cited as NGMB, vol. 58), for the meetings of 29 April and 21 May 1891 at which the dispute and Herkomer’s eventual appointment were discussed. In accepting the position Herkomer told the Trustees that he wished to refer his selections to two other Royal Academicians, J. C. Horsley and Briton Rivière. The Trustees, however, asked him also to consult Louis Fagan, who, having returned to London, was already advising them on the selection of the Gallery’s new Director. It is against this background that Melbourne’s purchase of European old master prints in 1891 and 1892 was made.

The purchase 

Herkomer acted swiftly on his new brief, in the first instance recommending paintings by Frank Dicksee, J. W. Waterhouse and Fred Walker. Next, he requested permission to buy a representative collection of original English etchings, and informed the Trustees by cable of the possibility of acquiring some etchings by van Dyck and Rembrandt at the sale of Seymour Haden’s print collection, which was to be auctioned in London between 15 and 18 June 1891.12 See Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, Catalogue of the Collection of Prints and Drawings Formed by Francis Seymour Haden, Esq., London, 15 June 1891, and for the next four days. The sale catalogue included an introduction by Haden himself, who was also responsible for compiling the 605 lot entries.The Trustees authorised their new adviser to proceed, but asked him to avoid duplicates and to refer to Fagan.13 Herkomer’s request to purchase the etchings, and the Trustees’ instructions to him, are recorded in the minutes of the Trustees’ meeting of 25 June 1891 (see NGMB, vol. 58, p. 266). A month after buying from the Haden sale, Herkomer purchased a group of eight Meryon etchings at the sale of Gustave de Salicis’s fine collection.14 See Christie, Manson &C Woods, Catalogue of the Collection of Etchings by Charles Meryon of M. de Salicis, Deceased, Late of Paris; and a Small Collection of Drawings by the Old Masters, the Property of a Baronet, London, 16 July 1891. Commenting on the purchase of the Meryon etchings, the print dealer and director of P. & D. Colnaghi, Harold Wright, later wrote: ‘All honour is due to Herkomer for his prescience on this occasion’ (Wright, ‘Meryon Etchings in the Melbourne Art Gallery’, Art in Australia, no. 55, 5 May 1934, p. 45). At their meeting on 17 September 1891 the Trustees recorded the Agent-General’s advice that Herkomer’s expenditure on the print acquisitions had been £1327 2s 2d. This roughly tallies with the total amount paid for the purchases from the sales of the Haden and the de Salicis collections, but does not include the cost of the Klinger etchings that were bought later in the year.

In late October the greater part of the collection of prints was reported to have arrived in Melbourne, as had paintings by Frank Dicksee, J. W. Waterhouse, Lionel Smythe and Robert Meyerheim.15 NGMB, vol. 58, p. 280, 29 October 1891. The initial group of prints selected by Herkomer – the Dürers, van Dycks, Rembrandts and Meryons – was first put on public display in November 1891 at the exhibition that marked the annual distribution of art prizes for students and professional artists. On 18 November the Argus reported that the selection had been made with the co-operation of Louis Fagan, a fact the newspaper deemed to be a sufficient guarantee of quality. There followed a concise and accurate account of the meaning of Dürer’s three master engravings, detailed information that seems at odds with the accompanying pronouncement suggesting that collectors would ‘derive as much from a cheap facsimile as from originals’. At their special meeting on 1 December, the Trustees ‘resolved to inform Prof. Herkomer that it is not thought desirable at present to add any more etchings or engravings to the collection as there are no funds available for this purpose’. However, by this stage Herkomer had already committed £39 for a set of Max Klinger etchings16 ibid., p. 282, 17 December 1891. and in early 1892 he notified the Trustees of what turned out to be the final part of his etching acquisition: the Whistlers purchased from the Fine Arts Society and the Hadens bought from E. F. J. Deprez.17 ibid., p. 285, 4 February 1892.

Herkomer arranged the bidding at the Seymour Haden sale through Deprez (who was later to become a partner in the great firm of print dealers P. & D. Colnaghi and Co.). Herkomer selected carefully and well, although a slight degree of uncertainty remains about his precise choice, since we know only what Deprez’s successful bids were. In the case of the Rembrandts, the only major work bought by Deprez and not included in Melbourne’s group was described as a first state of the Three crosses (lot 458). This sold for £80, considerably less than was paid for the Hundred Guilder print (£170) or for Jan Cornelis Sylvius (£168), both of which were bought for Melbourne. Only two of Haden’s Rembrandt prints fetched substantially more than this: Jan Six, which was sold for £390, and Christ before the people, which went for the huge sum of £1000. However, the eleven Rembrandt etchings acquired for Melbourne from the Haden sale were an extremely fine and representative group and included important works from all the major subject categories (except nudes, which did not feature in the sale).

The appropriateness of the choice of Dürer’s great engravings St Jerome in his study, Melencolia I and Knight, Death and the Devil (from a total of twenty-one Dürers in the sale) needs no additional comment. A query remains, however, about two of the van Dyck portraits – Joos II de Momper and Frans I Francken. Only the artist’s Self-Portrait was included in the sale, and the acquisition of the other two etchings may have been negotiated at a later stage through Deprez.

The exact extent of Louis Fagan’s involvement in Herkomer’s selection is not known, but it is possible that his guiding hand might be seen in the professionally informed and representative nature of the selection. However, the principles and preferences underpinning the choice equally reflect the historical canon outlined by Seymour Haden in his publications on etching, and broadly accepted. Only the German, Klinger, may be considered as then being outside the perimeter of this inner circle.

Having made his first group of purchases, Herkomer gave an account to the Trustees of the principles that had guided his selection. This document was released for publication in the Argus on 23 July 1892. Here, Herkomer stated his underlying belief that the Gallery’s collection should be educational in its focus and that it should comprise ‘representative types of art, rather than works which were likely to afford amusement from the character of the subjects depicted’. As far as paintings were concerned he wrote that he felt it wisest to concentrate on modern masters in order to avoid the problems of authenticity inherent in considering old master works, ‘scores’ of which had been brought to his attention from around the world. He also wrote individual justifications for all the paintings and watercolours he had recommended, but confined himself to a general statement regarding the etchings. These, he said, should ‘form a most important branch of your art treasures’, adding that all his ideas on the subject were contained in a book he had written and dispatched to the Public Library.

The book Herkomer referred to was the published version of his Slade Lectures, entitled On Etching and Mezzotint Engraving, a work that is part technical manual, part historical appreciation.18 Hubert Herkomer, On Etching and Mezzotint Engraving, London, 1892. In it Herkomer aligns etching with spontaneity, or ‘the freest expression of an artistic nature’, according to which ‘the right thing has charm, the wrong … leaves us cold’.19 ibid., p. 2. He considers that Rembrandt ‘towers above all etchers ancient or modern as Shakespeare towers above all dramatists’,20 ibid., p. 10. but confesses to not having seen an original Rembrandt print before beginning to teach himself to etch from his copies of P. G. Hamerton’s treatises The Etcher’s Handbook and Etching and Etchers, first published in 1871 and 1868 respectively. Following Seymour Haden, Herkomer champions original etching over reproductive work and correspondingly prefers intimate scale to the large dimensions of contemporary reproductive engravings. In his view, Whistler was the only contemporary etcher who managed to avoid the ‘sins of size’.21 ibid., p. 9. Herkomer praises Meryon for his ability to suggest great richness of colour through tone. He also records his presence at the inaugural meeting in 1880 of the Society of Painter-Etchers, expresses admiration for the Society’s founding President, Francis Seymour Haden, and warmly approves of the Society’s practice of combining old master and modern prints in the same exhibition – this being the most effective way of educating the public on the subject of etching. Herkomer certainly acted on this belief in selecting the etchings for Melbourne.

Impact and critical reception 

Herkomer’s portrait of Queen Victoria finally arrived in Melbourne in early 1892, as did the Gallery’s new Director, Bernard Hall, who assumed his duties in March. At about the same time a Trustees’ minute (of 24 March) records that with the arrival of the Haden and Whistler etchings the collection that Herkomer had planned for the Gallery was completed. A few weeks earlier Louis Fagan had submitted drawings valued at £250 (but not itemised) and had asked for instructions regarding the purchase of prints. The Trustees told him that they had now decided against forming a collection of prints and drawings, as had been desired earlier, and had to be satisfied with reproductions.22 NGMB, vol. 58, p. 289, 3 March 1892.

Herkomer’s unfortunate portrait of the Queen – stiff, overblown and awkwardly painted – and his purchases for the collection were displayed in September 1892. The portrait met with a scathing reception, the Evening Standard of 24 September declaring that it was ‘the worst example of portraiture … now existing in Australia’, and it was universally condemned by artists and ordinary observers alike. The amount paid for Herkomer’s painting acquisitions was seriously queried and a question-mark was placed over the attribution of the prints, the latter query probably being due to a reluctance to recognise the difference between reproductive and original prints. Fascimiles, it was maintained, could just as well have been substituted for the etchings, and at a much lower price.23 The report in the Evening Standard of 24 September 1892 refers to ‘a number of etchings and prints attributed to Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Meryon, and other artists … These prints may or may not be genuine. The fact concerns the art student to a very small extent, either the exact French reproductions or the fac-similes in photography being of equal value to him … these prints have been purchased at a sum representing in pounds what exact fac-similes could be procured for in farthings – fac-similies [sic], too, of precisely the same positive art value’. A dozen autotype reproductions of works by the old masters had, indeed, been bought on the new Director’s recommendations during the previous month.24 NGMB, vol. 58, p. 305, 24 August 1892. By August 1893 Herkomer’s services were no longer required, and in January 1894, at Bernard Hall’s suggestion, Joseph Pennell – an artist, a pupil of Whistler’s and later his biographer – was given an allowance of £100 to buy a select group of black and white works for the Gallery. Pennell’s purchases fall outside the parameters of this discussion though it may be said that they differed from Herkomer’s recommendations in one fundamental respect: all of them were confined to the modern schools, most being drawings by illustrators, although the group also included notable individual drawings by Adolf Menzel and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

The impact of the Gallery’s newly acquired etchings on local artists was immediate, but its outcome delayed – as the artists first had to teach themselves to etch. Lionel Lindsay was ‘drawn to the Haden collection as by a magnet, but [was initially] too ignorant to question a craft that seemed the prerogative of genius’.25 L. Lindsay, ‘Etching in Australia’, The Print Collector’s Quarterly, vol. 11, 1924, p. 296. John Shirlow was the first to experiment, building an etching press from wood and learning from Hamerton, just as Herkomer himself had done. Shirlow’s press did not last long, but his first attempts at etching were exhibited at the Victorian Artists’ Society, where they were seen in 1895 by Lindsay, who was then inspired to learn what he could about the technique, also turning to Hamerton and unsuccessfully adapting a knife-polishing machine for use as a press.26 ibid., pp. 294–6. See also V. Cobb, ‘The Art of the Painter-Etcher’, in The Yearbook of Victorian Art, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1922–23, n.p.; R. Holden, ‘The Golden Age of Australian Etching’, The Australian Connoisseur and Collector, no. 4, p. 95; and J. Mendelssohn, Lionel Lindsay: An Artist and His Family, Chatto & Windus, London, 1988, p. 87. Victor Cobb adapted a household wringer for the purpose.27 W. Moore, The Story of Australian Art: From the Earliest Known Art of the Continent to the Art of To-day, vol. II, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934, p. 131. See also A. Mackenzie (ed.), The Etchings, Lecture Notes and Writings of Victor Cobb 1876–1945, Pioneer Design Studio, Lilydale, Victoria, 1987, esp. pp. 40, 77. These artists’ enthusiasm to learn seemed to have all the intensity of an original discovery, yet the models on which their work is based are immediately apparent and, indeed, the source of inspiration was wholeheartedly acknowledged. Lionel Lindsay, who is credited with being the catalyst of the revival of etching in Sydney in the first decade of this century, and who, in 1920, was elected founding President of the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society, acknowledged that the group of etchings selected by Herkomer ‘was unquestionably the progenitor of the modern movement in Australian etching’.28 Lindsay, Etching in Australia, p. 293.

The old master etchings were admired with awe and – initially, at least – from a respectful distance. This was particularly true in the case of Dürer, whose meticulously engraved formal allegories were so far removed in conception, style and technique from the practical aspirations of the hopeful young artists of Melbourne. Rembrandt’s example was absorbed largely indirectly, filtered through the art of his nineteenth-century admirers Haden and Whistler. Reflections of the compositions and oblong vertical formats of van Dyck’s etched portraits may be detected in a group of similar subjects etched and engraved in drypoint in the 1910s and 1920s.

However, the prints with the greatest impact on local artists were the nineteenth-century etchings. Meryon – on whose shoulder, according to Lindsay, ‘the whole modern [etching] “Revival” is borne’29 L. Lindsay, ‘The Art of Etching’, Art in Australia, no. 9, 1921, n.p.. (fig. 3) – exerted a lasting influence on the etching manner of Shirlow, in terms of compositional preference and approach to subject matter, as well as technical effect. Shirlow’s portrayals of city lanes clearly reflect Meryon in their pinched narrowness, their exaggerated height and their oppressive and clearly articulated shadows (fig. 4). But Shirlow’s depictions are not invested with emotional drama and he was never able to match Meryon’s technical skills in controlling tonal gradations. Instead, he used selective wiping and plate tone to structure the disposition of tones in the image.30 Writing in the Melbourne Herald, 31 August 1918, Shirlow also acknowledged his debt to Whistler: ‘My career as an etcher … began in 1893. In that year the Victorian Government purchased a number of Whistler prints which were hung in the National Gallery. At that time I was a student at the Gallery, and Whistler’s exquisite work made such a profound impression on me that I was not satisfied until I had obtained some copper plates and set to work on them’.

Whistler’s etching The lime burner, 1859 (fig. 5), provided the model for Lindsay’s Latrobe Street courtyard, 1914 (fig. 6), as well as for Shirlow’s earlier etching Mundell’s Bond, 1909. Lindsay also effectively transposed Whistler’s views on the Thames (fig. 7) to the banks of Melbourne’s River Yarra, issuing the resultant etchings with Whistlerian titles such as Little pool (Yarra) (fig. 8). Lindsay responded not only to Whistler’s realism, but also to the elegiac and classicising symbolism of Klinger, and especially to the two plates of On Death II. The edge of the world, 1907 (fig. 9), clearly indebted in mood and technique to Klinger’s To the beautiful in nature, 1891 (fig. 10), was Lindsay’s most successful etching to date – the talisman that launched his career as a printmaker. The edition sold out almost immediately upon its display in Sydney in 190731 S. Ure Smith, ‘Lionel Lindsay’, Art in Australia, no. 1, 1916, n.p. Mendelssohn, p. 118, describes The Edge of the World as ‘a primeval nude in a hilly Middle Harbour [Sydney] landscape’, adding that the print sold £90 worth of proofs. and, soon after, the etching was reproduced in the literary journal The heart of the rose.32 The Heart of the Rose, vol. 1, no. 1, 1907, frontispiece. In its short, three-volume existence, The heart of the rose, edited by Bernard O’Dowd, was able to publish a number of important decadent and symbolist texts of European and English origin, including those of Swinburne, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Its second issue (vol. 1, no. 2, 1907, being called The book of the opal) included an illustration of Klinger’s Dead mother (fig. 11), in what appears to be the first instance of any of the 1891–92 print acquisitions being reproduced outside their publication in the Gallery’s catalogues.

The Klinger etchings also made a great impression on the young Australian lyrical symbolist poet John Shaw Neilson who, in 1917, recommended them in a letter addressed to his friend the poet and journalist Victor Kennedy:

[N]ext time you are in Melb. have a look at Max Klinger’s etchings, right hand side as you go into Gallery where [Corot’s] ‘Bent Tree’ is. They are wonderful. My brother Frank was much taken with one ‘Mother and Child’; ‘To the Beautiful in Nature’ is hard to describe. Also ‘The Peasant’, ‘Night’, ‘The Poor Family’ and ‘Death as the Saviour’.33 John Shaw Neilson, letter to Victor Kennedy, 24 June 1917, Victor Kennedy Papers, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 9419/1237. I am indebted to Helen Hewson, Department of English, University of Sydney, for drawing this letter to my attention and to Mr R. J. McKinn, Trustee of the Shaw Neilson Estate, for permission to quote from it.

Another literary echo of the Melbourne etchings may, perhaps, be discerned in Bernard O’Dowd’s poem The City (1901), a savage elegy for Melbourne – marvellous in the 1880s, now just emerging from the misery of the 1890s; two of the verses are quoted here:

The City crowds our motley broods, And plants its citadel Upon the delta where the floods Of evil plunge to Hell.

Debt’s gargoyles ‘neath each eave grimace; Debt’s mildews sour the soil; At all there grins a Shylock face; Round all, Debt’s suckers coil.34 O’Dowd’s poem is quoted in Davison, pp. 256–7. For the complete poems of O’Dowd, see W. Murdoch (ed.), The Poems of Bernard O’Dowd, Lothian, Melbourne, 1944. In this context it is pertinent to note that O’Dowd’s biographer (with Nettie Palmer) was Victor Kennedy.

In its militant purposefulness, O’Dowds rhetorical and tortuous style veers towards caricature, but its use of metaphor, and its conception of the city as a live and threatening organism, recall Meryon’s views of Paris and, particularly, his mocking vampire, Le Stryge (fig. 12).

The first known photographic documentation of the early displays of the etchings appears in the Gallery’s illustrated catalogues. The first of these was published in 1894 and records the installation organised by Bernard Hall in the newly built extensions to the Gallery (fig. 1). Here the prints were grouped in two-tiered clusters and hung against walls that were described as being ‘effectively coloured a dull grey of the true “wrapping paper” tint’.35 Argus, 11 March 1893. However, the unveiling of the etchings to public gaze was not without its hazards. As early as September 1893 Bernard Hall reported that the mounts were suffering from contact with damp walls and recommended that the prints be hung three or four inches away from the wall.36 Public Library Register, Inward Letters 1889–93, item 1428, September 1893, Public Record Office, Laverton. At the same time, the Klingers were displayed diagonally opposite the large window of the vestibule (fig. 2), a space they shared with a dozen newly acquired etchings by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (a gift from the Queen that had been received in May 1893). In 1907 the temporary removal from display of some of the prints was greeted with well-meaning, but misguided, indignation, prompted in one instance by a particular admiration of Whistler.37 See ‘C. W. B.’, letter to the editor dated 20 May 1907, Argus, 24 May 1907: ‘I was considerably disappointed … last week to notice that the excellent collection of Whistler etchings had almost entirely disappeared from the walls. To myself and others such a proceeding seems extraordinary, for I have always regarded them as being the very finest possessions in the national collection’. As John Shaw Neilson’s appreciative letter shows, some of the prints were still out in 1917.

The over-exposure of the works to light, to unsuitable climatic conditions, as well as to contact with acidic mounts and framing systems, inevitably led to some permanent damage, which appears chiefly in the form of a discoloration of the paper. This damage was not the result of indifference, but rather it stemmed from the generally high regard in which the works were held, and from an appreciation (sometimes grudgingly extended) of their status as originals – considered important enough to be displayed alongside paintings and sculpture.

The sudden curtailing of print purchases that accompanied the termination of Herkomer’s appointment as adviser must be viewed in the context of the straitened financial circumstances that faced the Gallery throughout most of the 1890s. While Herkomer had over £1300 at his disposal in 1891, the sum allowed Joseph Pennell in 1894 for the purchase of black and white works was a bare £100; a request in 1897 for a similar amount, intended for the same purpose, was refused.38 Cox, p. 53. In 1895 Bernard Hall was faced not just with cuts in the Gallery’s overall budget, but also with a decrease in his own salary, which was reduced from £600 to £450. (The full amount was restored in 1898.)39 ibid., p. 55. At the same time, the Gallery’s expenditure on acquisitions, revealed by an examination of its acquisitions register, makes the Trustees’ priorities quite clear; adhering to the traditional artistic hierarchy, they preferred paintings to drawings and prints. As Baldwin Spencer, a Trustee who was a noted biologist, zoologist, ethnographer and collector, was to put it in 1918:

[I]t is one thing to collect for an old established Gallery which … can afford to put Blakes and Whistlers in portfolios where they can be enjoyed by the connoisseur, and quite another thing to collect for a young Gallery which is very anxious, naturally, to have a certain number of first class paintings on its walls to justify its existence in the eyes of the public.40 Baldwin Spencer’s letter is quoted in I. Zdanowicz, ‘The Melbourne Blakes –Their Acquisition and Critical Fortunes in Australia’, the introduction to M. Butlin & T. Gott, William Blake in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, The Robert Raynor Publications in Prints and Drawings, no. 3, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, p. 14.

As we have seen, the prints bought by Herkomer were not placed in portfolios as soon as they might have been, but neither did they languish without attention. Indeed, for many years they remained the one clear reference point to the European old masters that was available in Australia. The choice of outstanding and important images also meant that a substantial context was established for a broader consideration of the work of Dürer, van Dyck and Rembrandt, whose representation was so magnificently extended in later years. This advantage could not have been apparent at the time of acquisition, when there was little real expectation of a collection of old master paintings being formed.

Thirteen or so years later, when Alfred Felton’s bequest to the Gallery was revealed on his death in 1904, it came as a totally unexpected windfall that was to transform the Gallery’s buying capacity, and thus the framework of its acquisitions policy. By this time, however, the institution had a model and a standard of excellence in place. More particularly, the print collection, which had begun as a repository of visual information, now acquired a new artistic and aesthetic dimension. Hubert Herkomer – acting with reference to specialists very much in the manner of subsequent Felton Bequest Advisers – had taken advantage of the opportunities available to him. In choosing the best of the old and the modern masters, he provided an example for future acquisition policies and for the traditionally broad span of Melbourne’s collecting activity.

Irena Zdanowicz, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1993).

Appendix 

List of prints purchased on the recommendation of Hubert Herkomer in 1891–92

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528): Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513 (Bartsch 98, only state); St Jerome in his study, 1514 (B.60, only state); Melencolia I, 1514 (B.74 ii).

Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641): Self-Portrait, c. 1626–32 (Mauquoy 4 i); Portrait of Frans I Francken, c. 1626-32 (M.6 ii); Portrait of Joos II de Momper, c. 1626–32 (M.7 i).

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669): Rembrandt’s mother: head and bust three-quarters right, 1628 (Hollstein 354 ii); Young man in a velvet cap with books beside him, 1637 (Holl.268 ii); Rembrandt leaning on a stone sill: half-length, 1639 (Holl.21 i, touched with black chalk); The Raising of Lazarus: the smaller plate, 1642 (Holl.72 ii); The three trees, 1643 (Holl.212, only state); Jan Cornells Sylvius, Preacher; Posthumous portrait, 1646 (Holl.280 ii); Beggars receiving alms at the door of a house, 1648 (Holl.176 i or ii); Christ with the sick around him, Receiving little children (The Hundred Guilder print), c.1649 (Holl.74 ii); The blindness of Tobit: the larger plate, 1651 (Holl.42 i); The goldweigher’s field, 1651 (Holl.234, only state); Christ at Emmaus: the larger plate, 1654 (Holl.87 i, touched with pen and ink and wash).

Charles Meryon (French, 1821–1868): Le Petit Pont, Paris, 1850 (Schneiderman 20 iii, on green laid paper); Saint-Etienne-du-Mont (Church of St Etienne du Mont, Paris) (1852) (S.25 iv, on green laid paper); La Pompe Notre-Dame, 1852 (S.26 viii, on green laid paper); Le Stryge (The Vampire), 1853 (S.27 iv, on green laid paper); L’Abside de Notre Dame de Paris (The Apse of Notre-Dame, Paris), 1854 (S.45 iii); Ruines du château de Pierrefonds (Ruins of the Château de Pierrefonds), 1858 (S.64 iii).

Max Klinger (German, 1857–1920): Vom Tode I (On Death I), 1889 (Singer 171–180, all inscribed proof impressions of final states); Tote Mutter (Dead mother), 1890 (S.239 iv, proof impression); An die Schönheit (To the beautiful in nature), 1891 (S.241 ii, proof impression).

Francis Seymour Haden (British, 1818–1910): Egham, 1859 (Schneiderman 20 x, on vellum); Early morning, Richmond Park, 1859 (S.25 iii, on vellum); Kensington Gardens, No. II (large plate), 1860 (S.31 ii[?]); Shere Mill Pond, No. II (large plate), 1860 and later (S.37 iv); A sunset in Ireland, 1863 (S.47 xiii[?], on vellum); Whistler’s House, Old Chelsea, 1863 (S.50 v, on vellum); Sunset on the Thames, 1865 and later (S.83 v); Little Calais Pier, 1865 (S.88 iii); Sonning Alms-Houses (1865) (S.105 ii); Windmill Hill, No. 1, c.1877 and later (S.152 iv); The Little Boat-House, 1877 (S.157 i); Breaking up of the ‘Agamemnon’, No. II, 1880 (S.198 v).

James McNeill Whistler (American/British, 1834–1903): The Thames set, published 1871, comprising: Thames warehouses, 1859 (Kennedy 38 ii); Old Westminster Bridge, 1859 (K.39 ii); Limehouse, 1859 (K.40 iii); Eagle Wharf (Tyzac, Whiteley and Co.), 1859 (K.41, only state); Black Lion Wharf, 1859 (K.42 iii); The pool, 1859 (K.43 iv); Thames police (Wapping Wharf), 1859 (K.44 ii); The Lime Burner, 1859 (K.46 ii); Becquet (The fiddler), 1859 (K.52 iii); Rotherhithe (Wapping), 1860 (K.66 iii); Millbank, 1861 (K.71 iii); The little pool, 1861 (K.74 viii); Early morning, Battersea, 1861 (K.75, only state); Old Hungerford Bridge, 1861 (K.76 iii); The Forge, 1864 (K.68 iii); Chelsea Bridge and Church (1870–71) (K.95 vi).

Notes 

1     N. Draffin’s article ‘Francis Seymour Haden: Surgeon, Collector and Etcher’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1969–70, pp. 14–21, includes a focus on the Gallery’s purchases from the Haden collection and lists the prints by Haden that were acquired by the Gallery in 1892. See also the introduction to R. S. Schneiderman, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Prints of Sir Francis Seymour Haden, Robin Garton, London, 1983; K. Lochnan, The Etchings of J. McNeill Whistler, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1984, esp. ch. 1; and F. Lugt, Les Marques des collections de dessins et d’estampes, Amsterdam, 1921, pp. 216–17. 

 2      The most complete account of the Gallery’s early collecting policies occurs in A. Galbally & A. Inglis, The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s arid 1860s (exh. cat.), The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1992. See also A. Galbally, The Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987, esp. ch. 1; and A. Inglis, ‘Art at Second Hand: Prints after European Pictures in Victoria before 1870’, Australian Journal of Art, vol. VII, 1988, pp. 50–63. L. B. Cox’s The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968: A Search for a Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, [1970], remains an invaluable source for all aspects of the Gallery’s history.

 3      The entire group of sixty-four prints, together with the prices paid for them, has recently been published in the exhibition brochure Great Impressions: A Centenary Exhibition Celebrating the Founding of the European Old Master Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 16 September-23 November 1992. Other assessments of this acquisition may be found in Cox, ch. 5, and Galbally, ch. 1. 

 4     For an account of Melbourne in the 1890s, see particularly G. Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988. 

 5     The figures quoted for the rebuilding are cited in E. La Touche Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria 1856–1906, Melbourne, 1906, pp. 61, 67. 

 6      The number of visitors to the institution is recorded in Andrew Garran (ed.), Australasia Illustrated, Picturesque Atlas Publishing Company, Sydney, 1892, p. 457. Of those who attended, three-fifths are estimated to have used the Library. Population statistics cited here come from the Victorian Year Book for 1890–91, p. 216. 

 7      See Public Library Register, Inward Letters 1889–93, item 663, Public Record Office, Laverton, which refers to a telegram of 14 March 1891 acceding to Herkomer’s request for the additional 300 guineas; information also cited in Armstrong, p. 65. 

8      Armstrong, pp. 62–3.  

9      In 1887 Fagan had married Caroline Frances Purves of Melbourne. For Fagan, see The Dictionary of National Biography, ed. S. Lee, vol. 1, Supplement, January 1901–December 1911, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1969 (reprint of 1912 edition), pp. 2–3; and Cox, p. 47. 

 10     The printed interview is pasted into the Trustees Minute Book, 1883–1904, pp. 192–4. (The early Trustees minute books are held in the Manuscripts section, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.) Cox, pp. 47–8, quotes several passages from Fagan’s interview. 

 11     These events are described in Cox, p. 47. See also the National Gallery Minute Book, vol. 58, 1883–98, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria (hereafter cited as NGMB, vol. 58), for the meetings of 29 April and 21 May 1891 at which the dispute and Herkomer’s eventual appointment were discussed.

 12     See Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, Catalogue of the Collection of Prints and Drawings Formed by Francis Seymour Haden, Esq., London, 15 June 1891, and for the next four days. The sale catalogue included an introduction by Haden himself, who was also responsible for compiling the 605 lot entries. 

13      Herkomer’s request to purchase the etchings, and the Trustees’ instructions to him, are recorded in the minutes of the Trustees’ meeting of 25 June 1891 (see NGMB, vol. 58, p. 266).  

14     See Christie, Manson &C Woods, Catalogue of the Collection of Etchings by Charles Meryon of M. de Salicis, Deceased, Late of Paris; and a Small Collection of Drawings by the Old Masters, the Property of a Baronet, London, 16 July 1891. Commenting on the purchase of the Meryon etchings, the print dealer and director of P. & D. Colnaghi, Harold Wright, later wrote: ‘All honour is due to Herkomer for his prescience on this occasion’ (Wright, ‘Meryon Etchings in the Melbourne Art Gallery’, Art in Australia, no. 55, 5 May 1934, p. 45).  

 15     NGMB, vol. 58, p. 280, 29 October 1891. 

 16     ibid., p. 282, 17 December 1891. 

 17     ibid., p. 285, 4 February 1892. 

 18     Hubert Herkomer, On Etching and Mezzotint Engraving, London, 1892. 

 19      ibid., p. 2. 

 20      ibid., p. 10. 

 21      ibid., p. 9. 

 22     NGMB, vol. 58, p. 289, 3 March 1892. 

23     The report in the Evening Standard of 24 September 1892 refers to ‘a number of etchings and prints attributed to Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Meryon, and other artists … These prints may or may not be genuine. The fact concerns the art student to a very small extent, either the exact French reproductions or the fac-similes in photography being of equal value to him … these prints have been purchased at a sum representing in pounds what exact fac-similes could be procured for in farthings – fac-similies [sic], too, of precisely the same positive art value’. 

24      NGMB, vol. 58, p. 305, 24 August 1892. 

25     L. Lindsay, ‘Etching in Australia’, The Print Collector’s Quarterly, vol. 11, 1924, p. 296. 

26     ibid., pp. 294–6. See also V. Cobb, ‘The Art of the Painter-Etcher’, in The Yearbook of Victorian Art, Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1922–23, n.p.; R. Holden, ‘The Golden Age of Australian Etching’, The Australian Connoisseur and Collector, no. 4, p. 95; and J. Mendelssohn, Lionel Lindsay: An Artist and His Family, Chatto & Windus, London, 1988, p. 87. 

27     W. Moore, The Story of Australian Art: From the Earliest Known Art of the Continent to the Art of To-day, vol. II, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934, p. 131. See also A. Mackenzie (ed.), The Etchings, Lecture Notes and Writings of Victor Cobb 1876–1945, Pioneer Design Studio, Lilydale, Victoria, 1987, esp. pp. 40, 77. 

28     Lindsay, Etching in Australia, p. 293. 

29     L. Lindsay, ‘The Art of Etching’, Art in Australia, no. 9, 1921, n.p. 

30     Writing in the Melbourne Herald, 31 August 1918, Shirlow also acknowledged his debt to Whistler: ‘My career as an etcher … began in 1893. In that year the Victorian Government purchased a number of Whistler prints which were hung in the National Gallery. At that time I was a student at the Gallery, and Whistler’s exquisite work made such a profound impression on me that I was not satisfied until I had obtained some copper plates and set to work on them’. 

31     S. Ure Smith, ‘Lionel Lindsay’, Art in Australia, no. 1, 1916, n.p. Mendelssohn, p. 118, describes The Edge of the World as ‘a primeval nude in a hilly Middle Harbour [Sydney] landscape’, adding that the print sold £90 worth of proofs.

32     The Heart of the Rose, vol. 1, no. 1, 1907, frontispiece. 

33      John Shaw Neilson, letter to Victor Kennedy, 24 June 1917, Victor Kennedy Papers, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, MS 9419/1237. I am indebted to Helen Hewson, Department of English, University of Sydney, for drawing this letter to my attention and to Mr R. J. McKinn, Trustee of the Shaw Neilson Estate, for permission to quote from it. 

34     O’Dowd’s poem is quoted in Davison, pp. 256–7. For the complete poems of O’Dowd, see W. Murdoch (ed.), The Poems of Bernard O’Dowd, Lothian, Melbourne, 1944. In this context it is pertinent to note that O’Dowd’s biographer (with Nettie Palmer) was Victor Kennedy. 

35     Argus, 11 March 1893. 

36     Public Library Register, Inward Letters 1889–93, item 1428, September 1893, Public Record Office, Laverton. 

37     See ‘C. W. B.’, letter to the editor dated 20 May 1907, Argus, 24 May 1907: ‘I was considerably disappointed … last week to notice that the excellent collection of Whistler etchings had almost entirely disappeared from the walls. To myself and others such a proceeding seems extraordinary, for I have always regarded them as being the very finest possessions in the national collection’. 

38     Cox, p. 53. 

39     ibid., p. 55. 

40     Baldwin Spencer’s letter is quoted in I. Zdanowicz, ‘The Melbourne Blakes –Their Acquisition and Critical Fortunes in Australia’, the introduction to M. Butlin & T. Gott, William Blake in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, The Robert Raynor Publications in Prints and Drawings, no. 3, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, p. 14.