The development of the collections of decorative arts in the National Gallery of Victoria

The National Gallery of Victoria is unique amongst the public galleries of Australia in its efforts to build up a fine and representative collection of decorative arts. This endeavour can be traced back to the earliest days of the institution and, in fact, predates the first acquisition of pictures by several years. In May 1859, at the suggestion of Captain Clarke, the sum of two thousand pounds was voted by Parliament for the acquisition of a collection ‘illustrating the historic development of Art’.1 National Gallery of Victoria, Catalogue of Oil Paintings, Melbourne, 1879, p. ii. The money was remitted to London ‘for the purchase of casts of some of the choicest statues, busts, and alto-releivos [sic], by the most celebrated sculptors; of coins, medals and gems – (the useful handmaidens of history as well as of decorative adornment), and representations of remarkable architectural objects of Europe and elsewhere, taken by the process of photography’.2 Australian Magazine, November 1859, p. 121. This seems an extraordinarily modest shopping list for a Board of Trustees which, in 1854, had had sufficient confidence in the future of the infant colony of Victoria to accept Joseph Reed’s grandiose plan for the Public Library and Museum building. The late Dr Cox has speculated on the initial exclusion of pictures and sculptures, and pointed to the failure of various public exhibitions of pictures in Melbourne in the mid-1850s, and to Redmond Barry’s determination that the new venture should be a public success. Lack of space for the proper display of pictures is another possible explanation. 

The collection arrived in 1860 and after restoration of the casts by the sculptor, Charles Summers, was placed on display on the ground floor of the Public Library building on 24 May 1861. It was a resounding success, attracting over 62,000 visitors in the first months. 

In assembling the collection the paternalistic Barry and his fellow Trustees were attempting to awaken in the native-born population a sense of beauty and to revive in the older colonists the ‘dormant faculty’3 National Gallery of Victoria, Catalogue of Oil Paintings, p. viii. of appreciation. Apart from this general role in elevating public taste in the young colony, the collection was also intended to play an important part in the economic life of the community. In 1862 Frederick Gonnerman Dalgety placed at the disposal of the Trustees the sum of one hundred pounds which ‘was expended in procuring from Alderman Copeland an Illustrative Series of the mode of preparing the clay of Staffordshire, mixed with the several ingredients employed in the course of manufacture, together with types of some of the choice varieties of European porcelain’.4 Public Library, Melbourne, Catalogue of the Casts, Busts, Reliefs, and Illustrations of the School of Design and Ceramic Art in the Museum of Art at the Melbourne Public Library, Melbourne, 1865, p. 116. 


This collection was essentially a didactic one: ‘It will serve to show for what purposes the clays which we possess are best adapted; and as each specimen affords an instance of the kind of material used, the mode of preparation adopted, the national or characteristic style of ornament applied, each displays a variety of inventive ingenuity, manufacturing skill, and artistic taste in different stages of progressive improvement, ready for adoption or modification by our artificers’.5 ibid. 

Purchases in the latter part of the 19th century included large amounts of reproductive material – copies of Italian maiolica, electrotypes of hoards of antique vessels such as the Hildesheim Treasure in the Berlin Museum and the Bernay Treasure in the Bibliotheque, Paris, and fictile ivory and plaster facsimiles of works in the Louvre and South Kensington Museum. 

Several acquisitions of greater value were, however, made during the latter part of the 19th century. In 1871, for example, 102 pieces of antique glass, mostly of Venetian origin, were bought in Venice with the assistance of the Consul-General of the Kingdom of Italy. Another field in which acquisitions of lasting value were made was that of contemporary wares. The Trustees bought heavily at the international exhibitions held in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888, acquiring ceramics from the Minton, Doulton (Lambeth and Burslem), Royal Worcester, Royal Saxon, Villeroy & Bock and Vienna factories, and glass from Salviati & Co. and Thomas Webb & Sons. French glass by Brocard and other makers had been acquired from the 1878 Paris Exhibition. In addition, purchases were made directly from craftsmen’s studios: three pieces of glass, for example, were bought from Tiffany & Co., New York, in 1897; and four pieces of pottery from the Della Robbia Pottery Co., Birkenhead, in 1895. For a brief period Sir Frederick Leighton, P.R.A., acted as an adviser, selecting examples of Elton ware, Barum ware and the work of William de Morgan and others from the Exhibition of Paintings on China, London, in 1885. 

By 1900, however, the collections, apart from those items singled out above, were little more than a heterogeneous assortment of objects, relics and curiosities. But in 1904 the advent of the Felton Bequest made it possible for the Gallery to become active in the more traditional areas of art museum collecting. An excellent start was made by appointing as adviser Jean Marquet de Vasselot of the Louvre, a noted authority on antique French furniture and medieval and Renaissance works of art. M. de Vasselot’s first purchases included a Deruta drug jug of c. 1500–20, a 16th-century French cabinet, a pair of Louis XVI ormolu candlesticks and a mahogany commode by Reisner. Unfortunately his association with the Bequest was short-lived, and it is interesting to speculate on the scope and character of the Melbourne collection as it might have been had he continued to act as adviser. For the next decade or so the Bequest went into something of a decline, and few of the purchases made during these years were outstanding. 

An important development at this time was, however, the presentation of the Connell Collection (1914). This donation comprised almost 800 pieces of china, glass, silver, furniture, together with paintings and engravings, most of which were of English origin and had been acquired by the donor in Australia. Although the quality of the pieces which comprised the collection varied a great deal and although few Connell objects are on display today, the popular impact of the collection at the time and for several decades afterwards was considerable. It established the Art Museum, as the Department was then known, in a position of importance in the Gallery and laid the foundations of several specialised collections which, in later years, were to be developed through purchase and bequest. For example, the 18th- and 19th-century English silver presented by Connell was, in the 1920s and 1930s, augmented and transformed into a major holding by the Felton Bequest. With the advice of Ernest Makower the Bequest assembled the stunning group of English holloware which still forms the backbone of the metalwork collection, and includes such major items as the chalice and paten of 1535, the chamber candlestick and snuffers by Paul de Lamerie, and the Thomas Pitts epergne of 1762–63. During the 1920s and 1930s the Felton Bequest also made major contributions to several other areas of the Department’s holdings. A healthy state of finances, the Depression, and moderate prices on the art market, made possible the acquisition of many masterworks. In 1934 Percival Serle, Acting Curator of the Art Museum, proposed the formation of a representative collection of European pottery and porcelain, and suggested that Bernard Rackham of the Victoria and Albert Museum be asked to make the selection. Rackham undertook the task, and with several thousand pounds at his disposal acquired a remarkable collection. Another great achievement was the purchase of four outstanding works from the sale in 1936 of the collection of medieval and Renaissance works of art formed by Henry Oppenheimer of London. 

Simultaneously with this activity in the auction houses and dealers’ rooms was the presentation of several important private collections. In 1925 Mrs Andrews presented sixty pieces of English 18th-century porcelain and earthenware from her collection, and in 1939 the Gallery received the Howard Spensley Bequest, a collection of pictures, drawings, bronzes, textiles, ceramics, furniture and other works of art formed by Howard Spensley of Westoning Manor, Bedfordshire, but formerly of Melbourne. The collection comprised a total of almost 800 items and was similar in extent and in the variety of media represented to the Connell Collection. The Spensley Bequest, however, was less English in its bias and was particularly notable, as far as the Art Museum was concerned, for its groups of bronzes, plaquettes and mortars and for its small selection of Italian maiolica.    

In 1941 an event occurred which was to have great impact on the decorative arts collections and on the Gallery generally – the appointment of Daryl Lindsay as Director. One of Daryl Lindsay’s main contributions is today intangible and largely forgotten: the upgrading of the displays in the Swanston Street building. The static, impenetrable ranks of furniture and the crowded display cases were replaced with attractive tableaux of pieces grouped according to period and style, and with cases thinned out to show the highlights of the collection to best advantage.   

The acquisitions made during Lindsay’s directorship, particularly those of mediaeval and Renaissance works and English 18th-century material, were also notable and bear the stamp of his taste and personality. Some of the highlights of the Gallery’s furniture collection – the Giles Grendey day-bed of c. 1740, the pair of Adam tripod pedestals from 20 St James’ Square, London, and the Glemham Hall settee – were acquired in the immediate post-war period and were the result of Lindsay’s friendship with Leigh Ashton of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and with the noted English furniture historian, Ralph Edwards. 

Many important bequests and donations were received during Lindsay’s directorship. In 1942 the late Mrs Colin Templeton bequeathed 313 items of English 18th-century porcelain in memory of her late husband. The greater part of this collection had been acquired in Australia, although a few highlights, such as the rare set of Bristol ‘Four Seasons’, were bought in London, The foundation of the Gallery’s great costume collection was laid with donations of fifty-two 19th-century items by the Misses Butler in 1948, and of twenty-nine 18th- and 19th-century items by Lady Nicholson and her daughter in 1951. A similar role in the development of the glass collection was played by the purchase by the Felton Bequest, in 1949, of 123 pieces of antique English and Irish glass. Substantial collections of furniture and objects were received from two historic Victorian properties: the Janet Biddlecombe Bequest of furniture from ‘Golf Hill’, near Shelford, Victoria (1954), and the Collier Bequest of furniture and fittings from ‘Werndew’, Toorak (1955). In 1948 and 1949 the first purchases of contemporary Australian furniture and ceramics, respectively, were made, and in 1952 John McDonnell, adviser to the Felton Bequest, made one of the most imaginative acquisitions in the history of the Bequest: the purchase of a large collection of contemporary ceramics, glass, silver and furniture. One of Sir Daryl Lindsay’s last acts as Director was to lay the foundation of the Gallery’s celebrated collection of Greek and South Italian vases by appointing, as Honorary Consultant, Professor A. D. Trendall. 

The mid-1950s saw the appointments of a new Director, Eric Westbrook (1956), of David Lawrance as Assistant Curator of the Art Museum (1957), and, in 1958, of Rex Ebbott as Honorary Curator of Glass. After David Lawrance’s appointment as Curator of Decorative Arts in 1962, the Department began to assume the character it now has. Higher professional standards were applied in the management of the Department, particularly as regards the cataloguing and recording of works of art entering or already in the collection. Many important acquisitions were made at this time and in the later 1960s, following the appointment of Kenneth Hood as Curator in 1966. In 1964, for example, the Felton Bequest presented the Pollen Collection, a collection of over 500 pieces of antique lace assembled by Mrs John Hungerford Pollen in the latter part of the 19th century. 

The year 1968 was a momentous one for the Department in that it saw the installation of the collections in the new and spacious surroundings of the St Kilda Road building. The large galleries devoted to the decorative arts enabled many works to be brought out of storage, and never before had the collection been seen to such advantage. One of the highlights of the opening was the unveiling of the G. Gordon Russell Collection of antique English and Continental glass of the 17th and 18th centuries, the first part of which had been presented that year by the William and Margaret Morgan Endowment. The G. Gordon Russell Collection, numbering 373 items, transformed the Gallery’s small holdings of antique English glass into a collection which is virtually unparalleled outside England.      

The late 1960s also saw the appointment of assistant curators to the various sections within the Department – metalwork, costumes and textiles, furniture and woodwork, ceramics and glass – and these appointments meant that for the first time in their history the collections could be given the curatorial attention which they required. 

In spite of inflation and rising prices for works of art, the collections continue to develop. Important large purchases have been those of the Schofield Collection of Costumes and Accessories (1974 and 1977) and the Gallia Collection of Austrian Decorative Arts (1976). The tradition of private benefaction and donation which has figured so prominently in the Department’s history since the earliest days of the institution continues and has been reinforced since 1979 by the Art Foundation of Victoria. Many single works of great value have been presented or purchased with donated funds, and several large collections, such as the Thomas Harrison Collection of Millinery and the J. & J. Altmann Collection of Australian Silver, have come to the Department through the kindness of donors. The Department continues to rely on the magnanimity and public-mindedness of the community which has supported it so generously in the past. 

Terence Lane, Curator, Department of Decorative Arts, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1980).  


1           National Gallery of Victoria, Catalogue of Oil Paintings, Melbourne, 1879, p. ii. 

2              Australian Magazine, November 1859, p. 121. 

3              National Gallery of Victoria, Catalogue of Oil Paintings, p. viii. 

4           Public Library, Melbourne, Catalogue of the Casts, Busts, Reliefs, and Illustrations of the School of Design and Ceramic Art in the Museum of Art at the Melbourne Public Library, Melbourne, 1865, p. 116. 

5          ibid.