Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Art Gallery of South Australia: Part One

The Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide contains the largest collection of Australian art in the world, so of course I went to look at it. Photography is allowed without flash, so I recorded the panel explanations of favourite artworks, to study them later. Here are some of them.

Portrait of Captain Matthew Flinders, RN 1774-1814 (1807) by Toussaint Antoine de Chazal de Chamarel
This portrait painted by the French amateur painter de Chazal is the only known life-size oil portrait of Captain Matthew Flinders.

Matthew Flinders made a voyage to Australia in 1801-03 as captain of the Investigator. It was on this expedition that the South Australian coastline was charted for the first time by a European explorer. Returning to Britain in 1803, Flinders was detained, for almost seven years on the French colony of Mauritius on charges of being a British spy. It was during his detention that this portrait was painted.

I've become fascinated with explorers' exploits and I particularly like Flinders because of his affection for his ship's cat, Trim, about whom he wrote a book (as did Bryce Courtenay several years later). I think this portrait, hinting at sensitivity and secrecy, makes him look like the type of chap who could love a cat.

Self Portrait (1815) - Colonel William Light
Colonel William Light arrived in South Australia in 1836 to survey the colony. As well as a meticulous draughtsman, he was regarded as an excellent watercolourist. The first European artist in South Australia, he made numerous drawings and watercolours that recorded the first landing and the first settlement. He designed Adelaide, the colony's capital, and surveyed more than 600,000 hectares of surrounding land.

I like how he has portrayed himself nonchalantly leaning against a rock with suitably craggy and romantic scenery in the background and a folded-up telescope in his hand. Apparently this style is representative of the Regency fashion - studied or calculated informality designed to make "young upwardly mobile dandies look dashing or at least interesting in a Byronic way.'

Captain Cook on the coast of New South Wales (1860) by Joseph Blacker
Joseph Backler was a talented forger in London before he was caught making false money orders in 1832 and transported to New South Wales for life. Once in Sydney his talent for drawing marked him out as a special convict and he was assigned to the Surveyor general's department as a draughtsman. After he was pardoned in 1847 he made his income as a landscape and portrait painter.

This portrait of Captain James Cook was made from copies as Cook died in 1779. He is depicted standing on a rocky legde with cliffs in the distance, suggesting the East coast ocean cliffs near the Heads of Sydney Harbour, resting his hand on a globe of the world, on the northern hemisphere, likely to be England.

Fish Catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour (1813) by John William Lewin
This is the earliest known oil painting to have been painted in Australia. John Lewin, Australia’s first professional artist, arrived in Sydney in 1800 after training as a natural history painter in London. The arranged fish catch from the harbour waters is positioned on the shore at Kirribilli Point. The view looks south across Sydney Harbour to Dawes Point, from which the Harbour Bridge spans today. This painting is an oddity being neither a straight forward natural history painting, nor simply a decorative still-life, nor a sporting painting of a proud fisherman’s catch – all popular subjects in Britain in the early nineteenth-century. Rather, it is a combination of all of the above.

A View of the artist's house and garden, in Mill's Plains, Van Diemen's Land (1835) by John Glover
This painting of Glover’s Patterdale farm at Deddington in Northern Tasmania depicts the artist’s new shingle-roofed stone house and wooden studio-gallery surrounded by his flourishing garden in bright sunlight in the summer of 1934-35. Glover has delighted in depicting each of the English annuals in the new squared garden of his farmhouse, and he has also taken pains to depict accurately the distinct qualities of the native Australian trees beyond.

Group of natives of Tasmania (1860) by Robert Dowling
Robert Dowling was Australia’s first locally trained professional artist. He arrived in Tasmania with his parents in 1834 at the age of seven, and later settled in Launceston. In the 1840s he studied in Tasmania, under several artists including Thomas Bock. Dowling relied heavily on Bock’s 1830s watercolour portraits of Aboriginal Tasmanians to create this group composition when most of the sitters had passed away.

The painting depicts notable Aboriginal Tasmanians who, due to their connection to G.A. Robinson’s Friendly Mission, were the repeated subject of major Tasmanian artists.

In the Sassafras Valley, Victoria (1875) - Isaac Whitehead
Isaac Whitehead’s detailed paintings provide some of the most evocative depictions of natural forest stands in Australian art. In this painting ancient eucalypts create a towering, protective canopy through which dappled sunlight filters onto the fronds of tree-ferns and the creek beneath. The giant scale of the trees is emphasised by the inclusion of bushwalkers and figures seated around a campfire, dwarfed by their surroundings.

Whitehead worked as a framemaker in Dublin before arriving in Victoria in the late 1950s where he established himself as Melbourne’s leading framemaker. He made frames for the leading Melbourne painters Nicholas Chevalier, Thomas Clark, Louis Buvelot and Eugene von GuĂ©rard. This painting is framed by an example of his 1868 international prize-winning frame.

Evening Shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia (1880) by H.J. Johnstone
This painting was the first work of art acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia. Since it was first displayed at the Gallery’s opening in June 1881, it has been one of the most reproduced and copied paintings in the collection.

H.J. Johnstone arrived in Victoria in 1853. After an unsuccessful attempt at prospection on the Victorian gold fields, he established himself in Melbourne as a photographer and then as a landscape painter of scenes of Victoria and South Australia. Johnstone left Australia in late 1876 but continued to paint Australian landscapes, often from his photographs, in the United States, London and Paris for the Australian market. Evening Shadows, painted in either London or Paris, is typical of Johnstone’s landscapes, all of which are characterised by an uncanny photographic stillness.