Bendigo is a small-ish city north west of Melbourne, grown fat on the profits of the gold rush and filled with the hallmarks of late Victoria civic prosperity – a large municipal park, grand theatre and town hall, fine buildings as if constructed from a pattern book and an Art Gallery which is bringing visitors to the city through a programme of adventurous international exhibitions, including from the National Portrait Gallery, Cecil Beaton and Grace Kelly. It was their idea to do an exhibition from the Royal Academy and very good it is, too (at least I think so), showing off the full range of the collection beginning with John Singleton Copley ‘ The Tribute Money’ (1782) and Joshua Reynolds’ s ceiling painting for the library at Somerset House. Of course, I know intellectually that the RA has a fine collection, but, because we never see it hung together, it is hard to appreciate its full range and the way that it is possible to tell the history of British art from it. I only hope that we can achieve half the effect of narrative coherence when we install the new upstairs gallery in Burlington Gardens in 2017.
I was incredibly impressed by the NGV: how early it got going, not long after the establishment of the V&A and the NPG, beginning with a room full of casts of the Elgin Marbles and using, Sir Charles Eastlake, the PRA and Director of the National Gallery, as advisor on acquisitions. Their casts were all chucked out in the 1950s, as were their grand statues of Victoria and Albert. Looking at the pattern of acquisitions made possible by the Felton Bequest, I am incredibly impressed by how intelligently the Gallery’s art advisors were able to buy, Robbie Ross recommending the acquisition of Blakes in 1920, Sydney Cockerell advising in the late 1930s, and Kenneth Clark making a particularly good set of acquisitions in the period immediately after the second world war when works of art were cheap. Mary Woodall was the advisor in the 1960s and recommended the acquisition of Hockney’s The Second Marriage when he had only just left the RA. I had also not seen Mario Bellini’s transformation of the interior of Roy Grounds’ 1960s building. I remember being sceptical when Tim Potts told me that he had selected Bellini to renovate Grounds’ original, Italianate brutality building, but actually it seems to work well with a particularly fine display of early Italian work and then a daylit walkway up to the next level.
I spent a happy hour with the staff of the Australian NPG, remembering the circumstances in which it had first been established when Gordon and Marilyn Darling objected to its original subordination to the National Library. They started lobbying the Australian national government and – it being Australia and they being well connected with the Howard government – they quickly achieved their objectives, enabling the NPG to be established in the old Parliament House under Andrew Sayers as Director. I was asked what was happening to the New Zealand National Portrait Gallery. The answer is that I have lost touch. My impression was that it didn’t have the same level of political and private backing being too associated with a celebration of middle class achievement. The Australian NEW seems to have escaped this narrow celebratory character by a broad range of sitters including, not surprisingly, a lot of sportsmen and, I was told, a tattooed taxi driver, who wouldn’t make it into the London NPG. I was asked if I tried to broaden the representation of the London NPG. I could only remember the inclusion of cooks and gardeners and my sorrow that the Trustees had turned down W.G.Sebald on the grounds that he wrote in German.
Ever since it appeared in the Londoner’s Diary (wrongly) that my grandfather was Archbishop of Sydney (in fact, it was my great-grandfather), I am doomed to be asked about my Australian ancestry. Here is what little I know or have been able to find out about him from the Australian Dictionary of Biography:-
His father was called Richard Snowden Smith, who served in the rifle brigade and fell in love with a girl who could not decide whether to marry him or his best friend. They agreed between themselves (she does not seem to have had any say in the matter) that whichever of them should swim fastest across Guernsey Bay would marry her. Richard won and his oldest son, William, assumed as a middle name the surname of his father’s best friend, which was Saumarez. It’s a Guernsey name. William was sent to school at Marlborough in Wiltshire, a church foundation, was a classical scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, became a fellow and, after serving as chaplain to the Bishop of Madras, became vicar of Trumpington. For a long time, he was Principal of St. Aidan’s, a theological college near Liverpool. Appointed Archbishop of Sydney in 1890, he set sail for the colonies with his seven daughters and my grandfather, Hubert. He must have been strongly evangelical because I once met a very high church Australian who said that it was my great grandfather who had ruined the church in Australia. Continue reading
I can’t have been in Canberra for fifteen years, not since Gordon and Marilyn Darling drove us from Sydney and we stood on the top of a local hill to survey the layout of Walter Burley Griffin’s utopian city from above. Last time I only remember viewing the city from a car window. This time I was told it was easy to walk from the hotel to the National Gallery of Art along the banks of the lake. This wasn’t wholly true. It was very hot (I’ve been told not to say this, but it’s true) and curiously quiet, nothing but the sound of distant automobiles, a birthday party on a boat, and, for some reason, a distant glockenspiel. By the time I got to the National Gallery I hadn’t much energy except to look at the Glovers upstairs amongst the early Australian landscapes.
I spent a lot of today being shown around the National Gallery of Australia by Ron Radford, its Director. I remember not liking it when I came before because of its neo-brutalist architecture, designed in the early 1970s and not opened until 1982, with huge, high-ceilinged spaces and concrete walls. But Ron seems to have learned to live with it, restoring the original sculpture gallery with its slate floor, filling the concrete niches with Indian sculpture, putting in softer concrete walls, and even to it in a way which is deliberately sympathetic to the original, with a new wing to house which opened three years ago to house the aboriginal collection.