Dr Matthew Potter, Northumbria University

 

My project explores the formation of a distinct British cultural identity in Australia during the latter part of the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth centuries. I seek to correct previous ‘normative’ assumptions about how and why British art was collected in the public galleries of Australia. The commonly-held idea that art collecting was effectively a Hobson’s choice (with Australian National Galleries unquestioningly acquiring British art works selected by controlling London agents) is challenged by my research questions. Why did Australians want to collect British art? How did the desirability of British works change in response to geopolitical, social and economic factors? What does this tell us about the evolution of multiple and synchronous British identities in art? In fact, Australian galleries acquired British art enthusiastically according to logical and autonomous schedules. The desire of Australian gallery officials to collect a painting by Constable, for example, may potentially be explained by multiple alternative motives. The suggestion that such purchases represented cultural conservatism has been the net effect of modernist accounts seeking to displace the traditional art and principles of the preceding era. Even so, such work might well have represented ‘retrospective’ formal and cultural values, be it the emblematic Romantic status of Constable’s brushwork or the scenery of ‘old’ England depicted on canvas. Nevertheless, only by exploring the mechanisms and language used in the acquisition process are insights afforded into the structures, art historical principles, politics and ideologies involved. An important part of this concerned the interpretation of ‘imported’ British standards by Australians for their own use. This research therefore represents a case study for ‘translating cultures’ in which ‘universal’ metropolitan values were translated and re-formed by sub-groups within a wider globalised imperial community.

The discipline of museum studies has done much to promote art galleries as proactive agents in cultural politics rather than merely passive or reactive repositories of objects. The archives and collections of Australian public art galleries thus offer an ideal opportunity for exploring how concepts of national identity were articulated in an antipodean context with British artworks becoming tools in the construction of alternative and equally valid forms of British identity to those created in the imperial metropolis.

This project also negotiates the problematic issue for art historians concerning the historical agency of style briefly referred to above. Once again the significance of stylistic discourses may only be appreciated through their integration within the wider imperial context. Issues of cultural identity have frequently been separated from those of style in art historical narratives due to a tendency to adhere to modern and modernist standards of aesthetic autonomy. Yet the universalizing claims of such movements often failed to extricate them fully from geo-political associations. The wholesale adoption of modernist values in Australia, for example, coincided with a shift in the country’s political allegiances from the UK to America after 1950. Following this sea-change in critical perspectives the earlier acquisition of British pictures and the pictures themselves began to be dubbed as ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘bad’.

Such concerns explain a subsequent expansion in the chronological range of my research project. I am currently finalizing a book, contracted for publication with Ashgate, on British Art for Australia: The acquisition of artworks from the United Kingdom by Australian national galleries, 1860-1953.

 

 

RCUK Gateway to Research