Learn the extraordinary story of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia and its impact on the Australian art-world between 1885 and 1900.
At this event you'll hear from Dr Gary Werskey, co-curator of the Library's current exhibition A Nation Imagined: The Artists of the Picturesque Atlas, who will explore why a group of American artists and entrepreneurs joined forces with Sydney's artist-illustrators in the production of this landmark publication, and how they ultimately shaped the direction of Australian art and put it on the world's stage.
A Nation Imagined: The Artists of the Picturesque Atlas is presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of New South Wales and will be open until Sunday 11 July 2021. The exhibition was co-curated by Dr Gary Werskey, Honorary Associate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and author of Picturing a Nation: The Art and Life of A.H. Fullwood, and Natalie Wilson, Curator of Australian and Pacific Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
20210620 Gary Werskey - Artists of the Picturesque Atlas
*Speakers: Guy Hansen (G), Gary Werskey (W)
G: Hello, I’m Guy Hansen and I’m Director of Exhibitions and the reason why I’m here is I’m chairing today’s event because it’s with great pleasure that Gary Werskey and his co-curator, Natalie Wilson, have prepared this exhibition for the National Library of Australia and Gary will be talking about the exhibition.
Of course, before I say anything else, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians on the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land. We’re very glad that we’re here and able to call this place our home now.
So, I’m delighted to be hosting today’s event. It’s really great as we come to the end of this exhibition which has got another, I think three weeks to run to celebrate what a great exhibition it is. A Nation Imagined: The Artists of the Picturesque Atlas. If you haven’t already seen it make sure you do go and visit it perhaps after the talk or come back another day and have a look because it really is a fantastic exhibition.
I’m particularly proud of this exhibition ‘cause it does what the best exhibitions do, it combines the best of scholarship with great collections and in this case the collections which we’re drawing on are the National Library’s collections and also a number of other private collections and the collections of the New South Wales Art Gallery. Bringing this material together allows you to see things that you couldn’t see if you were just visiting each of those institutions so it’s a really wonderful example of how if museums and galleries and libraries work together you can produce something quite amazing and I think the show upstairs really is quite an amazing show.
Now none of this would have been possible without the passion of Gary and his co-curator, Natalie, and they a long time ago recognised what an important book the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia was. They recognised it’s one of the great print production efforts of Australia in the 19th century and it perhaps is a book which is ignored and it’s a book of such treasures and such beautiful illustrations and also so interesting about what it tells about Australia. So we’re very lucky that Gary and Natalie, through their scholarship, have been able to bring a spotlight onto that book which can allow all of us, and this is what curation does, is it finds something significant and then brings it to a broader audience. That’s exactly what Gary and Natalie have done with this show and with preparing this material about the book.
So I just perhaps want to mention that this is made possible by a partnership between the Library and the New South Wales Art Gallery. The New South Wales Art Gallery were very generous in providing Natalie’s time as a curator and you might have seen Natalie on TV, she’s also the curator of the Archie 100 exhibition and features in that documentary about the Archies. Without that assistance from the New South Wales Art Gallery and also in making available to us some very important items from their collection and material which is usually on permanent display in the New South Wales Art Gallery so it’s quite exceptional that they released that material to us to display here, to see some great paintings in the exhibition which are normally on permanent display up in Sydney and also Natalie’s time. So I really want to thank the New South Wales Art Gallery. Also, other important material came from private collections and also from Macquarie University and the Art Gallery of South Australia so all of that’s what helped make this possible.
So that’s enough from me, I’m going to hand over to Gary and join him on this journey into why the artists of the Picturesque Atlas matter. Thank you.
W: Well thank you and thank you for coming, leaving your homes and coming out in the elements. I have some acknowledgements to make first myself. Apart from acknowledging that we’re standing on the land of the Ngunawal people it’s actually important for this talk to acknowledge in fact the land, the country of all Australasian first nations peoples because it has always been the case that their country is the subject of their art but in fact it’s also always been the country that’s been displayed in the art of those who dispossessed the first nations people and then transformed it in their own image and this will become very evident from today’s talk. Likewise I’d like to acknowledge the National Library of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales on taking a punt on an idea that Natalie Wilson and I have been chasing for eight years as part of my project on the life and art of Albert Henry Fullwood which goes back even further. Without the exhibition the book would not have appeared and vice versa so it’s been a really crucial and extraordinary experience to bring this off.
Finally, I would just reiterate what Guy had to say about Natalie Wilson. I was extremely fortunate that we could partner on this exhibition. She is an amazing and extraordinary curator, not only with a great historical sense and a great eye, and she’s a terrific sleuth as you’ll see in the ABC series on the Archies, but also because she’s a great and very experienced designer who in this case collaborated with the designer on Guy’s team, Isabelle Trundle, and the result is for all to see up in the exhibition.
I'm going to begin by posing a question which I shall quickly answer. This is not a test but when you think about it who were the most viewed artists in Australia of the 1880s and 1890s? I’ll give you a hint, it was not Tom Roberts, it was not Arthur Streeton although these are the most viewed artists of that era today but they were not at that time so who were the most viewed artists? Well if you stepped into the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Art Gallery of New South Wales this is the art that you would have been seeing. It was the art produced by British painters, specifically Royal Academicians, in this case, George Frederic Watts.
This is a well-known subject, Artemis and Hyperion, all three-and-a-half square metres of it. Because this is what was bought in quantity by the major galleries that were around at that time. But if you stepped outside the precincts of those galleries the most viewed art that you would have seen in Australia at the time was the black and white art produced by the artists of the colonial illustrated press, the English-trained artist illustrators of that time. Within that cohort the most acclaimed artists of all at that time in Australia were the American and British-Australian artist illustrators who provided the images for the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.
So, it’s in that context that I want to talk to you today about not only why the art and artists of the Picturesque Atlas mattered at the time but why in fact they still matter today. For that excursion I’m going to take you through – be warned, this is a very, very big story, okay? So, strap yourselves in because I’m going to try to cover a lot of ground of what is an extraordinarily large and largely untold story in our history.
So first of all, we need to understand the importance of the black and white art of that era, why did it matter so much at that time? Before going on to ask the question why was the Atlas created? How was it produced? How was it sold? How was it received? Then that sets the stage for our looking at the iconography of the Atlas. That is to say how did the Atlas portray the settler colonial view at the time of Australasia’s history, its achievements and its prospects?
We then go on to say once the atlas was out there in the market, we look at the impact of both the art and the artists of the Atlas on Australian art itself between 1886 and the end of the first world war. Once we have all of that under our belts we can come back then and answer more easily the question, why did the Atlas, its art, its artists matter then and why does it matter today?
Alright let’s begin with the two great art revolutions in the second half of the 19th century. The first one you definitely know about, it was an aesthetic revolution, namely the advent of French impressionism as a prelude to modernist art in the 20th century. This is what art historians obsess about and this is what major museums know will increase footfall into their galleries. No problem.
But there was another revolution in the second half of the 19th century, it was a technological revolution and that was in the production of black and white art for the illustrated press. Because it was this revolution that revolutionised how art was produced and reproduced on a mass scale. It transformed how people saw themselves, their societies and the world and how finally it expanded, indeed created a new market for art and artists that had not existed before. Now we did all of those things so you might think we want to spend a little bit of time on that revolution and not just the aesthetic revolution of French impressionism.
The black and white art of the illustrated press was created courtesy of some technological breakthroughs in the reproduction of pictures through what was called photo process wood engraving. We’ve tried in the exhibition to demonstrate what that revolution was about. I can’t go into it here at this time but it is to say that it then allowed highly skilled engravers to reproduce with tremendous accuracy the artwork that was given to them and in turn allow printers and designers to produce the illustrated newspapers and illustrated books of the time.
One of the most extraordinary things of course about this revolution is the source of images in the illustrated press. The source was not photographs which is what we’re used to today, the source of those images were drawings and paintings or sometimes overpainted photographs to make them more lifelike. This was partly due to the limitations of camera technology at the time but even more interestingly, given that we’re having a great discussion about fake news at the moment, is that most of the images in the illustrated press were entirely imagined because there was no way photographers or sketch artists could be present at battles or having tea with the Queen. So basically, situations were presented that in the end could be most easily imagined and reproduced by working artists.
That’s why at the time that art of this sort was seen as far superior to photography as a way of illustrating the news. The Bendigo Advertiser on the 2nd of April 1887 writing about the Atlas has this to say, the charm of all these pictures is their freedom from photographic stiffness. While they reproduce the actual scenes far more faithfully than any mechanical photograph could do, they have in addition the soul of the poet, the eye of the painter and the hand of the artist superadded.
So people then got their views of the world from how artists imagined them and how they were reproduced in the illustrated press and it was this imagery that transformed in turn how people including Austral-Britons saw themselves, their societies and the world. It created a visual culture that was accessible to all, something that had not been achieved prior to the middle of the 19th century ever in human history.
So, in a sense what we have created through the illustrated press is the first worldwide web of illustrated news and you know full well that you want your news illustrated. Well for the first-time people in America, Europe and Australasia were able to have that benefit.
This was recognised by the Art Director of the Atlas himself. Fred Schell, one of America’s leading artist-illustrators, he wrote in 1887, “in the life of magazines, pictures and popularity have become synonymous. It would nowadays be an absurdity for a publisher to appeal to the people through the pages of a periodical without illustrations. How vivid becomes the personalities of our heroes and heroines when the imagination and culture of the artist has been expended upon the thrilling incident related in the printed pages. Illustrated magazines too had been the best teachers of geography, either inside or outside the classroom. Through them and principally perhaps through the pictures in them we stay at home and become acquainted with the scenery and ways of life in the uttermost parts of the earth”.
So, you have this explosion of the illustrated press across the world which in turn demanded an explosion in the production of illustrators, painters, engravers, designers and printers who could actually generate this content and make it available through the illustrated press. Indeed, in this case from the graphic you have a celebration on the left of the principal artists of that newspaper and on the left the engravers who made the reproduction of those artists’ work possible. So, these became rockstars and magazines and newspapers had to compete for the best artists available, in many cases Royal Academicians actually working the night shift producing illustrations for the graphic.
At the same time, and this is a nice little twist, as a result of the illustrated press its art created an expansion of the audience for art so people looked initially at art as what appeared in the press and then they began to want to go further and look at other kinds of art and that in turn increased the interest not just in the art of the newspapers but fine art if you like that hung on gallery walls.
There were a number of centres of excellence at this time, the Illustrated London News was the first illustrated newspaper produced in 1842 but in fact just 10 years later the Illustrated Sydney News appeared and in various iterations that along with a plethora of illustrated newspapers in Australia began to appear. Of course, probably the one most famous to you was The Bulletin which had the extraordinary gift of both English and American as well as Australian comic artists. As The Bulletin proudly proclaimed on the left, everybody reads The Bulletin including the colonial Governor, Lieutenant Lord Carrington and at the bottom Sir Henry Parkes who as you will see was often the butt of a lot of The Bulletin’s humour.
Again you may not be aware but a claim can be made with real credibility that one of the world’s great centres of black and white art was here in Australia in the second half of the 19th century and that was not only a credit to the illustrated newspapers and the magazines but also to the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia.
But for subtlety of reproduction and daringness of illustration it was the Americans who were in the forefront largely due to the fact that they were at the forefront of technological innovation in terms of black and white illustration both in engraving and in printing. The summit of excellence of the illustrated press was the picturesque book industry. Now these were books that combined if you like a kind of Lonely Planet for the 19th century for armchair travellers so vivid descriptions and vivid pictures of the wonders of the world and the different parts of the world, at the same time being presented and treated as high end artbooks. If coffee tables had existed in the Victorian period it was the Picturesque books that would have landed upon them.
The Americans perfected the art, not only of producing but of marketing these fabulous Picturesque art books. This is a very important example. This is Picturesque Canada which was marketed all across Canada by an army of Yankee salesmen selling this production in parts on the never never if you like so it was innovations in marketing and salesmanship as much as in production and artwork that was a key to the success of Picturesque Canada.
That was completed by a group of New York engravers, artists and entrepreneurs in 1884 and the next question for this group would be where to next? Well of course they were working in one collection of British colonies at that time so looking across the Pacific why not try the Australasian possessions and colonies of Britain as well? It was a very good hunch that indeed there was a very ripe market for such a Picturesque presentation.
It was a splendid market opportunity, not least because the Australasian colonies in the main were amongst the wealthiest societies per capita on earth at that point. It was a boom time in particular in the 1880s in Melbourne and more broadly throughout Australasia. Also, there was an enormous upwelling of settler pride in what had been achieved in such a short space of time particularly on the Australian continent. Ninety-five per cent of the settler population at that time was Austral-Briton, it was the whitest of all of the colonial outposts of the British empire and 70% of that population had been locally born. So, it was no accident then that in 1872 we have the formation of the Australian Natives’ Association and there’s already contestation oddly enough of who had the better claim to be a native at this point in Australia. In 1878 we got the greatest hymn to settler colonialism ever written; it was called Advance Australia Fair.
So, all of that was going on and then the timing was exquisite because in 1887 Queen Victoria was having her Golden Jubilee, in 1888 there was the Centenary of White Settlement in Australia and there was already beginning to be a grand discussion about where was Australasia going? Would it be possible to federate the colonies into a new nation?
Finally, from the standpoint of the Atlas promotors was very good is that there was also a well established illustrated press in Australasia which meant that there was a core of competence, particularly talented artists, illustrators with whom they could collaborate in the production of this book.
So, they set to. The end of the 1884 the first of Atlas contingent arrived. For six months they sussed out the market and the market looked particularly good. They knowingly went to colonial governors, to captains of industry, to judges and so forth, they went to the great and the good in other words for endorsements of their enterprise. They also in the meantime found investors who were willing to put up the money as seed capital for the enterprise and they also brought across yet again – I have to watch my accent here – but these fast-talking Yankee canvassers who literally beat the bush to again see whether or not there would be interest in and a market for what the Atlas was actually offering and also they made quite a point of networking with all of the great newspapers of the time.
Just to make matters worthwhile for the newspapers the Atlas placed between 1886 and 1889 500 advertisements across Australasia. It’s not for nought that many of our papers are called The Advertiser. At any rate marketing was good, the sales effort was going strong but in addition there was a very sophisticated way of promoting the Atlas both before it was published and even while further supplements were rolling off the presses and that was by providing art tours in Sydney of the Atlas’ three-storey establishment in Winyard Square. It was an art factory and people could go in and see the entire process from original sketches to engravings to proofs, to where it was being printed, bound and so on.
But even more importantly the Atlas went on the road constantly with original drawings that it showed in prestigious exhibitions all around Australasia including the Jubilee Exhibition in Adelaide in 1887, the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition in 1888 and even to Chicago in 1893 at the World’s Colombian Exposition.
So bottom line, what was it that the Atlas was selling? Well the pitch of the Atlas was really very simple. From its flyer, the only complete illustrated work on Australasia, our country as it was and as it is from 1606 to 1888 pictorially and historically described by the best artists and writers. Superbly illustrated with entirely original engravings on steel and wood from sketches made on the spot. Edited by Andrew Gerin MA, LLD giving a panorama of Australian history and life. Would you buy?
At the same time the Atlas was making a claim that it would also put Australasia on the map. It became the only Picturesque book in the 19th century that was an atlas and the fact that it was seen that this would be an enormous selling advantage here in Australasia is quite interesting in terms of the mindset at the time. But the great advantage of having an atlas-sized format – I’ve been doing weights, it’s okay – is that you end up with this. It is an enormous publication and it offers the most extraordinary platform for the Atlas artists’ work to be displayed full page across the pages in montages and so forth.
Despite the fact that we had this on display in the exhibition there’s no substitute for holding this thing up and just realising the enormity of it, the audacity of it. At any rate that was what was on offer to the public.
Now producing this publication in Sydney was quite an interesting affair but Sydney was chosen over Melbourne because it was a free trade colony, not a protectionist one which meant that all of the equipment and gear of the Atlas could be brought in from America duty-free and that was very fateful, that difference as far as the history of art in Australia is concerned. So, we had the art factory in Winyard Square, the American contingent arrives by the middle of 1886 and very soon, very soon the Atlas artists and engravers were making common cause with the artists and writers of The Bulletin.
The Atlas Bulletin gang if you like became very, very important in terms of both the production and the promotion of the Atlas. That’s Albert Henry Fullwood, age 22 when he was taken on staff. Here is Frank Mahoney, here is Julian Ashton, an incredibly important figure as the story progresses. There is William MacLeod of The Bulletin, the leading portrait-maker. He had a thing about the Mikado. Frederic Schell, the Art Director and then up here you’ve got Livingston Hopkins from The Bulletin, Phil May from The Bulletin along with W C Fidler and William Smedley.
The people I pointed out to you, these seven artists, three Americans and four British colonial artists produced 90% of the signed artworks in the Atlas and there were 800 of them so it was a very concentrated kind of effort.
So how then did they actually get the pictures? Because one of the claims of the Atlas was that it would get pictures made on the spot, so it had some travelling artists but most of the work fell down to the British-Australian artists, especially Fullwood and Julian Ashton.
I have time for only one traveller’s tale but it’s a goodie. So, Ashton was deputised to go to North Queensland to do a number of sketches up there and he was enjoined by the Atlas proprietors, whatever you do, please get a good picture of a crocodile. So off he went and initially he was actually having trouble finding a croc until he got to Townsville. There he was, his first night in the Queen’s Hotel and he was having his dinner and then he looked up and what was above him but a 6m stuffed crocodile hanging over him.
So Ashton being a clever lad said to the proprietor, could you take that down and could you get a couple of fellows to come, take it with me to the nearby Ross River? So they took it down, they took it to the Ross River. He had it planted in a particularly picturesque position. He then made the sketch – he made a number of brilliant sketches and he went back to the hotel, hung them up in his room because he knew all the locals were going up to the room to see what in the world these sketches were up to and they saw this one and one of them came down and they asked how far had Ashton been from the crocodile when he did this sketch? Ashton said oh about 10 feet. Then he added, do they bite? The response of the local was you wouldn't get me for all the tea in China to get that close to a crocodile and from then on Ashton was pointed out as the man who sat and drew a crocodile not 10 feet from him.
However the only contemporaneous account we have of an Atlas artist on the road is by Albert Henry Fullwood in a sketching letter owned by the National Library but we made a film of this out in the foyer. If you haven’t seen it, do, it’s a really, really lovely, lovely film.
So we’ve set the scene, the artwork’s coming in, everything’s been organised, now we need a launch. The launch was made for the first part of the Atlas in August of 1886 and by this time the reviews were coming in thick and fast. The Maitland Mercury proclaimed, the work is a noble example like a topography, artistic skill, literary research and ability and the gentlemen who had the enterprise to attempt so splendid a production in Australia are benefactors to the colonial community. The Daily Telegraph said even more succinctly, for the first time the community at large will see the perfection of Australian art. Then that left it to The Bulletin. Well. The Bulletin said, the book will convince every intelligent Australian who is not yet a subscriber that he has one duty which should precede his evening prayers. Two, in fact. He will see that his Bulletin subscription is paid up first and then he will take his pen and write to the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia Publishing Company praying that his name may be forthwith placed on their subscribers’ list.
Then between 1886 and 1889, and you can get this on the NLA’s Trove website, just punch in Picturesque Atlas and look at the hundreds of reviews right across Australasia that were made as each part of the Atlas came out. It was the most reviewed art project in the history of Australia. The Atlas artists knew that they were onto something important. Julian Ashton said at the launch, the time was fast approaching when we shall no longer be content to take a back seat among the nations even in matters of art. We should instead endeavour to form a school of Australian artists who would draw their inspiration from the scenes and subjects amongst which they have been brought up. Not Artemis and Hyperion.
James Smith, the cultural critic of The Argus, added, that a distinctive school of landscape painting is being founded in these colonies revealing to us what a wealth of beauty is to be found in Australian scenery.
So, so far so good and initially it was looking like it was going to be a great commercial success. Over £60,000 were raised initially as seed capital for this and over 50,000 subscriptions were taken which at five shillings a part for 42 parts would eventually mean an outlay of 10 guineas, the equivalent of $1,200 for an unpublished three-volume artwork. Be a bit of an ask to do that now, wouldn’t it?
In any event this was how the Atlas got going. Now the question was what was the message then that the Atlas was conveying about Australasia’s history, its prospects and achievements? Probably the most important message of all, that it was men who made Australasia. Colonial governors, soldiers, explorers, squatters, shearers, swaggies etc. It was images of men making Australasia that was the hallmark of the Atlas and of course this began with Captain Cook, of course. This a copy by William MacLeod of a very famous painting but in the original painting there’s a group of indigenous people there to the left. They’d been airbrushed out of his copy and that’s the kind of indication that the Atlas represented a pivot point in the depiction of first nations people or ultimately the non-depiction of indigenous people.
The Atlas did not shirk the fact that there was considerable resistance on the part of indigenous people to the invasion of the British and the advance of the settlers into the hinterland and indeed particularly in the section on Queensland there was an acknowledgment that this resistance was still going on. This is a dramatic picture by Livingston Hopkins, the American cartoonist for The Bulletin.
So black on white attacks were pictured in the Atlas but there were no white on black attacks other than those deputised to the Queensland Native Police who were seen here in the euphemism of the time dispersing an indigenous man on the camps. Again, the Atlas was very forthright about the fact that the native troopers really made business on behalf of their white employers and helped explorers like George Elphinstone Dalrymple beat his way further northwards up to Cape York with the help of these troopers.
But there was no actual acknowledgement even in the text as such about massacres on the frontier wars but what W H Trail did acknowledge in the Atlas was this, the historian who has ransacked the official records cannot but admit that poisoning was a common resource in dealing with the wild blacks. But such tragedies were generally insusceptible of proof, they formed the text of yarns ‘round the campfire and in the shearers’ hut. On the frontiers everybody knew all about it but a certain reserve was maintained in general conversation, names were omitted and localities merely shadowed.
Now the decline in populations in turn supported increasingly the dying race narrative at the time, that eventually particularly Australia’s indigenous people would simply die out and so there was a turn to their becoming simply objects of anthropological interest. This is based on a photograph of J W Lindt. It’s captioned simply, An Aboriginal Woman but we now know that this is Mary-Ann Cowan, a Bundjalung woman whose descendants in fact are very much alive today.
What we’re seeing here is the beginning of a kind of historical amnesia in which as we begin to remember our nation as it was and as it is, a key part of that remembering is forgetting. This forgetting was already underway in the Atlas to the point where the poem that led off the volume 1 of the Atlas from J F Daniel had to say of Australia on its centennial day, no wrongs have been done to the world in thy name, no treason nor bloodshed have brought thee disgrace. Unsullied thy flag and untarnished thy fame, thy honour is bright and as fair as thy face.
Otherwise the focus in the Atlas was more happily on Australia’s beauties rich and rare along with the settler transformation of this beautiful country that kept Australasia connected and productive for the rest of the world. That’s Cape Nelson on the left done by Fullwood, that’s Point Perpendicular in New South Wales by Ashton on the right but the sea was often presented not only with lighthouses scouring for the connections to the rest of the world but here’s Circular Quay, the direct shipping connection and then the newly laid submarine cable up in Port Darwin with a dauntless night operator keeping Australia connected to the rest of the world in that way.
Landscapes of course were the overwhelmingly most important genre within the Atlas but again as the sheep look on at their brethren in the flocks below from Mt Leura looking out to Lake Corangamite you can even see in the distance there's a train running through there. There’s a train running thorough obviously taking the wool down to the port of Melbourne so there’s no wildness as such and it’s all really quite vague beyond where agriculture had reached that point in the colony.
The emphasis in the Atlas therefore about beauties rich and rare is that what this represented was the golden soil from which the wealth for toil could be extracted. The pastoral industries were absolutely crucial, of course, at this time as evidenced by this magnificent drawing by Frank Mahoney of cattle swimming the Darling. It was also the subject of outback life of course as well and here you particularly see the American influence of frontier art from the United States. This is Livingston Hopkins showing a shearer knocking down his cheque on the one hand and then on the other rounding up a straggler which became the subject of a later painting.
Agriculture was also represented as well, we have a lucerne harvest from Maitland on the left and here is a very characteristic scrapbook way of presenting the images, very common way of cascading productive processes as well as the incidence of wheat farming in South Australia done by Ashton as well. Then of course there were the mining industries.
Now Fullwood actually trekked up north of Glen Innes to Vegetable Creek or Emmaville as it now is to get a very picturesque view of a tin mine there at the top combined with the backbreaking work of the Cornish tin miners washing the tin below. But my favourite mining picture in the Atlas for sure is there on the right by William Smedley. It’s Hargraves discovering gold. Hargraves clearly has just stepped out from his brownstone on Fifth Avenue in New York which is where of course Smedley spent a great deal of his time.
But out of all of that wealth for toil came the colonial modernity of great cities and the American artists were particularly keen to remain settled in Sydney and Melbourne to produce some really fabulous pictures of these extraordinary metropolises. Just to say briefly ‘because I know time is getting on for me but this picture by Smedley on the left simply called Spring Street is where the aesthetic revolution of the 19th century meets the technological revolution. Smedley had been to Paris, it’s obvious because that could almost have come out of Mon Paris. In my view it’s probably the first truly impressionist picture that was ever done in Australia, it was done in 1886 and this trope of rain-splashed city pavements became very predominant in the work of Conder, Roberts, Fullwood and others later on. In fact for some reason if you look at the art of that period it was always raining in cities, even when the sun was shining on the harbour and on the Hawkesbury.
So that’s a quick conspectus of the iconography of the Atlas. What’s missing? Settler women’s contributions. There’s not a single portrait of a settler woman in the Atlas, not a single one but who else or what else was missing? Sorry, I missed out here, this is the contrast. This is Smedley’s view of women and men in Sydney on a Saturday night on George Street, considerably more louche than their Melbournian counterparts and this is Fullwood’s view of Sturt Street, Ballarat with everybody in their Sunday best on Sturt Street. I missed out as well my favourite picture in the whole Atlas, of Fullwood’s anyway, this is believe it or not the Macquarie at Dubbo but what it really illustrates is the playfulness that you can get with illustration with the tree breaking through the nominal picture frame to provide a canopy over it. Here we come at last.
So what was missing? Native animals. This is the only page in the Atlas where you’ll find kangaroos, koalas, the actual stuff of the bicentenary of 1988. No, the mascot, the logo was this very contented merino ram because that was actually what mattered as far as the settler colonial Australasians were concerned.
Alright. I’m going to move quickly now but I want to complete the argument at least very much in outline form. So I presented you something of the art and artists of the Atlas so what impact did they have then on the Australian art between 1886 and 1920?
Very briefly for a start the art made stars of its Sydney artist-illustrators. Julian Ashton was quickly hailed as the father of Australian art, not just because he championed Australian art like no other in that period but also because of his work as a teacher as well as an artist, as well as a superb art politician as you’ll soon hear.
Frank Mahoney was quickly recognised as Australia’s finest animal painter but more importantly he became the most important cartoonist of The Bulletin in the 1890s and illustrated not just pictures of outback life but in particular the poems of Henry Lawson and Lawson insisted, on the right, that only Mahoney could illustrate his short stories and poems.
Fullwood in turn became Sydney’s leading impressionist and here we’re back to those wet pavements. A wet evening in George Street on the left and reflections by the GPO 10 years later, absolutely stunning display of the illuminated lights of the city.
But it was landscapes that remained of course the dominant genre as you well know from your love of Streeton and so forth, but this is one that Fullwood did of the Shoalhaven from Camp Cambewarra.
Alright so first of all the Atlas artists did well but secondly the Atlas and its artists transformed the Sydney art world. Julian Ashton led a coup in 1886, took over the Art Society of New South Wales with the majority of its committee consisting of Atlas artists and started becoming much more bolshy about getting more support for colonial art in Australia. He then with Henry Parkes’ support became a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, got a £500 commitment per year for the purchase of colonial art as a result of his position as a trustee and then when the New South Wales Art Society was seen to be too much dominated by amateurs Fullwood and others created a new society to make sure that the claims of professional artists were properly heard.
The Atlas and its artists also induced a step change in the quality of Australia’s illustrated press. This is a centennial view of Sydney by Fullwood, the largest wood engraved artwork that was ever created in Australia, an extraordinary bird’s eye view from the centennial issue of the Sydney Mail. In turn the step change here created greater interest back in England in the work that was being done here and so here are Fullwood and Mahoney collaborating on a picture about the departure of Lord and Lady Carrington from Sydney for The London Graphic, a really exquisite work.
Then with all these developments going on in Sydney this set the scene for Roberts and Streeton’s triumphs as Sydney artists in the 1890s. They came to Sydney in the early 1890s as economic refugees from Melbourne because they couldn't sell their pictures. This picture, Still glides the stream and forever glide was the first gallery picture that Streeton ever sold but he sold it to the National Art Gallery of New South Wales at Julian Ashton’s insistence. This became the period of their most iconic paintings, not in Victoria but up here in New South Wales and Streeton and Roberts became completely assimilated as members of Sydney’s art world.
That in turn made it really clear that once you merged the interests of the Victorian painters with Sydney’s artist-illustrators we’re talking about a much bigger story, the story about settler colonial art in Australia because all these artists were drawing upon the same iconography, the iconography that had been consolidated by the Atlas and they were working from the same largely British artistic influences in how they went about their work, whether as illustrators or as painters. The stage is now set then for taking the settler colonial art to the world which Ashton again orchestrated in 1893 to the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition and our artists did really well there. Fullwood took out four gold medals through the Pavilion of Fine Arts and the Atlas also took out a gold medal for its productions as well. Then five years later again from Sydney and through Ashton we had the first exhibition of Australian art in London in 1898.
So it’s a great story but there wouldn’t be a great Australian story without a sting in the tail, of course, so the hiatus in all of this is that in fact the Sydney art market collapsed in the 1890s due to a banking crisis followed by the federation drought. The first casualty was the Picturesque Atlas which went bust through a combination of litigation, Parliamentary inquiries into its sales tactics and because of the overreach in this extraordinary achievement, it just simply spent more money than it actually had at its disposal.
But even more broadly this was the end of the era of wood-engraved art due to cost-cutting but also made possible by advances in engraving and photographic technologies so now you get artists displaced by the photographers and the illustrated press. In turn we get a mass dispersal out of Sydney of the leading artists including Lambert, Robert, Streeton, Fullwood, Mahoney and others to London. So curiously the last hurrah of the Atlas and the settler colonial art movement took place in the capital of Britain’s imperial art world. The beginning of the last hurrah were postcards. These are postcard views that Fullwood created for Raphael Tuck, the postcard king, 150 scenes of Australia, New Zealand, many of them coming straight out of the Picturesque Atlas. You’ll recognise the pose about gold prospecting there, for example.
But the final expression of the movement was in their service as war artists on the Somme and these artists were the perfect illustrators of Charles Bean’s Anzac legend, celebrating masculine heroism and the settler colonial values of mateship and nationalist pride.
Well that was a bit of a canter but to get to the point so making a case that in fact the art and artists of the Atlas clearly mattered at the time. The Atlas was a landmark in the history of Australian art, it enlarged the audience for Australian art to the point whereby the 1920s Australian art lovers were no longer interested in English art, they wanted to buy local. The Atlas also shaped the iconography of all of the artists of that period and iconography of settler colonialism so that what was inside the frame was whiteness, masculinity and pride in dispossession and the transformation of the country of first nations people. Finally, the Atlas I believe was directly responsible for establishing Sydney as the capital of Australian art and promoting the kind of art that went on from there.
So in my humble view we need to give the art and the artists of the Atlas more prominence in the stories we tell ourselves about Australian art between the 1880s and the 1920s but we also need to look more critically at the iconography of all settler colonial artists including Roberts and Streeton, their deeply troubling silences and omissions.
But does the art and the artists of the Atlas matter still today? Well my question would be don’t we need to take an equally critical look at why this art still exercises such a hold on how we see Australia and its history? Why does this remain our favourite cultural comfort food? I know that sounds a bit harsh but look at the throngs who turned up for the Streeton exhibition at the beginning of the year. The way that exhibition was lauded in a time of COVID. Of course, we want to embrace that sunshine, obviously but it goes deeper, deeper than that. Likewise, if Melbourne’s allowed to open for longer than a few weeks people will also throng to the Sheoak and Sunlight Australian impressionism exhibition in Melbourne at least because there then will be a big dose of real impressionism at the NGV’s international show from the collection of the Boston Fine Arts Museum.
So, in other words to what extent are we still in thrall to the underlying sentiments of this art and the song it channels, Advance Australia Fair? This in my view is why the art and artists of the Atlas still matter today. Thank you.
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