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SEIZE THE DAY

TOM ROBERTS, ELLIS ROWAN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR AUSTRALIAN ART AT THE GREAT EXHIBITIONS OF 1880 AND 1888

The Melbourne International Exhibition 1880 and the Centennial International Exhibition 1888 were not only a showcase for the products of individual colonies and nations but also international competitions, complete with medals, certificates and an appeal system. An examination of the vociferous appeals made over the judging of the Fine Arts Courts highlights the power struggles between Ellis Rowan, a woman artist ‘consecrated’ by the academic system of judging, artists including Tom Roberts who were as yet excluded and striving for recognition, and the judges, in what was a decade of extraordinary change and development in the Melbourne art world.

Up until the early twentieth century, the Paris Salon and its British counterpart, the Royal Academy, remained the supreme agencies for the legitimation of artists from colonial countries like Australia. Although Australians competed there on different terms, as expatriates or as distant aspirants, each year there were a number who sought admission to their schools, honorary positions and annual exhibitions. This was in part because there was no viable home-grown equivalent available. Artists’ societies, such as the Victorian Artists Society (VAS) and its predecessors, were drawn from artistic communities too small to exercise exclusionary pressure by screening entries to annual members’ exhibitions.1 Hence the importance of the two great exhibitions held in Melbourne in the 1880s: the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880–81 and the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888–89. The exhibitions were academy-style exhibitions that local artists did not have to go overseas to enter, a place where their own productions could be viewed – and judged – alongside the world’s finest. For the Fine Arts Courts, in common with all other departments of the exhibitions, were not only a showcase for the products of individual colonies and nations but also an international competition, complete with medals, certificates and an appeal system.

This chapter focuses on the appeals, successful or otherwise, made over the judging at the two exhibition competitions. These highlight the power struggles between, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the artists ‘consecrated’ by the academic system, those artists as yet excluded and striving for consecration, and the ‘producers of value’ (the art critics, dealers, patrons, agents, publishers, etc. whose job it is to consecrate, legitimate or exclude the work of art), in what was a decade of extraordinary change and development in the Melbourne art world (Bourdieu 19932). One of the ringleaders for change among the ‘striving’ artists was the young Tom Roberts. Excluded like most local artists from wielding direct influence in the selection and judging of fine arts at the exhibitions, and awarded only moderate success in its competitions, Roberts attempted to manipulate the appeal system to get his art and reform agenda recognised. This agenda was, first, to modernise and professionalise the visual arts in Victoria and, second, to advance the still relatively new concept of ‘Australian’ art.

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Figure 1. Tom Roberts; photographic pass for the Centennial International Exhibition, 1888.
(Courtesy of Public Records Office of Victoria [VPRS 840, vol. 2, p. 20])

The particular vision of Australian art that the exhibitions helped to crystallise for Roberts was focused upon plein-air landscape and figure painting. This vision specifically marginalised the contribution to Australian art made by the woman flower painter, Ellis Rowan. Rowan could not simply be ignored, like other women artists, due to her success in the Exhibitions, which eclipsed Roberts and other Australian artists there. It was this conspicuous success, rather than just her presence, that elicited conflict and brought gender issues into the foreground of the field of competition. Hostility expressed towards Rowan’s dominance has previously been explained by male artists’ reluctance to cede professional space to women. However, I will argue that this was only one aspect of a more complex struggle, equally invested in marking out the territory for a coming Australian art and in the professionalisation of the provincial art world in the colony of Victoria, the rifts and aspirations of which are so strikingly captured within the exhibition goldfish-bowl.

The two exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 are bracketed with hindsight as the most conspicuous manifestation of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ during an economic boom that preceded an equally dramatic crash in the 1890s. They were eight years of heady expansion and rapid progress. Melbourne’s public arts infrastructure, consisting of the National Gallery, Gallery school and artists’ society, was already well established and by mid decade was being replicated with the foundation of regional art galleries in Warrnambool, Ballarat and Bendigo. Calls for greater professionalism in the local art scene in the 1880s were symptoms of both this maturing and expansion of the arts infrastructure and of intergenerational change, notably affecting the art school and the artists’ society.

Roberts in 1880 was an ambitious 24-year-old art student at the forefront of this intergenerational struggle. His contribution to the first exhibition was insignificant, consisting of only one painting, but outside of it he was already acquiring a reputation as an agitator. Prior to the exhibition, he and some of his fellow students had mounted a complaint to the Gallery School’s trustees that the teaching at the school was inadequate and old-fashioned. Subsequently, Roberts and the sculptor Charles Richardson put their names to a letter to the Age demanding an advanced class for the study of life subjects, with a new master capable of teaching such a class.3 This was effectively a public declaration of no confidence in the current teachers at the school, led by the venerable Eugène von Guérard. Eventually the students got their wish when the Munich-trained painter George Folingsby was appointed Director in 1882. Folingsby reinvigorated teaching at the school by substituting a fusty curriculum excessively reliant on copying with one based on drawing from life (Astbury 1985, 17–30).

The chairman of the Fine Arts Committee responsible for the Victorian selections at the 1880 Exhibition, Sir George Verdon, supported this movement for reform by controversially banning ‘all copies of works then existing in Victoria’ from the exhibition.4 Otherwise, the selection of works followed an eclectic model familiar from the very earliest colonial exhibitions from the 1840s. In this model, craft and art, works by amateurs and professionals, mostly foreign works loaned locally from private collections, and contemporary art by Australian artists were all represented (Jordan 2005a, 79–81). The Daily Telegraph5 reported that the works were divided into sections, as follows:

  1. Works by the Victorian Academy of Arts (VAA).
  2. Oils and watercolours by various residents.
  3. Loan collection from residents of Victoria.
  4. Porcelain paintings and decorative arts.
  5. Ladies’ Court.

Visitors would have seen nothing unusual in the prominence given to loan collections in a public exhibition. Private collectors were accustomed to having their collections called upon for the public good, and the collections of wealthy Melbournians such as TW Stanford in East Melbourne and RW Kinnear in Toorak were opened weekly to the public in the early 1890s (Vaughan 1976, 16). The public was also used to seeing amateurs exhibited alongside professional artists. Indeed, at the 1880 Exhibition there was no exclusive professional section. Professional artists of the colony were represented within the ranks of the VAA, but so were amateurs such as Fine Arts Committee member JA Panton. The residents of Victoria were represented with a show of their own paintings, as well as by works they owned and loaned to the exhibition. Women artists were sprinkled throughout and enjoyed a dedicated Ladies’ Court. The latter featured craft novelties including fern tables, cuttlefish flowers, wool-work slippers, stuffed birds and flying squirrels, as well as the more conventional embroidery, knitting, lace, paintings on velvet and wax fruit (Melbourne International Exhibition 1880: The Official Catalogue, 64).6

There was, of course, no category of Australian art per se at the exhibition. The pre-Federated Australian colonies exhibited as individual colonies rather than together as a nation, and Australia’s contribution was fragmented into a Victorian court, a Queensland court, and so on. Although Victoria, as the host colony, proudly gave itself a generous amount of artistic display space, this very self-aggrandisement invited unfavourable comparisons of Victorian art with the academic competition from the great nation-states of Europe. The Daily Telegraph commented that the committee had allowed at least 100 inferior productions into the Victorian display. ‘In purely local displays this leniency is not unpardonable, as the standard of comparison by which the very worst pictures are judged may not be a very high one’, it said, but when one measured the local directly against the foreign, such as a painting of two rams against one of Highland sheep by British painter Sidney Cooper, ‘the contrast is one which suggests the temerity of the local craftsman’.7 Louis Buvelot’s landscape, one of several local productions painted expressly for the exhibition, was widely praised, however, as were some other efforts by members of the VAA and Mrs Rowan’s perennially popular flower paintings.

Buvelot’s painting was to become the focus of the first battle of appeals led by Roberts and others at the VAA. Roberts had known and esteemed the much older painter since 1874, when Buvelot had taught the teenage Roberts at the Trades Hall School of Design in Carlton (Radford 1996, 186). Roberts may have been one of those who urged Buvelot to stake his claim in the future of an Australian school of landscape painting by producing an extraordinary picture for the exhibition, of which Buvelot gives a full account in his letters, now in the State Library of Victoria, to his friend Eugene in Switzerland.8 ‘You can imagine, cher Eugene, that I did not fail to receive a heap of “hints” to get ready one picture at least that would make known to the whole world the Standard of Landscape Painting in Victoria’, wrote Buvelot. His idea was to paint a ‘picture of the Australian landscape, that was not too commonplace,’ en plein air. ‘After travelling with halting steps as far as my old legs would carry me, I stopped at the bed of a creek, or Torrent Stream with steep banks at a spot between Tallarook and Yea, and I then set about my task with all the love I am capable of.’ Buvelot laboured on it for six weeks, concluding with cautious pride that ‘for an Austral inhabitant, I did not succeed too badly’.

Clearly, this was never meant to be an ordinary picture. It was to be the culmination of Buvelot’s long career, his masterpiece, a world-class painting that would set a new benchmark of excellence for art in Victoria. The painting was an event in the Melbourne art community even before it got to the exhibition. Those in the know were impatient to see it. Buvelot received a ‘great number of visitors’ in his studio in Fitzroy, including the recently arrived Folingsby, whom Buvelot refers to as ‘a fine English painter’.9 Amongst the general buzz of flattery, Folingsby’s stood out: ‘I tell you in all sincerity, Mr Buvelot, that is a fine work you have painted. The only annoying thing is that you are forced to exhibit it in the Victorian Court in the midst of a lot of rubbish’. The picture was sold the day after it had been finished and framed. Buvelot had taken his St Bernard for a walk in the Fitzroy Gardens when he came across the American art collector, Stanford, an importer of Singer sewing machines. Stanford asked to see the picture. After staring deeply at it, he announced that he would buy it on the spot, without flinching at the substantial asking price of over 300 pounds. Buvelot was tickled pink. The picture’s good fortunes continued after the exhibition was opened. It was widely praised by the press. Buvelot had every indication that it was worthy of a major prize. But then he waited, and waited, ‘from month to month, from week to week for the decision of the Jury to be announced’.10

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Figure 2. Ellis Rowan; photographic pass for the Centennial International Exhibition, 1888.
(Courtesy of Public Records Office of Victoria [VPRS 840, vol. 2, p. 20])

When the decision finally came, it was a shock. Buvelot had won only a third-class certificate.11 The rest of the VAA was passed over: only one Victorian received a gold medal in 1880 and that was Ellis Rowan. The Official Catalogue lists Mrs Rowan of Macedon’s contribution to the fine arts section of the Victorian Court as a fire screen of Australian wild flowers painted on satin, a group of 10 frames of wild flowers and another seven panels of lilies and various flowers on satin. Another flower painter, Miss Caroline Purves, won a silver medal for a design for a fan on satin and three other flower pictures in the Victorian Court. Buvelot recovered himself with characteristic modesty. After all, he was in ‘high honourable company’ with the British, French, Belgian, German and Italian courts, and so he would keep quiet without making a protest.12 But an appeal costing two guineas to lodge was filed by Buvelot’s fellow-members of the VAA.13

The appeal reflected the fact that artists, particularly local artists, came low down within the exhibition hierarchy. Had they had more power and representation on selection committees and judging panels, they would not have had to resort to the appeals system in order to put their case. Although many on the committee and jury had artistic credentials, art was not their primary profession and their power accrued from other activities and connections. The 27 men on the Fine Arts Committee (which sat below the Executive Committee and the Committee of Juries and Awards) included wealthy Collins Street banker Sir George Verdon, a number of members of parliament, including the Hon TT A’Beckett, Judge JA Panton, Deputy Master of the Melbourne Mint V Delves-Broughton, architect Lloyd Tayler and arts journalist James Smith. The 14 members of the Fine Arts Jury, headed by the rich pastoralist and art collector RH Kinnear, included Sydney businessman and black-and-white artist EL Montefiore, Prof. Frederick McCoy, Director of the National Museum of Victoria, solicitor and Brighton art collector William Lynch and a couple of foreign dignitaries from the exhibition, French musician Henri Kowalski and the Italian Superintendent of Fine Arts, EP Cecchini14 (Melbourne International Exhibition 1880-1881: Official Record, xxii). Several doubled up as trustees of the Melbourne and Sydney Galleries. Professional artists only got a look in on the panel of ‘experts’ appointed to review the appeals. So many appeals were received against the Fine Arts Jury’s decisions in 1880 that it was decided to appoint a panel of three experts rather than the usual one to consider them: Folingsby, Stephen Thompson, author of a handbook to the exhibition picture gallery, and the French delegate M Schoessler.15

According to the press, the Fine Arts Jury disastrously mishandled the awards. Besides the unpopular decision regarding Buvelot, the jury had allegedly offended the German and Belgian commissioners by not awarding any pictures in their courts a first order of merit. This resulted in the Germans and Belgians withdrawing their pictures from competition.16 Soon the infighting dipped into farce. The jury did not agree with the opinions of the experts appointed to review its decisions. Their differences were referred back to the committee. The committee’s review of the review was then referred to the Executive Committee, where it was vetoed by the Committee of Juries and Awards, on the grounds that the Fine Arts Committee had overstepped their role by submitting fresh awards for acceptance!17 This was not an isolated case. The Machinery Committee had got themselves into an identical mess and more than 250 bona fide appeals were received in the exhibition overall.18

Two Victorian artists, Caroline Purves and Buvelot, eventually emerged from the fray with new gold medals. Schoessler sent Buvelot a note on the eve of his departure by mail boat. The experts had been unanimous, but could he keep it secret for a few days? Buvelot had won, but the lengthy appeals had helped make him feel his age. He was not far off the end of his career. He wrote to Eugene that ‘my hand is losing its suppleness and strength. It is only with difficulty and care that I do not let this show in my paintings’. His eyes were not good either. He quipped, ‘I am like my old Gum tree on the right, ready to sink with the Creek’.19 Almost a year after the exhibition first opened, Buvelot complained to Eugene that he had yet to receive his medal.20

The appeals debacle left other niggling questions and grievances in its wake. George Purves, Caroline’s brother, was still fuming eight years later, when he fired off a letter to the editor of the Argus recalling his version of events. Purves wrote that ‘the injustice of [Buvelot’s] award was so flagrant that it was immediately rectified, and as far as I remember my sister was also advanced to the first rank on the same day. In my sister’s case, it was only the outcry of the press that secured her this distinction’. Mr Purves, however, was not pleased:

I may say now what I said then, that all three were bad awards, the cases of the ladies being especially ridiculous. At the same Exhibition, Alma Tadema, H. S. Marks, Colin Hunter, and others got gold medals – that is, received the same awards as two amateur flower painters. Was this not absurd? And Buvelot? Though a good painter, he was unequal; and it is not undeniable that he received his gold medal, not for the picture he exhibited, but because he was Buvelot.21

Poor Miss Purves, publicly condemned by no less an authority than her own brother! The editor replied that Purves’ attack showed an ignorance of the rules. The women were not judged in comparison with the likes of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, an academician specialising in scenes of ancient Rome, fishing-scene painter, Hunter, or bird painter, Marks, but with other flower painters. As the best of their class, they deserved their awards. Likewise, the Buvelot was judged against other landscapes.22

Undoubtedly, the battle of appeals undermined the authority of the local fine arts judges. They found themselves judged and their opinions questioned. Much of this, I suggest, stemmed from the opportunity afforded by the exhibition to symbolically represent the greater arena and authority of the overseas academies. As Purves’ complaints show, confusion stemmed from how to measure diverse local productions entered into competition against the works of British academicians. Was a gold medal for Ellis Rowan’s flower painting to be deemed equivalent to a gold medal for one of these? By comparison with Alma Tadema et al. as opposed to an exhibition confined to colonial artists, the highly esteemed and much-medalled Rowan could be reduced to the irrelevance of an amateur flower painter.

This condescension and ambivalence toward the colonial product was a universal affliction, to which Roberts was not immune. Humphrey McQueen (1996a) observes that ‘nothing mattered more to Roberts and his generation than the judgement of London’ (34). McQueen’s (1996b) biography of Roberts is particularly memorable for its pained assessment of what this misguided attachment would cost the artist late in his career. It is consistent with this lifelong ambition that, after the exhibition closed, Roberts left Melbourne to study at the London Royal Academy. After three years there, short of completing his course, he returned to Australia in 1885, aged 30.

Roberts joined an influx of other overseas-trained artists arriving in Melbourne mid decade, including Arthur Loureiro, Charles Rolando, Ugo Catani, Girolamo Nerli and Carl Kahler. Their timely injection of cosmopolitanism and predisposition towards modern plein-air painting tangibly assisted Roberts in his mission to shake up the VAA, as the next step in his campaign for the professionalisation of the fine arts that he had begun at art school five years before. In 1886, Roberts, Streeton, Conder, Mather, Paterson, George Ashton, Catani, Kahler and others formed a group of self-styled professional artists that split with the VAA over the inclusion of amateur members. The professionals formed the rival (and ambitiously named) Australian Artist’s Association, and began having exhibitions and smoke nights at the commercial gallery, Buxton’s, in the city (Astbury 1985, 35). At the same time, Roberts and his friends started painting at the first artists’ camps around Melbourne. By the time of the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888, the tendencies of ‘foreign’ impressionism and nationalism in the art produced by this group were coalescing but were not quite ready to be taken up as public positions.23 The famous ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ was not held at Buxton’s until August 1889, and Roberts’ first self-consciously national picture, Shearing the rams, was not painted until 1890, still some way into the future. Accordingly, at the Centennial Exhibition, the appeals of members of the newly re-amalgamated VAS exhibited messy confusion about the goals of a national or Australian art rather than a clear agenda.

Clashes between local professionals and amateurs had been temporarily resolved by the terms of the amalgamation of the society, which deprived amateur members from service on the executive committee.24 However, further clashes between the more radical members of the VAS and an exhibition hierarchy still dominated by powerful and well-connected members of the establishment were probably inevitable. Artists were no more prominent in the fine arts hierarchy than they had been in 1880, and the departments of the Victorian Court were organised along much the same lines as before.25 Moreover, the systemic problems affecting the judging of colonial art against international competition that had been exposed in 1880 had hardly been resolved, and therefore were destined to be repeated in 1888. Nonetheless, the artists could draw confidence from 1880, which had shown them the power they had at their disposal to manipulate outcomes through the appeal system. In 1880 the judges had been left with egg on their faces; a victory had been won for Buvelot and the cause of plein-air painting in Victoria. The year 1888 found local artists optimistic and in fighting spirit.

The first minor fracas involved Roberts directly and was over the competition to design the exhibition certificates. This was judged by the Fine Arts Committee and confirmed by the Executive Commissioners. Roberts’s complaint was that although the committee had judged his own and another competitor’s designs equal first, the commissioners had ignored the recommendation and chosen a design from the reserve list by Sydney artist Mary Stoddard instead. Roberts quite reasonably wrote asking the designs to be rejudged by independent experts. However, the commissioners refused to budge, prompting James Smith from the committee to resign in protest (Lennon 1995, 14–16).26 This was a sign that the hierarchy had learnt from the 1880 debacle, becoming more intransigent in their position on appeals.

This clash was a warm-up for the vehement campaigns that began when the fine arts awards were announced. Roberts, who had submitted eight paintings, won a second order of merit for three of them, as did John Mather for several of his landscapes. The VAS had in fact done quite well, albeit only in the lower ranks, and for their more conservative efforts. For example, McCubbin’s Lost (1886, National Gallery of Victoria) and Roberts’s Summer morning tiff (1886, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery), now seen as classics of informal bush impressionism, were passed over in favour of Roberts’ more monumental and self-consciously posed couple in Reconciliation (1887, Castlemaine Art Gallery). Nonetheless, the members of the VAS chose to see themselves as having been snubbed by the jurors, who regretted ‘that the requirements of an international competition have rendered it impossible to confer the highest honours upon any of the [Victorian] artists exhibiting’. Gratuitously, they added: ‘it is hardly possible to attach any artistic value to the collection of works exhibited in the Victorian Ladies’ Court’.27

Neither of these remarks applied to Ellis Rowan, who bypassed both the VAS and the Ladies’ Court to exhibit across no less than three colonial courts – Victoria, New Zealand and Queensland – which, as a peripatetic flower tourist, she could legitimately do. Once again, Rowan managed to carry off the only first-class certificate to be awarded to a Victorian artist. The artists assembled at a meeting of the VAS in the Academy in Albert Street on 22 January 1889 were outraged. John Mather recalled the insults of 1880 when the jury had seen fit to give Buvelot only a third-class certificate. He reminded the assembled that their complaints had resulted in a special committee being appointed. The experts had corrected the decision and awarded Buvelot a first-class certificate and a gold medal. Mather and Ashton passed a resolution to protest again.28

However, this time there was one important difference. In 1880 the VAS had only wanted one popular painting, widely regarded as a masterpiece, to be rejudged. In 1889, they had a much broader ambit claim. They wanted ‘justice to be done to Australian artists as a body’. In fact, the VAS had a number of complaints about the judging, but without pointing to any particular work they wanted to have promoted, it all amounted to a rather confused and unsatisfactory case. First, the Germans had won more than their fair share of first-class awards. Second, the wrong genre in Australian art had been rewarded; Rowan should not have received honours for flower painting over figure and landscape painting, especially by excellent foreign artists. Third, the judges were in effect declaring that Rowan was the best amongst the Australian artists. Clearly the VAS felt they were on strongest ground by insisting on respect for the academic hierarchy of genres. Flower painting should never have won over the inherently superior genres of figure and landscape painting. Mather, Roberts and company had a vested interest in this, of course, since their own figure and landscape paintings had only won lesser prizes. But perhaps because complaining about this would naturally lead to allegations of sour grapes, they invoked the foreign artists who had supposedly been slighted by the award. The final resolution was as follows:

That the committee of the VAS regards with surprise and dissatisfaction the awards of the jury of the Centennial International Exhibition as far as they concern Australian art; and that, in the opinion of the committee, the one special first-class award made to Australian art is a direct insult to the foreign artists who have done Australia the honour of competing in its International Exhibition.29

These were fighting words and two anonymous members of the jury promptly vented their fury at the VAS in the newspapers. Using the same argument made to Purves, the juryman defended the jury’s decision by saying that Rowan had been judged in a different category. If the papers had made it clear that Rowan’s flower paintings had been judged in their own class and not against figure and landscape works then:

the delicate sensibilities of Messrs. Ashton and Mather would not have been outraged by an apparent competition between ‘mere flower pieces’ and their own remarkable works. Even admitting flower painting to be an inferior branch of art, it is absurd to pretend that Mrs Rowan is not entitled to a first award for super-excellence in that branch because Messrs. Mather and Ashton only get second awards in an entirely different branch.

The second juryman provides a different justification by invoking the importance of prior success in competition. This was the backbone of the academic system and, by extension, the exhibition system. As Bourdieu (1993) points out, aspirants were trained by repeated failure; achieving ultimate honours was a ‘progressive conquest’ (242). This graduated scale of attainment is reflected in the hanging system of academic shows. The descending (or literally ascending) order of value ascribed to the work by the academic selectors was plain for all to see: the best work was placed ‘on the line’ at eye height and the least was ‘skied’ or put so far up towards the ceiling it could not be seen properly. It was relevant, therefore, to the jury’s decision that Rowan’s success had been well established over a decade – she had won gold at exhibitions at Melbourne in 1880 and at Adelaide in 1887. By contrast, the juryman pointed out, Mather had won nothing in 1880; in Adelaide he got a third, and at the present exhibition he managed second class ‘and that in an international contest of severe character’. Rather than abusing the judges, then, he should be proud of his steady improvement. Rowan’s repeated successes gave her de facto status as a master, whereas Mather and Roberts were still officially apprentices and aspirants to the club. The juryman also reinforced the notion of colonial inferiority by reminding the Victorians that they were in international competition and could not pretend to hold a candle to the German entries, which the VAS had claimed had won too many awards.30

Both jurymen were particularly incensed by the VAS’s national pretensions and their implicit claim to be the peers and equals of their foreign rivals: ‘What right has the VAS – a purely local institution – to protest on behalf of “Australian art”? Who constituted them the representatives and guardians of art throughout the whole of Australia?’, they sneered. No other colonial courts had protested in a similar vein and ‘in assuming to speak on behalf of “Australian” art, the Victorian society have altogether outstepped their proper functions’. It was quite outrageous that this ‘self-assertive society’ should pretend to defend the interests of foreign artists, while at the same time putting down a lady.31

The VAS appeal, not surprisingly given the vagueness of its grievances, was unsuccessful. In any case, the hierarchy guaranteed that the experts it appointed would not challenge its decisions. Art critic James Smith was a vocal opponent of the VAS group’s more radical impressionist works (Eagle 1996, 40, 46–48), and Collins Street art dealer Alexander Fletcher traded in British and continental works and was no particular champion of local artists (Jordan 2005b, 88).

Given that the appeal was largely rhetorical and doomed to fail, what was its strategic intent? Was it, as has been suggested, a case of professional male artists being threatened by the success of an Australian woman artist? Was it merely a coincidence that Roberts was involved on three separate occasions in protests against wins by women artists (even though the one in 1880 was stated in terms of the worthiness of Buvelot for promotion rather than the illegitimacy of Rowan’s win, as in 1888)? Accounts of these incidents were first exhumed in feminist art historical research on women artists and this context has inclined researchers to accuse the male artists of sexism and jealousy (Lennon 1995; Hazzard 1984, 50–51). Jane Lennon (1995), for example, suspects Roberts’s protest against Mary Stoddard to have been motivated by ‘peevishness; it appears that male artists did not tolerate being outstripped by lady painters in competitions’ (15).

Without wishing to dismiss the validity of this explanation, I would seek to broaden out the terms of the conflict. If sexism was the only or dominant factor at stake, then why did the all-male committees, juries and experts make the awards to women over men in the field in the first place, and then defend their choices against criticism so vigorously? Were avant-garde painters somehow more sexist than these instruments of the state? If we assume for the purposes of argument that this was the case, and that Roberts et al.’s position-taking was prompted by a desire to put women artists in their place, then it must be acknowledged that this set them apart from more powerful male agents in the field who were responsible for her endorsement. To make their position even more uncomfortable, social etiquette dictated that persecution of a lady was ungentlemanly. These factors might explain why Roberts’s VAS faction represented their objections as being about the preservation of the academic hierarchy of genres rather than about gender. Everybody knew that women artists typically did flower paintings, but even if these were done by a successful professional of international standing like Rowan, it was still valid to insist that flower painting should occupy a lower rung than landscape and figure painting. By invoking the conservative authority of the academic system, they were thus cleverly able to exploit underlying doubts about ‘amateur’ women artists in the professional domain. The gambit forced judges, who subscribed to the academic system as their model, into defending their decision by saying they had observed the hierarchy by judging genre with genre. Should this judging by genre have been formalised, it would potentially have further encouraged the ghettoisation of women’s art and discouraged the possibility of a woman artist like Rowan dominating major prizes in open competition.

But what if Roberts and his faction was not primarily motivated by gender politics in the professional arena? There are alternative explanations. Ann Galbally sees the undermining of Rowan’s achievements as being primarily about economics rather than sexism. Despite the progressively realised ambitions of Roberts and others within the VAS to produce definitively Australian paintings in the international ‘impressionist’ manner, they remained frustrated by their inability to sell them.32 This must have made a particularly galling contrast to Rowan, who seemed to have cornered the market in Australian art with an unstoppable torrent of wildflower pictures. Perhaps it was the eccentricity of Rowan, then, not women artists in general, that was the problem for Roberts. One wonders if another Victorian woman artist had won top honours for a landscape or figure painting, would Roberts have had anything to complain about? As Rebecca Rice points out, the possibility was realised in 1888 by Kate Sperry. Sperry won a gold medal for a portrait of an Italian goatherd in the New Zealand Court, which was generally agreed to be the most outstanding colonial court alongside that of the host colony (Official Record CentenniaI International Exhibition, 679)33 However, Sperry’s win does not add to the debate because the Victorians did not bother to address the intercolonial competition, acting as if the field consisted only of foreign competitors and Victorians.

My own conclusion is that Rowan was a target for Roberts and his cronies because of her extraordinary status as a consecrated artist vis-a-vis their own status as striving artists in the exhibition arena. In other words, Rowan’s repeated success was a symbol of the VAS’s repeated failure. Provoked by the repetition of Rowan’s win in 1880, the VAS recklessly named Rowan in 1888 and dragged her into its very personal, local campaign against the marginalisation of the plein-air movement by the Victorian art establishment, who made up those on the exhibition’s selection and judging panels. Feeling undermined instead of supported in their home town, the VAS group preferred to align themselves (presumptuously, according to the judges) with the interests of foreign artists, whose role as national representatives they adopted for themselves. In this last respect, direct exposure to international competition at the 1880 Exhibition and the aftermath over the appeals seems to have substantially contributed to the clarification and enlargement of their ambitions. In 1880, Buvelot stated that his friends wanted him to ‘show the world the standard of landscape painting in Victoria’, but in 1888, Roberts and his fellow professionals referred to themselves deliberately, and controversially, as ‘Australian’ artists speaking on behalf of Australian art – a shift in the terms on which they wanted their own art viewed from representing the colony (which had failed to give them their due) to representing the nation (which didn’t yet exist).

The appeals mounted by Roberts and his faction within the VAS at the two Melbourne International Exhibitions at either end of the 1880s indicate the issues at stake in a field in transition. Roberts’s aim was to delegitimise the status of wealthy or well-connected amateur practitioners and enhance that of professional artists like himself, an agenda he pursued through the local artists’ society by initiating a purge of amateurs.34 A corollary to this was a challenge to modernise an exhibition system that historically had been inclusive of amateurs and women, and in which certain women artists, notably Rowan, had been conspicuously successful. While I have argued that Roberts’s aim in these skirmishes was not primarily to victimise Rowan and other women artists on the basis of their gender, this was undoubtedly a by-product of his struggle for professionalisation and modernisation, the legacy of which women artists of his generation and the next would be left to negotiate. The discourse on Rowan, whose repeated success in competition at the exhibitions was evidence enough of her professionalism, shows how easily women artists might become slandered with the ‘amateur’ label in this transition. However, this complacent argument was not the simple basis on which Roberts et al. wanted to disqualify her wins. What brought these into question was the place of her work in the field of the exhibition competition, which functioned both as a kind of temporary local Royal Academy and as a contest between nations for cultural dominance. Roberts sought to challenge the unambitious colonial mind-set that allowed ‘mere’ wildflower painting to take out the major prize to an Australian artist in this international arena, not once but twice. The context of the two competitions enabled him to project the claims of an alternative Australian art, based in plein-air landscape and figure painting, as a serious national school competitive with those of the British and European nation-states. It was immaterial that this school was embryonic in 1880 and even by 1888 still very much a work in progress.

But were Roberts’s heretical challenges a success? Did they result in the transformation of the hierarchy of legitimacy? The short answer is no. Roberts’s challenges at the exhibitions were mostly failures, although reversing the judges’ decision on Buvelot was a significant victory. Rowan’s reputation was unharmed and she went on to enjoy still greater international fortune, greater than Roberts’s during their lifetimes. It was only in the longer term that Roberts achieved the symbolic transformations that he sought. In 1888, Roberts was chastised as one of a bunch of assertive Victorian artists who had the impertinence to claim to represent a nation that technically didn’t yet exist. Thirty years later, as a member of the so-called Heidelberg School, his claim to this was unassailable.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank Leigh Astbury for his valuable advice on this chapter. Its faults, of course, remain my own.

ENDNOTE

1    The editor of the Argus (31 March 1883) comparing the Victorian Academy of Arts with the Royal Academy, opined that ‘we have endeavoured to establish an academy before we have got the artists, or … while there are too few in number’. Low standards of academic selection and admission of amateurs were also a problem. ‘So long as the uninstructed amateur is freely permitted to display his incapacity on walls which should be reserved for really artistic productions’, no local art market would develop. Interestingly, in terms of the make-up of the exhibition judges, the editor endorsed a plan for a new society, run by gentlemen who were not artists; ‘as its management would not be in the hands of artists and amateurs, a more rigorously discriminating judgement … would be exercised in the selection of pictures sent in by local painters for exhibition’ (9). Much later, JG De Libra ridiculed the pretensions of Sydney’s short-lived 1892 Australian Academy of Arts and its ‘Academicians’, ‘Honorary Academicians’ and ‘Associates’. The Academy fizzled out after a few exhibitions. ‘The fine arts in Australasia’, Australasian Art Review, 1 August 1899: 22.

2    See especially ‘The Field of Cultural Production’: 29–73, 37; ‘Manet and the Institutionalisation of Anomie’: 238–253; 250–251.

3    Age, 19 November 1880: 3.

4    Sir George Verdon’s address printed and presented to the Governor of Victoria on the occasion of the opening of South Wing ‘Barry Hall’ of the National Gallery of Victoria dated 2 September 1886. Box 126 1886. Public Records Office of Victoria.

5    ‘Opening of the Exhibition’, Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1880, [n.p.], contained in book of press cuttings, Victoria International Exhibition 1880 compiled by order of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library. La Trobe Rare Books Collection, State Library of Victoria (SLV).

6    Australasian Sketcher, 26 February 1881: 70.

7    Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1880.

8    Translations of letters written by Louis and Julie Buvelot, 27 December 1875–16 February 1902, MS 11635 Box 1834/5. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.

9    Folingsby had arrived in Victoria in 1879, and was working in Melbourne as a portrait painter (Astbury 1985, 26).

10    Buvelot letter, 4 April 1881.

11    In 1880, medals were only issued for first-class awards in order to prevent exaggerated advertising claims being made about medal-winning exhibits. The quality of the medal was determined by the importance of the class of the exhibit – so fine arts, porcelain, grand pianos and complex machinery, for example, were awarded gold for being first in their class, while the products of less skilled labour received silver as their top award. Fine arts was the exception because second-class awards also received silver medals. Hence Buvelot’s original third-class certificate was not accompanied by a medal. When he was upgraded he received a gold medal and a first-class certificate. Argus, 24 March 1881: 6; Age, 28 March 1881: 2.

12    Buvelot letter, 4 April 1881.

13    Age, 19 March 1881: 7; Argus, 23 January 1889: 5.

14    Argus, 12 March 1881: 8.

15    Identities have been established from a variety of sources. Age, 17 March 1881: 3; Cecchini and Thomson (Illustrated Australasian News, 31 December 1880: 254); Kowalski (Australasian Sketcher, 12 February 1881: 54); Lynch (Vaughan 1976, 17–20); Delves-Broughton (Dunstan et al 1996, 138). For others see the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

16    Argus, 14 March 1881: 6; Argus, 21 March 1881: 6.

17    Age, 21 April 1881: 3; Age, 22 April 1881: 3.

18    Argus, 21 March 1881: 6.

19    Buvelot letter, 29 March 1881.

20    Buvelot letter, 22 August 1881.

21    Argus, 25 January 1889: 5.

22    Argus, 25 January 1889: 5.

23    At a time when Australian nationalism was tied firmly to Britishness, the ‘Frenchness’ of the impressionist style (broadly defined) adopted by Roberts and others in the VAS in relation to Australian subject matter was a matter of comment and suspicion (Spate 1959, 39, 60–61). This underlines further contradictions in the conception of Australian art being promoted by this group around the time of the 1888 Exhibition that I am unfortunately unable to go into here.

24    Introduction to VAS Inventory MS7593; Draft of Rules re: amalgamation, to become the VAS in Minute Book of the Australian Artists’ Association 1886–1888, VAS Records Box 554/4. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.

25    The exception on the Fine Arts Jury of 1888 was the German painter Carl Kahler (Official Record CentenniaI International Exhibition: 673).

26    Table Talk, 18 January 1889: 2; Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 1889: 11.

27    Argus, 19 January 1889: 9.

28    Argus, 22 January 1889: 4; Argus, 23 January 1889: 5.

29    Argus, 23 January 1889: 5.

30    Argus, 28 January 1889: 28.

31    Argus, 10 January 1889: 10.

32    On the debate over the use of the term ‘impressionism’ as applied to the Australians, and its relation to international trends, see Spate (1990) and Vaughan (2007).

33    Galbally’s and Rice’s comments were made in the session containing a paper based on this chapter at the ‘Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World Conference,’ 19–20 October 2006, Melbourne Museum.

34    Roberts went on to agitate for the same reforms in Sydney, where he moved to escape the impact of the 1890s Depression in Victoria. In 1895 he was appointed first president of the breakaway Society of Artists in which professional artists only constituted the governing body (De Libra, ‘Fine Arts in Australasia’: 22).

PRIMARY SOURCES

ARCHIVED COLLECTIONS

Translations of letters written by Louis and Julie Buvelot, 27 December 1875–16 February 1902, MS 11635 Box 1834/5. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria (SLV).

Sir George Verdon’s address printed and presented to the Governor of Victoria on the occasion of the opening of South Wing ‘Barry Hall’ of the National Gallery of Victoria. Dated 2 September 1886. Box 126 1886. Public Records Office of Victoria.

Victoria International Exhibition 1880 compiled by order of the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library. Book of press cuttings. La Trobe Rare Books Collection, SLV.

Victorian Artists Society (hereafter VAS) Inventory MS7593; Minute Book of the Australian Artists’ Association 1886–1888, VAS Records Box 554/4. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.

CONTEMPORARY NEWSPAPERS

The Age, 1880–1881.

Argus, 1881, 1883, 1889.

Australasian Art Review, 1 August 1899.

Australasian Sketcher, 12 February 1881 & 26 February 1881.

Daily Telegraph, 2 October 1880.

Illustrated Australasian News, 31 December 1880.

Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January 1889.

Table Talk, 18 January 1889.

EXHIBITION PUBLICATIONS

Melbourne International Exhibition 1880: The Official Catalogue of Exhibits. 1880. 2 vols. Melbourne: Mason, Firth &McCutcheon.

Melbourne International Exhibition 1880–1881: Official Record. 1882. Melbourne: Mason, Firth & McCutcheon.

Official Record of the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888–1889. 1890. Melbourne: Sands & McDougall.

Thomson, Stephen. 1880. Handbook to the Picture Gallery and Works of Art: Melbourne International Exhibition. Melbourne: PE Reynolds.

REFERENCES

Astbury, Leigh. 1985. City Bushmen: The Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. Edited and introduced by Randal Johnson. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Broude, Norma (ed). 1990. World Impressionism: The International Movement, 1860–1920. New York: Harry N Abrams.

Dunstan, David et al. 1996. Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne. Kew, Victoria: The Exhibition Trustees.

Eagle, Mary. 1996. ‘A painter making himself’. In Tom Roberts, edited by Radford, Ron. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.

Hazzard, Margaret. 1984. Australia’s Brilliant Daughter: Ellis Rowan. Melbourne: Greenhouse.

Jordan, Caroline. 2005a. Picturesque Pursuits: Colonial Women Artists and the Amateur Tradition. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Jordan, Caroline. 2005b. ‘“Fletcher’s of Collins Street”: Melbourne’s leading nineteenth-century art dealer, Alexander Fletcher’. La Trobe Journal 75 (Autumn): 77–93.

Lane, Terence (ed). 2007. Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.

Lennon, Jane. 1995. ‘The trials of a lady artist: Mary Stoddard, Tom Roberts and the Victorian Art Society’. Women’s Art Register Bulletin (June): 14–16.

McQueen, Humphrey. 1996a. ‘The Fortunes of Tom Roberts’. In Tom Roberts, edited by Radford, Ron. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.

McQueen, Humphrey. 1996b. Tom Roberts. Sydney: Macmillan.

Radford, Ron (ed). 1996. Tom Roberts. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.

Spate, Virginia. 1959. ‘Art criticism in the Melbourne press 1880–1900’. BA Hons thesis, University of Melbourne.

Spate, Virginia. 1990. ‘The sunny south: Australian impressionism’. In World Impressionism: The International Movement, 1860–1920, edited by Broude, Norma. New York: Harry N Abrams.

Vaughan, Gerard. 1976. ‘Art collectors in colonial Victoria 1854–1892’. BA Hons thesis, University of Melbourne.

Vaughan, Gerard. 2007. ‘Some reflections on defining Australian impressionism’. In Australian Impressionism, edited by Lane, Terence. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.

Cite this chapter as: Jordan, Caroline. 2008. ‘Tom Roberts, Ellis Rowan and the struggle for Australian art at the great exhibitions of 1880 and 1888’. Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, edited by Darian-Smith, Kate; Gillespie, Richard; Jordan, Caroline; and Willis, Elizabeth. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 15.1–15.16.

© Copyright 2008 Caroline Jordan
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress: http://www.epress.monash.edu/contacts.html.

SEIZE THE DAY

   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis