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The Federal Exhibitions were held in Adelaide each year from 1898 to 1923 to showcase contemporary art by leading artists of the day from Australia and New Zealand. Harry P Gill, the honorary curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia, actively acquired work from these exhibitions to develop an Australian art collection. This chapter examines the exhibitions, their critical reception and resulting acquisitions in relation to the construction of Australian art, which artists that encompassed, and how Adelaide’s early collecting compared with that of Sydney and Melbourne.

During the months of November and December each year from 1898 to 1923, the South Australian Society of Arts held a Federal Exhibition in its Institute Building on North Terrace, Adelaide. Admission was sixpence, and free on Sundays. These exhibitions attracted key artists from the Australian colonies (later states) and New Zealand, and represent a deliberately federal approach, as the exhibition catalogue cover shows, with ribbons threaded through paint palettes for each colony tied together in a knot, symbolising the ‘first attempt to federate the various art societies’.1 The exhibitions also provided Harry P Gill, the honorary curator at the National Art Gallery of South Australia, an opportunity to purchase modern works like Tom Roberts’s A break away! (1889), that are still at the core of the gallery’s Australian collection.2 Gill was intent on purchasing what he called ‘artworks of the day’.3

The emphasis on soliciting contemporary exhibits aligns these exhibitions with what we currently call Biennials of Australian Art, and Gill approached the task of ensuring good art came in, with the panache of a biennial director. He was in a fortunate position. In March 1897 the ‘Adelaide Picture Gallery’ had received a very generous bequest of £25,000 from Sir Thomas Elder, whose conditions were simply to ‘purchase … pictures only for the said Gallery and for no other purpose whatsoever’ (Gosse 2000, 24).4 This bequest was what Gill needed to develop a first-rate collection during a decade beset by economic gloom. His suggestions, adopted in the main by the Board, were to spend the funds over an extended period of time on British, continental and Australian art, that the bequest be divided into three sections, one of which would be invested in Treasury bonds, and that the £250 interest per year be spent on Australian art purchased in Adelaide from annual exhibitions.

Once the Board of the Gallery had established that the bequest literally meant pictures, and did not include decorative art, they endorsed Gill’s five-year plan of allocating £250 per annum ‘to purchase Australian works of art provided they be of sufficient merit to be purchased at the exhibition of the local Society of Arts, conducted on a Federal basis’.5 Gill’s vision for the Federal Exhibitions involved the local Society of Art, of which he was vice-president, liaising with their equivalent societies elsewhere in Australia to ensure that paintings were sent in by those societies. In his advice to the Fine Arts Committee of the Art Gallery Board, he backed establishing these exhibitions ‘provided the local society of arts will frame its exhibitions prospectus to the satisfaction of your Board, and the other corporate art societies of the various colonies, so as to ensure the federal character of its exhibitions’.6 The local Society of Arts agreed.7 This set in motion the Federal Exhibitions, with Gill predicting that they ‘would raise the standard of art exhibitions in South Australia and the public taste’ and ‘encourage Australian artists to produce their best’.8 The city, too, held cultural aspirations fitting this adventurous move, because it had a non-penal history.


The seeds of cultural federalism, to which Gill was pointing in establishing the Federal Exhibitions, were evident prior to their commencing in 1898. We see this sentiment expressed in the 1896 South Australian Society of Arts Annual Exhibition catalogue, that in the interests of developing what was then called a ‘fuller national life’, what was needed was an Australian Federation of Artists.9 In fact, art galleries and art societies across the colonies had been cooperating in exhibitions throughout much of the 1890s, so the idea of the Federal Exhibitions had a solid basis. The exhibition of Australian art at Grafton Galleries in London in 1898 had seen artists from many of the colonies contribute, too.

Ideas of political Federation were on the agenda and being hotly debated throughout the 1890s, and South Australians supported federalism, voting convincingly for it in the two referenda.10 Local politicians like Charles Kingston were deeply involved (Bannon 2001, 188–191), so it is not surprising that it flowed into the arts. What is surprising, though, is the easy transference from political ideas of federalism to cultural ideas, that it happened prior to Federation, and that it occurred in South Australia. But then this state was more progressive: it wasn’t a colony or penal settlement,11 and it was founded on ideas of ‘civil and religious liberty’12 as a micro-society of enterprising middle-class dissenters who chose a better life, with less social stratification. It became a province, developed its own system of parliamentary government in 1857, and wanted none of the military tradition underpinning governors in other colonies (Pike 1967, 495–499). The ideas put in place by liberal theorists, disillusioned with a heavily encoded social and religious life in Britain, and intent on establishing an improved society, might well account for citizens of this province being more open to national ideas. Notions of Australianness can also be accounted for because, by the time of Federation in 1901, 80 per cent of South Australians were locally born (Pike 1967, 496–497), and so identified with their place of birth.13

Clearly the Art Gallery of South Australia valued Federation, culturally, more than its sister galleries in Sydney and Melbourne. The Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales suggested that an exhibition of Australian Federated Art be held in January 1901, but it never eventuated because it contravened their Act (Johnson 1997, 15). Their only gesture towards Federation was in erecting a stand in front of the gallery from which to view the Commonwealth Procession and so the gallery was ‘witness to a progressive independent Australian spirit but not yet part of it’ (Johnson 1997, 15). In contrast, in 1901 the Art Gallery of South Australia purchased Tom Roberts’s iconic painting Sir Henry Parkes (1892), honouring one of Federation’s key players from the Elder Bequest funds.


While Gill was quick to perceive that the time was ripe for a federal approach, he was also astute in focusing on Australian art as an undeveloped market. He was aware that good Australian artists were having difficulty selling their work, and that the buying public was not yet seeing its own culture as important. As Gill observed in May 1897 ‘it is a matter of regret that artists who have been educated in the colonial centres and afterwards have passed through a European experience, have to leave Australia to obtain a living’.14

He was also conscious that institutional taste was ahead of that of the public, and that the galleries in Melbourne and Sydney ‘each pursue local works that are of higher artistic quality than many of our works purchased from European artists’.15 In the 1890s the National Gallery of Victoria purchased more Australian work than European work due to their discerning director, Bernard Hall, while a depressed economic climate meant ‘they could afford little else’ (Galbally 1987, 32, 37). During that same decade the Art Gallery of New South Wales also purchased key Australian paintings from their few hundred pounds per annum budget for local art,16 and from 1897 they hosted the non-acquisitive Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting.17 However, their principal interest was still in building up an English art collection (Johnson 1997, 14–24, 213).

Adelaide was more progressive than Sydney in that Gill was intent on showcasing Australian art on his moderate budget. In his 1897 report to the Fine Arts Committee he noted, ‘we desire to see in the not too far future an Australian room in connection with our National Gallery, in which Australian works of art will be advantageously placed’.18 This vision was shared by the local newspaper which said that an Australian room at the gallery was ‘ardently longed for by artists, patrons and the general public’.19

Gill prepared a list of established artists whose work he wanted in the gallery’s collection, including Eugene von Guerard, ST Gill, Nicholas Chevalier, John Glover, WC Piguenit and Alexander Schramm; and contemporary artists Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, John Longstaff, Ellis Rowan, W Lister Lister and AF Fullwood (Hylton 2000, 52). He also arranged for Bernard Hall, the Director of Melbourne’s National Gallery, to be a consultant to the gallery’s program of developing a good collection. Gill explained to his Fine Arts Committee how artists in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide were ‘exploring the mysteries of their native land’ and ‘the vast extent of her rolling plains, the peculiar vegetation of her coast and islands, the sapphire of her sky, the Riviera aspect of her seas, the vivid green of winter, the golden glow of the summer, the wondrous clearness of the atmosphere which glows and palpitates with the heat’. For Gill there was ‘a distinctly Australian style’20 and artists were busy both painting it, and talking it up! Roberts and Streeton were immersing themselves in the bush to paint it, then eulogising those bush qualities in their paintings and in their letters to each other. The August 1889 ‘9 by 5 Impression’ exhibition at Buxton’s Art Gallery in Swanston Street, Melbourne, prompted much discussion of Australian art, with Roberts, Conder and Streeton proudly announcing to readers of the Argus there is ‘a great school of painting in Australia’ (Smith 1990, 208). At a time when the concept of Australian art was being constructed by artists like Roberts, Gill set about deliberately collecting it in order to build up a first-rate collection.


News that Adelaide had money to spend prompted many artists to write to Gill offering him work, so it is not surprising that the first exhibition held in 1898, and subsequent ones, attracted leading artists from the art societies in Sydney, Melbourne, New Zealand and Adelaide.21 The local newspaper reported that the major problem was insufficient hanging space for all the exhibits. Late entries from the Victorian Artists Society members Frederick McCubbin and Philips Fox challenged the available space, but as the paper commented, the hanging committee would ‘leave no expedient untried rather than leave out the work of masters of the brush’.22 The accompanying catalogue from the first Federal Exhibition proudly announced that ‘having the courage to risk innovation, the Society of Arts presents its exhibition of Australasian pictures selected by the seven leading arts societies’. They saw their role in ‘providing as the future heritage the work of this past’.23 Even the way paintings were exhibited, with sections of hanging space allocated to art societies from the various colonies, promoted the idea of federalism. At the opening, the lieutenant governor pithily noted that ‘in artistic matters Federation seems to be easily accomplished without hindrance by those small but keenly contested details that block the path of those politicians.’24

The exhibitions became a fixture on the social calendar, the opening night was a gala affair and always reported, attendances were consistently high, and the local newspapers carried several stories per exhibition on the merits or otherwise of works on show. Early acquisitions, which the selectors said would have the ‘highest importance in the future’,25 reflected what Adelaide’s Advertiser signalled as ‘the arrival’ of Australian art. This is evident in a young George Lambert’s wonderful study of a bushman, Old Joe (c. 1898). Its loose, almost rough, paint application alludes to Joe’s bush adaptability, while his benign presence speaks of contentment. Prior to training as an artist, Lambert had worked on a great uncle’s property and illustrated Bulletin stories for Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Paterson. He felt at home in the bush and he reported loving ‘the trees & birds & horses, sunburnt bushmen & sheep in their multitudes’ (Grey 1996, 12). This image of the bush, though, was consciously painted for an urban audience who, like Lambert, identified with the country for its truth-to-life values.

Landscapes featured in Federal Exhibitions and in gallery purchases. Sydney Long’s The valley (1898) (Plate 1), acquired from the first Federal Exhibition, shows those vast spaces to which Gill referred, painted in this artist’s signature art nouveau style of spare, sinuous lines and modern colours of mauves, greens and blues. Long’s essentially romantic and mystical view of the land overlooking the Hawkesbury River is both a pastoral fantasy and a response to the ‘rugged nationalism’ of the dominant art and literature of the 1890s (Mendelssohn 1979, 53). This acquisition severely challenged local taste, with the Advertiser reporting ‘round an impressionist picture by a Sydney artist the wordy warfare has chiefly raged’. As to be expected, the taste of the selectors was ahead of that of the general public, who it seems were less convinced of the painting as part of a new Australian school. The Advertiser conceded that the room at the Art Gallery to be ‘confined to colonial productions will not be the chamber of horrors imagined by some’; but sided with the populace, commenting that Long’s painting ‘is not altogether a masterpiece’.26 However, it was a shrewd purchase and the painting is now credited as creating a ‘distinctly Australian interpretation of symbolism and art nouveau’ (Astbury 1989, 174).


Plate 1 Sydney Long, Australia, 1871–1955. The valley, 1898, Sydney. Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 61.2 cm. Elder Bequest Fund 1898.
(Courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia)

Another key work shown in the Federal Exhibitions and purchased by the Art Gallery that contrasts starkly with Sydney Long’s view of the bush is Tom Roberts’s A break away! (1891) (Plate 2). It had been exhibited at the Victorian Artists Society in 1892, the Art Society of New South Wales in 1893, and then at the 1898 London exhibition of Australian art. Roberts then sent his unsold painting to the second Federal Exhibition in 1899 whereupon Gill offered to buy it, but at significantly less than its asking price. Roberts accepted, and his painting of a stockman attempting to control stampeding sheep racing to water was recently voted the most popular painting in the gallery’s collection. Like other works by Roberts, it shows the virtues of strong masculine labour and the hot, dry dusty conditions he witnessed in the Corowa district. It also embodies his imperial ideals of settling the land. Roberts was pleased with his painting, commenting in 1899 that it ‘most nearly realised his idea’ (Spate 1996, 80), and writing to Gill, ‘I felt sure the strong feeling for life in the country would tell through the work’.27


Plate 2 Tom Roberts, Australia, 1856–1931. A break away! 1891, Corowa, New South Wales and Melbourne, Victoria. Oil on canvas, 137.3 x 167.8 cm. Elder Bequest Fund 1899.
(Courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia)

The purchase of the painting was astute because it represented a time when the economy relied on the wool industry, and the sheep drover was a key cultural figure. Jane Hylton calls it a consciously painted national picture (Radford and Hylton 1995, 161–162), while Virginia Spate (1996) rightly refers to it as ‘a painting of history’, in which ‘Roberts’s expression of a moment in time defined by the intersection of the dynamic movement of the horse-and-rider and of the sheep suggests that the painter was present at the scene to capture the moment’. He couldn’t have been, but this ‘conflict between the demands of realism and of imperial history painting … [is] the source of its ambiguous fascination’ (80). It also explains why the painting is still so popular.

Gill’s taste was once again ahead of the public. However the Register’s art critic found the art in that 1899 exhibition, which included A break away! disappointing, commenting there is not one painting which ‘Ruskin would characterize as a really noble picture’. This critic acknowledged ‘feeling for atmosphere’ and ‘knowledge of light and shade’, but bemoaned ‘the absence of pictures of historical and domestic interest’ integral to a Ruskinian scheme of a cultivated society. This same critic, who thought that focusing on the landscape was both self imposed and limiting of what is ‘Australian’28 clearly could not see those qualities of a history painting in A break away!

Other landscapes purchased from the first few exhibitions were painted in the late 1890s style of portraying spaces of the bush in an intimate, settled way. The light is more subdued, and at times filled with mystery. In Early morning Heidelberg (1898) Walter Withers presents semirural life in a domestic way with its focus on early morning duties around a farmyard encased in the lingering misty air of dawn. This painting was purchased from the second Federal Exhibition in 1899, while Frederick McCubbin’s A ti-tree glade (1897) came from the third Federal Exhibition in 1900. Gill regretted not acquiring an earlier McCubbin painting, Bush burial, and wanted McCubbin included in the collection he was developing. A ti-tree glade exemplifies that contemporary late 1800s sensibility of feeling at home in the bush, aided by a composition of the trees forming a canopy over the young girl and her animals, who are nested safely in the mid ground. The subdued light assists in this almost domestic rendering of the bush, which the artist painted on a farm near his home at suburban Brighton.


The Federal Exhibitions, as a showcase for contemporary art, also registered new trends. By 1901 a change was afoot and duly noted by art critics. Landscape paintings of what is now called the Federation period, such as William Lister’s Waning day, Hawkesbury River (1902) have a confidence about them. The intimacy of space of some Heidelberg-era work has gone and, in its place, canvases are larger and the space is more expansive. This is a safe, settled portrayal of the bush, reflecting the ‘more conservative imperialist nationalism’ that was in the air (Astbury 1989, 205). As The Advertiser noted ‘the Australian painter is evidently feeling his feet at last. He uses larger canvases and boldly demands more remunerative prices … he may be praised or derided, but certainly he is no longer to be ignored’.29 By 1903 the hanging committee was finding it difficult to accommodate so many large paintings!

After five years of exhibitions, newspaper coverage of purchases reflected a growing confidence in speaking of Australian art. The decision was taken to continue to hold the Federal Exhibitions, the five-year trial having resulted in good acquisitions and encouraged a market for locally produced art.30 In that short period, there was a shift in tone from Australian art having ‘arrived’ to being a fixture on the cultural landscape. For example, Alfred J Hanson’s work Overland sheep was described in 1904 in the easy tones of being ‘characteristically Australian’,31 while his painting Land of the Golden Fleece was acquired from the 1908 Federal Exhibition.

Another change in Federation-era paintings that shows up immediately in the Federal exhibition entries and purchases is an increase in the late-Heidelberg trend for an air of melancholy, as if the serious step of attaining nationhood had set in place a time of sober reflection (Radford 2001, 48). Paintings of early morning or late afternoon fading light became very fashionable. Walter Withers’s Wood carters (1902) shows a late afternoon scene in which the youthful exuberance of Tom Roberts’s stockman is replaced by an older, more reflective rural worker whose pace is significantly slower. Hans Heysen’s Mystic morn (1904) has an early morning delicate light coming gently through the thin spindly gums. Each was purchased from a Federal Exhibition the year it was painted.

Art critics commenting on the Federal Exhibitions in terms of what makes Australian art reflected a larger debate being conducted then about the same subject. Sydney Long complained about paintings featuring ‘the drover, the shearer, the bullock driver and even the bushranger’. He called them ‘pot boilers’. In his view, ‘the background calls for something that will better express the lonely and primitive feeling of this country’.32


While landscapes purchased from these Federal Exhibitions carry the range of contemporary sensibilities of the era, figurative work that was purchased picked up on changing social relations and new ‘intimist’ style of the interior view. The Edwardian trend to make private space public was in vogue, and ‘the depiction of solitary acts of absorption, reading, writing, making and listening to music’ (McConkey 2004, 90) was manifest in exhibits and purchases painted by women. Alice Hambidge’s contemplative By the light of the candle (1899) (Plate 3), thought to be a self portrait, suggests her pondering life in a new political era while combing her hair late at night. Florence Fuller’s subversive Inseparables (c. 1900), which shows a young girl reading intently and gaining knowledge, was acquired in 1900. Its quiet painterly colours are broken only by the vivid creamy tones of the book. Not all works acquired were painted in Australia. Bessie Davidson’s Portrait of Miss GR (1906) (Plate 4), for instance, was painted in France while the artist and sitter were overseas. It shows Davidson’s friend, artist Gladys Reynell, dressed in riding attire, but it also represents an independent ‘new woman’ who is happy to be portrayed in clothing that permitted freedom of movement. Its hint of quasi-masculine dress was a fashion statement in certain liberal quarters. South Australian audiences were cognisant of such portrayals, being the first state in Australia to give women the vote in 1894.


Plate 3 Alice Hambidge, Australia, 1869–1947. By the light of the candle, 1899, Adelaide. Watercolour on paper, 33.5 x 51.6 cm. Elder Bequest Fund 1899.
(Courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia)


Plate 4 Bessie Davidson, Australia, 1879–1965. Portrait of Miss GR, 1906, Adelaide. Oil on canvas, 125.7 x 88.8 cm. Elder Bequest Fund 1908.
(Courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia)

Other works shown in the Federal Exhibitions and judiciously purchased by the Art Gallery include Rose Macpherson’s (Margaret Preston’s) paintings Onions, in 1907, and The tea urn two years later, described by the local newspaper as a ‘choice exhibit’.33 At this time, the artist was living with the Davidson family whose daughter, Bessie, she taught and then accompanied to Europe. The loose, almost modern, paint application on the rounded urn, which belonged to the Davidson family, makes the surface wonderfully reflective. As a Lone Hand reviewer at the time commented, ‘perhaps as paintings they are the most perfect things in the exhibition. Each tone is put on with precision, exactly in relation to its colour value; in other words she is a splendid painter of surfaces, a beautiful painter of paint’.34

Figurative work and still life reflecting Edwardian interests of domestic space rarely evoked the debate that landscapes did, although in 1904, while Heysen’s Mystic morn was acquired from the Elder Bequest, Rupert Bunny’s Descending angels was not. This provoked a plea from an art critic who said ‘it would be a grave mistake to allow Mr Bunny’s beautiful allegorical conception … to leave the State, even though the 250 pounds would have to be exceeded in acquiring both’.35 Gill had already spent his Elder Bequest budget for that year, so he appeased his critics by purchasing the Bunny painting from another bequest that had only recently been established.36 In fact major artists working outside the landscape tradition were shown, including Philips Fox, Hugh Ramsay and Max Meldrum. But their work was always less contentious than landscapes, doubtless because they were not perceived to hold the same cultural cachet or place in ‘building the national self image’ (Burn 1990, 16).


The Federal Exhibitions were initially set up as an experiment to run for five years, and in that period exhibitors changed from being ‘inter-colonial’ to interstate, Adelaide established itself as ‘the mecca of Australian painters’ and Gill’s idea of promoting Australian art by setting aside a room at the newly opened Art Gallery influenced the Art Gallery of New South Wales to do the same in 1901. The Federal Exhibitions were hailed, in that year of Federation, as giving the politicians a ‘lead in the matter of Federation’.37 The exhibitions also promoted a lively discussion of contemporary art; and given the controversy that always surrounded acquisitions, those attending the exhibition opening in 1906 were reminded that ‘there was bound to be disappointment in connection with purchases’.38 Will Ashton’s Sunlight and shadow was the only work purchased that year. But by 1905, another change was afoot. Many of the leading young artists who had exhibited were absent; the local newspaper commenting ‘a number of recognised artists from Sydney and Melbourne who have previously shown are not represented’.39 This was the time of the ‘exodus’ when many like Roberts, Streeton and Fullwood were working in Paris and London.

Gill unfortunately retired as honorary curator in 1909. The best years of the Federal Exhibitions occurred during his tenure, due to his attracting good exhibitors. Even so, some notable purchases were made under his successor, Gustave Barnes, including Hans Heysen’s Red gold in 1913. This was a key acquisition in which Heysen’s gum trees appear ‘humanoid in their heroic posturing’ (North 1988, 140–141) and epitomise a maturing nation. The light too has changed: melancholic light has become bright sunshine in accordance with the artist’s belief that ‘the essence of the Australian landscape … [is] sunshine … [it is] … the essence of life and atmosphere’.40

Even though this painting was immediately hailed ‘as the artist’s greatest work’,41 not the least because it stepped outside the fashion of ‘a mere blue and gold prettiness’,42 it looked initially as if the gallery would not be able to acquire it because Heysen was already well represented in the collection and his paintings had been purchased from earlier Federal Exhibitions. As the local newspaper observed, ‘there is an absurd regulation which prevents the Board of Governors purchasing more than three works by one artist’.43 British philanthropist, ship owner and friend of the South Australian Gallery, the Right Hon. Charles Booth, intervened. His agents in Adelaide were already under instructions to identify a work by an Australian artist, and so purchased Heysen’s masterpiece and presented it to the gallery.

The confidence about a national style apparent in coverage of Federal Exhibitions in the first decade after Federation didn’t continue, although the annual exhibitions provided a hothouse environment for discussion of what defines Australian art. A reviewer of the 1910 Federal Exhibition decided that Australian art had not yet come of age, and that painters had not ‘entirely freed themselves from old-world forms’, although there were several instances of ‘a tone and atmosphere which is truly Australian’.44 This equivocal tone reflects a decline in quality. Purchases were mediocre. Exhibits in the Federal Exhibitions continued to decline just prior and during the war years, with one local newspaper reminding readers that members of the Society of Arts ‘had gone away to fight for King and Country’.45 The First World War also brought about a change nationally in purchasing Australian art.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales had shown little real interest in Australian art, despite some key purchases, but from 1914 the situation changed. They embarked on ‘forced spending’ on Australian art due to the wartime difficulties of safely transporting art purchased overseas to Sydney, a reduced purchasing budget and increasing nationalism (Johnson 1997, 22).46 That gallery’s trustees at last began taking Australian art seriously. Also, some senior artists died during those years, including Walter Withers in 1914, Phillips Fox in 1915 and McCubbin in 1917. Gill, too, died in 1916. The National Art Gallery of South Australia had by this time purchased his watercolour Sorrento in 1915 as a memento of his service.

Observers were finding problems with the Federal Exhibitions, by now in their eighteenth year. The Register’s art critic noted in 1915 that the gallery could not always acquire the best works because purchases had to be made in relation to the works in the collection, a perennial issue facing galleries: ‘the idea was to consider a painting, not as a painting in itself, altogether, but as one in relation to other paintings in the gallery’. Also there was the issue of balancing purchases from local and interstate exhibitors – ‘if they bought too many local works … interstate exhibitors complained that they were not getting a fair deal’ (Johnson 1997, 22). The Advertiser’s art critic was even more critical, suggesting the format of the exhibitions should change, that they should rotate between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and that photographic work from the Camera Club should be included.

This cautionary if not querulous note continued in 1916, with the Advertiser calling that year’s Federal Exhibition ‘varied’. John Ford Paterson’s A Gippsland lake and Percy Leason’s John McDouall Stuart were praised, while Janet Cumbrae-Stewart’s pastel A portrait study was the only work purchased ‘for its rare appreciation of character’.47 In 1917, praise for the exhibition was once again subdued. The Register called the show ‘creditable’, but expressed concern that there were few interstate exhibitors due to the war.48

By 1919 and the war over, the standard of that year’s Federal Exhibition improved somewhat, although the critics were effusive with praise like ‘never before has there been such an artistic high-class, and interesting collection’ and ‘the work is full of vigour’. Lionel Lindsay’s The fountain and Janet Cumbrae-Stewart’s The Chinese coat were purchased, among others. But the author of a 1919 letter to the editor wasn’t satisfied, and commented acutely ‘it is no advertisement of the state’s art’.49 Indeed it wasn’t. Exhibitors were no longer of the calibre of McCubbin or Roberts, and many leading male artists were busy completing commissions for the Australian War Memorial.

By 1920, the very idea behind the Federal Exhibitions as a venue to purchase work for the gallery’s collection was revealed as problematic, because the best work was no longer being purchased, only work that would not duplicate what was already held, or work by an artist not already represented by a holding of three works.50 This was clearly compromising purchases, and by 1922, the Register carried a story that Elder Bequest finances were stretched.51 The standard of work shown was also criticised.52

The final Federal Exhibition was held in November 1923. In March of that year, Henri van Raalte, the curator, was openly critical of the way Australian art was being collected at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Purchasing from the Federal Exhibitions was stifling the collection, he said, because ‘many purchases are made in Adelaide, and Adelaide no longer attracts the best work of Australian artists. The whole basis and construction of the … exhibitions is such that artists of reputation will not show work where there is so indefinite a standard’.53 The Art Gallery’s Fine Arts Committee had already decided months before the final exhibition to terminate ‘the existing understanding regarding purchases from the Federal Exhibitions’ and to suggest that the Society of Arts discontinue the exhibitions.54 In fact, major difficulties had been identified in 1916, but it took another seven years to act on them.55 Clearly the show could not go on, it had outlived its purpose, although the Society of Artists had difficulty accepting that times have changed.56 Septimus Power was also critical of how the Art Gallery was going about developing its collection, and commented ‘it should not be a charitable institution. To buy pictures because they are Australian is bunkum. The work of the selection committee is poor and there is an old fashioned touch’.57 He also pointed out that art had moved beyond painting gum trees. Modern art had arrived, but the Federal Exhibitions had not kept up pace with the changes.


How do we judge the Federal Exhibitions? They continued past their use-by date; and once they were no longer propelled by a director of the calibre of Harry P Gill, who had a good eye for purchasing and was able to bring in good exhibitors, they floundered. His successors did not have his understanding of contemporary art, his networking ability, or his vision of building up a first-rate collection, and allowed Sydney to steal the march on Adelaide in relation to Australian art. There was even a perception that the National Gallery of Victoria was outstripping Adelaide as Septimus Power commented in 1923, Melbourne now ‘has a fine selection of pictures, having money to buy them and a very good director’.58

This was not an accurate observation however. The National Gallery of Victoria had had the very generous Felton Bequest from 1904, but it did not greatly advance the development of their Australian collection. They considered setting aside funds to purchase Australian art along the lines of the Elder Bequest, but voted against the idea, and director Bernard Hall found it difficult acquiring good Australian work when the same criteria were used for purchasing European art. He even requested that the trustees vary the rules of the Felton Bequest so that he could acquire more Australian art, but he was not successful. Important landscape works by McCubbin, Heysen and Streeton were acquired by that gallery prior to the First World War (Radford 2001, 132), but the Australian works purchased in those years were almost wholly limited to landscapes (Galbally 1987, 37). The National Gallery of Victoria did not focus on developing their Australian art collection until the 1940s. Until then ‘there was little sense of direction in the buying of Australian art and virtually no feeling that what was being collected was able to stand as a history of Australian art’ (Galbally 1987, 37). The Art Gallery of New South Wales was able to capitalise on this lack of direction at the National Gallery of Victoria and loss of impetus at the Art Gallery of South Australia, following Gill’s departure, and once the Sydney Gallery began purchasing Australian art in the war years, they scooped up the best produced by Victorian artists (Poynter 2003, 304–306).

Despite the fact that Adelaide lost its early lead in collecting Australian art in the latter years of the Federal Exhibitions, its purchases nonetheless form an invaluable time capsule in terms of a late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century sensibility, and confirm Gill’s intentions: ‘the best inheritance your Board and subsequent ones can bequeath to a young country is a collection of the art works of the day … we cannot possess the past, it belongs to others [but we can] build up a present that the future may their find therein its past, and be thankful’.59 However, that time capsule also shows that Gill’s vision of acquiring art of the day was not wholly realised, because later exhibitions and acquisitions only faintly registered modernism.

Inevitably, artists now highly valued were passed up at the Federal Exhibitions. Dattilo Rubbo, who ran a leading art school in Sydney, was a constant exhibitor; Tasmanian landscape artist WC Piguenit showed several times; Melbourne figurative artist and expatriate Hugh Ramsay, once; and husband-and-wife team Napier Waller and Christian Yandell in 1919. Gladys Reynell, a local artist who returned home after the war, showed work that was too adventurous for local taste with the Mail art critic commenting, ‘Miss G Reynell brings a whiff of Europe with her figure studies from France and Ireland, and an Irish cottage scene. They are very broad in treatment, and although executed with skill it is probable that the “school” that she follows will be long time before it gains admirers’.60 Other artists whose work was not acquired included Melbourne-based artist Charles Wheeler, best known for his notorious painting Chloe, and Sydney modernist Thea Proctor who showed her lithographs from her time at the Senefelder Society in London at the 1922 exhibition.

Even though the advent of modern art was mostly bypassed, the Federal Exhibitions by virtue of their chronology, showed much conservative Federation-era work from 1901 to 1914, previously much overlooked in discussions of Australian art (Plant 1987; Radford 2001). The unique span of non-modernist art of the Federation era afforded by the regular exhibitions offers an opportunity to continue the re-evaluation of this work begun by historians in the 1980s. In particular, the Federal Exhibitions challenge the opinions of writers who, even today, ascribe a lack of Australianness to art of the Federation era. Deborah Edwards (2005) recently commented ‘Australian art in the 1900s largely confirmed the impulse of belonging to Europe and the Empire rather than inscribing artistic independence’ (22), while Margaret Plant (1987) has argued that an Englishness pervades art of this era in light, foliage and enclosed space (111–129). But works shown in the Federal Exhibitions, and contemporaneous commentary about those works, do not easily confirm those views. Early to mid Federation-era work such as Alfred Hanson’s painting were acknowledged by critics at the time as typically Australian, and refute popular understandings of Heidelberg art as the only work presenting signs of a national artform. Moreover, the Federal Exhibitions for much of their 25-year run became a lively and ongoing vehicle for discussion in the daily press of what makes Australian art. Ian Burn’s (1990) suggestion, therefore, that Australia in 1901 was ‘a nation with little concept of itself as a nation’ (7) is not supported by critical reception of the annual exhibitions, especially in their early years.

While the Federal Exhibitions point to a robust construction of a national art, Gill’s time capsule contains further evidence for feminist studies in art about how male and female artists whose works were acquired bestowed differential legacies on Australian art.61 Few women exhibited landscape work and of these only Rose Lowcay’s painting, A November mist (1912) was acquired. This is not surprising and replicates a wider gender divide as to who then portrayed public and private space. Half the work purchased was in the landscape genre, and landscapes shown in the Federal Exhibitions were judged in the daily press in terms of meeting ideals of what constitutes Australian work, so the women’s work that was acquired was less central in the formation of a national artform. Yet women were frequent exhibitors and one third of all work purchased was of still life, portraits and interior views by women. In place of viewing their work as ‘lesser’ because it lies outside the all-important landscape tradition, their work should be recognised as belonging to socially and politically charged times. They make reference to ‘new women’, to young girls intent on learning and to Edwardian views about domestic space. These were important contemporary perspectives, too, and the selectors who purchased them with Elder Bequest funds considered them integral to a developing national art genre.

Women were comparatively well represented in the Federal Exhibitions, but there were few purchases of Indigenous subjects, and few exhibits. This was noted as early as 1906 with a call for figure studies of ‘a typical Aboriginal’ as an aspect of what makes Australia, rather than the singular focus on the landscape.62 Frederick Britton is one of the very few who took up this challenge and he exhibited three drawings of Point McLeay Aborigines in 1916, the local newspaper commenting they are ‘distinctly exact and true to type’.63 One of these, Granny Unaipon, was acquired. Britton exhibited similar work in 1917 including Pininbingerie of the Narrinyeri [sic] people, with the Register describing them as ‘fine pastels’.64

The collection of Australian art Gill built from up-and-coming young Australian artists was an inspired acquisitions program. Even though it embraced few Indigenous subjects or artists, it fast-tracked discussion of what was Australian art, it included the perspectives provided by women, and it was catholic in taste. Importantly, the Art Gallery of South Australia’s key purchases from the Federal Exhibitions under Gill occurred before either the Art Gallery of New South Wales or the National Gallery of Victoria focused their collecting energies on Australian art, and so established Adelaide’s National Gallery as the first gallery seriously to pursue developing its Australian collection. The works acquired represent the Art Gallery of South Australia’s construction of Australian art as it was happening and the test of time holds: many of these acquisitions are still key works in the collection and iconic works in their own right.


I would like to thank consultant curator Jane Hylton; research assistant Jenny Kalionis; Jin Whittington, Research Library and Tracey Dall, Rights and Reproductions, Art Gallery of South Australia; and Margaret Hosking, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.


1    ‘Federal art exhibitions’, the Advertiser, 26 October 1898: 4.

2    Gill was also Head of the School of Design.

3    Gill report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897, GRG 19/51 vol. 4, Art Gallery of South Australia Library (hereafter AGSAL).

4    Elder’s wealth came from mining and pastoral holdings, and he was a generous donor – including £20,000 to establish the University of Adelaide, and £80,000 to establish a Chair in Anatomy and a Music Scholarship.

5    Special report to Fine Arts Committee, Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia (hereafter AGSA), 11 June 1897, GRG 19/51, AGSAL.

6    Gill report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897.

7    South Australian Society of Arts, 8 March 1898, GRG 19/51, vol. 4, AGSAL.

8    Gill report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897.

9    ‘Preface’, South Australian Society of Arts Exhibition Catalogue, 19 June–18 July 1896.

10    South Australians opposed Federation in the 1840s and 1850s, but later in the century it was in SA’s economic and natural resources interests to federate. In debates surrounding Federation, they clung tenaciously to South Australian rights.

11    Initially the Swan River settlement was not a penal colony, but within 20 years, convicts were sent there to alleviate a shortage of labour.

12    Designed principally by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, others involved were Torrens, Gouger, Whitmore, Hutt, Bacon and Angas. SA was settled in 1836.

13    This high proportion is due to the plan for systematic colonisation by couples.

14    Gill report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897.

15    Gill report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897.

16    The Art Gallery of New South Wales (hereafter AGNSW) purchased Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s on (Lapstone tunnel) (1891) in 1893; Charles Conder’s Departure of The Orient: Circular Quay (1888) in 1888; Tom Robert’s The golden fleece: Shearing at Newstead (1894) in 1894; William Charles Piguenit’s The flood in the Darling (1890) in 1895; and Frederick McCubbin’s On the wallaby track (1896) in 1897 (AGNSW Collections, 12–23).

17    The Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting was worth £1000.

18    Gill report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897.

19    ‘Federal art exhibition’, the Advertiser, 22 October 1898: 7.

20    Gill report, ‘Art in Australia’, undated, GRG 19/51, vol. 4, AGSAL.

21    These were: Sydney’s Society of Artists, the Art Society of NSW, the Victorian Artists Society, the Melbourne Art Club, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Art, the SA Society of Artists and the Adelaide Easel Club.

22    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 26 October 1898: 4.

23    ‘Preface’, South Australian Society of Arts Federal Exhibition 1898, [n.p.].

24    ‘Australasian art’, Advertiser, 11 November 1898: 4.

25    ‘Australasian art’, Advertiser, 11 November 1898: 4.

26    ‘Australian painters’, Advertiser, 13 December 1898: 4.

27    Tom Roberts to HP Gill, 10 November 1899, GRG 19/2, letters received by the Curator of the Art Gallery, 1898–1900, AGSAL.

28    ‘The Federal art exhibitions’, Register, 11 November 1899: 6.

29    ‘Painters, patrons and politicians’, Advertiser, 8 November 1901: 4.

30    ‘Preface’, The Fifth Federal Exhibition Catalogue, South Australian Society of Arts, 1902.

31    ‘The Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 11 November 1904: 9.

32    Syd Long, Art and Architecture, January 1905, cited in Smith 1990, 267.

33    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 9 November 1909: 9.

34    Anonymous, ‘The art of the year’, The Lone Hand, 1 April 1910: 676.

35    ‘The Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 12 November 1904: 8.

36    The Morgan Thomas Bequest fund of £65,000 commenced in 1903.

37    ‘Painters, patrons and politicians’, Advertiser, 8 November 1901: 4.

38    ‘The Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 9 November 1906: 6.

39    ‘The Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 9 November 1906: 6.

40    Hans Heysen letter quoted by Lionel Lindsay, ‘The art of Hans Heysen’, Art in Australia, Sydney, special number, 1920: 8.

41    ‘Red gold. Purchased for the Gallery’, Register, undated (November) 1913, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

42    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Salon, January 1914: 411.

43    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Salon, January 1914: 411.

44    An art display’, Advertiser, 3 November 1910: 8.

45    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Register, 16 November 1915: 8.

46    From 1914 AGNSW’s budget to purchase Australian art was always at least equal to or greater than that allocated to overseas purchases (Johnson 1997, 22).

47    ‘New pictures. Art exhibition. Society’s Federal Exhibition’, the Daily Herald, 14 November 1916, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

48    ‘Society of Arts exhibition. A creditable display’, Register, 12 November 1917, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

49    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Mail, 29 November 1919, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

50    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Register, 26 November 1920, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

51    Only two works by ST Gill and JM Woodhouse were purchased: ‘Federal art exhibition’, Register, 16 November 1922, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book; ‘Society of Arts’, Advertiser, 17 November 1922: 10; ‘Gifts to the Art Gallery’, Register, 16 December 1922, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

52    ‘The Society of Arts. Annual Federal Exhibition’, Advertiser, 25 November 1920, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

53    ‘Keeper of treasure: Adelaide’s cramped picture gallery’, Mail, 24 March 1923, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

54    ‘Report to the Fine Arts Committee: Federal art exhibitions’, 10 April 1923, GRG 19/361, AGSAL.

55    ‘Report from the Fine Arts Committee’, 4 May 1923, GRG 19/361, AGSAL. The Fine Arts Committee in June 1916 backed the Federal Exhibitions being held on a rotating basis between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide along the lines of the existing model. They had already sought agreement from the Art Galleries of NSW and Victoria for this idea.

56    ‘Mr Van Raalte’s resignation’, Register, 24 November 1923, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

57    ‘New angles in Australian art: Battle painter is severe critic’, possibly the Mail, 1923 (possibly November), AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

58    ‘New angles in Australian art: Battle painter is severe critic’.

59    Gill, report to Fine Arts Committee, 10 May 1897.

60    ‘The Federal exhibition. Fine interstate offerings’, Mail, 22 November 1919, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

61    Other feminist studies include (Speck 2004).

62    ‘The Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 9 November 1906: 6.

63    ‘Society of Arts. Annual Federal Exhibition’, Register, 14 November 1916, AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.

64    ‘Federal art exhibition’, Advertiser, 13 November 1917; ‘Society of Arts Exhibition’, Register, 12 November 1917, both AGSAL newspaper cuttings book.



Art Gallery of South Australia (hereafter AGSA) newspaper cuttings book 1916–1923, AGSA Library, Adelaide.

Fine Arts Committee Minutes, Public Library, Museum and AGSA, 1896–1923, AGSA Library.

Letters received by the Curator of the Art Gallery 1897–1910, AGSA Library.

South Australian Society of Arts Exhibition catalogues 1896–97 and South Australian Society of Arts Federal Exhibition catalogues 1898–1923, AGSA Library.


Advertiser, 1898–1910, 12 November 1917, 25 November 1920, 17 November 1922.

The Lone Hand, April 1910.

The Mail, 22 November 1919; 24 March 1923.

The Register, 11 November 1899; 16 November 1915.

The Salon, January 1914.


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Cite this chapter as: Speck, Catherine. 2008. ‘Adelaide’s Federal Art Exhibitions 1898–1923’. 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. 17.1–17.16.

© Copyright 2008 Catherine Speck
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   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis