State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 73 Autumn 2004


Christine Downer
Notes on Barry and the Origins
of the Picture Collection

It is difficult for such of us as have emigrated hither from Europe, to conceive the disadvantages under which the rising generation will labour in respect to the familiarity with objects worthy of admiration in architecture, painting, statuary, and other branches of art…
Argus, 9 November 1861
Untangling The threads of the histories of the Library's collections has often been based on the discovery, and re-discovery, of interesting things no longer collected, and speculation on why and how they came to be there. For the Picture Collection many of these threads lead back to the 1859 plans for the Museum of Art in the Public Library. Some years ago, when formulating the Library's first published Acquisition Policy, the holdings of the Picture Collection were surveyed; revealing a number of works whose histories had been mislaid. The old and unlamented Big Picture Store revealed a group of portraits in rather battered oval gilt frames. Attendants moving elephant folios in the annulus stacks found compilations of photographs of Europe and Asia. More brown paper parcels tied up with string were found in mobile shelving in the Picture Collection itself. A group of plaster portrait busts were discovered on top of wooden newspaper shelving in the Dome basement. In order to form an accurate idea of the size and scope of the collection, it was decided to trace the history and movement of these works back to their origins within the Melbourne Public Library.
The 1860s were a decade of continual expansion by the Library's Trustees. Contemporary pictorial works including landscape and portrait photography were acquired by commission, purchase and solicited gift. The 1860 list of Trustees desiderata included photographs ‘architectural and pictorial’ from the Architectural Photographic Society in London, which held a series of exhibitions and issued catalogues between 1857 and 1862. Part of the original £500 set aside for the purchase of casts of seals and medals was allocated to purchases from the Association, but the Trustees were not in a position to become subscribers.
The photographs arrived in Melbourne in 1861. Admired for their educational qualities, they were also seen as aids to developing taste in viewers. In the view of the Argus ‘… their purpose can scarcely be over-rated, in regard to the effect which they will have upon the minds of the native-born population…’ yet the same article lamented that ‘…they cannot be exhibited for want of room and they would be speedily soiled and destroyed if they were placed in a portfolio, and subjected to the careless handling of those who might be attracted by an idle curiosity to examine such objects’.1 By 1870, collections of these photographs had been bound into folios for security and case of handling, and listed in the Library's annual report of that year.
Over time these volumes became much less of a novelty and slipped into obscurity, remaining largely forgotten until the early 1980s when attendants, particularly Ron Collins and Neil Munro, who were moving folios and elephant folios in the stacks, rediscovered them. These photographs although outside the current collecting policies of the Picture Collection,
are highly important in the history of the development of European and American photography. The breadth of the collection is remarkable and includes examples of work by some of the most important photographers working shortly after the invention of the collodion glass negative process by Frederic Scott Archer. When re-discovered, the options for their treatment were to ignore them, or promote them. Australia is not so rich in examples of the progress of early photography that the Library could ignore such treasures and many have since been lent for exhibition. International correspondents have expressed considerable interest, particularly in the images of California and the Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, and Captain Linnaeus Tripe's salted paper prints of Burma. The voracious international market for early 19th century photography has also put huge commercial values on these works yet another reason to conserve and curate them responsibly.
Barry's enthusiasm for collecting knew few bounds in the 1860s. In 1864, he began a collection of cartes-de-visite portraits of prominent civil servants in Victoria. These were placed in a bound volume, and entitled Fasti Victorienses. In 1866, he put forward an idea for a further collection of portraits of state Governors ‘in humble imitation of the Hall of Marshals at Versailles’. Library finances being what they were, these were to be photographs, copied where possible from existing oil paintings in the various Colonial government residences. Photographs did not then reproduce in colour, and the status of those represented merited treatment rather grander than the relatively inexpensive cabinet photograph. The photographs were to be coloured by hand and uniformly framed. Barry's instructions concerning the framing were detailed:
I think a neat rich oval frame about 14in × 10ins would do with crown on the top. Some slight distinctive mark say in the colour of the little velvet cushion on which the crown is to rest - one crimson - blue - maroon- violet etc etc might suffice to enable visitors to know one Country's Proconsuls from those of another's.2
The collection now known as the Oval Portraits, was placed in oval gilt and gesso frames but without the crown and colour coding suggested by Barry. By 1871, there were 23 in the series. Thomas Chuck, commissioned by the Trustees in 1872 to photograph paintings in the newly established National Gallery, also undertook many of the portrait commissions. Like many other projects, this ceased with the death of Barry in 1880, when they numbered 53, but they continued to be on public display in the Buvelot Gallery of the National Gallery for some years. They too ultimately fell out of favour, were returned to the Library in 1929, and then consigned to the nether regions of the basement. They were resurrected when the Picture Collection moved to its current storage location in the North East Wing, conserved, catalogued and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in 2000. They are as important today in the history of Victorian photography as in the history of public collecting, and are yet another example of Barry's entrepreneurial collection building.
The British Museum had been the model upon which Barry based his original ideas for the Library and Museum, and by 1869 he was aspiring to emulate Henry Cole and the South Kensington Museums' programme of education through loan and travelling exhibitions.
The Report of the Fine Art Commission published in 1865 recommended the organising of a loan exhibition to ‘bring to light many objects, curious, interesting, and valuable, the existence of which in this country is at present hardly known to any but the posessors of them’. The exhibition was held in what was known as the Carriage Annexe of
the Library building. It ran for thirteen and a half weeks in March, April and May 1869, and was open each evening and on one night at a reduced rate of admission. During the period, there were 64,634 visitors, of whom 59,491 paid an entrance fee. The Trustees borrowed 2,489 works from 687 lenders. The 670 oils and 260 watercolours were either by local artists or owned by local collectors, and the works were hung floor to ceiling to the design of Edward La Trobe Bateman.
The exhibition received wide press coverage, much of it favourable. However, the astringent comments of Argus critic, James Smith, mouthpiece of Ruskinian values in the Antipodes, were insulting to the Trustees, who instructed their Secretary to write to the paper in protest. ‘… the pungency and severity of condemnation of some of the Works exhibited, which however just the Trustees would suggest may be esteemed somewhat harsh by those who have lent the pictures not for competition, not with the hope of obtaining prizes, but simply in order to gratify the public and educate their taste’.3 The Trustees exhibited works from the Library's own collections, many of which are still held by the Picture Collection and some of which are now displayed in the Cowen Gallery. These include Thomas Clark's 1864 portrait of Sir Henry Barkly, William Strutt's 1860 portrait of Sir John O'Shanassy, portrait busts of Redmond Barry, G.V. Brooke and Sir Henry Barkly, and collections of photographs from Victorian municipalities. Two landscapes, Buvelot's Terrinallum Station and J.H. Carse's View of an Australian Farm did not come into the Library's collections until 1939 and 1940 respectively, an instance of the necessity for a long and sometimes very long view of institutional collection building.4

Batchelder & Co., photographers. [Sir Edward Macarthur] [ca. 1867] Albumen silver carte-de-visite photograph. From the Fasti Victoriensis album. H92.145. La Trobe Picture Collection.

To record the exhibition the Trustees' commission went to the photographer, Charles Nettleton, to photograph the exhibition. These photographs, some of which appear to have gone missing over the years, are now part of the Picture Collection.
Another of the Trustees‘ enterprises was the commissioning of John Noone to make photolithographs from the prints by Albrecht Durer in the Dresden Gallery. Copies of these were subsequently bound for presentation to selected councils and mechanics’ institutes, and one suspects that they have also been forgotten. Unbound examples were later tied up, uncatalogued, in brown paper and placed in the Rare Books grille in the Dome annulus where they languished until re-discovered in the early 1980s. A portfolio of Noone's page and other proofs as well as a few trimmed 19th century Durer restrikes found their way into a skip outside the Library in 1967 or 1968, and were rescued a member of staff who had previously saved three of the unwanted and unloved plaster busts from the 1860s. He and the anonymous donor who looked after them ensured the preservation of an interesting episode in the history of publishing by the Library.
Another of the Library's 1869 commissions went to the artist Samuel Thomas Gill for a series of forty watercolours of life on the Victorian goldfields. In effect, these images were an exercise in nostalgia and myth-making, the desperation of diggers and the ruinous effects of alluvial mining on the landscape being transformed by Gill into comic character and scenes in the manner of a colonial Cruikshank. His depictions of dogs of uncertain breed reflect the vicissitudes of their masters, diggers and storekeepers.

Charles Rudd, photographer. Statuary in the “Marble Hall”. Melbourne Public Library [the Rotunda with works by Charles Summers] [1886–1887] Gelatin silver printing-out paper photograph. H39357/116. La Trobe Picture Collection

The National Gallery of Victoria came into official existence by act of Parliament in 1870. The Trustees' Report published in the same year gave the results of a huge stocktake of the collections in the Library, Museums and National Gallery. Comparative league tables gave an indication of types of libraries, the size of their collections and the method of financial support in Europe and America as well as Victoria. For an institution a mere 16 years in the making, comparisons showed that the Library had made great progress in acquisitions and visitor numbers.5
The significance and context of the foundation collection of busts, portraits and photographs acquired under Barry's direction and influence in the 1860s has changed over more than a century - from object of instruction to nuisance to treasure. This was enabled by the Library's one great principle of collection preservation and management over the period - there was simply no official mechanism for disposing of objects out of favour or no longer required. They could, however, be moved from one collection to another under the control of the joint Trustees of the three institutions, and they were. Their changes of location indicated fluctuations in curatorial taste and opinion. Some migrated from the Museum of Art to the National Gallery, and back again to the Public Library in 1929, in anticipation of the 1934 Centenary Historical Loan Exhibition. Following its closure, photographs and other works on paper were tied up in bundles and placed in locked cupboards in the Palmer Hall, to be unwrapped with increasing excitement by Patricia Reynolds, later the first La Trobe Librarian, shortly after she joined the staff in 1952.6 Brought together from wire-netting racks in the Dome basement to the top floor of the newly built La Trobe building in 1965, they were then known as the Historical Collection. Although the major part of the collection consisted of photographs in every format, a significant number of objects were also held. These included a Cobb & Co coach (transferred to the Museum of Victoria), the suit of Kelly armour (now, with some recent part exchanges, known to be that of Ned Kelly), and some 1902 Boer war chocolate (of cement-like appearance). Also rolling around merrily on the mobile shelving was a First World War hand grenade or Mills bomb, which was sent to the Army in the early 1980s for safety checking, found to be alive and subsequently detonated.7
Optimism, breadth of vision and the ability to see how projects might be realised are crucial for the successful establishment of public collecting institutions. Redmond Barry possessed all these qualities and the users of today's collection should be grateful to him. His conviction that visual records of the present - people, places and events - were to be collected for the future benefit of Library users was an enlightened principle for collecting.
‘A display of such treasures cannot but be agreeable…’ The digital image database has developed as a major research tool and has increased public access to works that, as the Argus noted in 1861, might be damaged through casual handling. This increased, free access would have pleased Barry - it was he who insisted that users of the Melbourne Public Library need not be issued with readers' tickets. But in the end, there really is no substitute for looking at the original work, and Victorians are fortunate that with the opening of the Cowen Gallery the substitution of copy, however good, for the original has been obviated by this place, and the act of generosity which made it possible.


Argus, 9 November 1861, p.4.


VPRS 927, Barry to J. G. Knight (Secretary to the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition) 13 June 1866. Public Record Office, Victoria.


Oakes to the Editor of the Argus, 30 March 1869.


Melbourne Public Library, Catalogue of the Works of Art ornamental and decorative Art exhibited by the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum in March, April and May 1869 Melbourne, Mason, Firth and Co., 1869. VPRS 927, Box 5, Statistics of the Fine Art Exhibition' complied by F. Oakes, Superintendent, for the Trustees.


Victorian Parliamentary Papers, 1871, Volume 2.


Miss Reynolds (now Mrs Wilkie), first La Trobe Librarian, recalled in a conversation with the author that she began to unwrap some of these bundles and became so excited by what she found, that she forgot to go to lunch and was still unwrapping until late afternoon.


See Ann Galbally and Alison Inglis, The First Collections: The Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s, Melbourne, The University of Melbourne Gallery 1992, p. 80, for a discussion of the de-accessioning at the National Gallery of Victoria under Sir Daryl Lindsay in the 1940s.