State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 50 Spring 1992


Pictures In Victoria - Images As Records In The La Trobe Library Picture Collection

A personal view

The conventional view of a library is often expressed in terms of ‘books and old newspapers’. The presence of collections of pictures in state libraries puzzles some and worries others. The history of Australia's public institutions, founded on nineteenth-century optimism and a desire to improve public education and taste, is unfamiliar or unknown. The idea of creating in Melbourne in the 1850s and 1860s a group of institutions emulating the South Kensington Museums in London seems quaint and faintly ridiculous in the last decade of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century liberal humanist collecting resulted not only in astonishing book and serial collections, but also very strong collections of photographs and other pictorial material in an historical collection.
The Library's first Trustees collected contemporary pictorial work by commission, gift and purchase. The Library was both collector and patron. Its first recorded commission in 1859 marked the completion of the Queen's Reading Room which was opened by Sir Henry Barkly on 24 May 1959. A local photographer Barnett Johnstone set up his camera while staff posed as readers, remaining still so that the collodion wet-plate negative would take the image without blurring. Johnstone later recorded his impressions of that event.1 Sir Redmond Barry was so pleased with the results that he ordered a number of copies, some to be framed, for presentation to heads of other Government Departments.2 In 1860, the government allocated £2000 for the purchase of works for the Museum of Art attached to the Library. Early purchases included photographs.3 The Trustees acquired, through the short-lived Architectural Photographic Association in London, examples of works by many of the important photographers working in England, France, Italy, Switzerland and America in the early 1860s. Selected for their ability to remind the European-born of their origins, and to educate the colonial-born of far-distant civilizations, they form today a small but very important archive of the history of early photography.4 Photographs of European monuments may also have influenced architects of Melbourne's public buildings, though this is difficult to quantify. Although the Picture Collection no longer actively collects in this area, these images are in its custody. Almost monthly yet another volume of these photographs is re-discovered in the Library's bookstacks, preserved by time and inadequate cataloguing. The pride in (and knowledge of) the photographic collections, so evident in the Library's annual report of 1870, is gradually being restored after a century of lost memory.5
The Trustees’ interest in pictures extended to images with local subject matter in other mediums. The first purchases for the Museum of Art in 1864, with the help of Sir Charles Eastlake in London, were works by contemporary artists. By 1868, there were also works ‘… painted by artists resident in Victoria. They represent with fidelity and vigour local landscapes, the peculiarities of which in the forms and foliage of the trees, the clearness and extraordinary depth of the atmosphere, and the general hue of vegetation are rendered with considerable skill and ability’.6 The Trustees,
following the Ruskinian gospel spread by local critic (and later Trustee) James Smith, embraced wholeheartedly the concept of ‘fidelity to nature’ and looked for it in the work of local artists acquired by them. Pictures in all mediums - oil, drawings, prints, watercolours and photographs - were intended to record events, people, the local landscape, remind and educate the citizens of the colony in matters of taste. Except for refining local taste, these remain the guidelines for acquisition today - pictures are collected for their subject matter, now confined to Victoria in all its aspects.
In 1870 responsibility for collecting works in visual form passed to the National Gallery.7 However, the Library continued to acquire photographs. The 1880 and 1888 Melbourne Exhibitions stimulated local collection and many gifts including large bound volumes of photographs were presented by foreign governments, particularly France.8 In 1901, a Miscellaneous Accessions Register was set up. All material which did not fall within the category of conventional library stock was recorded in it. In 1929, the Picture Collection opened its own accession registers.
However, it was not until a separate Australiana collection was established that the Picture Collection became a truly discrete entity. Patricia Reynolds, the first La Trobe Librarian recounted in a recent interview that shortly after joining the Library staff in 1952, she discovered numbers of brown paper parcels, tied up with string and filled with photographs, in cupboards in the Palmer Hall. The excitement of this discovery was such that she forgot to go to lunch that day. Her first task was to organize the existing collection so that its future development could proceed. The Picture Collection, then called the Historical Collection, was to be a history of Victoria in visual form. There was also some talk of setting up an Historical Museum in the Queen's Hall, as well as a Portrait Collection. In 1965 the La Trobe Library opened its doors (with somewhat limited hours) as a discrete Australiana Collection including the Picture Collection as we know it today.
Some works acquired for the Library reflect the changes in official pre-occupations, taste and ownership over the past 130 years. Charles Summers' bust of Redmond Barry was commissioned by a group of subscribers in 1860 and presented to the Library in the same year.9 From 1870, it became part of the National Gallery Collection. In 1943, it was returned to the custody of the Library as a result of Sir Daryl Lindsay's cleanout of Melbourne's cultural Augean stables. It was deemed to be marginally more interesting historically than artistically, thus reflecting the prevailing official disapproval of all things Victorian and distaste for colonial art in general. Regardless of whose custody such a work comes under, it should be remembered that it was acquired as a contemporary work for the benefit of the people of Victoria and acknowledged the achievements of a man of vision.

Buildng On The Existing Collecton

Developing the collection without a specific budget proved to be difficult. Although there was access to general vote funds, no sum was set aside solely for the purchase of pictures. Donation and copying accounted for most acquisitions. Victoria has never had a major benefactor like Mitchell and Dixson in New South Wales, and Nan Kivell in the National Library. Instead, the Library was consistently outbid at auction for historic works. Finally, as a result of the dismay caused by the prices fetched at the Page-Cooper sale in November 1967, Tristan Buesst, the first President of the
Friends of the La Trobe Library, set up a fund specifically for the purchase of original nineteenth-century works for the collection. Important works, many of them on paper, were acquired through Buesst's generosity.10
In 1978, further commitments to the development of the Picture Collection were made by the appointment of Shar Jones as the first Picture Librarian. Coming from the Mitchell Library, she established cataloguing, storage and access standards similar to those which were in use in other institutions, not necessarily libraries, with similar material. Prior to this, works regardless of their medium were grouped together in subject drawers which might contain photographs, lithographs, watercolours and coloured reproductions. Drawings by von Guerard rubbed surfaces with newspaper cuttings provided they had common subject matter. Setting up new cataloguing, storage and access was accomplished by eight staff - five librarians and three technicians, a further indication of the Library's formal commitment to development of the Picture Collection. Halcyon days indeed - until the 1982 recession when the staff numbers began to dwindle. Mrs. Jones resigned in 1983 to become curator of Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney, leaving behind a re-organized collection with an established staff and a new generation of users.
A new group of administrators brought in by a new State Librarian appeared puzzled by the presence of a Picture Collection within the Library's structure. True, they liked pictures to hang on office walls, but the kind of expertise needed to conserve and curate them was outside normal Library requirements and therefore both expensive and troublesome. Nevertheless, in preparation for the joint National Gallery and State Library sesquicentenary exhibition Victorian Vision, two conservators were employed to prepare works on paper and oils. A new Picture Librarian was appointed and an acquisition budget of $5000 was set. This grew to $48,000 in 1990/91 where it remains.
Formulating the Library's collection development policy, published in 1986, meant that a survey of its holdings had to be undertaken. Strengths and weaknesses were identified. The Picture Collection survey showed that the collection was very strong in nineteenth-century images in all mediums due to enlightened contemporary collecting. The policy of commissioning work from living artists had lapsed. In 1869 the Library commissioned S.T. Gill to paint a set of watercolours of life on the Victorian Goldfields, celebrating the romance of alluvial goldmining which by then had become a subject for nostalgia and mythmaking.11 In 1869 Charles Nettleton was commissioned to photograph the first major art exhibition in the colony held in the Library from March to June.12 Yet by 1875, when W.F.E. Liardet offered his watercolours of early Melbourne for sale to the Trustees, they declined for lack of funds.13 One suspects that as records they may not have been authentic enough, and as works of high art they were deficient. The Trustees subsequently decided on their purchase when offered them by the London bookseller Francis Edwards in 1913. Do institutions learn from past mistakes? Apparently not, since the same thing occurred in 1934 when Percy Leason offered the Trustees his series of portraits of the Last of the Victorian Aborigines. Too anthropological to be high art, it seems that they were too artistic to be records.14 Nevertheless, the Picture Collection has slowly been acquiring them, first as a gift of the artist's widow in 1967, then by purchase with the assistance of a donor in 1986, and most recently by gift under the Taxation Incentives scheme in 1990.15
Because of the ambivalent attitude within the Library itself towards the Picture Collection,
acceptance of the necessity for collecting contemporary works was slow in coming and caused some problems. The acquisition in 1984 of Jan Senberg's large acrylic of 1981, Port Liardet I, based on the Liardet watercolours which are now an official Library ‘treasure’, was the source of much internal dissension and reflected the conservatism to which large institutions are prone.
Having won internal acceptance of the principle of collecting contemporary works, the acquisition of Howard Arkley's The Ritual of 1986, a de-personalized image of heroin addiction, proved to be too much for at least one worthy citizen who caused questions about its acquisition to be raised in Parliament.16 The discussion in the House focused on the subversive influence of art on individuals:

Jan Senbergs, Port Liardet I, acrylic on linen, 122 cm. × 153 cm.

‘When the Library uses public funds for its purchases, it should be on things that uplift the community, not downgrade society’, said the politician responsible, re-stating that nineteenth-century view that art should refine public taste. When one television guardian of public morals demanded that the Library make the image available for a shock/horror programme section against the wishes of the artist, senior management courageously decided that the Library's first duty was to the creator of the work, who did not wish it to be exploited in a sensational way. The assistance of the Arts Law Centre in Sydney is invaluable in cases where copyright infringement and the rights of creators are under attack.
The Picture Collection has grown in size and scope since 1978 by building on its existing strengths. Donations still account for the majority of acquisitions and the Taxation Incentives For the Arts Scheme has been of great benefit, bringing in gifts valued at $1,093,000 since 1986/87. Use of the collection has also grown and changed. So too have views of its role and relevance. Funding for special projects has been provided by donations from philanthropic trusts and co-operative projects. Living Places, documenting photographically twenty types of housing in Victoria in 1887 and 1987, was a joint venture between the Brotherhood of St Lawrence and the Library. It too met with internal resistance, but was extensively and favourably reviewed in the local press.17 Preparations for a publication on the Library's collection of pre-1900 images of Victorian Aboriginal people was made possible by funding from the Stegley Foundation in 1989/90. The photographer Leah King-Smith created her own images from those in our collection with an accompanying text.18 Her images have been widely acclaimed, have been exhibited in London, and will be shown at the United Nations in New York in 1993. It is a matter of great satisfaction that funding has allowed the acquisition of five of her ten images for the Library's collections. Morag Loh's project, “Building a Country: the Migrant Experience”, initially a Bicentennial project for copying and commissioning images of five groups of immigrants to Victoria, was generously extended for two years by the Helen M. Schutt Trust.19 At present, it contains visual records of Victorians of Chinese, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, German, Maltese and Japanese background. It too has been the subject of debate within the photographic world - at least one critic hated it, while the communities who are co-operating support it.20 Criticism of the Library's motives in engaging in contemporary photographic commissions are in direct response to current theories on ways of seeing.21 Our response is that we are a subject collection with published acquisition guidelines, based on the enlightened Barry model - the best time to collect records of any period is at the time of their production. While personal bias must be avoided, it must be admitted that where the subject matter of two images is similar, the preferences of the curator will prevail.
Why collect images as records? The pat answer is because the Library always has done so, and they can be ‘used’. The user-based view implies that the validity of such images is defined by usage. Opinions of the nature of historical subject collections are themselves subject to change. In a post-photographic age there is a tendency to read images as if they were literal - it is still a popular belief that visual truth is best captured and conveyed through photography because the camera is a neutral instrument and cannot ‘lie’. Our recent exhibition of images from the Police Forensic
Archive questions this view.22 Images can be considered to be evidence of many things - they may be part of the history of art and photography, show how the creator attempted to solve technical problems or indicate the creator's pre-occupations at the time. The original intention of the creator of retrospective images is not always clear to today's users, particularly when the context of creation is not known. The use of images as historic evidence is responsible and valid, since such a collection should have preservation of the subjects of its images as a first consideration. The preservation and restoration of historic buildings in Victoria, based on evidence gathered partly from the Library's collections, is encouraging. It is impossible to work in heritage collections if one is not a dedicated preservationist.
In 1993, a revision of the Library's collection development policy will be undertaken. It is time to survey the collections again for size, strengths and weaknesses. We estimate that there are more than 650,000 images in the Picture Collection. Nineteenth-century works are added as funds allow. Most acquisitions are through donation, since purchasing power is low. Gaps between 1920 and 1975 are slowly being filled, but it must be accepted that some will remain. We are strongly committed to the acquisition of contemporary posters, prints, ephemera and photographs, and to works in other mediums. The present policy states (rather pompously) that ‘… historical evidence may be contained and expressed in many forms … through the evocation of atmosphere, selective portraiture or visual fictions’. We have returned to the Redmond Barry system of commissioning work from local photographers. Cataloguing standards are scholarly and emulate the standards of institutions with similar material. We do not de-accession, fashionable though it may be in current museology thought and practice. Close contact is kept with our donors, users and experts in the fields in which we collect. The use to which images are put is monitored and royalty fees are levied for their, use in profit-making ventures. Exhibitions are mounted within the Library and some of them tour regionally, interstate and internationally. “Living Places” toured regionally and in Russia and a selected number of prints from the series was presented by the Melbourne City Council to the City of Leningrad in 1989. “Building a Country” and “Australia's Italians” are still touring to galleries, schools, community centres, and “Australia's Italians” also went to Italy in 1990. Individual works and collections are lent to regional galleries as well as interstate.
The provision of copies in many forms through a fast and professional photographic service has led to a wider use of the collection for commercial purposes. Demand has increased but staffing levels have fallen, so that the hours the Picture Collection is open to the public have been limited to afternoons during the week. A limited acquisition budget has resulted in successful applications to philanthropic trusts for special projects. The willingness to lend works and complete exhibitions outside the Library has led to a higher profile outside the Library, but there is still no permanent exhibition space within the building for oils, sculpture and furniture. A small exhibition space for displaying works on paper from the collection is needed - that this was a perceived need in 1861 is no consolation for we also believe that it is no longer sufficient to acquire works and wait for them to be asked for - Victorians need to be able to see what has been collected in their name.23 The Library redevelopment with its exhibition areas allocated for these purposes is critical. It is also needed for the Myer Foundation videodisc project, “Victoria in Pictures”, a conservation and access exercise over five years which will
open up the collection to new users by providing access through modern technology.24 Similarly, automated cataloguing formats were recently introduced to make information on the content of collections more easily available. As the manipulation of images through computer technology proceeds, the collection's primary images will stand as evidence of original creative intent.25
Looking through the Library's records of the 1860s, one sees evidence of a very strong commitment to the people of Victoria by providing them with free access to creative works in all forms. Redmond Barry's obsession with his ‘great emporium’ ruled his life and work - and today's Victorians have inherited an institution with remarkable collections, of which Pictures is just one.
Christine Downer


La Trobe Library Journal, Vol.2, No.7, April 1971, p.61


Unframed copies cost seven shillings each, and one guinea unframed


£500 was to be spent on casts of coins and photographs


C. Downer, ‘Portfolios for the curious’ in Ann Galbally and Alison Inglis, The First Collections, Melbourne, 1992.


Victoria. Parliamentary Papers, 1871, Vol.2, pp.59-66


“Report on the Melbourne Public Library and Fine Arts in Victoria, 2 January 1868.” unpaged ms, Fine Arts section, p[37]


The National Gallery was formally established through Act of Parliament 33 VICT. 357 of 29 December 1869


Located in the LTW and LTWEF sequences in the collection


Argus, 25 July 1860, p.4, col.6. Barry was knighted in 1860.


Listed elsewhere in this edition of the Journal.


The Trustees paid Gill 15 shillings for ‘incidentals’, £53.10.0 for the forty sketches, and the volume cost four guineas to bind.


Open 29 March to 30 June 1869, it had 2489 exhibits from 687 lenders, and was seen by 64,634 people, of whom 59,491 paid one shilling to do so.


Trustees Minute Book, 1 June 1875, p.376. ‘Mr Liardet having been admitted to an interview, the Committee explained that there were no funds available for the Purchase of his Sketches’; Trustees Minute Book, 26 June 1913. ‘Liardet sketches offered by Francis Edwards at £40. Purchased’.


Trustees Minute Book, 29 November 1934, p.9. ‘14. Mr Percy Leason offers for Sale Collection of Portraits of Victorian Aborigines price £1260. Declined.’


Eleven purchased with the assistance of Mrs Everard Baillieu, 1986; one the gift of Mr and Mrs Culbard, 1990.


Sun, 28 April 1989, p.17


Age, 3 Nov 1987, p.21; 7 Nov 1987, p.27; Herald, 9 Nov 1987, p.20; Transition, Autumn 1988, p.87.


Leah King Smith. Patterns of Connection; catalogue of an exhibition held at the Victorian Centre for Photography, April 4 - May 3 1992.


Original Bi-centennial grant of $65,000; Helen M. Schutt sponsorship of $35,000 in 1989/90 and $36,000 for three exhibitions in 1990/1991.


Elizabeth Gertsakis ‘Giving it up to the archive’ in Photofile, Spring 1989, pp.26-27; Morag Loh ‘A response to Giving it up to the Archive’ in Photofile, Summer 1989, p.39


John Leongrad Pictures under discussion, New York, 1987, pp.8, 90; Roger Scruton ‘But is it Art?’ in Modern Painters, Vol.2, No.l, Spring 1989, pp.63-65; ‘Repositioning Documentary’ in Perspektief, No.41, May 1991


After the Fact: photographs from the Police Forensic Archive; catalogue of an exhibition held at the Victorian Centre for Photography, 10 October to 15 November 1992


Argus, 9 November 1861, p.4, col.6-7.


A grant of $309,000 over five years, through the Library's Renaissance Fund; capture of 108,000 images completed, and indexing proceeding.


Fred Ritchin ‘Photojournalism in the age of the computer’, in The Critical Image, ed. by Carol Squiers, Seattle, 1990, pp.28-37.