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Art in colonial Australia

Installation view

Installation view featuring Henry Short's Fruit and flowers 1859 and Tasmanian Double-ended sofa c.1830-40.

Double-ended sofa

Unknown Tasmanian, Cabinetmaker Australia | Double-ended sofa c.1830-40 | Cedar, carved, with replacement black horsehair upholstery on Tasmanian oak carcass | Purchased 2009 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 30th Anniversary Appeal | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Panorama of Brisbane

Installation view featuring JA Clarke’s Panorama of Brisbane 1880

Wallaga Lake near Bega, NSW

J H Carse, Scotland/Australia c.1818-1900 | Wallaga Lake near Bega, NSW 1877 | Oil on canvas | Purchased 1972 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Presentation vase

Hunt and Roskell, England 1843-1897 | Presentation vase 1864 | Sterling silver, cast and chased, with silver-plated insert | Purchased 2009 with funds raised through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 30th Anniversary Appeal | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Currently on display | Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries | Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)

This gallery displays Australian art from the colonial period to the early twentieth century, highlighting the influence of European traditions on the visual culture of the colonies. The earliest works are, in fact, documents of early European exploration of the South Pacific; the works responding to the Australian landscape follow the picturesque and topographical traditions established in England in the eighteenth century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, European settlers in Australia became increasingly at home in their surroundings and their art reflects this changing relationship with their environment. For example, JA Clarke’s Panorama of Brisbane 1880 is arguably the most important painting produced in colonial Queensland. It was commissioned by the Queensland Government – as a sign of the progress and prosperity of the colony – to be displayed at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition.

During the century, Indigenous Australians interacted with settler artists; here, JH Carse’s Wallaga Lake near Bega, NSW 1877 depicts an Indigenous family, while the weaponry on display is evidence of a rich Indigenous material culture. A selection of important Indigenous artefacts acquired through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation in 2012 is shown in this, and adjoining, galleries.

Portraiture, genre subjects, nature studies and decorative art objects were important in colonial society, while painting, printmaking, furniture-making and metalwork – with which colonial Australians enthusiastically embellished their homes – were all popular. Examples of such furniture and metalwork in various decorative styles are special features of this display, and include an early, fine Tasmanian sofa in the Neo-Grec style; the exceptional Presentation vase, made by the noted English silversmiths Hunt and Roskell in 1864; and a collection of jewellery from the goldfields, which reflects the prosperity derived from Australia’s mineral wealth.

Collection Highlights 

Tasmanian Double-ended sofa c.1830-40

This is the earliest item of colonial furniture in the Queensland Art Gallery Collection. It is an exceptional example of the Neo-Grec style. The Neo-Grec influence owes much to the development of Greek and Roman archeology (notably the discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum then appearing in luxurious publications) which fascinated European society during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

It is especially indebted to the work of Thomas Hope (1768-1831). His publication ‘Household Furniture and Interior Decoration’ (1807) illustrated his designs for furniture for his own home which were close to their ancient models and sympathetic to his extensive collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities. His influence quickly spread to other designers and became more generalised. Although there has been debate as to the speed that designs from pattern books were translated from England to the colonies, the dating of c.1830-40 seems appropriate.

The carving has a skill and assurance which shows the carver was utterly familiar with the component elements of the style and suggests the carver may have trained in London.

The sofa has recently been recovered with a black horse-hair fabric as vestiges of hair were found under the original upholstery nails. Such fabrics were preferred for hard wearing capabilities and also reflect the sobriety of the style.

Hunt & Roskell Presentation vase 1864

This magnificent ‘Presentation vase’ is the most important example of Victorian silver in the Gallery’s Collection. Its elaborate decoration is unlike anything produced in the Australian colonies, though the beautifully cast and chased kangaroos and an emu (as well as a camel) around the base suggest that it was commissioned with an Australian connection in mind.

It is believed that the vase was presented to Charles Joseph Latrobe (1801-75) who was Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria from 1851 to 1854, before he returned to England. Removing inscriptions from presentation pieces when sold was quite common; it also removed any suggestion of financial difficulty for the owner.

For Kids
Around the base of this vase are kangaroos, an emu and a camel. Why is a camel there when it isn’t a native animal? It is because 24 camels were part of Bourke and Wills expedition through central Australia in 1860; many more imported over the next decades, as Afghan camel drivers opened up the outback. Australia now has the largest number of camels in the world. Do you think that these camels are a good thing for the Australian environment? 

Of Interest 

The Queensland Art Gallery houses a significant collection of Australian paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and works on paper. Find more information on these selected Collection highlights | Indigenous Australian Art | Queensland Heritage | Australian Art to 1975

Search the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection online for works by Louis Buvelot, JH Carse, Chester Earles, GF Folingsby, Henry Gritten, Isaac Walter Jenner, HJ Johnstone, George Peacock, WC Piguenit, Henry Rielly, R Godfrey Rivers, Winifred Rumney, Henry Short and Eugene von Guerard | Collection Search