State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 62 Spring 1998


Realia in the Picture Collection

In April 1914 the then Chief Librarian of the Melbourne Public Library, Edmund La Touche Armstrong, recommended to the Board of Trustees the establishment of a Victorian Historical Museum. This proposal having been approved, 1 space was then set aside for ‘exhibiting portraits of governors, early colonists, and others of note in the establishment and history of the State, and also for the exhibition of prints, manuscripts, and other objects illustrative of the history and progress of Victoria.’2
Although it has been said that the ‘obsession with great men of Australian history was rarely associated with objects,’3 it is with these ‘other objects’ that this essay is concerned. The collecting of objects — or realia as we call them — by the State Library of Victoria has not been formal or continuous. By and large, the objects held by the Library are associative objects; that is, they are associated with a person or event which has had some influence on Victorian history and society (more often than not, the ‘great men’). The collection is eclectic necessarily, and objects often come in with the manuscripts associated with the ‘great men’.
Over the years the Library has acquired a large collection of paintings, drawings, photographs and engravings, maps and plans and objects of many kinds — all illustrative of the history and development of the state. The Library's interest is in collecting works depicting the topography, history and people of Victoria, 4 rather than collecting works for their artistic or aesthetic merit alone. As stated in Victorian Vision the ‘strength of the holdings comes from the announced intention during the 1934 centenary celebrations to establish a Museum of History as an integral part of the Library. Material located at this time for this ‘Historical Collection’ as it was known, now forms part of the La Trobe collections.'5
In 1919 the question of establishing an historical museum, which had been postponed on account of the War, was again brought forward. But it was not until 1929 that the decision was made to use the gallery of the Barry Hall for the exhibition of the historical collection (the collection had not, since 1919, been open to the public as the Government was not able to provide an attendant).6
Exhibitions were held in the Historical Museum in early 1930s to commemorate the Charles Sturt centenary and settlement of Portland by the Henty family. On 3 May 1932 an historical exhibition was opened in the handsome new McAllan Gallery by Sir Leo Cussen, Chairman of Trustees. The exhibitions, which were accompanied by lectures given by the Historical Society of Victoria, prompted people to donate to the Library. A variety of items came in thick and fast during 1933 and 1934, including a pistol case belonging to Edward Henty (H3421), a cameo carved by Robert Russell (1808-1900)7 from stone taken from Dight's Falls (H3456), an infant's robe and bonnet ca. 1800 (H3487), a piece of teak from the Cerberus (H3490; Victorian Navy vessel) and a chain from the Nelson, a cannon ball used as a roller-bearing at the Observatory
(H3983) and a British flag flown at Kimberley, South Africa during the Boer War (H5072).
The Historical Collection exhibition was closed in 1942 because of wartime needs, and in 1951 it was decided to bring together and house the Australiana collections in a new wing, to be called the La Trobe Library, as a monument to Victoria's pioneers8. This new building was officially opened in 1965.
The objects in the Picture Collection cover the period from the earliest exploration and settlement of what is now Victoria to the present day, although the emphasis is on nineteenth-century material. There are over 1300 separately listed items of realia, some of which are collections consisting of many individual items, for example municipal seals or badges.
Although collecting has never been arbitrary, and has always been subject to collection policy, one may wonder at the diversity of the realia collection. C. A. McCallum (Chief Librarian 1945–1960) wrote a paper on the historical sources in the Public Library and referred to the Historical Collection and objects in particular. He mentioned a ‘pot pourri of historical objects … the remains of a wooden cask from the Sorrento Settlement of 1803, … surveying instruments used in defining the borders of New South Wales and Victoria, … and (earlier than these) Captain James Cook's waistcoat and the celestial globe used by him.’9 No one object can truly represent any or all of the others in a collection, and it is probably pointless to speculate as to why McCallum listed these objects and not others. Perhaps this is yet another example of the ‘great men’ view of history.
The Library's collection development policy concerning realia states:
The Picture Collection has a number of objects that were acquired because of their association value. While not actively collected, the Library houses those items of associative interest where:
  • They form an integral part of an existing collection
  • The material is vulnerable in its existing circumstances.
The objects held in the Picture Collection have in recent years been divided into six categories: costumes/textiles; commemorative medals and badges; printing plates; sculpture; furniture and realia or objects. As yet very few items have catalogue records on the State Library's computerised catalogue, but there are entries in the Picture Collection card catalogue and other finding aids. A selection is described in Anne Glover's book: Victorian Treasures from the La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.
There are several costumes, including military uniforms, dresses and parasols. Some costumes of note are the waistcoats embroidered by Mrs Hugh Peck in 1844 in Scotland: one is a black silk velvet waistcoat embroidered with the roses in polychrome floss silk; another is of Berlin wool in geometric designs; and the third, also of Berlin wool work, is of optical design in red, green and cream. Mrs Peck arrived in Victoria in 1853 and her family presented these waistcoats to the library in 1937. A unique costume — of which only the skirt and part of the sash survive — is a dress, called “The Press”,
which was made by Mrs William Wilson Dodds and worn by Mrs Matilda Butters at the Mayor's Fancy Dress Ball on 20 September 1866. The panels of the white satin skirt were printed with pages from 13 Melbourne newspapers including the Age, Argus, Herald, Australasian, Leader, Illustrated Australian News and Punch. The titles of all the Victorian newspapers were printed on slips inserted between the panels. A view of the ball with Mrs Butters as the central figure appeared as a wood engraving by Samuel Calvert in the Illustrated Melbourne Post (27 October 1866, p. 357). The satin skirt is extremely fragile and cannot be displayed until it has been treated by a textile conservator.
There are many medals and badges in the Picture Collection, including rifleproficiency badges, commemorative medals and local government seals. One of the

Mrs William Wilson Dodds fl. 1860–1866, dressmaker. ‘The Press’ [Fancy dress skirt and part of sash] white satin, printed panels divided with gold braid; 1866. [H141541 LTTEX 14], La Trobe Picture Collection.

most recent is a medallion struck to commemorate the opening of the Melbourne Exhibition at the Old Treasury in 1994. Some of the Library's badges were featured in the Museum of Victoria's long term exhibition Present Arms recently.
Metal dies of early Victorian postage stamps, ten linocut blocks from Irena Sibley's series An Alphabet of Australian Wildflowers and woodblock illustrations for the 1860 Public Library catalogue are just a few of the ‘printing plate’ objects held.
The collection also holds a number of busts and other sculptures by notable artists, including Charles Summers, Percival Ball, Sir William Dargie, Margaret Thomas, James Gilbert, Charles Gilbert and Thomas Woolner. The three best-known sculptures are those situated in the forecourt of the State Library. The bronze figure of Sir Redmond Barry by James Gilbert and completed by Percival Ball was presented by the Committee of the Barry Memorial Fund and unveiled at the Library on 23 August 1887. Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm's bronze St. George and the Dragon was purchased from the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888, and Emmanuel Fremiet's two-figure bronze Jeanne d'Arc was purchased by the Felton Bequest in 1907. The collection also holds a life mask of Barry Humphries and plaster casts of his hands, all by Sir William Dargie ca. 1975.
An interesting and unique item from the collection of furniture is the ‘Farm-yard table top’, part of the J.J. Shillinglaw Collection, along with a mahogany chair and costume items. The Australian Manuscripts Collection holds the Shillinglaw Papers. The decoration of the circular table top, which is of parquetry, includes a stylised fan centre motif. A circle of hens and roosters are at the exterior and other farm-yard animals, including cows, horses and goats make up the broad border. It is probably from Ireland and has been dated circa 1830–1840. There is also a very good example of an Anglo-Indian nursing chair of mahogany circa 1850.
John Joseph Shillinglaw (1831-1905) was a public servant and historian who worked in many departments of the Victorian colonial government but is best remembered for his association with colonial history and literature.10 More interestingly he was notorious as the club bore of the Yorick Club where he ‘discharged this role punctiliously in the early years.’11 He was the owner of the Colonial Monthly Magazine and published Historical Records of Port Phillip. Hugh McCrae described a visit to Shillinglaw's home, “Dumbiedykes” in St. Kilda, when McCrae was eight or nine: ‘… I remembered walking into his library, and being overawed by gigantic furniture suggestive of paleolithic pieces transported from Stonehenge …’12
There are, as one would expect, a number of items associated with ‘great men’ of Victoria's history. The Picture Collection holds three pencil-and-water-colour drawings by Robert Hoddle (1794-1881), who was Officer-in-Charge of the Port Phillip Survey Department from 1837 to 1851 and first Surveyor-General of Victoria from 1851 to mid-1853. He was responsible for the laying out of Melbourne's streets in the grid pattern we know so well. The drawings are probably contemporary views of Melbourne in 1840 from the Surveyor-General's yard.13 The Collection holds many items of both a personal and work nature which belonged to Hoddle, including a surveyor's chain, compass case and three paint-boxes as well as a cedar frame for sketching.
Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, probably the most famous of Australian explorers, are represented in the Library's collection by 14 boxes of material in the Australian Manuscripts Collection and several important objects in the Picture Collection. In August 1860 the Burke and Wills expedition left Melbourne for the Gulf of Carpentaria. Burke, who was the leader, and Wills, the surveyor and astronomer, died on their return journey at Cooper's Creek. In 1910 the Royal Society donated to the collection the box (H5119) which which was used to carry the remains of Burke and Wills to Melbourne. A.S. Kenyon donated a sun clock (H13278) used by John McKinlay, a Scottish bushman, who headed the South Australian relief expedition to locate Burke's party. There is a compass (H13191) which was used by Phillips on Howitt's relief expedition to find Burke and Wills, as well as hair from the camels and portion of a pack saddle used by Alfred Howitt in his search. There are also a pistol belonging to Wills, a whip belonging to Burke, and specimens of nardoo seeds and nardoo grinding stones they collected on the expedition.
This, then, is but a small sample of the objects held in the Picture Collection and a brief background to the history of the realia collection in the State Library of Victoria. It is thanks to the generosity of donors and the endeavours of past librarians that we have such a large and diverse collection for use by present and future scholars.
Kerry Agnew

A circular, parquetry Farm Yard Table Top. A moulded edge to the overhanging top with a recessed apron, crossbanded. The decoration includes a central parquetry radiating circle, with a stylised fan centre motif. A circle of hens and roosters to the exterior, and other farm yard animals including cows, horses and possibly goats make up the broad border. The timbers used in the parquetry include Oak, Baltic Pine, Boxwood and Sycamore. Diameter: 105.5 cm. Origin: Ireland (most probably). Period: William IV. Circa 1830–40.


Edmund La Touche Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria, 1856–1906, Melbourne: The Trustees, 1906, p. 25.


Ibid, p. 26.


Chris Healy, ‘Histories and collecting: Museums, objects and memories’ In Kate Darian-Smith (ed.), Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 41.


Victorian Vision: 1834 onwards, Melbourne: SLV, 1985, p. 4.


Ibid, p. 5.


Armstrong, op cit, p. 40.


Robert Russell was an architect, surveyor and artist, appointed surveyor to Port Phillip in 1836.


Anne Glover, Victorian Treasures from the La Trobe Library Collection, State Library of Victoria., Library Council of Victoria, p. 3.


C.A. McCallum, ‘Historical Sources in the Public Library’ In Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. 29, no. 2, May 1959, p. 121.


Australian Dictionary of Biography vol. 6 1851–1890, Melbourne University Press, 1976.


Joseph Johnson, Laughter and the Love of Friends, Melbourne Savage Club, 1994, p. 34. I am grateful to Dr Miles Lewis for directing me to this reference.


Hugh McCrae, My Father and My Father's Friends, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935, p. 17.


Victorian Vision, p. 8.