State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 75 Autumn 2005


Shane Carmody
History Through Art:
Paintings at the State Library

The Gallery

With The opening in November 2003 of the Cowen Gallery, which brought into public view the paintings in the Picture Collection, one of the most beautiful rooms in the State Library was returned to the purpose for which it was designed.
Named in honour of William Foster Stawell, a founding Trustee of the State Library, Victoria's first Attorney General and second Chief Justice, the new gallery, which opened in 1892, was part of an ambitious building program. The Museum Hall (later McCoy Hall and now the Redmond Barry Reading Room) and the LaTrobe Gallery (now Australian Manuscripts) were opened at the same time, combining with the MacArthur Gallery (which had opened in 1874) to create a huge new space for exhibiting the Museum and National Gallery collections.
A large rectangular room, originally the Stawell Gallery was lit, as all the galleries were, by skylights. It ran from the current northern end to the doorway of the south rotunda (Blue Room). At this point a stairway connected the Stawell Gallery to the MacArthur Gallery, as the floor in this space was then at ground level and much lower than the other rooms. In 1928 this awkward arrangement was resolved with the construction of Bindon Hall (now the Heritage Collections Reading Room) and the raising of the floor level of MacArthur Gallery. The stairwell was removed and replaced with an octagonal room allowing more paintings to be hung and creating a more intimate space for smaller works. Between 1939 and 1940 the northern end of the Stawell Gallery was altered to create another octagonal room, creating an elegant symmetry and connection between the LaTrobe, Stawell and MacArthur Galleries.
The western wall of the Stawell Gallery presented a blank face to the Exhibition Hall of 1866 and later, following its demolition, to the Domed Reading Room building. There was no direct connection, and entry to the gallery spaces varied over the years, for most of the time being via a route that circumvented the Dome along the Little Lonsdale Street side of the site. The great cedar doors at the northern end of the gallery opened directly on to a vacant site fronting LaTrobe Street, with coursework around the end of the building ready for the next extension.1
With the departure of the National Gallery of Victoria to their new building on St Kilda Road in 1968, the Stawell Gallery became part of the expanded Museum space. The north rotunda and LaTrobe Galleries were closed to public access and used for storage. Varying exhibits and methods of display, combined with the circuitous entry from Swanston Street and the alternate entry from Russell Street made it difficult to see the Stawell Gallery as a room in its own right. The northern doors became the entry for school groups — and, on one night in 1991, an entrance for thieves who broke their way in through the lower panels of the door and stole the 256 ounce “Pride of Australia” nugget, which was never seen again (at least not in that form).

Detail of the Cowen Gallery. 2005. State Library of Victoria, Photographic Unit.

The Stawell Gallery, National Gallery, Melbourne, n.d. Postcard. H25322. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Over the years the skylights were covered — partly to reduce maintenance costs, partly to allow for more controlled lighting. During 1990 and 1991 the skylights in the Stawell Gallery were permanently covered by the construction of an air-conditioning plant room.
The decision to redevelop the whole site for the Library created an opportunity to recover much of the lost and disguised architectural beauty of the buildings. Before getting to this point decisions had to be made over the use of the spaces. Early proposals for the Stawell Gallery included the north rotunda being used as a room for microfilm readers — a truly grand space for so fixed a task, where patrons rarely raise their eyes above the screen except to curse the inventor of the technology. When Frances Awcock assumed the role as CEO and State Librarian in 1997 she led a full review of the masterplan with the then President of the Library Board, Ian Renard, and the chief architect, Ken Woolley. This review settled the use of the gallery as a permanent exhibition space for oil and acrylic paintings from the Picture Collection.
The construction of the central lobby opened a west-east axis for the first time, creating the opportunity to connect the Dome building with the Stawell Gallery and McCoy Hall. All of this potential remained as plans while the painstaking work of restoring the Dome continued. For a time the Stawell Gallery hit perhaps its lowest point. Demand for space saw it converted into a temporary reading room — crammed with shelving and desks and even more disguised than before.
The physical appearance of the Gallery was a subject for many debates. The glass ceiling demanded restoration. A unified colour scheme had been chosen for the new Library with muted tones, although the rich red used by the National Gallery in the MacArthur Gallery during their temporary re-occupation was an exciting and distracting option. Protecting the paintings was another issue of contention — glazing was rejected as too expensive and disruptive of the enjoyment of the works.
Recreating the appearance of the skylights was achieved by back lighting with electric light allowing control over light levels and better protection for the works on display. This was consistent with the restoration of skylights across the whole site giving a sense of space and lightness in the buildings. The colour of the walls was eventually resolved by using a parchment shade chosen as part of the existing scheme on the walls of the main gallery and by treating each rotunda as a separate room with red for the nineteenth-century portraits, and blue for the more modern works. To protect the works a rail was constructed and, in an innovation admired by many, it was designed with a wide-angled top to support the labels for the works. This has the twin advantage of providing more space for description and removing any loss of space for paintings by having labels on the walls.2
The naming of the Gallery honours a generous gift to the State Library Foundation. Sir William Stawell remains present in the names incised into the plaster lintels, and perhaps more grandly in his coat of arms which, together with those of the other founding trustees, adorns the portico of the Library.3

The Collection

Visitors to the Library often express surprise on entering the Cowen Gallery and the presence of such a fine collection in the State Library seems to many to be astonishing. Yet collecting pictures in all their forms has been part of the work of the Library since its foundation. Sir Redmond Barry saw the creation of a visual record of progress in the Colony as central to the purpose of the Library and promoted the use of the new technology of photography for this purpose. Paintings were also collected although the management of the Library, Museums and Gallery under one group of trustees sometimes blurred the boundaries between the institutions.4
In 1934 the Library mounted a major exhibition for the centenary of European settlement. Several major paintings were displayed, along with a Cobb and Co Coach and other artefacts. The notion of the role of the Library as a repository for a collection illuminating the history of the State was confirmed in legislation in 1944. The Public Library National Gallery and Museums Act, which established separate Boards of Trustees for the Library, Museum and National Gallery, specified that responsibility for the Historical Collection rested with the Library. While this already included some paintings, the moves towards this legislation allowed for a remarkable transfer of works into the Library. The National Gallery stock book for that year has the same annotation across many items — transferred to the Public Library. Educated taste being what it was at that time, the works thus treated were mostly landscapes and genre paintings by lesser-known or unfashionable colonial artists, portraits of colonial worthies, as well as many marble busts.5
The transfer augmented a collection already strong in many fine works and one which grew steadily with a modest acquisition program and many generous donations and bequests. Examples of this include Terrinallum Homestead by Louis Buvelot. This masterpiece was originally lent to the Library for the 1934 Exhibition, and when the trustees wrote to the owner, Mrs Nesta McKellar, in 1941 suggesting that given the wartime circumstances the painting should be returned to her, Mrs McKellar generously gave it to the Library. Another large gift of works was included in the donation by Mrs Janet Biddlecombe of the archive of the Clyde Agricultural Company and furniture and other objects from her house Golf Hill. In this case Mr Daryl Lindsay, Director of the National Gallery, and Mr C. A. McCallum, the Chief Librarian, visited the house on 18 August 1947 to make a selection. The list detailing their choices is an example of how the historical purpose of the Library collection saved for public ownership fine works that the prevailing philosophies guiding the public art collection rejected. The Gallery chose some items of furniture, Georgian silver, two landscapes by Rupert Bunny, and a fine carpet — leaving the Library to acquire more furniture and seven paintings, including family portraits and the fine late work by John Glover, Constitution Hill at Sunset (1840).6
Lest the impression be given of an aesthetic prescience on the part of the Library, the history of William Strutt's Black Thursday, February 6th 1851 (which is traced by Madelaine Say
in another article in this issue) should be briefly noted here. After being offered to the Library and rejected in 1951, it came finally in 1954, after the institution had had a change of heart and bought the painting at auction with a special grant from a generous government. Even then, the picture was not displayed until the opening of the LaTrobe Library building in 1965.7
The focus of the collection is not simply on the past. Contemporary work is also collected, as witnessed by such portraits as Louise Fothun by Kristin Headlam and Louise Forthun, and Georges Mora by Caroline Williams, or the amazing panorama of Melbourne painted over 1998 and 1999 by Jan Sendbergs and generously donated by the Vaccari Foundation, thus continuing a tradition of philanthropic support for the collection.
Building a collection is one half of the task — making it available is the other. Some works were displayed in parts of the Library, particularly the LaTrobe building — yet many remained in storage, known only to dedicated librarians and a handful of intrepid scholars. The Library lent many works to galleries for exhibition, sometimes for extended periods, in large part to ensure public access to the paintings. As work towards a permanent exhibition gathered pace, Christine Downer in her role as Picture Librarian led a concerted effort to identify and prepare works for the gallery. The task of completing the selection and design of the hang was given to Michael Galimany, who took on the task with energy and enthusiasm. His understanding of the role of the collection as documentary evidence of the history of the State is evident in the hang. As an example of this, the very fine work by Eugene Von Guerard, Head of the Mitta-Mitta, Eagle's view of the Mountains (1879), hangs along side the much less accomplished Tower Hill (1867) by Daniel Clarke and the painting, North Wonwondah Station (1888), by an unknown artist. The guiding principle here is not an aesthetic standard, but how these works reveal an unfolding and changing imagery of the relationship of European settlers to an ancient land.
This principle explains the popularity of the exhibition. Visitors can see in the works the people and the places of their history and connect this directly to their personal narrative. The labels explain something about the story of the artist and the work — they leave any other judgement to the viewer.
As such, the Cowen Gallery strengthens a central role of the Library — collecting, preserving and making available the documentary evidence of the history of the State for interpretation and re-interpretation by successive generations. On the walls of this great room history is in the eye of the beholder and revealed through art.

Peter Mappin, photographer. [Phar Lap abandoned] ca. 1999. State Library of Victoria, Photographic Unit. The photograph was taken by a rotating camera using a 90 degree lens.


The best source for the development of the Library up to 1931 is E. LaTouche Armstrong and R. Douglass Boys, The Book of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Trustees of the Library Museums and Gallery 1932. The firm Allom Lovell Sanderson produced a detailed conservation analysis in 1985.


Full credit for the final appearance of the gallery and choice of colour must be given to Edwina Portelli, Claire Williams and Michael Galimany — the core of the then Exhibitions team at the Library. The design of the rail was the brainchild of Lucy Bannyan of Bannyan Wood, the exhibition design consultants retained by the Library.


See Kenneth W. Park, “Thrusting Forward: A note on the Armorial Bearings”, The LaTrobe Journal, No. 73, Autumn 2004, pp. 108–111.


Redmond Barry's interest in collecting pictorial material of all kinds is well known. An ambitious acquisition program of albums from around the world complemented his sponsoring of photographers and artists to record Victorian life. A recent account of his interest in this area can be found in Christine Downer, “Notes on Barry and the origins of the Picture Collection”, The LaTrobe Journal, No. 73, Autumn 2004, pp. 95–100


An Act to make provision with respect to the Public Library and National Gallery and the National Museums of Victoria, Victoria 9 Geo. VI no. 5053 11 December 1944. A copy of the National Gallery Stock book is held in the Picture Collection. Two items transferred to the Library now appear in other collections. The portrait of Louis Buvelot by J. C. Waite is on display at the Ian Potter Centre NGV Australia at Federation Square. Percival Ball's bust of J Cosmo Newbery, the first superintendent of the Museum, is now at Museum Victoria.


Copies of the relevant correspondence are held in the provenance files in the Picture and Manuscripts collections.


I am indebted to the careful research undertaken by Michael Galimany for this chronology and for his generous assistance in preparing this article.