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Australia wants its art back

The National Maritime Museum has beaten off the Aussies over an English masterpiece, but we may not have heard the end of the heated debate on artistic heritage

The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs. Stubbs, a self-taught expert in animal anatomy, was able to paint the kangaroo from a skin he managed to inflate to life-like size. Courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures Ltd
The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs. Stubbs, a self-taught expert in animal anatomy, was able to paint the kangaroo from a skin he managed to inflate to life-like size. Courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures Ltd 

Now that the two disputed paintings of Australian wild animals by George Stubbs, the English old master, are certain to stay in Britain, Australia’s National Gallery will have to find suitable replacements for the works its director is convinced belong Down Under. The eighteenth-century versions of a dingo and a kangaroo will adorn the collection of London’s National Maritime Museum after a last-minute round of fundraising by benefactors.

But from the very outset Australia’s insistence that the masterpieces are its own had no basis in reason. It was, as the Aussies say, a ‘try-on’.

Dr Ron Radford, the veteran curator who has run the National Gallery for eight years, rests his case that the paintings are “central” to Australia’s art on two main arguments. First, anything depicting the country’s admittedly unique wildlife, regardless of who painted it, belongs to Australia as if by right.

Second – and here he’s clutching at straws – the two works are not integral to the story of Captain Cook and therefore do not belong in the National Maritime Museum. This he argues on the dubious grounds that Stubbs painted them after the navigator’s death.

Artistic patriotism
Now we get into reductio ad absurdum. Taking this position to its logical conclusion, Australia would have a moral claim to any work of importance that features Australiana including kangaroos, dingoes, wallabies, koalas or geckos for that matter. That would include portraits of aborigines, scenes of the Outback, the running of the Melbourne Cup or even a landscape of Bondi Beach.

The Australian art crowd has long taken artistic patriotism to extreme levels. This is quite understandable in the context of paintings by such towering figures as Albert Namatjira, Emily Kngwarreye, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and other great aboriginal artists, as well as by its great home-grown painters such as the surrealist Sidney Nolan with his Ned Kelly series. These are the works of Australians, they are about Australia and most of them were painted in Australia.

But there are limits to what can be considered a nation’s rightful heritage. In 2009 there was a tug-of-war over the plaster cast bust of Truganini, Tasmania’s most famous aboriginal woman, held by the British Museum. The state’s “outraged” aboriginal community wanted it back, arguing among other reasons that Truganini was her people’s last full-blood. The museum refused, arguing it was the work of English sculptor Benjamin Law done in 1835.

Stubbs…never got anywhere near Australia. Indeed he never travelled further than Italy, and even then only briefly

As for English-born Stubbs, he never got anywhere near Australia. Indeed he never travelled further than Italy, and even then only briefly. A self-taught expert in animal anatomy, he was only able to paint the kangaroo from a skin that he managed cleverly to inflate to life-like size. The rest of the detail – and remarkably the distinctive red, dry rock of the hinterland – he artfully filled in from spoken accounts.

Trivial dispute
If the national galleries of other countries were to adopt Dr Radford’s arguments, curators from all over Africa would be demanding as their rightful heritage Stubbs’ other paintings of exotic animals such as lions, tigers, giraffes, monkeys and rhinoceroses, in an age that was fascinated by beasts from remote parts of the world. At least the painter didn’t have to inflate them – he used to visit the private zoos established by the nobility around that period for the amusement of themselves.

But back to the two paintings. Certainly important works by an acknowledged master, they were both done by Stubbs in 1772 when he had established a reputation as a leading – and perhaps the leading – painter of animals. But the works also have an historic importance for naturalists – they were probably the very first depictions of a kongorou, as the marsupial was known, and of a dingo.

They also shed light on the methods of the self-taught artist. Turning away from the noble classical themes that preoccupied many painters of the period, he decided after his trip to Italy that “nature was and is always superior to art [as it was then practised]”. In short, he would eschew ruins for reality. True to his mission, before attempting to depict horses, he took up the study of human and animal anatomy. In the case of horses, he did not do so from a safe distance, but by carving them up with the help of Mary Spencer, his common-law wife, clearly not a squeamish lass, and developing a sense of how they were made.

In a period when patronage by the nobility, many of whom much preferred the company of animals to people, could assure the future of an artist, Stubbs soon began receiving rich commissions from turf-mad toffs who could see the lad from Liverpool had a better eye for the lines of a horse than did other painters of the racetrack. The two disputed paintings were done when the increasingly wealthy Stubbs lived in a house in fashionable Marylebone, London, where he would stay for the rest of his life.

Trove of culture
However, even without the attraction of Stubbs’ paintings, the National Gallery’s collection of European art more than justifies a visit by anybody visiting the capital city of Canberra. It starts from the late eighteenth century, which is Stubbs’ period, and tells a long story of the development of western art up to the present day. Particularly fascinating for Australians and non-Australians alike is the gallery’s definitive collection of the nation’s own art in the way it reveals how succeeding generations of painters, sculptors and others saw their country.

And there are always new reasons for visiting the gallery. The most recent acquisitions include an exquisitely worked silver yachting trophy from 1849, a landscape by early south Australian painter JM Skipper, a ‘primitive’ painting of a cat among fish by another early colonial William Buelow Gould, and The Music Lesson painted in 1925 by Alexandra Exter, the Franco-Russian who helped found the art deco movement.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the world, the National Maritime Museum’s definitive acquisition of Stubbs’ works provides two more reasons for visiting its vast array of art. One of the biggest museums of its kind in the world, it is a treasure trove of culture and a jewel in the Greenwich district of the city of London.

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