The Dictionary of Australian Artists

Book review The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, Sketchers, Photographers and Engravers to 1870 Edited by Joan Kerr Oxford University Press Melbourne RRP $200

This marvellous book is much more than a biographical dictionary. Of course it tidies up what we knew already about some early colonial painters and photographers. But it has also become a radical re-writing of the first hundred years of Australia's non-indigenous art.

Its assertively democratic inclusiveness gives us, in 889 pages, approximately 2500 people, mostly hitherto unknown, from C.H.A, a young professional photographer recorded in Sydney in 1868, full name not known, no surviving work known, to Henry Zouch, 1811 - 1883 "watercolourist, soldier, settler and policeman".

Joan Kerr had over two hundred contributors and ten other staff writers during the twelve years the project was underway, based at the Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney and funded partly by the Australian Research Council. However, Professor Kerr is the principal shaper of an unusually lively dictionary.

Zouch, for example, died of sunstroke; the photographer Barcroft Boake (father of the poet) had a flaming beacon as his family crest and died from burns after a studio fire "reputedly having set his beard alight with his pipe"; another photographer, also a publican, stored his prussic acid developer in a whisky bottle and inadvertently "served a fatal dram to a thirsty patron"; a convict artist had been King of Iceland; Gordon Allport, 1845 - 50, "child artist", drowned aged five, is here because his drawings survive in his artist mother's 'Book of Treasures'.

More than the lively details of death and eccentricities, it is the re-interpretation of Australian cultural practice which makes the book so valuable.

Zouch, for example, would probably have been classified in his day as an amateur. On the other hand Mary Morton Allport, mother of child artist, Gordon, was ambiguously situated between amateurism and professionalism. Kerr claims to be confident that in photography the distinction was always clear, and so amateur photographers are excluded. But amateur painters are enthusiastically embraced - though they seldom turn out to be oil painters, but instead watercolourists or pencil or pen and ink draughtspersons, often working in sketchbooks as well as on single sheets of paper.

Inclusion of `amateur' artists working in `minor' media, sometimes favouring minor or low-art categories such as natural history illustration or cartooning, redresses an imbalance caused by past focus on oppressively `professional' practice, and on high-art categories. (Not that the highest-art categories, allegorical, religious and historical subjects, are overlooked. Their unexpectedly frequent presence is mostly due to theatrical scene-painters, here extensively represented for the first time.)

Kerr's four page introduction is packed with shifts in how to think about Australia.

"No dominant `High Art' establishment was possible in Australia until a proper infrastructure existed to support it. This began to emerge only when a national gallery was opened in Melbourne in the early 1860s and schools of art and design were established in Adelaide and Melbourne. Art did not become fully institutionalised (and hence alienated from society) until late in the nineteenth century. The artistic map needed to be redrawn. We looked at the entire range of art-making in all six Australian colonies: country towns as well as cities, amateurs as well as professionals, unpretentious residents as well as distinguished visitors".

Artists who never came to Australia have been ignored - their engraved illustrations for, say, Cook's voyage books are in most previous accounts - and "one result is that very few neo-classical 'noble savages' are now in the repertoire, - though Aborigines were undoubtedly pre-goldrush Australia's favourite subject in images made for sale or export".

Aboriginal artists are also present. "They effortlessly played the conqueror's games, if but infrequently." Tommy McCrae, already well-known, sold souvenir books of pen and ink drawings at Corowa. He is now joined by Biraban, Gyalliport, Yakaduna and others, though the earliest recorded untraditional Aboriginal works of this kind, from 1804, have no artist's name yet attached to them.

Women, of course, are highly visible. In this age before oppressive art museums and institutionalised art schools, the fluidity of role between home duties and artist was paralleled by male crossovers, say between farming and painting, photography and pharmacy, photography and jewellery.

Finally, it is the 450 plates which make the book essential for art history and art theory. Without these largely unfamiliar images it would be merely a resource for social history. The plates, in the end, do not `illustrate' the texts. The plates are the text: they justify the laborious biographical research; the biographies 'illustrate' the works of art.

There are a few unfamiliar paintings by high art male oil painters. John Richardson, father of Douglas Richardson, lived two years at Portland, two at Melbourne, died of typhus in 1862, and provides the cover picture, 'Drawing from Life', of children playing at grown-up artists in their father's studio. But far more telling are the very numerous `minor' works with major aesthetic force.

No other Australian book, perhaps no European or American book, has so subversively introduced the carefree amateur to the status-and-income-worried professional, and thus allowed grazier Henry Godfrey's sketchbook drawing 'Kennedy and self', of pastoralists and Aborigines making the bonfire for Kennedy's daughter's 21st birthday party at Boort on the Loddon in 1863, to upstage so many dull professional photographs or paintings. Godfrey's drawing transcends the quaint charm of naivete. The sideways format permits a narrow, vertical, cropped image of stacked boughs inhabited by climbing men, around the upward-waving branches of a tall tree, to become prophetic of the night's leaping flames and rite-of-passage conviviality. It's a magical conjunction of imagery and form: 'minor' art practice has produced a `major', (i.e. a real, aesthetically forceful) work of art.

The 1984 try-out for this dictionary, with draft biographies for artists with names from A to H only, indicated that, besides painters, photographers and engravers, we would also get "architects, sculptors and craftspersons 1770 - 1870". Clearly their inclusion was unmanageable. So is the prospect of continuing from 1870 to 1970, or to 1990. Although it would be a loss if the work done on architects, sculptors and craftspersons is not completed and not published, there should be no regrets. Joan Kerr has already given us more than we knew we needed.

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