Wednesday, 18 June 2008

A Visit to Adelaide

As L.P. Hartley said: "The past is another country: they do things differently there". He may just as well have been speaking about Adelaide. They certainly do things differently there.

On my way to the baggage carousel at Adelaide airport, I popped in at the Ladies, as one does after a journey. On the door there is a notice: "Adelaide Airport uses recycled water for toilet flushing – DO NOT DRINK". My mind boggled. And not for the last time during my visit.

I'll skip lightly past the wedding and various family reunions I attended, and move right along to the morning we spent at the Art Gallery of SA, where I was delighted to find that they extend reciprocal privileges to NGV members, so I was able to shout my husband a free coffee.

The collection is small, compared with that of the NGV, but it is eclectic, and I like the museum itself: a handsome, historic building with a colonnaded fa├žade. It also has some beautiful Tiffany windows.

The Australian collection is particularly good - I was intrigued by the earliest-known oil painting to have been painted in Australia: "Fish Catch and Dawes Point, Sydney Harbour" (1813), by John Lewin. It is a bit of an oddity: not quite a natural history painting of fish, nor a still life, nor a seascape, nor a "sporting" picture of a fisherman's catch … a bit of each and it got Australia off to a good start!

They have a fine collection of Colonial art – I particularly liked a watercolour by S.T. Gill: a lively Adelaide street scene. I am going to look for his work at the Ian Potter.
There is a roomful of the usual suspects: Streeton, Conder, McCubbin, Roberts, Fox … and they have a couple of dozen of those small oils on cigar box lids that the Australian Impressionists did so well. My favourite was a witty one by Charles Conder – it is called "How we lost poor Flossie" and I am sure he did it to tease Fred McCubbin, who was very upset when, on a visit to Melbourne, his terrier Flossie scampered off with a gentleman friend and was never seen again. It shows Flossie and a sleek grey dog touching noses, among shoppers in a busy street. The wood grain gives the impression of raindrops on a gloomy Melbourne day.
Break Away by Tom Roberts
I always like coming across well-known paintings – the kind you see on posters and coasters - and thinking: "So THIS is where you live!" I discovered that Adelaide is home to Tom Roberts' "A Break Away" and Charles Conder's "A Holiday at Mentone", that we all know and love.
They have a few lovely Hans Heysens, and so they should, as he was a local. His house in the Adelaide Hills is now a museum. I have to say I prefer Nora Heysen's work: there are a portrait and a still life of hers on display. I would never say this aloud within the borders of SA, but much as I admire Heysen's work, when I see yet another stock standard soft-golden-light-through-the-gum-trees job, it does make me want to say: "OK, Hans, very nice, so what else you got?"
Hans Heysen
The landscape that really caught my eye, was "The Valley"(1898) by Sydney Long. It is very unfussy, almost decorative, with areas of flat colour and elongated, undulating forms. It is clear that he admired art nouveau. He is also on my list of what to look for at the Ian Potter!

The women are well represented: the two Graces, Cowley and Cossington-Smith; Dorrit Black and Margaret Preston in particular. In the passage outside the coffee shop, right between the Gents and the Ladies, they have hung a series of six very beautiful, large studies of Australian wildflowers by Margaret Preston. Go figure. I told you they do things differently there.

I saw a very good portrait, as well as an intriguing composition of flat surfaces which bristle with sharpened pencils, by John Brack. "Now and Then", is its title.
An interesting sculpture was "Lion", by Rayner Hoff: a stylised pair of lions, each with its paw on a ball. It is clearly the Holden symbol, and it was donated by Lady Holden in memory of her late husband.

Moving along to the European art, I saw yet another interesting sculpture and one that I recognised: a winged aluminium Eros, drawing his bow. "Hullo", I said, "what are you doing so far from Piccadilly Circus?" Turns out that the Piccadilly Eros was one of seven that were cast from the original plaster model by Alfred Gilbert in honour of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and one of them fetched up here in Adelaide.

So what do you have to do to get seven statues cast in your honour? Google tells me that His Lordship was a keen supporter of Florence Nightingale, a proponent of returning the Jews to the Land of Israel, and largely responsible for the Lunacy Act of 1845. It also tells me that the statue is erroneously called "Eros", its proper title being "The Angel of Christian Charity". Adelaide, very sensibly, has labelled it "Eros", and never mind the Christian charity.
There is a magnificent William Morris tapestry in wool and silk, "The Adoration of the Magi", designed by Edward Burne-Jones. It was woven in 1900-02, but the colours are as richly glowing as if it had just come off the loom. The silk highlights on the dark red robes of the Magi and the blue gown of the Madonna have a wonderfully luminous effect and the angel is all ivory white and shining silver.

I liked the Van Dyck double portrait of a seated couple, although it is not as magnificent as the NGV's two Van Dycks of the Countess of Southampton and the Earl of Pembroke. I was interested to see a group portrait by Joseph Highmore of his wife and two children aged about eight and five, because the NGV has portraits by him of Anthony and Susanna as adults. I bought the post card and I am going to take it along next time I go to the NGV, so I can compare their child portraits with the adult ones.

Another portrait that drew my attention was one by Nicolas de Largilliere, who also painted Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony (see WASP of April 2008). It is "Frances Woollascott, an Augustinian Nun" (1729). Frances' aunt was the Abbess of the Augustinian convent in Paris which sheltered many English-born nuns during this period.
There are some really good landscapes: those magnificent old show-offs Turner and Claude Lorrain doing their spectacular thing with light, but also some lovely Dutch ones by the two Van Ruysdaels and Philips Wouwerman – all subfusc foregrounds and skies full of roiling clouds.

Gainsborough's portrait of Madame Le Brun just confirms his reputation as the greatest portrait painter of the eighteenth century – "fluent and feathery brushwork full of grace and charm", the gallery's caption says, and I couldn't put it better myself.

I saw a number of paintings that were recently shown at the NGV as part of the British Artists exhibition, and I enjoyed looking at them again. Those of our memebrs who saw that exhibition will remember the Augustus John portrait of his son and Lucien Freud's "Boy with White Scarf".
Henri Fantin-Latour
The French painters have a corner to themselves: a little Renoir portrait of his son and a vase of white poppies by Henri Fantin-Latour both gave me a great deal of pleasure to look at. Poor old Fantin-Latour, he was so keen to be a prestigious painter of grand historical subjects and only dashed off his lovely little flower paintings because they were extremely lucrative – he didn't really think they were up to much compared to the Grand Historicals. Posterity decided otherwise. Pity he is dead now and can't see the error of his ways.
My favourite among the French paintings is "A Summer Night in Grave" by Ernest Victor Hareux, an enchanting view of a moonlit village street. I hadn't seen anything by Hareux before but I am keeping an eye out for him from now on.

Then there are the Rodins, of which the Adelaide Gallery has the largest collection outside France. (Or so they claim, and who am I to contradict them?) I was especially impressed by "The Three Shades", a group of three disconsolate figures, which was meant for the apex of a set of bronze doors called "The Gates of Hell". Just looking at them puts one in mind of Dante's "abandon hope all ye who enter". That old Frenchman had a real way with a chisel. Or a modelling tool in this case.

I can't leave the Adelaide Gallery without mentioning John William Waterhouse's "Circe Invidiosa". There she stands in her emerald robe, the beautiful, wicked sorceress - eight feet tall, crystal bowl in both hands, pouring her magic potion into the sea. It was one of the reproductions of famous paintings that my mother put on my bedroom wall when I was a child. I remember being fascinated by the rich greens of the water and Circe's robe, just as much as by the story my mother told me of how she poisoned the water to turn Scylla, her rival in love, into a hideous sea monster. At the time, I was a bit disappointed that he hadn't put the hideous sea monster into the painting as well. I never thought I would meet this picture from my childhood in Adelaide half a century later!

Next door to the Gallery, at the Adelaide Museum, there was an exhibition of Wildlife Photography sponsored by the BBC and the Natural History Museum, London. I do hope it comes to Melbourne – there are some marvellous photographs and I would like to see it again. In the meantime, you can have a look at all the prizewinning photos on the website – go to and click on the "gallery" link.

Continuing the "Weird Signs in Adelaide" motif, the sign at the entrance to the wildlife photos informed us that "some subjects may be engaged in natural behaviour". (As opposed to what?) Much like the "this show contains sex, violence and bad language" warning before a TV programme.

Just as well I was warned to brace myself, but my husband still had to fan me with the catalogue when I saw a couple of stick insects engaging in what looked like extremely natural behaviour.
Hot tips of the month: If you should visit Adelaide, 1. don't drink the toilet water and 2. be sure to go to the market – it is an absolute cornucopia. Leaves Queen Vic in the shade, I'm sorry to say. Endearingly, the books, clothing and bric-a-brac stalls have signs that plead: "Please Do Not Steal". No threatening the punters with cameras or police, they just ask nicely! In the face of such politeness, who could stuff a lava lamp under their jumper?

"Treasures" a publication of the Art Gallery Board of South Australia


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