Matthew Potter, ‘Cobbers, Collecting, and Cosmopolitanism: ‘British’ National Galleries of Art in Australia, c. 1870-1920’

This conference provides a perfect opportunity for scholars to examine in great detail the important role that art has played in the construction of ‘cultural internationalism’. I would like to take a sideways look at the issues raised by such scrutiny by taking a series of problematic values (‘cosmopolitanism’, urban history, and the art world) and placing these within the specific contexts of a potential crisis of identity within the British world. Scholars of constitutional history have in recent years questioned the ‘unitary status’ of the United Kingdom, and others have stressed that imperialism may be seen as another form of nationalism in which a ‘chauvinistic’ smaller nationalism is exchanged for a larger ‘imperial’ mission to which other national ‘member’ groups can be recruited. Such definitions with their federated, multinational and negotiated content share some significant common ground with the sophisticated and collegiate concepts generated by many internationalists during the fin-de-siècle, albeit with serious hegemonic differences regarding the morality and desirability of overseas domination of indigenous peoples.

My paper will apply this theoretical framework to examine the extent to which the creation of British and foreign art collections within the National Galleries in Australia were driven alternatively by a ‘missionary’ ideology of a Greater British identity, a more universal civic humanism, or a smaller nationalism of a federated Australia in the period c.1870-1920. Australians developed complicated views of themselves in an age of complex migration history for the Colony turned Dominion. What role did French, German, or Oriental art have to play, for example, in the content and ideal of the relatively new public collections of Australia? How did the reality of Federation in 1901 affect the original nineteenth-century plans and intentions of Australian art patrons? How were aboriginal Australians accommodated within Gallery narratives at this time?

I will pay particular attention to the tensions and models that resulted from the Anglo-Australian imperial connection in exploring some of the following questions: What did Australians think art museums would bring to the status of their new metropolises? How did the Australian concept of the ‘cobber’ or ‘mate’ affect attitudes to otherness in art? What examples of good practice did Australian galleries turn to in addition to the National Gallery, South Kensington Museum and the Tate Gallery in London? Which other countries provided expertise and personnel to the curating of the new institutions and what qualities did these nations and individuals bring? Were the Australian National Galleries crucibles for any or all of the following phenomena: internationalism, cosmopolitanism, Britishness, Australianism?


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