THE PERTH NATIONAL GALLERY.
VIEWS OF MR. BERNARD HALL.
Last summer, when the committee of the Perth Museum, Victoria Library, and
the National Gallery considered it expedient to begin the work of forming
a collection of paintings and works of art, Mr. L. Bernard Hall, the
Director of the Melbourne National Gallery, was communicated with, with
the object of eliciting his opinion as to how the committee should
proceed. In the kindest way Mr. Hall his given his views at length in the
letters following. Fully agreeing in the recommendations of the Melbourne
Director, the committee of our National Gallery desire to publish the
advice given as an indication of the lines upon which they desire to
proceed. These lectures are consequently given below. The Perth committee,
in accordance with the advice of Mr. Hall, have resolved to place in the
hands of Mr. Geo. Clausen, A.R.A., a sum of £1,000 to be expended on
orders to be given to British artists, and a further £300 in the hands of
Mr. Joseph Pennell for the purchase of etchings and pen and ink drawings.
The letters are as follow :—
“National Gallery, Melbourne,
“January 6th, 1896.
“In reply to your letter of December 23rd regarding the formation of a
national collection of a works of art in Perth, it will give me great
pleasure to formulate my idea of what the aim of such a national
collection should be, together with the only practical scheme I can think
of for making purchases in Europe.
“My idea, then, of a national collection, as opposed to a private one, is
simply to set up a definite standard of the best, and to let people
educate themselves up to the appreciation of it. A private collection is
formed with the idea of giving pleasure to the individual purchaser, who
has his own particular idiosyncrasy to serve, while no one has a right to
question how he spends his money in the indulgence of his own taste. But a
collection created by public funds has an educational purpose to fulfil.
It is permanent in character—it cannot be capitalised at will, or the
quality of it be varied by exchange—therefore it must be representative of
the best phases of art, and contain only those works that time will not
depreciate either in interest or value. I will advise you only as to
contemporary art, because good specimens of the older schools are too rare
and too expensive to be considered. But the present is so rich in schools
and art generally, so active, that it should be comparatively easy to form
a strong nucleus, to which, as the rare opportunity occurred, the well-
established masterpieces might be added. I should say, moreover, that it
was better not to create an artificial zest by constantly adding new
pictures to spur a flagging interest, but rather to pick and choose them
so judiciously in the first instance that even the few shall be revisited
again and again in order to extract a fuller meaning by a better
acquaintance. If works of art are bought to captivate the casual
visitor—the man in the street—at first sight, your public taste will
remain non-progressive, your funds will be wasted, and your gallery
encumbered to-day with what it will disclaim to-morrow.
“I understand that your walls at present are perfectly bare, and I take
the liberty of congratulating you on the fact, and express the hope that
they may be covered very slowly and very carefully. The intrusion of a
questionable work of art at any time I would consider as a disaster, for
once the precedent were established the general standard would be
lowered—the evil would have come to stay, and would inevitably draw other
undesirable work unto itself. I would say, in that case, better to
quarantine the infectious thing for ever than to let it hang on your
walls, bringing all else into bad odour and confusion of taste.
“Now, as to the purchase of works in Europe, I would advise that a sum of
money be placed with your Agent in London, to be drawn against—say up to
£1,000—by two gentlemen, one in Paris, the other in London, of whose
judgment, discretion, and honesty you are well-advised. These two, or
more, should be competent artists, and I would recommend, as a wise and
graceful act, that a commission for one of their own works, limited to a
certain amount, be included in the sum to be placed at their disposal. I
would make them artistically responsible, in your catalogues and the
tablets on your pictures, for their selection, and make it a point of
pride with them, as well as one of honour, to do the best they can for
your trustees and the Gallery.
“A public Gallery should command the pick of an artists’ work, and would
do so if properly approached. The commission to purchase might be renewed,
if satisfactorily performed, or put into other hands if not, when the
original sum was exhausted.
“You have asked me to be as explicit as possible, so I have not stinted to
enlarge upon the difficulties that a public body has to deal with in
making such a collection. I hope I have partly shown how these
difficulties can be avoided or minimised. The principal difficulty lies in
getting good men to act for you at home, although this can be overcome, I
think, by approaching them with a well-considered demand for a good
collection, as from those you know. If you allow them to see that the
ordinary popular picture is what you want, they will be inclined to send
you rubbish. This is but human nature, dealing in horses, picture, or
anything else, with those who do not understand these things ; but if you
ask them, through an artist, to take a professional interest in the
matter, you should be well served.
“If I can help you on these lines in any further way, I assure you I shall
only be too pleased to do so ; for though I believe in corporations or the
State fostering a love for beauty and knowledge through the agency of
public, libraries, galleries of art, and architectural monuments, yet none
can help seeing that, with perhaps the best motives in the world, in the
carrying out of this idea the danger of its usefulness being impaired by
the zeal of inexperience of the pressure of influence. However, it is more
a matter of good guidance than of expense, and with the experience of the
older galleries behind you, there is no reason why this should obtain. My
wish will always be that you may have a particular success in this present
“Yours very truly,
“(Sgd.) L. BERNARD HALL”
“Melbourne, January 10, 1896.
“You ask me in yours of the 9th inst. to go still further into the details
of a scheme for purchasing pictures by your trustees. So I continue to
advise you as I would the trustees of our own Gallery here. First of all,
I would remind you that the best art work of ‘to-day’ is done in oil
painting, etching, pen and ink work, and, in sculpture, works in bronze. I
should say, that masterpieces in water colour, pastel, and marble were too
rare to need consideration. Also, there are no schools to speak of at
present, except the French, English, and perhaps the Dutch. I should say,
too, that the best landscapes come from the figure and cattle painters as
“In my former letter I recommended you to place £1,000 each with two well-
known artists—one in London, the other in Paris (since everything of
distinction can be obtained in Paris and London)—with a free hand to
purchase at their own time, and if possible direct from the artist,
whatever satisfies them, within that limit, as the best and most
representative of contemporary art.
“I will give you the names of certain men of sufficiently Catholic taste
to entrust with such a commission. In this instance they happen to be all
personal friends of mine. In London, I would place £1,000 with Mr. George
Clausen, A.R.A., for the purpose of buying characteristic English work,
with a commission out of this sum for one of his own paintings of rustic
life, of £400. In Paris I would place the same amount with Mr. Walter
McEwan to purchase pieces characteristically French and Dutch, with a
commission out if it for one of his own works at £200.
“If you propose to buy sculpture I would put £800 into the hands of Mr.
Onslow Ford, R.A., getting with this a piece of his at £200. I would
strongly advise you to make a collection of etchings and pen and ink
drawings, and would suggest that Mr. Joseph Pennell be asked to spend £300
for you to start with. He is the best living authority on this subject,
and he should be asked to include one of his own brilliant pen and ink
drawings amongst those he sends out.
“Mr. Louis Fagan, late head of the Print Department, British Museum,
would, I am sure, collect old engravings for you if you intend making them
a feature of your gallery. Ask for single and good examples of the best
masters, to illustrate those arts historically, rather than aim at having
complete sets of any one man’s work. There are special men whose work will
have to be obtained if you desire to make a representative collection. The
works of such men as Millais, Orchardson, Sargeant, Whistler, Bastien Le
Page. etc., are already too high-priced to be purchased out of the sums
named. A special arrangement would be required for an artist at home to
watch his opportunity for securing good examples, or for giving
commissions direct for the same.
“I would caution you about the donations and 1oans that are certain to be
offered to you. Be very strong about requiring these to be up to the level
of the best in your collection. The more select that is made, the higher
the standard you may expect from gifts and loans. You will be obliged to
draw the line somewhere. You are sure to give offence to somebody, but
this will not be increased by drawing the line high from the first,
whereas to unbend, with the object of covering the bare walls or placating
influential people, will result in pictures being literally “warehoused”
with you while their owners are abroad, or left with the idea of a private
sale resulting from such an opportunity and distinction as their
exhibition under the national roof by the sanction of your trustees implies.
“A pictorial museum, as it were, for pictures of local or historical
interest, both of portraits and places, will be of very great interest,
and doubtless you will make such a collection. But works of art pure and
simple must be kept separate from these if they are to serve any
“I would strongly urge you to discuss very fully and to definitely
determine the policy to be pursued by your trustees with regard to all
these matters. Let the lines to be followed and the tests to be applied be
thrashed out and settled beforehand, and not left open to be decided by
the chance attendance at a meeting of your council, on the merits of each
“Eventually your resolutions will have to be made concrete. Better to have
this done at once and for or all than to collect on the basis of a method
that will shift and change from meeting to meeting. You will arrive at one
in any case, but, only after long experiment and dearly-bought experience,
and your galleries saddled with the heritage of confusion—the necessary
result of buying without any definite aim in doing so.
“A final word of advice, if I may add to these many without offence. Do
not be anxious, as a controlling body, to engage in selecting works for
“There should be no contumely in the term ‘amateur ;’ far from it. It is
one applied to those who are not trained as artists, yet are lovers of
art. In this capacity each amateur may exercise his own taste privately.
But if you can get professional artists to act for you in this all-
important matter of selection, leave it entirely to them. At the very
worst they can hardly do your Gallery more harm than the amateur at large,
with public funds in his pocket, and equipped for his office with the
innocent formula that ‘he knows nothing about art, but knows what he
likes.’ In this I give you my opinion quite frankly, as an artist. It is
open to anyone to criticise it as frankly, from their standpoint, and as
publicly as they care to.
“Accept again my assurance of interest in the start you make with your
Gallery. As that is, so will the rest be.
“Yours very truly,
“(Sgd.) L. BERNARD HALL.
“P.S.—To save future trouble you should see that you acquire the copyright
of all pictures bought for you ; also that they are certified by the
artist as originals, and, unless so stated, not merely replicas or