Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

Art Gallery of New South Wales


Walter Liberty Vernon


The Domain




Federation Academic Classical


Masterly symmetry featuring Ionic colonnades.


  Above image copyright Simon Fieldhouse

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Art Gallery Road, The Domain Art Gallery Road, The Domain
1904-09 Walter Liberty Vernon (NSWGA)
1971 Edward Herbert Farmer (NSWGA)
1980s Andrew Andersons (NSWGA) (extensions)

At Sydney’s great International Exhibition of 1879-80, a building was set aside for a fine arts display. When the exhibition closed, the exhibits became the nucleus of a government collection. The Governor, Lord Carrington, opened the original building by WH Hunt just before 1885. It has since been demolished.

After Federation, the National Art Gallery (as it was then known) was rebuilt in The Domain by NSW government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon (1846-1914). This was the penultimate example of the long established, but by then overdone, use of the neo-Greek temple as a portico for a major public institution in Sydney (the final application of the Greek Temple front was the State Library of NSW). The conservative design demanded by the Sydney arts establishment must have challenged Vernon’s strong Arts and Crafts sensibilities.

The 1971 addition almost doubled the exhibition space, from 2000 to 4900 square metres. Flexible spaces were created using a system of moveable screen walls and lighting, relating to ceiling modules. A grey toned rough mixture of concrete was used to blend with the sandstone of the old building.

Completed in 1988, the Captain Cook Bicentenary Wing creates a sense of light-filled open space. Glimpses of the outside address the problem of museum fatigue by redirecting viewers’ concentration by momentarily distracting them. More recently, and as part of the Open Museum, sculptures have been positioned along the entry road.

Information appearing in this section is reproduced from Sydney Architecture, with the kind permission of the author, Graham Jahn, a well-known Sydney architect and former City of Sydney Councillor. Sydney Architecture, rrp $35.00, is available from all good book stores or from the publisher, Watermark Press, Telephone: 02 9818 5677.

History of the Art Gallery of New South Wales

1870 was a year of violent unrest in Europe. It saw the start of the Franco-Prussian War and a revolution in Paris which lead to the proclamation of the Third Republic. Italian troops occupied Papal Rome, making the ageing Pius IX a prisoner of the Vatican. These turbulent events set off a ripple of sensation even in far away Australia. At the first 'Conversazione' or artistic soirée of the New South Wales Academy of Art on the 7th of August 1871, much of the talk was of recent European turmoil. The Louvre, used for a time as an arsenal, had suffered a dreadful fire. Eliezer Montefiore, a founding member of the Academy, passed around photographs of the shattered ruins of its buildings on the evening of the Conversazione. The animated rhetoric of the night touched on the possibility of a young Australia having to carry the torch of culture, even as Europe degenerated into chaos. It is a theme which has been rehashed throughout Australian history. These events fuelled a budding local resolve to establish an Academy of Art "for the purpose of promoting the fine arts through lectures, art classes and regular exhibitions." Yet cultural idealism was only one contributing factor to the series of events which lead to the foundation of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

This building was erected with great speed between August and November 1879. It was designed to house the state collection of art during the International Exhibition of 1879 and stood roughly where the glass pyramid in the Botanic Gardens now stands. The exhibition's Advisory Committee on art did not want the national art collection to be displayed in the enormous Crystal Palace built for the occasion, so a last minute 'Fine Arts Annexe' was erected to a design by William Wardell. It was built of iron and timber and contained nine moderately sized galleries. On the 20th September, after the close of the Sydney International Exhibition, the Annexe was opened officially by Lord Loftus as the 'Art Gallery of New South Wales'. The building suffered from damp and in 1883 was found to be infested with termites. Constant lobbying by the Trustees and a fire which destroyed the Crystal Palace eventually convinced the government that the building was not an appropriate permanent home for the national collection of art.

Traditional rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne was just as important. The fact that Melbourne had established an art gallery in 1861 riled Sydneysiders, who believed that their city should possess a collection of art worthy of the Mother Colony of Australia. Yet few of Sydney's affluent citizens seemed willing to support such a project. All but a hundred years of British colonisation had brought to the city a degree of economic prosperity, but little cultural wealth. The ten men appointed officers of the new Academy of Art thought it time to re-invest some of the national resources in civilising endeavours like art. They hoped that the foundation of an Art Academy would elevate the city beyond bucolic and mercantile pursuits. Sydney Punch reviewed the formation of the Academy under the legend 'Emollit mores nec sinit esse ferus', Ovid's assertion that the study of the liberal arts 'humanises character and permits it not to be cruel.' Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore has described the crude and insecure social face of Sydney at the time. The founders of the Gallery were all men who genuinely believed in the ennobling power of art. They freely gave their time and money in support of this belief. Most were businessmen or public figures who served the interests of a variety of cultural, religious and educational institutions in the colony.

Sydney's art collection was housed from 1875 in a building on Elizabeth Street where dancing had been taught, known as ‘Clark’s Assembly Rooms.’ The building, now demolished, was a few doors down from Hunter Street, where the 1970s Air New Zealand Office now stands. It had a ball-room on the first floor ‘being fifty-five feet long by twenty-five feet wide, and about the same in height.’ This space was sufficient for art classes and for hanging a small number of pictures. This illustration is taken from a wood engraving in The Illustrated Sydney News 23 March 1878.

The precise date on which the Art Gallery was founded is debatable. Which event constitutes a formal foundation? The birth of an art society from whose activities and members the Gallery emerged, the Government vote of funds towards the formation of a public collection or the provision of a physical home for this collection? Each of these events occurred quite separately. Administratively, however, the Gallery owes its genesis to the New South Wales Academy of Art.

The Administration

On the 24th of April 1871 Edward Reeve, Thomas Mort, Eliezer Montefiore and Eccleston Du Faur convened a public meeting to establish an Academy of Art 'for the purpose of promoting the fine arts through lectures, art classes and regular exhibitions.' Thomas Mort, who had opened his home with its collection of paintings to the public ten years before, acted as Chairman. He was not confident about the success of the Society and expressed the opinion that unless it secured Government assistance, sustaining it would be 'very uphill work'. Only thirty five people attended the first meeting. A proposed Constitution was circulated and Montefiore suggested that a committee be appointed to meet at a later date for the purpose of 'drawing up a Code of Rules for the Government of the New South Wales Academy of Art.' On May 9th this Committee met and drew up the Rules, being five constitutions and seven laws. These were adopted a week later, at a meeting which also appointed the first officers of the Academy: Thomas Mort as President, Eliezer Montefiore as Vic-President and a Council of E. Combe, J. Willis, P. Hodgson, C. Badham, W. Wallis, L. Steffanoni and R. Tooth.

From 1872 until 1879 the Academy's main activity was the organisation of annual art exhibitions. On the 11th of November 1880, at its 9th Annual Meeting, the Academy dissolved itself, stating that its aims had been realised in the foundation of a public Gallery. The Gallery at this time was known simply as 'The Art Gallery of New South Wales'. In 1883 its name was changed to 'The National Art Gallery of New South Wales.' The Gallery was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1899. The Library and Art Gallery Act 1899 provided for the general control and management of the Gallery. It gave details of the Board of Trustees, numbering them at thirteen, outlined the responsibilities of the Gallery to the Minister, detailed annual endowments and provided for investments.

Early Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW

In 1892 the first Director of the Gallery was appointed. He was Eliezer Montefiore, a founding Trustee and President of the Trustees since 1889. He died in 1894 and another Director was not appointed until 1912. In the early years of the Gallery there were few staff, apart from attendants and a resident caretaker. The Trustees, particularly Eccleston Du Faur, took care of all administrative matters. The next two 'Directors' of the Gallery after Montefiore, George Layton and Gother Mann, were designated 'Secretary and Superintendent'. In 1912 Mann's official title was changed to 'Director and Secretary'. This title continued until 1971 when Peter Laverty was appointed simply as 'Director'.

The Building

The classically elegant Art Gallery of New South Wales is one of Sydney's most distinctive landmarks. The façade and old wing of the Gallery were built between 1896 and 1909. Architecturally, Sydney's Art Gallery reflects nineteenth century ideas about the cultural role of a gallery as a temple to art and civilizing values. Yet early designs for the Gallery were less confident about the institution's role and image. The present building is the work of Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon, who secured the prestigious commission over the less conventional architect John Horbury Hunt. The history of the building of Sydney's Gallery reads like a sensational novel. All the elements - intrigue, personal animosity and nepotism - are present. That the institution acquired such a fine historic building is almost fortuitous.

John Horbury Hunt design for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1884.
Hunt was the architect initially asked to design the Gallery when a decision was made to move from the temporary building in the Botanic Gardens to a new building on the present site. This is his first design. It was not popular as it was considered too grandiose and eclectic in style.

The first home for Sydney's art collection was at Clark's Assembly Hall in Elizabeth Street. This building, which had at one time been used for dancing classes, was rented between 1875 and 1879. It was open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The International Exhibition of 1879 provided an opportunity for the national collection to be re-housed more suitably. Space was initially allocated in the main hall of the Garden Palace, but as lighting and display possibilities were not considered adequate, the Government allowed William Wardell to construct a 'Fine Arts Annexe' of nine rooms near the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. Concerns for safety and conservation of works, as well as the fire which destroyed the Garden Palace in 1882, ruled out the Annexe as a permanent home for the collection. In December 1885 the collections were moved to a building of six rooms at the present site in the Domain. John Horbury Hunt, an architect in private practice, was contracted to submit plans for a gallery in preference to the Government's James Barnet. Some of the Trustees were suspicious of Barnet after his controversial work on the General Post Office. Intended to be the foundation of a more substantial building when funds became available, Hunt's temporary building, which was nothing more than a series of thick walls with a sawtooth roof, was universally disliked. It was denounced in the press by prominent citizens as the 'Art Barn.' Economic depression, politics and personality clashes eventually robbed Hunt of the opportunity to design the gallery.

Three designs by John Hobury Hunt for the Art Gallery, 1890-1895
In 1889 the Trustees authorized Hunt to complete a set of plans for the Art Gallery, the total cost of the building “not exceeding £80,000.” The Trustees proved difficult to accommodate and Hunt eventually submitted three separate sets of plans to them. His first design was for a brick building with Tuscan columns and a highly decorated frieze. The last, in 1895, was for a heavy Gothic structure with a blind arcade of pointed arches winding around it. The Trustees argued that none of these plans could be carried out with the funds at their disposal. They believed Hunt’s plans covered a much larger area than required and that a Classic Ionic structure would be more appropriate than Hunt’s hybrid forms.

Ten years after plans were first drawn up, the task was entrusted to Walter Vernon. The building he designed was in many ways a departure from the style he was pursuing at the time. He had turned away from a grand classical style, erecting more modest buildings in brick with stone dressing. Vernon believed that the Gothic style admitted greater individuality and richness 'not obtainable in the colder and unbending lines of Pagan Classic.' Yet the Trustees would have none of this. They demanded a classical temple to art, not unlike William Playfair's fine gallery in Edinburgh. The Gallery's present form is a little more austere and undecorated than Vernon had originally intended. His designs show provision for extensive sculptural ornamentation of the façade.

Walter Vernon design for elevation of the Gallery towards the Harbour, 1896.
This section of the Gallery was not completed. After 1909 nothing more was built of Vernon’s designs. The ground plan remained incomplete, as no northern gallery was built to correspond with the southern watercolour gallery. In the 1930s plans were suggested for the completion of this part of the Gallery but the Depression and other financial constraints lead to their abandonment. In 1968 the New South Wales Government decided that the completion of the Gallery would be a major part of the Captain Cook Bicentenary celebrations. Andrew Anderson was the Architect entrusted with the new building, which opened to the public in November 1970.

Vernon's building was built in four stages. Present day courts 7 and 8 were commenced in 1896 and opened in May 1897. They are distinguished from later courts by the yellower timber of their parquetry floors. By 1901 the entire southern half of the building was finished. A newspaper article at the time noted 'Only one wing of the building, about one fourth of the whole structure, is at present completed, and gives rich promise of future beauty. The style is early Greek. The façade is built of thracyte and freestone. The interior is divided into four halls, each 100 feet by 30 feet, communicating with each other by pillared archways. The lighting is almost perfect, designs for the roof having been furnished by London correspondents after careful study of all the latest improvements in European galleries. The walls are coloured a chill neutral green shade, which makes an excellent background.'

James Barnet's design for a joint Art Gallery, Library and Museum, 1874.

James Barnet was Colonial Architect from 1862 to 1890. The Australian Museum, his first major project, was opened in 1868. He intended it to be the wing of a much larger building which would incorporate a museum, library and art gallery, as this design shows. The present Australian Museum forms the right hand wing of this design. Unlike Melbourne, the proposal for a combined museum, library and art gallery was not accepted in Sydney. The Trustees’ decision to employ John Horbury Hunt, an architect in private practice, lead to considerable controversy in Parliament and in the Press.

In 1902 Vernon presented an eight page presentation album to the Trustees illustrating his proposed designs for a completed Gallery. It included two designs for an imposing Central Court. Vernon proposed that his oval lobby, opened in 1902 and considered his masterpiece, would lead into an equally imposing Central Court. His plans were not accepted. Until 1969 his lobby lead, by a short descent from the entrance level, to three northern galleries originally designed by Hunt. In 1909 the front of the Gallery was finished and after this date nothing more was built of Vernon's designs. In the 1930s plans were suggested for the completion of this part of the Gallery but the Depression and other financial constraints lead to their abandonment.

Two designs by Walter Vernon for the Central Court of the Art Gallery, 1902.
In 1902 Vernon presented an eight page presentation album to the Trustees illustrating his proposed designs for a completed Gallery. It included these two designs for an imposing Central Court. Vernon proposed that his oval lobby, opened on 24th March 1902 and considered his masterpiece, would lead into an equally imposing Central Court. His plans were not accepted and up until 1969 the lobby lead, by a short descent from the entrance level, to three northern galleries originally designed by Hunt.

In 1968 the New South Wales Government decided that the completion of the Gallery would be a major part of the Captain Cook Bicentenary celebrations. This extension, which was opened to the public in November 1970, and those made to the east of the existing structure as part of the National Bicentenary in 1988, were both the responsibility of Government architect Andrew Anderson. The 1988 eastern extension doubled the size of the Gallery. It provided expanded display space for the permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, a new gallery for Asian art and an outdoor sculpture garden. In 1994 the Yiribana gallery, a space devoted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture, was opened.

View of the Art Gallery towards the Harbour, 1967.
This photograph shows Hunt’s temporary brick building of 1884 grafted on to Vernon's imposing sandstone building, which was completed in 1909.

View of the Art Gallery towards the Harbour, 1970.

This photograph shows Andrew Anderson’s 1968-1970 addition to the Art Gallery.

The Collection

Edward Combes and Sir Alfred Stephen were both members of Parliament and the newly formed Academy of Art. It was probably through their influence that the Government, on 30th July 1874, transferred a vote of £500 originally intended for the Australian Museum to the purchase of works of art by the Academy. This allocation of public money towards the purchase of art for a national collection is the event which formally constitutes the foundation of the Gallery. Five members of the Academy were appointed as Trustees and entrusted with the administration of the grant. It seems, however, that the power of these new Trustees did not extend into a second year. In 1875 a separate Government vote of £1,000 was made to the Academy rather than to the 'Art Gallery'. Arguments over allocation of this money were resolved when Cabinet itself decided that the £500 'in aid of the proposed Gallery of Art' together with the £1,000 'in aid of the NSW Academy of Art' would be spent, except for rent of premises, on works of art. The Government Gazette of February 25th 1876 published the names of the five Trustees who would administer these funds.

The Art Gallery's impressive collection of late nineteenth-century Australian art is due largely to the tradition, begun in 1875, of acquiring local contemporary paintings. One of the first decisions made by the Trustees, when entrusted with the initial vote of £500, was to commission the watercolour Apsley Falls from Conrad Martens, the most respected artist in the colony. The bulk of the first grant of £500, however, did not go on local works but towards the purchase of English watercolours. In London, Nicholas Chevalier and Colin Smith bought six landscapes, all by late Victorian artists now largely forgotten. For the second vote of £500 a single oil painting was acquired, Ford Madox Brown's Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. The European collections were initially based on a policy of acquiring contemporary British and Continental art on the recommendations of art advisers in London and Paris.

Interior photograph of the Art Gallery, c.1905.
Vernon’s vestibule, completed in 1902, opened on to this temporary court. From here access was gained by three staircases to the northern galleries originally designed by Hunt in 1884. Ford Madox Brown's Chaucer at the court of Edward III dominates the wall at the back of the vestibule. When the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1882, Brown read of the disaster in the London newspapers. He believed that his painting had been destroyed in the fire and offered to 're-do it.'

The Department of Contemporary Art was founded in 1979. Purchases were made prior to that time, but it has been in the period since then that a lively exhibition programme and acquisitions policy have been implemented. The collection focuses upon work which has developed since the 1960s, with an emphasis on the more recent practices of the 1980s and 1990s. The Gallery's collection of Asian art encompasses many aspects of the diverse cultures of the Far East, India and South-East Asia. The genesis of the collection was a large gift of Japanese ceramics and bronzes presented by the Japanese government after the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition. A distinct Department of Asian Art was established in 1979. The Gallery's collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art begins with the 1956 gift from the Commonwealth government of paintings on cardboard collected by Charles Mountford during the 1948 American/Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land. John Mundine, art adviser from Ramingining, was appointed the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Curator-in-the-Field in 1984. This was the first appointment of an Aboriginal person to a curatorial position in an Aboriginal art department of a public gallery.

From 1874 to 1880 the annual amount made available to the Gallery for the purchase of works of art was £1,500. In 1880 it rose to £5,000. For fifty years after 1896 £2,000 was, on average, all the Gallery received. The grant began to rise steadily after the Second World War. Today acquisitions are acquired mainly through the Foundation, the Art Gallery Society, donations, grants, bequests and gifts. The first Australian oil painting to enter the Art Gallery's collection, William Piguenit's Mount Olympus, Tasmania, was the gift of fifty subscribers. This tradition of patronage has remained crucial to the development of the collections since that time. Important additions to the collections have come through the generosity of James Fairfax, Margaret Olley, Patrick White, Ken and Yoko Myer, the Mervyn Horton Bequest and the Rudy Komon Fund. Many private endowments take the form of prizes and scholarships for the encouragement of artists, such as the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, the Dyason Bequest, the Basil and Muriel Hooper Scholarships, and two art studios in Paris. A newly established programme of Collection Benefactors aims at raising funds for the acquisition, care, study and presentation of works of art for the permanent collection.

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