Celebrating 140 years since the Art Gallery of South Australia's grand opening in 1881

When the Art Gallery opened in its original premises 140 years ago this year, the rooms were, well, a bit bright. The problem wasn’t the colour scheme of dark duck-egg green. It was each room’s fourteen windows, admitting plentiful, shifting light – less than ideal for viewing art.

The two main rooms, one above the other in what is now the Mortlock Library building, had been designed to be the library’s newspaper and magazine reading rooms, overlooking North Terrace. However, the unfinished rooms were turned into improvised exhibition spaces when two opportunities to create a long-talked-of Art Gallery coincided in 1881. The Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880–81 provided a rare chance in colonial Australia to begin collecting a large array of paintings by European artists. And an imminent royal tour presented the likelihood of a grand opening.

Suddenly there was activity. Early in 1881, twenty-one works were acquired in Melbourne for the new South Australian gallery through a £2000 government grant, and others were donated. Meanwhile, builders rushed to finish the new gallery’s rooms.

On Saturday 18 June 1881, a crowd of 3000 crammed North Terrace for the royal opening. As Queen Victoria’s teenage grandsons, Prince Albert Victor and Prince George (the future King George V), arrived by carriage, a military band struck up ‘God save the Queen’ and an honour guard of 100 infantrymen presented arms. After touring the exhibition of collected and loaned works, Albert Victor formally declared open what was then called the National Art Gallery of South Australia.

The crowd gave three cheers for the queen and the princes, after which the doors were opened to all. Because of limited space and time, only about 420 saw the Gallery’s first exhibition on its opening day, although almost 3000 visited over the next two days. Admission was free, except on Tuesdays when it cost a shilling.

Given the accelerated construction, the imperfect lighting conditions were the least of anyone’s concerns that day (although most of the windows were boarded over the following year). Visitors passed under scaffolding to enter the building, from what is now the Museum forecourt. Inside, dark-green linen masked unplastered walls, while potted plants from the Botanic Garden added ‘a very pleasing effect’.

The entire exhibition had been hung in just two days, so few works had been labelled and no catalogue was yet available to identify the works.

Borrowed marble statues and copies of antique Roman figures filled the entrance foyer. Turning into the main downstairs gallery, visitors found

a collection of works of art … such as we are not likely to see again in this colony
Opening of the National Gallery, June 1881

This area contained replicas of regalia housed in the Tower of London and of gold and silverware at Windsor Castle. It also included grand ceremonial paintings on loan from Queen Victoria, as well as paintings lent by prominent colonists, among them works by Veronese and Angelica Kauffmann. Also in this room was almost half the Gallery’s new collection of more than two dozen paintings, principally by British, Belgian and German artists. They included Strasbourg Cathedral by Wyke Bayliss and George Elgar Hicks’s sentimental The dead goldfinch.

From the foyer, narrow twisting stairs led visitors past drawings by British art students to the second level. Here, an anteroom displayed a number of seascapes, while the main room featured mostly landscapes. Below Thomas Dicksee’s Lady Teazle hung the only Australian landscape in the collection, H.J. Johnstone’s Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray.

Examining Johnstone’s canvas in the shifting light of this room, one opening-day reviewer observed:

The amateur who desires to sketch from nature in Australia would do well to note the working of the foliage in … this picture.
Opening of the National Gallery, June 1881

The remarks presaged both the intensifying glow that would fall across Australian landscape painting generally through the 1880s as well as Evening shadows own sunlit position as the most copied work in the new Gallery’s collection over the coming 140 years.

Barry Patton is a Researcher and Writer at AGSA