‘Sea of Dreams: The Lure of Port Phillip Bay 1830-1914’ at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

Update 2013

I see that the Mornington Peninsular Gallery will be hosting a follow-up exhibition ‘Sea of Dreams: Port Phillip Bay 1915-2013’.  It will be on between 14 December and 2nd March 2014.  I must try very hard to attend before the closing week this time!

Review of 2012 exhibition

If, like my husband, your appreciation of the beach is best bolstered by being in an air-conditioned building, far from the sand and the water, then you too might like this exhibition at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.  It’s on until 19 February 2012 so you still have time to get there (just!), have lunch at Mornington, and if you feel so inspired, even walk down to Mother’s Beach, as we did on a beautiful warm summer afternoon.

Source: http://www.travelvictoria.com.au/mornington/photos/

The exhibition has been divided into five themes which highlight different aspects of Port Phillip Bay.  I can hear my uncle Peter reproving me for the tautology, but Melburnians generally call it Port Phillip Bay and I’m not absolutely convinced that a port and a bay are the same thing. (Did you know that it was originally named Port King (after King George)  by Lieutenant Grant? It was renamed Port Phillip by Governor Phillip Gidley King to commemorate NSW’s first Governor, Arthur Phillip “my worthy and dear friend, the Admiral, who, until now has not had his name bestowed on either stick or stone in the colony” [King to Murray, 31 Oct. 1801 HRNSW, iv, p. 602]  Although I wonder if King was being a bit bashful, thinking that people would think it was named after him?).

I digress.  The exhibition is divided up into five themes, which are arranged in different sections of the gallery.  The gallery, which is not large, has a long ribbon of the names of different spots along bay displayed just about the skirting board, spooling  from room to room.  I think that Melbourne people tend to be rather parochial over ‘their’ beach, identifying more with the Mornington Peninsula side or (for me) the other side over at Queenscliff. Seeing the scroll of names brought home to me just how many there are.

The first theme, “Land of Promise” examines emigration- both the experience for the emigrants themselves and for the families they left behind.  As well as emigration literature painting for a British market, it had paintings of the landing at Queenscliff, and a painting that one would hope the “home” audience didn’t see: the wreck of the ‘Asa Packer’ c. 1861 at Point Nepean as it was passing through the heads.  Although not directly related to Port Phillip, there was also a depiction of the wreck of the Loch Ard– after all, who can resist that story?- although I think that it undermined the focus of the exhibition somewhat to include it.

The second theme “Unsettling the Land” examined early depictions of the Port Phillip settlement.  A printed notice on one of the pillars was the Gallery’s response to criticisms that there was no Aboriginal representation of what we know as Port Phillip.  It explained that approaches had been made to the local Aboriginal community to become involved with the exhibition, but no response was received.  It reveals an interesting twist on the politics of depiction of indigenous presence, and the expectation that it will be represented- and what is to be done if the local community chooses not to become involved.   It pointed to the Tommy McRae painting of a corroboree (1890) included in the exhibition, but admits that otherwise the depictions of Aboriginal people in the paintings were executed by white painters.  I found it interesting that George Gordon McCrae, the son of Scottish painter Georgiana McCrae, painted a corroboree at Arthur’s Seat on the Mornington Peninsula in 1844-9 that looked very similar to the indigenous Tommy McRae painting (no relation or contact, despite the similarity of their names).  I had seen quite a few of the early Port Phillip paintings in this section of the exhibition before, but there was one Robert Russell sketch in particular that reinforced how scrappy and primitive that first white settlement on the Yarra was.

“Defending our Shores”, the third theme, highlighted the strategic importance of the Heads and their fortification, but also the ceremonial aspects of military and government display with visiting royalty, and navy and military manoeuvres intended to reinforce sovereignty.

The fourth theme picked up on trade and commerce, especially in the wake of the gold rush.  “Riding the wave” depicts the presence of American ships after the repeal of the Navigation Acts from the mid 1850s, and highlights the activity and wealth generated  around the bay.  Several of these paintings were themselves commissioned as a way of advertising the prosperity of ship-owners and entrepreneurs.

The final theme, “Whiff of the Briny” was perhaps my favourite, with paintings that showed the pursuit of leisure around the bay.  Artwork from different eras is placed side by side, so that you can move from a very detailed, almost draftsmanlike rendering of clothes and ships from the mid 19th century to the adjacent painting that might be a bolder, brighter and more impressionistic piece by one of  the Australian Impressionists. Conder, in particular, painted several works down at Mentone and Rickett’s Point, but other Australian Impressionists are represented too.

So, as is often the case, here I am telling you about an exhibition that is in its closing stages- so if you want to catch it, you’d better go soon!

 

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