‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Well, it’s not quite over yet! You can catch this exhibition at the beautiful Art Gallery at Ballarat before it closes on July 27th 2014.

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When we talk of ‘British’ settlement in Australia, we often glide over the fact that this included English, Scots, Irish and Welsh settlers and officials.  Hidden in plain sight is the fact that Scots permeated the empire, both as agents of colonialism through their Scottish enlightenment skills in botany, surveying and art, and as settlers in their own right.  Once you’re alert to this, you find them everywhere in colonial Australia- and in my own research into Upper Canada and British Guiana, they’re there as well, as this Slaves and Highlanders site conveys.  Their Scots ties were not left behind, and they were reinforced in new colonies by the church (both Presbyterian and Catholic), Scottish organizations and the familial networks between new settlers.

This exhibition of artwork and artefacts underscores the importance of the Scottish artists who accompanied the First Fleet (think Sidney Parkinson), and those officials who dabbled in artwork in the early Port Jackson settlement (think John Hunter).  Their education and scientific learning , to say nothing of toughness), fitted them well as explorers (think Stuart and Sturt and Major Mitchell) and their financial acumen and entrepreneurial nous served them well as merchants (think Robert Campbell) and agriculturalists (think William Anglis).  They were governors (think Lachlan Macquarie) and firebrand preachers ( think John Dunmore Lang) .  When Queen Victoria adopted Balmoral into her ‘brand’, Australians did too, and Robert Burns and Highland games became incorporated into the Britishness that colonial Australians held onto while at the same time developing their own variation.

All these aspects are explored in this exhibition which covers the First Fleet to Federation.  There is, as you might expect in an Art Gallery, an emphasis on artwork which is drawn from many collections, including the Natural History Museum in UK.  (I liked the fact, conveyed through one of the information panels, that a wombat skin sent ‘home’ by one of the early Scots settlers is displayed standing on its two back paws). But there are some objects as well, including a silk scarf commemorating the Scottish Martyrs who were sent here as convicts (an EXCELLENT Radio National podcast on Thomas Muir here).  An introductory panel warns that women are not heavily represented in the display, but Georgiana McCrae had a presence.

The dearth of women might have been ameliorated by a stronger focus on family connections, which was hinted at with the displays on Thomas and James Mitchell, but not really brought to the forefront.  It could likewise have been drawn out further with Georgiana McCrae whose brothers-in-law popped up in different aspects of Port Phillip Society.  Family connections, the networks across colonies, and chain migration as one son, then another, then the whole family came across, ensured that the Scots spread across Australia and the empire generally.  They became part of, and shaped their new communities but retained still an emotional attachment to their Scots identity.

I would have loved to have purchased the book that accompanied the exhibition but it was just SO expensive.  It was available in hardback only, at $79.95.  I’d gladly buy a softcover book for $40.00 if it were available (even though the glue binding them is often inferior) but double the price is just too much.  The same applied at the Bendigo exhibition we attended recently.

I’m pleased that the regional galleries are mounting such well curated and well publicized exhibitions.  And we certainly weren’t alone in our enjoyment. It was a bitterly cold Ballarat Sunday afternoon, and the gallery was comfortably full.

 

 

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