The State Library of NSW’s priceless, little-known collection of ‘bad art’ is being celebrated with a lavish, full-colour publication, Reading the Rooms: Behind the paintings of the State Library of NSW.
“It’s a bibliophile’s dream, designed to be a true work of art,” says Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville, who co-edited the richly illustrated 360-page hardback with author and historian Dr Rachel Franks. The book was made possible through the generosity of Lord Glendonbrook CBE AM.
Reading the Rooms is a stunning companion to the Library’s extraordinary salon-style hang of over 300 oil paintings, which has been a permanent fixture since 2018.
It delivers the first authoritative account of these fascinatingly eclectic works, some by renowned artists like Conrad Martens, John Glover and Judy Cassab, and ranging in date from the 1790s to 2015.
“It’s a surprise to many that the State Library holds one of the nation’s largest collections of Australian art, and there’s a good reason for that – many artworks created in the 18th and 19th century ended up in libraries instead of art galleries as they were often seen as second rate, or downright bad!” says Mr Neville.
“But their true value is in what they can tell us about our past: the ambitions and preoccupations of our European ancestors, the changing landscapes of Australia, the evolving streetscapes showing life in our developing cities, suburbs and rural townships, and the changing trends in portraiture.”
The book’s 50 contributors – curators, librarians, historians, authors, artists and art lovers – were invited to critique the selected works, amusing and informing readers with little-known stories through a 21st century lens.
For instance, Dixson Librarian Louise Anemaat discovered that the 1870s portraits of Macpherson sisters, Isabel and Emily (the grandmother of famous Australian photographer David Moore), were based on photographs taken in Sydney and sent to China to be turned into oil paintings by the well-known Canton artist of the time, Youqua.
Librarian Alice Tonkinson was drawn to the stormy 1945 view of tents and caravans perched on the beach in Approaching storm, Whale Beach by fashionable Sydney artist Adrian Feint – her research found that it had been wrongly identified as Palm Beach, and for some unknown reason, three figures in the original work had been painted over.
The Library’s oil collection reflects a very Eurocentric view since the invasion of Australia – so it was important for First Nations contributors to respond to works that depict their ancestors.
Proud Awabakal man and knowledge holder Shane Frost says of Joseph Lycett’s famous Corroboree at Newcastle c 1818, “Lycett has captured a window in time which shows a society that has existed for thousands of years now fighting to continue the ways of the Ancestors.”
The Library is still actively acquiring paintings, either as surviving historical records, or as reflections on contemporary experiences. For example, John Bokor’s 2011 painting Collection Day, acquired in 2013, captures an “evocative account of a typical Australian residential street,” Richard writes in the book.
“Through the pages of this fine book we can not only understand our European past, but we can see it and that’s quite something,” he added.
The original artworks can be viewed in the State Library of NSW’s permanent Paintings Gallery.
Image: Reading the Rooms: Behind the paintings of the State Library of NSW – courtesy of New South Books