How Commonwealth day brought works of art to the other side of the world

To mark this year’s commonwealth day, we spoke to Dr Matthew Potter about how Commonwealth day helped Australian art-lovers see a host of  works for the very first time.

Commonwealth Day is a moveable feast with a complex history – originally set up for schoolchildren to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24, it was first commemorated in Canada in 1899, followed by the UK in 1902 and the rest of the British Empire in 1905. Conservative empire loyalists wanted to use the event to tie the monarchy to imperial values and promote imperial citizenship and British values following the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Even at its height – when, in 1924 and 1925 the British Empire was celebrated with an exhibition at Wembley Park in London – the Empire Day Movement struggled to gain widespread support.

It was renamed as Commonwealth Day in 1958 and the month in which it was scheduled to occur moved first to June in 1966 then again to March ten years later in the hope of finding a day when every child across the Commonwealth was expected to be at school. Nonetheless, its observance seldom went beyond classrooms in the UK and Australia.

Interestingly, May 24 was also important in the history of Australian national galleries. It was on that day that the first of these institutions, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), opened its McArthur Gallery in 1875.

While Empire Day did not feature prominently in their activities the Empire Art Loan Collection Exhibitions of the 1930s were an important point of contact between the dominions and their metropolis. Repeated requests for access to works in the metropolitan collections were made possible by the passing of the UK’s National Galleries (Overseas) Loan Act 1935 and the first touring exhibition to include work from the eighteenth century took place in 1936-7.

The Australian art critic, Basil Burdett praised the display when shown at the NGV for not only allowing people to see paintings like Raeburn’s Mrs Campbell of Ballimore from Edinburgh, but also giving them the chance to compare such works to examples by these artists in local galleries. ‘Melbourne’s Raeburn, the portrait of James Wardrop, easily stands the comparison,’ Burdett wrote in Art in Australia (15 May 1937). ‘As a bit of painting it is probably superior to the Campbell portrait.’

Few Australians got to travel to the UK, so events like these closed the gap usually bridged by syndicated news, exported literature and the artworks purchased in London for their public galleries. The Empire Art Loans offered an invaluable and unprecedented opportunity for viewing British art.

Early Career Fellowship

My Early Career Fellowship gave me a valuable writing year to consolidate my archival visits and conference papers into the book manuscript for British Art for Australia: The acquisition of artworks from the United Kingdom by Australian national galleries, 1860-1953 (Routledge: forthcoming).

Despite the usual challenges of academic life  – including a busy teaching and administrative workload, an Australian National University Fellowship in Canberra, a Leverhulme Prize project and the buying-out of the publishing company with whom I had a contract – this book will soon go to press, and will hopefully be timely, addressing the 2018 Commonwealth theme of ‘Towards a Common Future’. The efforts in the past of the Australian national galleries to collect art from the UK underlines a conscious attempt to cultivate shared values despite the distance and diverging practical interests involved, and from which we can hopefully learn when planning cultural activities yet to come.


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