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The Joseph Brown Collection is renown as the most generous gift to ever be made to a public gallery in Australia. In 2004, collector and art dealer Joseph Brown donated a major part of his finest collection of Australian art to the National Gallery of Victoria. The collection consisted of over 150 works, including paintings, sculptures and drawings. The collection is permanently on display in the Ian Potter Centre, part of the National Gallery of Victoria. It showcases a wonderful display of Australian art from colonial times to the present day. Walking through the exhibition the viewer is given a history of Australian art and an insight into Australia's history. The earliest works include engravings from the first days of the colony, and early "European looking" landscapes of Australia. Also included are paintings from the Heidelberg era from the late 19th century, post impressionist works of the early 20th century as well as colourful abstract paintings and many modern and post-modern Australian paintings of the later 20th century. The collection also contains a few works by Australian Aboriginal artists.
Joseph Brown was born in Poland and migrated to Australia in 1933, at the age of sixteen. After settling in Melbourne, he purchased his first artwork with his first wage - the beginning of what was to become a magnificent collection. He trained initially as an artist, but after returning from war service in 1945, became increasingly involved in the fashion industry. He later became a leading art dealer and consultant, promoting a wide range of Australian artists, both historical and contemporary. He reclaimed the work of forgotten artists, he mentored and introduced many new artists, and was a great advocate for portraiture as an art form. Brown encouraged the collecting of contemporary art by emerging painters and regularly introduced experimental abstract work into his exhibitions, which involved some risk - taking. He introduced Melbourne collectors to the work of Roger Kemp and later William Delafield Cook, among many others (The Australian, 2009). Simultaneously he built up an outstanding private collection of Australian art. " The Joseph Brown Collection will forever tell the story of the immigrant who became an artist and soldier, a scholar and connoisseur, a successful businessman and an art dealer; a man who made who made a huge and enduring difference to the Australian art world" (NGV, 2004, p9).
When you first walk into the exhibition you are presented with a striking red wall (see figure 1, p7). Some of the best 19th century paintings are displayed in this front area, showing the marvelous detail of the early European looking landscapes of Australia. To the left is the unmissable painting Yalla-y-Poora (1864) by Eugene von Guerard (see figure 2, p7).
Von Guerard was an accomplished artist producing many fine drawings, watercolours and oils of the South-Eastern Australian landscape. His paintings provide an accurate historical record of early settlement in the Colony especially of goldfields, towns and large properties. As shown in his extraordinary painting Yalla -y-Poora the Western new homestead nestles in its grounds on a bend of Fiery Creek. Its gracefully curved approach enables the viewer to follow the gum trees along Fiery Creek to the grand house and garden and outbuildings, yarded sheep, roving geese and cows, riders and rowboats. Nature has been accurately depicted. Members of the family linger on the porch, having farewelled the guests, who carriage has just left the formal gardens and now approaches the bridge. But this lifestyle of leisure is the reward of industry, and von Guerard also shows us the mechanics of a working property. A drover and his dog drive a flock of sheep across the foreground, and the eye rises to the mountain and woolshed, which presides over the scene (NGV 2004). The vast emptiness above the minute detail of the creek below, with busy creek side activity depicted, creates an extraordinary and very fundamental image. Exact geometry builds the picture, which is one of Von Guerard's greatest.
Though works by Aboriginal artists in the collection are few, the largest off all Australian themes - colonization of other people's land and culture is present. The earliest engravings from 1789 - 1812 focus on Aboriginal life around the harbor at Sydney. An 1820 watercolor by Richard Browne of the Aboriginal woman Killigrant (see figure 3, p 8) shows her returning from traditional food gathering activities. It portrays an aboriginal woman carrying a fishing line and basket with a net bag slung traditionally around her forehead to stretch down her back. The work emphasizes her arm, neck and waste bands and body and facial markings. Versions of this work exist in many collections with various spellings of different names for the same subject. It has been suggested that Browne created each watercolour from a traced template, hence the inexact similarities between limited portfolios of identities that he drew from over a concerted five-year period. (NGV, 2004)
"One noticeable characteristics of Joseph Brown's entire career as an art dealer was his special enthusiasm for portraiture..." (NGV, 2004, p14). In the collection there are eight portraits of Joseph Brown included. The earliest of these is a pencil drawing by William Dobell, produced over the course of one day at the artist home. It shows Joseph Brown in 1967. Other portraits by his contemporaries included drawings by John Brack, Louis Kahan and Dorothy Braund. Also included is an oil portrait by Arthur Boyd and a formal oil portrait by Wes Walters painted in 1983, "which shows Joseph Brown regaled in the robes of a Doctor of Laws, an honory distinction awarded by Monash University in 1981 in recognition of his service to the visual arts" (NGV, 2004, p15), (see figure 4, p9). This portrait is displayed at the end of the exhibition along with some of Browns' artworks. Through this painting you can feel Joseph Brown's presence, it immediately attracts the viewers attention through its large scale, colour and composition. At the opposing end however, at the start of the exhibition, is a framed A4 sized sketched portrait of Joseph Brown, by Charles Bush dated 1980. It was nice to see an image, at both the start and the end of the exhibition, to remind you of the person who is the whole reason behind this generous exhibition.
Highlights of the Joseph Brown Collection include one of Australia's finest paintings, Autumn Memories 1989 by Frederick McCubbin; John Glover's A Mountain Torrent c. 1837; as mentioned Yalla-Y-Poora 1864 by Eugène von Guérard; In The Artist's Studio 1891 by Arthur Streeton; a collection of works by John Peter Russell, including Almond Tree In Blossom 1887 and Rough Sea, Belle Ile 1900; Tree Form 1945 by Russell Drysdale; Floating Dock and Tugboats by John Perceval 1956; Arthur Boyd's Bride and Groom by a Creek c.1960; Cricketer 1955 by Fred Williams; Nude With Dressing Gown 1967 by John Brack (NGV 2009).
The Joseph Brown collection provides us with a wonderful display of artworks representing Australian Art, including paintings from major periods, from the 19thand through to the early and mid-20th century. "...to represent the new and to embrace previously neglected kinds of art. The collection also shed bits of its past growth" (NGV 2004, p27). The individual works may not be the best by the artist however, the collection gives you an insight to Australian art history. ''I would like all Victorians to feel they are elite citizens who own this collection, to which I am now making my own contribution,'' Brown said. ''Feel yourselves rich for having it, and for enjoying it with your children and grandchildren" (The Age, 2009). The full richness of Australian art is experienced and is expressed in the Joseph Brown Collection. We are very fortunate to be able to have this work on permanent display, for all viewers to enjoy. This exhibition is a wonderful tribute to a man who gave so much.