Decorative Arts & Design

Introduction | Essay | Support | Ballets Russes

The National Gallery of Australia signalled a renewed commitment to decorative arts and design in the year 2000 with the establishment of a dedicated department encompassing the Australian and international collections under a single curatorship. The staging of the exhibition, Material Culture: Aspects of Contemporary Australian Craft and Design , in early 2002 highlighted the Gallery’s purpose – to take a leading role in the acquisition, documentation and exhibition of decorative arts and design. The exhibition featured innovative approaches to functional decorative objects by some of Australia’s most experienced designers and craft practitioners through recent acquisitions of ceramics, glass, textiles, furniture, jewellery and metalwork.

Decorative arts at the Gallery had its beginnings in the mid-1950s when the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board began to acquire a small number of Australian objects (mostly contemporary ceramics) as furnishing and decoration for official establishments in Australia and overseas. These acquisitions were absorbed into the national collection following the Commonwealth government’s endorsement of the proposal for a national gallery in the late 1960s, and a systematic collecting policy came to be implemented.

The acquisitions policy outlined in the National Gallery’s first Annual Report (for 1976–77), was clear in its intention that the national collection would contain both the fine and applied arts. The policy in relation to the decorative arts was defined in some detail:

’The Australian National Gallery will acquire objects in the decorative arts to support and complement the painting and sculpture collections from 1850. It will be particularly interested in those objects of artist/craftsmen and designers, which have influenced subsequent design. The Gallery is concerned that its collection of the Decorative Arts, although a supporting collection, has historical coherence and consistency.’

The Annual Report went onto describe two distinct areas of interest within the decorative arts collection – fashion and theatre arts – that would form archives of material for temporary exhibitions rather than part of the Gallery’s display collections’. The parameters and purpose of these two specialist areas were clearly specified:

image: Pippin Drysdale 'Koh-E-Nida' 200 glazed porcelain Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Pippin Drysdale 'Koh-E-Nida' 2000 glazed porcelain Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

’Fashion: The Gallery will collect costumes by the outstanding designers of this century and those costumes which represent notable, influential and characteristic fashion design of a particular period. The Gallery intends that this aspect of its collection will be a resource for designers, students and historians. Ultimately it believes that when the collection has grown to a sufficient size it might form a separate annexe or branch museum.

Theatre arts: The Gallery will collect the work of major 20th century theatre designers and of major artists who have worked for the theatre. The Gallery will, in addition, take an especial interest in creating an archive of Australian theatrical design and of the work of Australia’s leading theatre designers. The work to be collected will include drawings, models, costumes and props. Photographic and other supporting documentary material will also be acquired as part of this collection. The Gallery hopes to create a study collection of theatre design, presently lacking in Australia, which will document the history of Australian developments alongside international theatre design.’ 1

image: Emile Pingat 'Tea dress' c.1820 silk satin, silk velvet, glass beads, metallic thread, silk cord Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Emile Pingat 'Tea dress' c.1820 silk satin, silk velvet, glass beads, metallic thread, silk cord Collection of the National Gallery of Australia  click to enlarge

John McPhee was appointed in 1980 as the Gallery’s first Curator of Australian Decorative Arts. With his appointment the collections of ceramics, glass, textiles, metalwork and furniture were brought together with the express purpose of showcasing Australian achievement, not only in the traditional areas of the decorative arts and contemporary studio crafts, but also in the related fields of popular and folk art. 2 McPhee made recommendations for the acquisition of Australian colonial decorative arts that would form an authoritative foundation for the Australian decorative arts collection as a whole. These acquisitions commanded the Australian art galleries in 1988 in the landmark exhibition Australian Decorative Arts 1788–1988. 3

The decision to focus on contemporary decorative arts was timely, aligning with the resurgence of interest in the crafts in Australia since the beginning of the 1960s. It was an area of practice increasingly promoted by State and national crafts councils, and supported with the funding and advocacy of the Australia Council through its Crafts Board which was established in 1973.

The Crafts Board had four well-defined aims in forming its own collection and in mounting exhibitions of Australian decorative arts. These were seen as providing assistance to artists by purchasing their work; encouraging State and regional art galleries in the acquisition of Australian decorative arts and mounting of exhibitions; acting as a counterbalance to the large number of exhibitions of contemporary decorative arts coming into Australia from overseas in the early 1970s; and supporting the Board’s long-range plan to develop in Australia a strong professional basis for activity in the decorative arts. 4

The activities of the Crafts Board during the 1970s resulted in its substantial collection of contemporary Australian craft in all media, much of it acquired for inclusion in the travelling exhibitions (within Australia and overseas) that were a central part of its program to expose and promote Australian crafts. 5 The works in these exhibitions were selected by a number of institutional and independent curators and experienced craft practitioners, resulting in collections of objects demonstrating a rich and representative cross-section of Australian contemporary craft practice.

image: Marguerite Mahood Figure of a mermaid with seal' 1947 glazed earthenware Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Marguerite Mahood 'Figure of a mermaid with seal' 1947 glazed earthenware Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

In 1980 the Crafts Board Collection, 6 by that time comprising 898 works, was given to the Gallery, providing a strong foundation for its subsequent acquisitions of contemporary Australian craft. It remains as a rich expression of a significant period in the development of Australian craft practice and contains important early work by most of Australia’s now senior practitioners. Although much of the Crafts Board Collection has not been exhibited since the mid 1980s, recent acquisitions of some of the artists’ contemporary works are enabling links to be made to those earlier works, illustrating the continuity and development of their practice over almost half a century made with powerful conviction in recent ceramics by Milton Moon, Les Blakebrough and Mitsuo Shoji, glass by Nick Mount and Klaus Moje, jewellery by Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers, tapestry by Kay Lawrence and an installation work by Margaret West.

Strong curatorial oversight of Australian decorative arts lapsed with John McPhee’s departure in 1992, and development of the collection became less consistent – although many important works were acquired during the following decade on the recommendation of other curatorial staff assuming informal responsibility for parts of the collection at different times. In 1995 Jim Logan was appointed Assistant Curator, Australian Decorative Arts. He made an assessment of the collection and began to focus on acquisitions of works by younger makers and designers, then an under-represented group. He also focused attention on the Gallery’s extensive collection of Australian folk and popular art, producing the exhibition Everyday Art: Australian Folk Art, shown in Canberra in mid 1998, and travelling during 1998–99. Logan’s untimely death in 1998 left the Australian decorative arts collection again without curatorial direction, prompting speculation about the Gallery’s intentions for this part of its collections.

The collection and exhibition of decorative arts within the Gallery’s International Art Department began with the acquisition in 1973 of a group of costumes from the productions of the Ballets Russes, a collection that would develop to become one of the Gallery’s most important. 7 The fashion collection began in 1976 with the acquisition of a large group of garments and accessories by some of the leading couturiers of the early 20th century. These areas of the collection continued to be overseen from 1991 to 2001 by Roger Leong, Senior Assistant Curator, International Decorative Arts. His enthusiasm for the collection during the 1990s developed its European couturier focus, while expanding its breadth to include the contemporary work of significant Japanese, American and Australian designers. 8

The fashion collection contains outstanding examples of the work of influential contemporary designers such as Issey Miyake and Vivienne Westwood which, along with historical gowns from designers such as Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet and Cristobal Balenciaga, were shown in the Gallery’s major exhibition Dressed to Kill: 100 Years of Fashion in 1993. The extensive collection of costume and fashion (and related material such as journals, sample books and works on paper) is an important national resource for the study of these fields of design, and is regularly made available to researchers and students. It owes its good condition to the Gallery’s highly experienced textile and paper conservators.

image: Charles R. Ashbee 'Box with cover' 1900-01 sterling silver, enamle, blister pearls, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Charles R. Ashbee 'Box with cover' 1900–01 sterling silver, enamle, blister pearls, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

In 1978 the first acquisitions of international decorative arts began to address the policy of acquiring works by major designers and craft practitioners who have influenced design and the decorative arts since the beginnings of the modern movement in the late 19th century. From 1981 to 1992 this aspect of the collection was overseen by Michael Lloyd, Curator of European and American Art 1870–1970. 9 This was an important and sustained period of development for the collection when strong groups of work were acquired, illustrating through ceramics, glass, metalwork and textiles, the successive design movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Design Reform and the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau and Jugendstil, the Vienna Secession, the Bauhaus and Art Deco. Amongst these are important designs in glass, metal and ceramics by Christopher Dresser, glass and metal objects produced by designers Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser for the Wiener Werkstätte and an exceptional group of Russian Revolutionary ceramics from the 1920s. Later 20th-century design and craft is represented with fewer works, but these areas are being augmented to show major developments.

The collection will be structured to show not only major developments in Australian and international decorative arts, craft and design but also the critical relationships between them over the past 150 years. The scope of collecting is being expanded to encompass developments in new media and technology within the craft and design field, and to reflect the expanding dimension of these practices in relation to the wider arena of other art, interior design, architecture, performance and popular culture. This is illustrated in the recent acquisition of Dress 4, a powerful cast glass sculpture by the American artist, Karen LaMonte; Repair Series, a group of computer-generated, jacquard-woven textiles by the Australian weaver, Liz Williamson; and Light Sculpture, an architectural-scale work by the German-born Australian metalsmith and designer, Frank Bauer.

The renewed focus on decorative arts and design through the Gallery’s new curatorial department has meant that both Australian and international decorative arts are again forming a visible part of integrated displays of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, as they did at the start.

Robert Bell Senior Curator Decorative Arts and Design


1 Australian National Gallery Annual Report 1976/77, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1978, p. 13. 2 Christopher Menz, Curatorial Assistant Australian Decorative Arts, worked with John McPhee from 1985–88. 3 See John McPhee and Christopher Menz, Folk and Popular Art in Australia 1788–1988 and Australian Decorative Ads 1788–1900, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1988. 4 McPhee, Australian Decorative Arts: The past ten years, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1983, pp.1–2. 5 The major exhibitions commissioned by the Crafts Board of the Australia Council during this period were: Wood and Clay (1975); 10 Australian Jewellers (1975–77); Recent Ceramics: An Exhibition from Australia (1978–83); Objects to Human Scale: An Exhibition of Contemporary Australian Jewellery (1979–80); Australian Jewellery (1980); Contemporary Australian Ceramics (1983); Australian Crafts: A Survey of Recent Work (1978); Crafts in Gear (1978); Miniature Textiles (1976). 6 The collection is acknowledged as the ‘Crafts Board of the Australia Council Collection 1980’. 7 This development, from 1980 to 1986, was overseen by Diana Woollard, curatorial assistant responsible for Australian and international theatre arts within the International Art Department; and from 1986 by Robyn Healy, who had also been curatorial assistant responsible for the fashion collection from 1979 to 1989. See also Christine Dixon’s essay, ‘Museum pieces? The Russian Ballet collection’, Building the Collection, National Gallery of Australia 2003 pp.176–189. 8 See Roger Leong, Dressed to Kill: 100 Years of Fashion, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1993; and Roger Leong and Christine Dixon, From Russia With Love: Costumes for the Ballets Russes 1909–1933, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1999. 9 Fabio Angeletti, Curatorial Assistant, International Art, from 1985 to 1990, worked with Michael Lloyd on the development of international decorative arts acquisitions during that time.