The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists | SUBSCRIBE TO iTUNES PODCAST
etching, printed in black ink with plate tone, from one plate
22.4 x 22.5 cm (plate-mark)
World War II scene of American soldiers, young woman and Australian man on a Brisbane street
Sir William Dargie
27 November 1978 [unknown location]
James Gleeson: Sir William, we’re anxious to have as complete a background for the National Gallery, its history and development, as possible, and undoubtedly you’re the right person to come to for information of this kind. I wonder if you could cast your mind back to your earliest recollections of the Gallery and the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and tell us what you remember of those days.
Sir William Dargie: I’d have to go back a fair way, and I’m not the only person who should be consulted. There are at least two other people still alive who should be able to give information. In addition, there’s a Commonwealth Public Servant who was associated with the old Art Advisory Board for many years and she, Mrs Valda Leehy, should be able to help you and possibly correct any errors of fact which may have crept into my memory.
James Gleeson: Well, Valda is still working with the Gallery and she is getting together her recollections and information to help us. I’ve already had a brief talk—not a very extensive one—with Tas Drysdale, and he’s given us some information. But since you were associated with it longer than anyone, you’re the prime source really.
Sir William Dargie: Well, I think I should say in the first instance that the idea of a National Gallery was first mooted to our first Prime Minister, Barton, by two artists, Tom Roberts and John Ford Patterson.
James Gleeson: John Ford or Ambrose?
Sir William Dargie: No, I think it was John Ford Patterson.
James Gleeson: John Ford.
Sir William Dargie: The father of Betty and Esther Patterson. This resulted in agreement in principle by that first cabinet, that eventually there should be a National Gallery in Canberra. It was first defined as a National Portrait Gallery, because in those days portraits were regarded—this is a matter of a change, historical change in taste—as possibly one of the most important forms of art. Historically one can see that people who are creating the first government, the first national government of Australia, were concerned to have some record of the personalities who had brought this about and would continue with the government in the future.
James Gleeson: Quite so.
Sir William Dargie: Well, nothing in fact was done because it wasn’t until 1927 that Parliament House was built in Canberra, or let us say the first buildings went up in Canberra because with Parliament House went the places for people to live, and of course the first shopping centre, Civic Centre. It was about that time, before the war, that I first became acquainted with Canberra, because my father-in-law at that time was in Canberra with the Government Printing Office. Now, I think it’s best for me to get straight on to my recollections of the Art Advisory Board which date from 1952.
James Gleeson: Bill, before that, at one stage there was an institution called the Historic Memorials Committee or Commission—Committee I think. Now, was that an ancestor of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board?
Sir William Dargie: No. But I’m rather surprised that you should speak of that in the past tense.
James Gleeson: It’s still—
Sir William Dargie: Yes. Let me put it quite plainly. The Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, throughout its history, was an advisory board only—in theory. The fact that in practice it exercised something very close to executive functions is really beside the point. In theory it remained, from its inception until it was dissolved, advisory only. It was advisory to the government of the time. Not to any particular minister, although it was incorporated into the Prime Minister’s Department. A parallel with the Art Advisory Board was the Historic Memorials Committee, which was composed of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the President of the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Normally, the Art Advisory Board reported and recommended to the Historic Memorials Committee.
Sir William Dargie: But I tell you, in view of what I’ve been talking about, about the old Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, I hope that when it’s opened, somebody has the common humanity to put the names of Will Ashton, Daryl Lindsay, Bob Campbell, Doug Pratt, and I suppose to a great extent myself, but I don’t care about that. These should be recorded as the initiators—
James Gleeson: Of the scheme.
Sir William Dargie: Of the whole scheme. It should be a plaque or something like that.
James Gleeson: I think that’s a marvellous idea.
Sir William Dargie: Well I think it should be done because, although I did a lot of work, I didn’t do the basic hard work. It was Will Ashton, and it was Daryl Lindsay who really got successive Prime Ministers just up and over that hump, this thing which had been talked about since our first Prime Minister. Another thing, this is just a little post script to what I was saying about the Art Advisory Board. Bob Menzies, John Gorton, Harold Holt, and McMahon, all came around to the policy that there should never be an appointment to the Art Advisory Board unless the person appointed was a full time practicing artist. There were to be no other people but artists.
James Gleeson: That’s a pretty revolutionary rule.
Sir William Dargie: There were to be no others. There were to be no directors. You may laugh at this, James, but I went even further in a way. I said I didn’t want anybody on the Board who didn’t have private means. I think it was Peter Howson asked me why, because it seemed a really extreme statement, I said, ‘I think there are going to be great problems of principle that will have to be decided, or resolved. I’d like to feel that somebody who objected to this or that or the other thing, instead of going along, would just resign because they’d know it didn’t mean twopence to them’. I think I was a bit extreme but at the time I could see certain things coming up.