The James Gleeson oral history collection

James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists

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Valda Leehy

8 February 1980

James Gleeson: Valda, what I want to ask you was all sorts of questions about the early days of the organisations that led up to the National Gallery. That takes us right back to the old Advisory Board.

Valda Leehy: That's right. I first came into Prime Minister's Department, which was a Secretariat for the old Art Advisory Board, in January 1953. At that time it had just been reformed following the death of Jimmy McDonald. Lewie McCubbin had gone to Adelaide and he had died too and they decided then, or Prime Minister Menzies had decided–it used to only be a four man board–that it would be enlarged. That brought Robert Campbell in, who was then Director of the South Australian Gallery; Daryl Lindsay also, who was of course then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria; Bill Dargie, who was well known, of course, as a portrait painter.

James Gleeson: Was it known as the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board?

Valda Leehy: It's been known as the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board since 1912 or 13. It was originally envisaged by Deakin to set up two bodies really, a political or a parliamentary body, to be advised by an art advisory board with the idea of obtaining portraits of politicians, meaning really prime ministers, speakers of the house and presidents of the senate as well as the Governor General. That had been done. There's long correspondence between Deakin and Tom Roberts about the setting up of some sort of body which would give Australian artists some sort of opportunity in their own country. Because there was very little for a professional artist in Australia, I think, at that time.

James Gleeson: This goes back to the early part of the century?

Valda Leehy: That's right. That would have been around about 1908. Deakin had the idea, but it actually didn't come into operation as an idea until Andrew Fisher became Prime Minister. I'm not so sure there, it's about 1910 or 11.

James Gleeson: At that stage then there was no idea, I suppose, that it would develop into a national gallery?

Valda Leehy: No, no idea at all; although, as we have said in all the publicity, Burley Griffin's plan provided galleries. I understand–and this is going back to a recollection of the man who was Secretary of the Art Advisory Board when I came into the Department–

James Gleeson: Who was that?

Valda Leehy: Frank McKenna, he was Deputy Secretary of the Department, who said that in 1913 apparently there was a move towards getting a gallery of some sort. I've never been able to find any record of that. There certainly was another move in 1921 but hard times came and the 13 thousand pounds that apparently they had put aside to start the gallery was put out. That was really the end of the gallery project until we get right up to modern times when there was a Senate Committee inquiring into the future of Canberra. Now, that was in the fifties. I can get you the date because we've still got the evidence around. The Art Advisory Board was asked to attend that Senate Committee to talk about the desirability of a gallery for Canberra. Of course, always old Will Ashton, his one dream had been to see the beginning at least, or plans for an art gallery. He, of course, died before anything went on.

James Gleeson: Yes, (inaudible).

Valda Leehy: That's right. Well, that would have been in the fifties. Then we come, as I say, a gallery was mooted but it was sort of—and the Senate Committee recommended the establishment of a gallery. Then later it was out of a lot of this background that the NCDC was set up to bring Canberra back to the Burley Griffin idea as much as it could be brought back. That meant when they decided to go ahead with putting the lake in and doing that part and having this central axis thing they've got and what they are now calling the Parliamentary Triangle. The bottom part of the triangle, one side will be the National Library with the apex with Parliament House here, and the National Gallery and the High Court at the other angle of the Parliamentary Triangle, and that would be confined to those buildings.

James Gleeson: There would be no other buildings in the Parliamentary Triangle?

Valda Leehy: No. No. As I say, there are the arms of Government. There's a library for educational purposes and the High Court.


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