The story of Australian printmaking 1801-2005
30 March – 3 June 2007

View Gallery of Selected works

John Lewin 'Spotted grossbeak' 1805

John Lewin Spotted grossbeak1805 intaglio etching Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail


Roger Butler has been very busy. As Senior Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings, he is hosting a reunion of the class of 1801–2005, gathering together old and new friends from across the Gallery’s extensive collection of Australian prints to share with you The story of Australian printmaking.

The celebrations will begin on 30 March and there will be many familiar faces amongst the crowd – John Brack’s stormy-faced Third daughter, armfuls of Margaret Preston bouquets and frog-chorused Olsen waterholes – along with some guests of honour that many of you will not have met before as they have only recently moved into the Gallery or have previously been too fragile to attend such events. But a get-together like this occurs only so often, and this one has been twenty-five years in the making – with the guest list showing the extent of the journey the Gallery has taken since Roger began in 1981 filled with an enthusiastic vision for the future of the nation’s collection. Over the years, with the support of different directors and the Gallery Council, and assisted with generous funding from philanthropist Gordon Darling, he has worked steadily to fill the gallery with historical rarities and works by overlooked artists, expanding the collection to over 36,000 prints, posters and illustrated books. With so many significant prints to choose from for this exhibition, Roger has focused on a shortlist of almost 600 individuals who have played significant roles in this (hi)story – and has invited them to tell you their tales of exploration and adventure, of innovation and desperation, of fears well founded and hopes realised.

Caught up in the excitement and whirl of activity associated with such an undertaking, the prints have been busy preparing for their social debut. Many have been in Conservation, soaking a century or two of dirt and grime from their papery skin, having age spots lightened or small tears in their fabric mended. With their colours revived and their costumes freshly pressed, they are wheeled downstairs to have their measurements recorded and are fitted for their framing. Then it’s off to have their photographs taken for an extensive two-volume publication and website before moving into the waiting room to await the cue for their grand entrance.

Fanny de Mole ' Gum wattle and silver wattle'

Fanny de Mole Gum wattle and silver wattle from Wild flowers of South Australia Adelaide: Paul Jerrard & Son, 1861 hand-coloured lithograph printed image Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

While they gather, there are surreptitious sidelong glances as garments and accoutrements are examined and compared. Due to the size of this exhibition, there is an impressive array of techniques and textures on show, including glimpses of the fine tracery of copperplate engravings and the stately rich blacks of the mezzotint; the characteristic burred line of the drypoints and the soft sweep of the lithographic crayon.

Gathered together, the works begin to talk among themselves, with the tales of the colonial works drawing an instant audience. These prints were made during a time of discovery and hardship, and they document the beginnings of settlement – of strangers in a faraway land – often commemorating the achievements and, with hindsight, revealing devastating failings. Despite their significance, some of the early prints are a little nervous as they have not been seen in public for almost 200 years and are easily recognised in the huddle of men tugging at their starched collars and women conferring behind their fans. This is in marked contrast to many of the works made towards the end of the nineteenth century, when artists such as Tom Roberts and Lionel Lindsay began to make prints as an adjunct art form to painting and drawing. This shift in the intention moved printmaking from being a functional tool for recording and reproducing information to an inventive approach to translating personal experience into images. This change is easily appreciated in the flattened designs of modernist works during the 1920s, such as the self-assured relief prints of Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Dorrit Black. Preston’s 1936 woodcut Banksia and fungus strides confidently into the room and shakes your hand firmly as you take in the boldly outlined banksia candles and the branch enveloped in the luminous orange brackets of fungi. The candour and strength of the work stems from the artist’s unerring eye for the possibilities within the organic forms of the local vegetation, and openness to the beauty that is contained within imperfection.

Preston’s use of native flora catches the attention of the small group of nineteenth-century flower books by watercolorists including Fanny de Mole, Annie Walker and Marian Ellis Rowan. The earlier entrance of these lithographed beauties had drawn gasps of admiration at their corsage-like sprays of delicate wildflowers, with each botanical species sensitively hand-coloured. These ornamental lithographed gift books combined the demure feminine pastimes of flower arranging with watercolour drawing, but due to the inclusion of Latin nomenclature these books also became aligned with the emerging science of botany. They are also anxious to make the acquaintance of the works by the natural historian John Lewin and the appearance of the 1813 edition of his pioneer publication – Birds of New South Wales and their natural history – causes a flurry of excitement with everyone jostling to catch a glimpse of this rare attraction. It was the first illustrated book to be published in Australia, and contains proofs from the 1803 edition, the first etchings printed in Sydney. Inside are detailed etchings of eighteen species of birds encountered by Lewin following his arrival in 1800, including the three-toed kingfisher, the warty-face honeysucker and a pair of spotted grosbeaks – with each hand-coloured etching singing from the page.

William Nicholas William Baker publisher ' The flying pieman

William Nicholas William Baker publisher The flying pieman
(William Francis King)
from Heads of the people Sydney: Baker lithograph printed image Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

This work begins an unexpected conversation with a series of allegorical lithographs produced in 2004 by Aotearoa New Zealand artist, Shane Cotton, at the Australian Print Workshop in Melbourne. Their animated discussion reveals that both use birds as an intermediary to show the meeting of two cultures, with the English-born Lewin documenting the unfamiliar native Australian bird life around the settlement in the name of science, and Cotton creating a dialogue between Maori and Pakeha (non-indigenous New Zealander) perspectives using the shared spiritual symbolism of birds including the goldfinch and the swallow. In Kikorangi, which translates as ‘firmament’, a pair of these tiny birds appears either side of a mokomokai – sacred shrunken heads of the Maori that were later traded with the colonists for muskets in the eighteenth century.

The tale of this practice causes worried expressions to appear on the portraits within the 1847 illustrated journal, Heads of the People, sending a wave of laughter rippling through the crowd. The publication contains numerous skilful lithographs by William Nicholas of notable men of the day, including The governor (Sir C.A. Fitz Roy), and The inspector of nuisances (T.Stubbs). A crowd has gathered around The flying pieman (William Francis King). The celebrated long-distance walker strikes a pose in his customary outfit of knee breeches and staff, and recounts tales of his unusual feats of pedestrianism, including his signature act in which he would sell pies to passengers boarding the steamer at Circular Quay in Sydney, before walking eighteen miles at speed to meet them as they alighted at Parramatta.

As more and more prints are wheeled into the waiting area, the atmosphere becomes one of expectation as Views in New South Wales (the first set of views printed in Australia) is rumoured to make a rare appearance. Its story begins with its publication in 1812–13 by pardoned entrepreneur Absalom West, and has the added curiosity of the twenty-four cloud-laden panoramas having been meticulously engraved by convicts Philip Slager and Walter Preston. These inauspicious beginnings cause a stir as the Views enter the room, and those gathered press forward eagerly to inspect the finely engraved landscapes, which show some of the earliest images of the Indigenous population interacting with the new settlers. The prints detail the beginnings of the Port Jackson colony, with Botany Bay Harbour, with a view of the heads capturing the event as the English ships sail through the Heads towards local aborigines hunting and fishing by the foreshore, while Port Jackson Harbour shows the Indigenous population separated from the fast-expanding colony sited across the bay.

detail: George Lambert 'Chesham Street' 1910 oil on canvas Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack Desolation, Internment camp, Orange, N.S.W. 1941 woodcut printed image Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Gift of Olive Hirschfeld 1979 more detail

The details within these scenes momentarily fill the air with memories of salt spray, wood smoke and sweat causing a succession of stories to start up about the scarcity of materials in the early days of printmaking. West’s Views speak of being printed on a wooden press built by workmen in the colony, then Lewin’s Birds of New South Wales pipe up with a chorus of anecdotes about the days of printing with copper plates salvaged from the hulls of sailing ships and Lewin’s own printing ink being made from charcoal mixed with gum and shark oil. This is quickly answered by etchings by Lionel Lindsay who describe how the artist made a press from a recycled knife-sharpening machine during the early 1900s. These tales of ‘making do’ with humble materials are joined by a group of works produced during the Second World War in internment camps in Hay, Orange and Tatura by German and Italian-born artists including Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Erwin Fabian and Bruno Simon. The Bauhaus-trained artist Hirschfeld Mack taught some of his fellow detainees the technique of monotype printing, using old windowpanes or discarded Masonite, and printing ink made from black shoe polish. The shortage of materials in these barren surroundings made woodcuts another popular technique, and Mack’s 1941 print, Desolation, Internment Camp, Hay, is one of the simplest but strongest statements made in this medium. In this eloquent print, the silhouette of a solitary figure is seen at night looking at the Southern Cross through the barbed wire fence of the camp. Made by an artist far from home, there is a palpable sense of despair and isolation beneath the alien night sky.

The sight of the stars gives rise to many different associations among those assembled. For Badu Island printmaker Dennis Nona, they tell the story of his homeland, and his large 2004 linocut print, Awai Thithuiyil, is named after the western Torres Strait Island name for the Pelican constellation. This intricate work shows the position of the stars during the turtle-mating season. Above the hand-coloured turtles stands the spirit figure, Zugubau Mabaig, who is the custodian of the stars. He is teaching the story to the next generation, represented by the five human figures below him. This rich narrative is part of Nona’s cultural heritage, with the intricate details cut from a large roll of linoleum using the traditional wood-carving skills taught to Nona as a young boy.

detail: Mike Parr John Loane printer

detail: Mike Parr John Loane printer
LAMD [Lamella, Australopithecus, Manic-Depression 2001 carborundum and woodblock printed image
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

This southern sky was mapped almost two centuries earlier by Thomas Mitchell in his Chart of the Zodiac and expertly engraved by the deaf and mute artist John Carmichael in 1831. The pinpricks of light shine out from the deep black of the mezzotint, showing the position of the stars used as markers to guide the travels of the new settlers. Astronomy was a practical navigational skill that helped men voyage across the inky black sea or find their way through miles of shadowy bushland at nightfall. The unfamiliarity of the terrain kept early settlers clinging to the coastline until explorers such as Burke and Wills ventured into the unknown interior – terra incognita.
Henry Sadd’s sombre mezzotint portraits of these iconic figures were produced as commemorative works in 1861 from earlier daguerreotypes by Thomas A Hill. They were etched the year after the explorer Robert O’Hara Burke and his surveyor, astronomer William John Wills, set off on their ill-fated expedition from Melbourne to cross the inland deserts of Australia. The deep funereal blacks afforded by the mezzotint technique lend a poignancy to the images, which show Burke sitting with folded arms, gazing thoughtfully off to one side while the younger Wills stares directly out of the oval frame.

Their reflective mood is echoed in Mike Parr’s introspective woodcut, LAMD [Lamella, Australopithecus, Manic-Depression]. This massive print of 2001 continues the artist’s ongoing self-portrait project, which turns his unflinching gaze upon himself. He carved his likeness into twelve large woodblocks, later assembled as six mirrored identities. Lamella refers to the plate-like structures found in nature, which is repeated in the horizontal grid, whilst Australopithecus was a distant primate ancestor that roamed the earth millions of years ago. The allusion to manic depression is underscored in the deeply gouged marks that contain an intensity of emotion within their gestural line work. Printed in dark, impassive black on an algal-coloured background, this work is at once huge and quiet – in marked contrast with the confrontational aspects of Parr’s performance pieces. His politically questioning art is in good company with a mass demonstration of socially orientated posters that have gathered in a rowdy group to the left. These screenprints were produced in print workshops such as Redback Graphix and the Earthworks Poster Collective during the 1980s, using feisty Day-Glo inks to shout protestations about issues including Indigenous health, land rights, nuclear disarmament and AIDS awareness. Exhibited in plain sight – pinned up in community centres, stapled onto telegraph poles and glued onto hoardings – the intensity and passion of these voluble posters remains undiminished more than twenty years later.

Their infectious energy has caused the volume in the waiting area to rise, with the air thickly woven with
assorted threads drawn from a roomful of stories. When Roger arrives he has to shout to make himself
heard above the hubbub. ‘It’s time’, he bellows, pausing his guests mid-sentence. And like old friends who need no telling, they begin to move towards the waiting gallery, falling into chronological order like clockwork. They take their places, whispering with their neighbours in anticipation of the conversations ahead – the sharing of experiences that leads to connections being formed between old ideas and new possibilities.

Suddenly everyone is hushed and there is no more fidgeting; Roger nods his encouragement as the doors open; and as the exhibition begins his guests smile a warm welcome as they move forward to greet you.

Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax
Gordon Darling Intern, Australian Prints and Drawings



Sponsors of The story of Australian printmaking 1801-2005 are:


Principal Sponsor:

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The Gordon Darling Foundation logo Saville Parke Suites logo Casella Wines logo


The 6th Australian print symposium
Convened by Roger Butler, curator of the exhibition. National Gallery of Australia 30 March – 1 April 2007
Symposium program >>
Bookings essential phone +61 2 6240 6537 or download the booking form >>