Entries from November 2013 ↓

Australia at the Royal Academy

Iconophilia is pleased to post the text of Ian McLean’s talk given at the Royal Academy symposium on November 1st, 2013.

‘Anxious identities: Reinventing Australia in a changing world’

A child of the Enlightenment, the conception of Australia was inadvertently set in train by the Royal Society 245 years ago, coincidentally the same year that the Royal Academy was established. I say inadvertently because the Royal Society had its eyes on Venus, not Australia. An afterthought of Cook’s secret mission to explore the South Pacific after the transit of Venus, Australia was unintended and unloved from the beginning. Be that as it may, the result was its birth as an idea and eventually a nation.

Beginning with these thoughts is my way of acknowledging this venerable institution, the appropriateness of the exhibition ‘Australia’ being here, as well as a mentor, Bernard Smith. He believed Australian art began under the sign of the Royal Society not the Royal Academy, by which he meant it was about nature and science, not neo-classicism and fine art. I think he put too much weight on this difference. For me they were essentially the same institution: each an arm of the Crown and Empire. Nineteenth-century Australian art is a happy alliance of neo-classicism, naturalism and science, and so has a natural home here, in Burlington House, which the Royal Society and Royal Academy shared for 100 years. Half the art in this exhibition, the first half, really belongs to it. It is the art of Empire, not Australia, which conveniently narrows my topic to the other half of the exhibition. Continue reading →