Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2021

Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection, edited by Alisa Bunbury

If you weren’t too busy with festive season frivolity, you may remember a couple of December posts I did about books that had arrived in time only for me to suggest them as Christmas presents.  I provided this description of Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection, edited by Alisa Bunbury

A stunningly packaged hardback exploring the rich visual and textual material in the Grimwade Collection, and providing a unique perspective on Australia’s history.
The Russell and Mab Grimwade Bequest comprises a rich and sometimes unexpected variety of art, books and objects. A scientist, businessman and philanthropist, Sir Russell had wide-ranging interests embracing industry, history and botany. In all of these he was strongly supported by his wife Mab. The core of the bequest is Russell’s collection of visual and textual material, which provides a perspective on the European exploration of the Pacific and the British colonisation and settlement of Australia. His keen interest resulted in an extensive body of prints, drawings, watercolours and books, as well as oil paintings, decorative arts and personal records. These are jointly housed by the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, Special Collections (Library) and University Archives. Pride of Place is the first publication to explore the diversity of this remarkable collection. In this beautifully illustrated book, numerous experts share their interpretations of its highlights, responding to past historical attitudes and offering twenty-first century insights.

Pride of Place is a very beautiful, lavishly illustrated book for lovers of history, but there is much more to it than it seems at first glance.  As the introduction explains, this collection was gathered at a time when people thought very differently about exploration, colonisation and the acquisition of artefacts from other civilisations. Today’s attitudes are more respectful, and this requires a thoughtful reinterpretation of the materials in the collection.

There are all sorts of interesting snippets, *chuckle* such as the origin of the ‘man bun.’ Contrary to the light-hearted explanation at Vox, its first appearance in European circles may date from Sydney Parkinson’s 18th century portrait of a chieftain in New Zealand.  ‘Head of a New Zealander’ is in Alexander Dalrymple’s 1770-71 book about Cook’s voyage to New Zealand in 1769, and you can see it here. The discussion about this portrait is not (of course) as I have framed it on the origin of the ‘man bun’ but on the cultural significance of the young man’s appearance.  His ornaments indicate his chiefly status:

…a tall titireia (whalebone comb) inserted upright behind his piki (a smooth, tight, barrel-roll hairstyle that shows both his high rank and his region).  (p.43).

The contributor to this section of the chapter is one of a distinguished group of academics and experts who contextualise the items in the collection through a contemporary lens.  Dr Patricia Te Arapo Wallace is an adjunct fellow at the Aotahi School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury.  Her specialty is interdisciplinary research of traditional Maori dress, textiles and technology, and she not only explains the significance of features in this portrait, but also contributes this snippet of information that conveys so much about contemporary interpretations of items like this:

Dalrymple’s book was read by officers on board the Endeavour as a source of earlier information about Pacific exploration.  Joseph Banks referred to him when he noted a particular Maori garment: ‘It was tied on exactly as represented in Mr Dalrymple’s book, p.63’.  It was this observation, combined with a number of sketches by Parkinson and Cook’s other graphic artists that eventually led to the recovery of the tapeka, a traditional method of wrapping a cloak around the body that slipped out of practice and was forgotten during the process of colonisation. (p.43)

It’s chastening to realise that an unintended benefit of some colonial-era artwork can lead to the recovery of some cultural traditions.

Discussing another artwork by Parkinson, ‘Two of the Natives of New Holland, advancing to combat’ (which you can see here) Dr Shane Ingray, a Dunghutti/Dharawal man from the La Perouse community wrote his contribution with the Gadhungal Research Group, and these words are well worth noting:

Events of [Cook’s] eight-day ‘visit, which started on 29 April 1770 and was recorded by Cook, Banks and Parkinson, among others, generate mixed feelings for our community.  The natural, initial feelings as a Gamayngal person are usually sadness, anger and unforgiving dislike towards these initial intruders.  They stole weapons and removed plants from Country without permission, and made first contact with our people by firing shots from their muskets.  The events also represent the prelude to what happened eighteen years later and the start of the end for traditional life as we knew it.  Beyond these feelings, though, this depiction of two men can provide an educational experience and complement cultural knowledge still held in our community today.

He goes on to explain cultural aspects of the image, pointing out that the men depicted were upholding their cultural obligations when the visitors breached protocol, and then goes on to make a generous assessment of this artwork’s value in the present day:

…the educational value of this image outweighs the negative feelings that will always be associated with its history.  The family stories, local history and cultural perspective of the image evoke positive emotions as well: feelings of bravery, pride and resilience, a desire to stand strong no matter what, and the fighting spirit that are the characteristics many of our young community members possess—the same people who will one day be our leaders. (p.45)

Another of Parkinson’s artworks discussed in the same chapter is ‘A View of Endeavour River on the Coast of New Holland’ (which you can see here).  Alberta Hornsby, a First Nations woman connected to Ankkamuthi, Guugu Yimidhirr, Kuku Yalanji, Yidinji and Gangalida communities in Far North Queensland, contributes information that shows how lucky Cook was to land where he did when he struck the Great Barrier Reef and needed repairs on land.  Parkinson’s sketch is the first European-drawn landscape of Australia’s east coast.

This place is Waymburr, home to the Waymburr Warra clan, one of thirty-two clans of the Guugu Yimidhirr-speaking tribal area.  The bay is the mouth of the Walmbaal River, the river that Cook re-named the Endeavour River and it is the present-day site of the township of Cooktown.

Parkinson captures a feeling of tranquillity in this landscape.  Unbeknown to the artist, this place is embedded in Lore: it is a place of neutrality and peacefulness, where neighbouring clans visit to settle disputes, and conduct initiations and ceremonies.  It is a place where no blood is to be spilt. (p.47)

I wonder how many of the inhabitants of Cooktown know this fundamental aspect of their town’s history?

I haven’t finished reading the book but I wanted to post about these elements of Chapter One (‘Southern Seas’), because they seem to me to be emblematic of the book.  The selection of items from the collection serve to illustrate a different way of looking at our complex and contested history, in a way similar to Ochre and Rust, by Philip Jones. Ochre and Rust explored the histories of artefacts that represent the collision of Aboriginal and European culture, and it celebrated the innovative ways in which Indigenous people adapted their ancient technologies to take advantage of those which arrived with European settlement.  What’s different, though, in Pride of Place is the editorial choice to be inclusive in the choice of contributors to interrogate European artefacts, and this gives this book a role to play in the national debate, which is always fraught as Australia Day looms at the end of the month.

There’s another item which attracted my attention: Alexander Shaw’s Catalogue of the Different Specimens of Cloth Collected in the Three Voyages of Captain Cook (1787).  According to Dr Billie Lythberg, Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, whose specialty is exploring first exchanges between European and Pacific peoples, bark cloths were given to newcomers as a technology of containment to control their potentially dangerous mana (personal potency).  These beautiful cloths, intricately and delicately stitched, were essential to the establishment and maintenance of relationships.  Cook and his crew received these gifts of bark cloth during their voyages, but their artists could not conceive a way to represent their real meanings, sometimes resorting to romanticised portraits instead. Shaw, however, a bookseller and dealer in London, conceived the idea of gathering samples and making a book out of them.

Unique and beautiful, the Grimwade volume is an assemblage of meetings and presentations preserved in material form.

[…]

More than a mere interweaving of paper and cloth, more than miniature collections, these are artful compendia of mediations—between people and between worlds. (p.61)

Pride of Place is a form of mediation too, and it made me think about things differently. That is what I value in books more than anything else.

PS In the same chapter but in a section by book historian, curator and librarian at the State Library, Dr Anna Welch, I was fascinated to discover that Grimwade’s enthusiasm for collecting led to an eccentric item in the collection.  It’s Réstif de la Bretonne’s 1781 work of proto-science fiction.  It has a very long title in French, which translates to The Discovery of a Southern Land by a Flying Man, or, The French Daedalus.  It’s the only work of speculative fiction in the collection, somewhat out of place, perhaps, among all the NF texts in English about the real exploration of the Pacific by Europeans.  The novel’s rather fanciful plot anticipates piloted flying machines (i.e. the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in 1783) but also fuses French Enlightenment scientific and philosophical thought with satirical utopian fiction in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726.)  And we have this treasure right here in Melbourne! Maybe one day it will get an outing during Rare Books Week? (I reported on Anna’s Rare Book Week presentation about marginalia in 2019. She’s one of our city’s cultural treasures, IMO).

PPS The Potter Museum of Art, which houses the Grimwade Collection is closed for redevelopment at the moment, but according to their website, they are still hosting a program of events at different venues. Covid_19 notwithstanding, I’d be surprised if they didn’t offer an exhibition from the Grimwade Collection to coincide with the publication of this book. To find out what’s on and where, you can subscribe to their newsletter here.

About the editor: Alisa Bunbury has been Grimwade Collection Curator at the University of Melbourne since 2017. Prior to this she was Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia for many years. She has researched and curated exhibitions on numerous topics and now specialises in Australian colonial art. She also undertakes independent work and has received fellowships from State Library Victoria and the National Library of Australia.

Update 20/1/21 I’ve been reading this book on and off over the last ten days and tonight I finished the book.  It really is revelatory… it’s been teaching me a whole new way of looking at colonial art and its artefacts.  The chapter on Melbourne is (of course) especially interesting to me, not just because of the artworks, but because of the stories behind them.  (Fascinating to realise that for Grimwade, the Gold Rush was recent history, and Bushrangers were within living memory.) I also really liked the chapter on botanical art because it’s a favourite of mine.  For anyone interested in the relationship between art and history, this book is a treasure. 

Editor: Alisa Bunbury
Title: Pride of Place, Exploring the Grimwade Collection
Publisher: Miegunyah Press,
ISBN: 9780522876383, , hbk, 281 pages inclusive of 25 pages of Notes to the Reader, Abbreviations, Notes, an Index and Acknowledgements.
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Publishing.

Available from the MUP Bookshop, ($59.99 RRP) and good bookshops everywhere.


Responses

  1. I think a lot of Indigenous language and culture is revived via colonialist collections. Daisy Bates was almost certainly the only person to write down large slabs of Noongar (WA) language and culture, which she she thought was dying out more than a century ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, which is why I was so impressed by the way this book looks at colonial art and artefacts in an entirely different way.

      Like


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