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Thursday, April 22, 2021

NLA exhibition a ‘settler-colonial view’ of 19th century Australia

The National Library of Australia’s new exhibition, A Nation Imagined: The Artists of the Picturesque Atlas, gives insight into what the artists of the day thought important to capture in presenting Australia to the world 135 years ago.

A Nation Imagined, which opened 12 March, showcases original drawings and paintings from The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, a landmark journal published in 40 supplements between 1886 and 1889.

The project saw artists travel across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, producing over 800 sketches on the spot.

From there, many of the sketches were transposed onto wooden blocks via a time-consuming engraving process so they could be reproduced en masse for the Atlas.

Over 180 drawings, prints and paintings, as well as original engraving tools, are on display.

Co-curators Natalie Wilson and Dr Gary Werskey told Canberra Weekly the Atlas documented a settler-colonial view of Australian and served as a catalyst for Australian Impressionism.

“It told a story of how settler-colonial Australians saw the history of Australia, its achievements, and where it was going,” Werskey said.

The version of Australia depicted was one determined by white male settlers, with women mostly absent and no portrayals of Indigenous Australians.

“The blinkers were on,” Werskey said.

However, two female artists, Constance Roth and Ellis Rowan, were employed to create art for the Atlas.

Both Wilson and Werskey worked tirelessly over eight years to produce A Nation Imagined.

Wilson, an Art Gallery of New South Wales curator, said the exhibition was presented and produced in partnership between the Gallery and the Library.

“The Library has three of the most pristine copies of The Picturesque Atlas that we’ve seen in Australia, with all the original supplements,” she said.

“And don’t forget, The Picturesque Atlas is a book, so where else would you hold an exhibition on it but the National Library.”

The exhibition showcases the art of three of the Atlas’s artists – Julian Ashton, A. Henry Fullwood and Frank Mahony – and features works of other contributors.

Much of the art displayed hasn’t been seen in public in over 100 years, with many pieces privately owned.

A Nation Imagined: The Artists of the Picturesque Atlas is on show at the National Library of Australia, Parkes, until 11 July with entry free; nla.gov.au

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