A W I H i s t o r y
On 6 November 1923, a small notice appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, which read:
Australia hitherto has been without any society especially devoted to the encouragement of painting in watercolours. This rather curious omission is now being rectified, and the Australian Watercolour Institute has been formed…with a committee embracing Messrs B. E. Minns (chairman), A. J. Daplyn, J. A.Bennett. A. H. Fullwood, C.E.S. Tindall, J. W. Tristram, M. Stainforth, M. J. McNally, Arthur Streeton, Sydney Long, Septimus Power, Blamire Young and J. Eldershaw.1
Some months earlier, on Tuesday, 21st August 1923, six artists — B. E. Minns, Martin Stainforth, J.A. Bennett, C.E.S. Tindall, A.J. Daplyn and A.H. Fullwood — had met at 50 Young Street, Sydney, Daplyn’s residence, to establish a national society of professional watercolourists modelled on the British Royal Watercolour Society, founded in 1804, and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, founded in 1831, to redress the insufficient attention commanded by the medium in Australia. Their formulated objective was to encourage watercolour practice, as well as to promote the appreciation and ownership of watercolour paintings through exhibitions devoted exclusively to the medium.
The six founding members were all eminent artists of their era. Benjamin Edwin Minns (1863-1937), born in Dungog, New South Wales, had forged a formidable career as a watercolourist and black and white artist in both Australia and England, being chiefly known for his lyrical views of Sydney, pastoral landscapes and sympathetic portraits of aborigines, suffused with character, vigour and authority.
British-born Martin Stainforth (1866-1957) excelled in equine portraiture, notably emotive, finely detailed renderings of thoroughbreds, produced in Australia, New Zealand, England and the United States, which earned him a reputation as the finest painter of racehorses ever to have worked in this country.
His compatriot Joseph Arthur Bennett (1853-1929) attracted considerable notice for his portraiture and genre subjects while Charles Ephraim Smith Tindall (1863-1951), a Scotsman born in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, gained recognition for his marine imagery of Sydney Harbour and coastal New South Wales.
London-born painter, teacher and art critic, Alfred James Daplyn (1843-1926), was a French-trained early proponent of the Barbizon School of plein air painting in Australia, who had emigrated to this country in 1881, later becoming secretary of the New South Wales Art Society and its first painting instructor.
His didactic Landscape Painting from Nature in Australia: a manual for the student in oil and watercolours, was published by W.C. Penfold, Sydney, in 1900 and remained in print until 1953 when its sixth edition appeared.
Albert Henry Fullwood (1863-1930), Birmingham-born illustrator, etcher, watercolourist and Australian official war artist to the 5th Division during World War I, lived for a time with Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts at their artists’ camp at Sirius Cove, Sydney. Instrumental in the 1895 formation of the Society of Artists, he was also a founder, with John Shirlow, of the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society in 1920.
At a subsequent meeting in September, the appellation ‘Australian Watercolour Institute,’ proposed by A. H. Fullwood, was adopted by the society and nine other artists of repute were invited as foundation committee members, notably Arthur Streeton, John Eldershaw, Harold Herbert, Sydney Long, M.J. McNally, H. Septimus Power, J.W. Tristram and Blamire Young.2
These six distinguished watercolourists formed a committee, each paying one guinea membership fee. B.E. Minns was elected Chairman, diligently serving in the office of president for more than thirteen years, until his death in 1937, while the 79-year old Daplyn, who had instructed many of Australia’s practicing watercolourists, was elected Honorary Secretary and Treasurer.
The inaugural exhibition of the Australian Watercolour Institute, held at Anthony Horderns’ Fine Art Gallery from 25 March to 15 April 1924, was officially opened by His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales, Admiral Sir Dudley de Chair, who commended the quality of the works, ‘especially as many of them show the true Australian clarity of atmosphere and warm colour.’3 That the liquescent, transparent properties of the medium rendered it ideal for capturing the ephemeral effects of light and numinous beauty of the Australian landscape was a premise underpinning the formation of the incipient Institute.
The Committee’s manifesto contained in the catalogue of that exhibition challenged the hegemony of oil painting:
Painters in this medium are animated by the same high purpose and determination to excel as their colleagues in oil but, in united exhibitions, their claims for equal privileges have too often been sacrificed to work in the oil medium.
The Committee hope to remedy this state of affairs by exhibiting watercolours by themselves, thus enabling this beautiful art, so well adapted to render the subtle effects of the sunny Australian landscape, to attain the important place in Australia that it has long occupied in the art centres of Europe.
Eleven of the fourteen foundation members and thirty-two non-members participated in that first exhibition, the paintings by individual artists being hung in discrete panels. Among the painters represented were Norman Lindsay (who would be an AWI member from 1925 to 1952), Lionel Lindsay, Rah Fizelle (subsequently AWI President 1948-1951), M. J. McNally, Hubert Wesley Grace (later AWI President 1948-1951) and New Zealand-born Maud Sherwood, who was elected the first female committee member in 1925. Sherwood, one of Australia’s leading watercolourists whose paintings regularly garnered favourable notice in AWI annual exhibitions, would remain a member until her demise at ‘The Neuk’, Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, in 1956.
Hailed as ‘another milestone in the progress of Australian art,’4 the show was a critical and public success, with large attendances and many of the161 works, ranging in price from 3 to 75 guineas, being sold to the value of more than £300 (approximately AUS $28,500 in today’s currency).
The AWI inaugural exhibition established a format for subsequent annual shows, embracing a diversity of styles and subject matter, as they continue to do. By invitation or application, the submitted works of non-members of professional standing are selected, exhibited and reviewed. New members are recruited from these exhibitions, subject to a majority vote by ballot, often only after several showings, with a view to maintaining the highest possible standards. This stringent selective process, and exclusive system, in contradistinction to other Australian watercolour societies, remains in place.
The presence on the walls of works by such respected artists as B.E. Minns, Arthur Streeton, Hans Heysen, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, G.K. Townshend, Blamire Young, J.W. Tristram, M. J. McNally, Albert Collins, John Eldershaw, Rah Fizelle, Norman Lindsay, Margaret Coen, Fred Leist, Vida Lahey, Dora Jarret, Mervyn Napier Waller, George Duncan, Kenneth MacQueen, Lorna Nimmo, Ronald Steuart and Lloyed Rees would assure the standard of AWI exhibitions for several decades. Numerous watercolours in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and other major Australian art institutions were purchased from AWI annual exhibitions, which are an important event in the Sydney cultural calendar.
In its initial years, supported by a formidable phalanx of talent, the reputation of the AWI accrued, with a strong membership representing most states. The subsequent infusion of modernist aesthetics gave impetus to the Institute, as noted by the critic of the Sydney Morning Herald in relation to the 9th annual exhibition in 1932:
The signs of growth and experiment are of more ultimate importance in local art than a tradition which carries on by the weight of its own momentum for, unless it is refreshed by new influences, a tradition can easily become fusty and moth-eaten. And it is just the signs of contact with contemporary movements in Europe which form the encouraging thing about this Watercolour Institute show.5
Subsequently, the influence of AWI Presidents John Eldershaw, Rah Fizelle, Hal Missingham (Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1945 to 1971), Lorna Nimmo (the only female to fill the presidential chair) and George Duncan was crucial to the advancement of the Institute through their strategic recruitment of more experimental, modernist artists and further fostering of contemporary expressions in watercolour practice during the 1940s and 1950s.
In the following decades, Brian Stratton OAM dauntlessly guided the Institute through one of the most polemical periods in its history, with the emergence of a pluralism of styles and factionalism arising from the aesthetic conflict between proponents of representational and non-representational art. During his lengthy tenure as president from 1972 to 1985, Frederic Bates OAM was committed to increasing the membership of the AWI and expanding its scope through national and international exhibitions in New Zealand and the United States. Graham Austin OAM, who has the distinction of being the longest serving president in the history of the Institute, placed the AWI on a solid financial footing and produced the first commemorative publication, Australian Watercolour Institute: 75th Anniversary 1923-1998while Peter Pinson OAM was responsible for the second commemorative volume in 2006, The Australian Watercolour Institute: A Gallery of Australia’s Finest Watercolours. Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour, by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen, the AWI 90th Anniversary book, was published by The Beagle Press in 2015.
In his role as current president of the Australian Watercolour Institute, David van Nunen has been resolutely committed to the mounting of, and participation in, major international exhibitions with a view to elevating the profile of the AWI, encouraging cross-cultural collaboration, expanding the possibilities of creative interaction and promoting the development of watercolour globally. The landmark exhibition, Wattle, Rose and Thistle: The Finest Watercolourists of Australia, England and Scotland, in 2009, brought together for the first time works by members of the Australian Watercolour Institute (AWI), the Royal Watercolour Society, London (RWS), and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW). In a reciprocal initiative by David Paskett, President of the Royal Watercolour Society, the officers of the AWI participated in the RWS Autumn Exhibition, in October 2010 at the Bankside Gallery, London, before it travelled to the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro. Subsequently, members of the AWI, RWS and RSW conjointly participated in the RSW 131st Annual Exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, in January-February 2011.
In another historic first, a major collaborative exhibition between the AWI and the Taiwan International Watercolor Society, with 114 participating artists, presented a survey of the best of Eastern and Western watercolour painting in 2012. Tradition and Transformation: Taiwan Australian Watercolour Exhibition, conjointly curated by AWI President David van Nunen and TIWS President Chin-Lung Huang, was shown to great acclaim at Taichung Municipal Centre, Taipei, and Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, where it attracted an unprecedented number of visitors. By showcasing a diversity of techniques in watercolour, Tradition and Transformation: Taiwan-Australia Watercolour Exhibition, and the accompanying book-format catalogue, demonstrated how the tradition of Chinese painting has informed Western contemporary art and, conversely, how Western art has transformed the tradition of Chinese painting.
Further consolidating the AWI’s cultural links with China, where watercolour is a favoured medium within the country’s vibrant contemporary visual arts culture, the collaborative exhibition, Across the Water: China Australia Modern Masters of Watercolour, curated by van Nunen and Xidan Chen, Director, Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, Shanghai, and Organiser of the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial, was shown at Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, Zhujiajiao, Shenzhen Fine Art Museum, Shenzhen, and Juniper Hall, Sydney, in 2014-2015. In 2017, the collaborative exhibition between the AWI and the Shandong Watercolour Society, China, Australia-Shandong, curated by AWI President David van Nunen and Tianya Zhou, President of the Shandong Watercolour Society, Curator of the Shenzhen International Watercolour Biennial and Curator of Luohu Cultural Center, Shenzhen, China.
Comprising more than 150 works, Australia-Shandong continued our commitment to cross-cultural exchanges to showcase the myriad techniques, styles and subject matter in the development of watercolour painting internationally.
Throughout its history of almost a century, a number of Australia’s foremost artists have been members of, or regularly exhibited with, the AWI, including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Hans Heysen, Rupert Bunny, Blamire Young, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Norman Lindsay, Lloyd Rees, John Coburn, Tim Storrier and John Olsen.
There is much to celebrate in the commemoration of the 95th anniversary of the inception, on 21st August 1923, of the Australian Watercolour Institute — this country’s first and foremost national society of professional watercolourists whose membership presently comprises some of the most celebrated artists in Australia, England, Scotland, China and America. Acknowledged as the established representative of watercolour painting in Australia, the AWI has ensured the future of watercolour painting as a vital medium in contemporary art practice.
We are indebted not only to our founders but equally to the succession of presidents, office bearers, executive committee members and membership who, throughout its history, have furthered the aims, ethos, aesthetic ideals and professional standards of the Institute.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November 1923, p. 5.
- Catalogue of the First Exhibition of the Australian Watercolour Institute, March 25th to April 15th 1924.
- Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Governor’s Interest, Watercolour Institute’s Exhibition,’ 26 March 1924, p. 16.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 21 March 1924, p. 5.
- Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 1932, p. 7.
Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen
Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2015)