Department store galleries

Shigeya Iwabuchi, Bottle. c.1967

Shigeya Iwabuchi, Bottle. c.1967. Base

This 22 cm high woodfired bottle came to us through Lawson-Menzies in 2005 with the following attribution:

Shigeya Iwabuchi. David Jones Art Gallery ‘Oriental’ exhibition 1967, catalogue no. 103.

Although we don’t collect Japanese ceramics, we were in funds at the time and bought it because of the Australian connection. Soon afterwards on a visit to Sydney, we took the escalator up to the seventh floor of David Jones’ Elizabeth Street store to see if the gallery was still there. It was, but it had obviously been long closed.

Recently while thumbing through early issues of Craft Arts from the mid-1980s, I noticed several full-page advertisements for the Blaxland Gallery located on the 6th floor of the Grace Brothers store on the corner of Pitt and Market Streets in Sydney. I did some reading this week and was surprised to find what an important role these two department store galleries had played in promoting and supporting artists in post-war Sydney.

The Blaxland Gallery started in Farmers in George Street in 1929, moving to its Pitt Street location in 1958. “The rationale seemed to be that customers could satisfy not only their commercial needs but their cultural yearnings at the store”, writes Emily Gibson in an article on its 50th birthday. Over time it became an important venue for fostering interest in the arts through exhibitions of community art groups and prizes.

David Jones had set up a gallery as early as 1928, but the Encyclopedia of Australian Art gives its start date as 1944. Charles Lloyd Jones (1932-2010), who took over as chairman of David Jones in 1958, appointed Robert Haines (1910-2005) as director of the gallery in 1961, with a brief to make it the best in Australia. Haines continued in the position until 1976 and stayed on as an advisor from 1976-1985. His personal tastes strongly influenced the exhibition program. He was interested not only in painting and sculpture, but also other objects that a person of culture might wish to acquire – furniture, textiles, and ceramics.

Under his directorship at Georges, Klytie Pate held an exhibition in November 1946 and annually thereafter, until 1949. It is no coincidence that the NGV purchased a ginger jar from her 1947 exhibition together with a bowl by Allan Lowe exhibited at the nearby Kozminsky Gallery – the first Australian ceramics to be added to the collection. Around this time, Haines also engineered the purchase of works by Harold Hughan and the furniture maker Schulim Krimper.

A quick scan through the exhibition lists in back issues of Pottery in Australia shows that Haines continued to develop his interest in ceramics on his move to Sydney. Peter Rushforth and Peter Travis were favourites, with multiple exhibitions. Professor Said El-Sadr exhibited there on his visit to Australia in 1974. Other exhibitors included Shoji Hamada, Bobbi Hicks, Rachel Roxburgh, Shigeo Shiga, Mitsuo Shoji, Hiroe Swen, and Phillip McConnell.

Shigeya Iwabuchi had three exhibitions, in 1967, 1972 and 1978, and an exhibition of oriental ceramics was held in 1968. This makes the provenance documented for our bottle problematic. Another work by Iwabuchi on the Freeland Gallery website has a different mark, so we are not sure if our bottle is a work by him from the 1967 exhibition, or a work by an unidentified potter from the oriental exhibition in the following year.

Blaxland held an Ivan Englund exhibition in 1963 and, later that year, its 5th anniversary Art competition included a ceramic group, with pots by Patricia Englund, Wanda Garnsey, Marea. Gazzard, Henri Le Grande and Bernard. Sahm. The Potters’ Society exhibited there in 1980. Otherwise, it does not feature in the Pottery in Australia exhibition lists. Its appearance as an advertiser and exhibitor in Craft Arts is thus something of a surprise. Presumably, it had developed relationships with craft groups through its exhibition program, and needed to become more eclectic in the 1980s to address competition from other commercial galleries. The Grace Brothers store had been sold to Myer in 1983 and the new owners were perhaps less sympathetic to the idea of subsidising the arts, and required the gallery to run at a profit. In the end, while business improved, it was still struggling to make ends meet when it was forced to close its doors in January 1995 to make way for a more aggressive merchandising strategy for the store.

The David Jones Art Gallery was ostensibly closed in 1985. The Rodin bronzes that Haines had bought from the Musee Rodin in Paris in the 1970s and ’80s for display in the gallery were moved into the executive suites where they stayed until given to the Art Gallery of NSW in 2001. However, the gallery space continued to be used for exhibitions for some time. Rushforth had an exhibition there in 1990 and Shoji Hamada in 1992, and the ‘Bundanon: A gift to Australia’ exhibition was held there in 1996.

In the early 1990s, the Crafts Council of Australia engaged in several commercial projects with David Jones to sell Australian craftwork through its Elizabeth Street store. The Out of Hand boutique ‘on seven’ operated for 12 months in 1991, but subsequent ventures were moved to the fourth floor. There is a difference between the exhibition of one-off pieces with quality installations and catalogues – something the Gallery had done so well for thirty years – and the retailing of quality craftwork in a department store context. Even this was a relatively short-term venture. As Ken Lockwood writes in volume 2 of Craft Art “few [craft] items appear in conventional retail outlets because their supply is often sporadic and in quantities too small to interest the retail industry”. Current initiatives by Craft Australia to place craft in retail outlets are focusing on micro enterprises and new manufacturing methodologies.

The final dismantling of the David Jones Art Gallery occurred in 2006 when the 16th century Italian oak door to the gallery was sold at Christie’s last sale in Australia to a private Australian buyer for $41,825. Once part of the Villa Giramonte in Florence, it had been purchased by Haines in 1963 and installed at the entrance to the gallery. We had bought a Jeff Mincham vessel at the Christie’s exhibition without being aware at the time of the significance of the door – one of those coincidences only of interest to myself, but nevertheless I’ll mention it here!

References

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5 comments

  1. thx for sharing these wonderful stories of Australian ceramics, I always read them with interest but this time was very surprised to learn these department stores had art galleries. What a great experience that we dont get exposed to now.

  2. I find this fascinating! I lived in Canada from ’65 to ’89 and so missed a very important part of what happened here. I have been filling in the gaps for the past 21 years but there are huge holes left. Besides, it is impossible to feel the zeitgeist of the period when you haven’t lived it. Thank you for posting this, Judith!
    Trudy

  3. Hi Judith,
    I remember well going to the Blaxland Gallery in Grace Bros and the gallery in DJ’s (as Mum always called it). I looooved!!!! looking at all the craft as I had just started teaching visual arts in high school. I can remember thinking there was nowhere else I could see so much beautiful work in one place. How things change! Thanks for the post Judith. Cheers, Vicki

  4. Thanks Judith,
    I remember going to see the Blake Exhibition for the first time in the David Jones Gallery.
    Kerry

  5. Judith thanks for the Department Store article. I worked for a few years at DJ’s gallery with Robert Haines and knew Charles Lloyd Jones quite well. It was his father Sir Charles Lloyd Jones who was the painter, and the gallery started with Sir Charles and Hannah Lloyd Jones. Lady L-J played a very active role there.
    Robin Gibson

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