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Frequently asked questions about the history of the Gallery

  1. Has the Gallery always been where it is now?
  2. What are the bronze panels on the front of the Gallery and why are they incomplete?
  3. Why are there names on the outside of the Art Gallery and who are they?
  4. Why is the name of Michelangelo written as ‘Michael Angelo’ and why doesn't the Gallery correct this?

Has the Gallery always been where it is now?

No. The first home for Sydney’s art collection was at Clark’s Assembly Hall in Elizabeth Street. This building, which had at one time been used for dancing classes, was rented between 1875 and 1879. It was open to the public on Friday and Saturday afternoons. The International Exhibition of 1879 provided an opportunity for the national collection to be re-housed more suitably. Space was initially allocated in the main hall of the Garden Palace, but as lighting and display possibilities were not considered adequate, the Government allowed William Wardell to construct a ‘Fine Arts Annexe’ of nine rooms near the entrance to the Botanic Gardens. Concerns for the security and care of artworks, particularly after the fire which destroyed the Garden Palace in 1882, ruled out the Annexe as a permanent home for the collection. In December 1885 the collections were moved to a building of six rooms at the present site in the Domain.

What are the bronze panels on the front of the Gallery and why are they incomplete?

4 bas reliefs at the front of the Gallery

In 1900 the Trustees decided to beautify the façade of the Gallery. Perceval Ball suggested that the empty panels should be filled with bas reliefs illustrating the arts and industries. It was later decided to depict the various eras of art. At a meeting of the Board on 26 March 1903 Eccleston Du Faur, President of the Trustees, suggested that a series of six panels be designed depicting the six ‘distinctive historical art periods’ of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Grecian, Roman, Gothic and Renaissance. Bronze was chosen as the medium, as it was decided that marble caught too sharply the glare of sunlight. In the same year the Trustees organised a competition for the first two panels.

Only four of the six intended bronze relief panels were ever completed. They are set high on the south half of the front elevation, and beside them are two empty panels. Six empty panels are found on the corresponding north half of the front elevation. The four completed reliefs are subjects from [left to right] Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The uncompleted reliefs were presumably intended to continue this sequence of major civilizations. At first sight the completed reliefs appear to relate to the bronze names of artists on the entablature, but this is misleading, as there is no significant relation between the artists’ names and the reliefs. Three of these panels won prizes in a bas relief competition.

Moving to the right from the Gallery entrance :

The first two panels were selected by Alfred East and George Frampton from designs invited by the Trustees in 1903:

Assur-Natsir-Pal, King of Assyria 1906 by the English sculptor Gilbert Bayes. It depicts the visit of Sennacherib, King of Assyria, and his Queen to view the progress of the building of his palace at Koyounjik (or Kongjunjk).

Queen Hatasu of Egypt 1906 by the English sculptor Countess Feodora Gleichen. It depicts Queen Hatasu giving directions for the construction of her famous avenue of Ram-headed Sphinxes. This avenue extended from her temple, Der-el-Bahari, to the bank of the Nile, and thence to the farther shore of the Temple of Karnak, thus forming a connecting link between the two. The bas relief shows the Queen in the act of examining a plan unfolded before her by the architect kneeling at her feet. With a strong hand gesture she indicates her will.

Phryne before Praxiteles 1900 by the English sculptor Percival Ball. It depicts the famous courtesan and model before the sculptor, Praxiteles.

Augustus at Nimes 1931 by the English sculptor William Reid Dick. It was the gift of the Art Gallery Trustee and Sydney architect Sir John Sulman. It depicts Caesar Augustus in the Roman colony of Nîmes, now in France

Why are there names on the outside of the Art Gallery and who are they?

The names were probably chosen by Frederick Eccleston Du Faur, President of the Gallery Trustees from 1892 to 1915, and a member of the Board since 1876. Forty-four names were intended. Thirty-two names are found on the existing elevations, lettered in bronze below the entablature. Seven intended names are known from architectural drawings, the other five are unknown.

Painters appear on the southern half of the front elevation, and on the adjoining side elevation to the south : (moving to the right from the entrance) Giotto, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Murillo, Rubens, Andrea del Sarto, Botticelli, Bellini, Cimabue, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Vandyck and Gainsborough.

Sculptors appear on the northern half of the front, and were presumably intended for the adjoining side elevation to the north : (moving to the left from the entrance) Michael Angelo [sic], Donatello, Ghiberti, Pheidias, Cellini, Canova, Jean Goujon, Pythagoras, Praxiteles and Anthemius.

Architects appear on the rear elevation : Christopher Wren, Philibert de l’Orme, Perrault, Juan de Herrera, Mansart and Inigo Jones.

The names intended for the unbuilt part of the rear elevation are found on drawings from 1895 for the front, south and rear elevations. These drawings correspond with the names as installed, except that those on the side elevation are placed in a different order (Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio, Tintoretto, Bellini, Botticelli, Cimabue, Velasquez, Vandyck and Gainsborough).

A drawing dated 27 November 1895, for the elevation of the small portion of the Gallery built in 1896, shows six names: Ictinus, Phidias, Raphael, M. Angelo [sic], Titian and C. Wren. Five of these names appear on the elevations that were completed; one, Ictinus, must have been intended for the unbuilt north elevation.

The names intended for the rear elevation towards the north, which was never built, were: Sansovino, Bramante, Palladio, Vignola, Vitruvius and Brunellescho.

Why is the name of Michelangelo written as ‘Michael Angelo’ and why doesn't the Gallery correct this?

The name 'Michael Angelo' at the front of the Gallery

Today it is the standard practice in the English speaking world to refer to the great Italian sculptor, painter and architect Michelagnolo Lodovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni (1475–1564), by the name by which he was known to his Italian contemporaries, ‘Michelangelo’. This is how the name is commonly spelt today, but variations have abounded. Sir Charles Eastlake, in his influential two-volumed Handbook of Painting: the Italian Schools of 1837, spelt the name as ‘Michael Angelo’. The greatest critic of the 19th century, John Ruskin, also preferred this spelling of the name, so it is not surprising that the Trustees followed these authorities.