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Who’s been sleeping in our house?

In front of a wall of paintings and between two busts on plinths, a woman sits surrounding by two seated and two standing men.

Margaret Casey – the Gallery’s first member of staff – and her four sons, c1900. Photographer unknown

The director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1945 to 1971, Hal Missingham, thought that a true history of the Gallery would be, above all, a history of its collections. He regretted that his own Gallery memoirs contained very little about ‘artists and their art’, and was filled instead with anecdotes about personalities, the building and its administration. But these were the things that had absorbed his energies for 26 years. ‘When a history of the fine collections housed in the Art Gallery of New South Wales comes to be written,’ he quipped, ‘it will not be by the director – he will be much too busy signing sick-leave forms.’

The history I have presented in our new publication The exhibitionists: a history of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales is also not the one Missingham had hoped would be written, with a sustained focus on art and the Gallery’s collections. It too is about the people and events that have shaped the Gallery, not only during his directorship from 1945 to 1971, but also from the Gallery’s foundation in 1871 up until the present, drawn from the material that has absorbed me as its archivist for more than 30 years.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is fortunate to have a rich institutional archive, well cared for over the years by curators, registrars and then professional archivists. It is an archive as characterful as the people who created it. Some of its contents are playful, some subversive, and much is procedural, but all has been of interest to me as an archivist and hopefully will be to others as well.

Popular television programs such as Who do you think you are? suggest a growing interest in social history as revealed by the archive. Another of these programs is titled Who has been sleeping in my house? and in this history I ask the same question of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

For more than 80 years there was a small caretaker’s cottage at the back of the building, where successive generations of the Casey and Hall families literally slept at the Gallery.

A small two-storey building with a chimney next to a much larger edifice.

The caretaker’s cottage at the rear of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, c1968. Photo: Kerry Dundas

A carpeted, fluorescent-lit living room with a TV, sideboard and armchair.

Inside the caretaker’s cottage, c1968. Photo: Kerry Dundas

A carpeted living room with an armchair, standing lamp and mantlepiece.

Inside the caretaker’s cottage, c1968. Photo: Kerry Dundas

A fluorescent-lit kitchen with a freestanding oven and stove, a fridge and a dining table with chairs.

The kitchen of the caretaker’s cottage, c1968. Photo: Kerry Dundas

A bedroom with a double bed, bedside table, shelving unit and curtained window.

A bedroom in the caretaker’s cottage, c1968. Photo: Kerry Dundas

A bedroom with a single bed, bedside table, dresser and two curtained windows.

A bedroom in the caretaker’s cottage, c1968. Photo: Kerry Dundas

When old Mrs Casey died in June 1907 the press noted that she had passed away ‘at her residence, the National Art Gallery in the Domain’. Father Rohan, from nearby St Mary’s Cathedral, rushed to her bedside to administer the Last Rites ‘in the Gallery’.

Margaret Casey was the Gallery’s first member of staff, employed by the New South Wales Academy of Art in 1875. She remained the Gallery’s caretaker for 30 years. Probably illiterate – she made a mark in lieu of a signature on her son’s birth certificate – she was also the breadwinner for her family. Her invalid husband died in 1879 at the age of 60. He had been a warder at Darlinghurst Gaol, but accidentally shot himself in the jaw while playing a ‘game of strength’ with another warder.

A sense of Margaret Casey’s resilience is evident in a photograph (pictured above) preserved in the Gallery’s archive. She sits between marble busts of two of the Gallery’s founders, Eliezer Montefiore and Frederick Eccleston Du Faur, with her four sons gathered around her. The family still tells stories of her no-nonsense approach to the shenanigans of wharfies and others who lived and worked in neighbouring Woolloomooloo and cavorted around her cottage at the back of the Gallery, ‘a wilderness of long paspalum grass inhabited by metho-drinkers and at night a place to keep well away from’.

 Ma Casey tirelessly promoted the interests of her four boys. In 1880 she had 24-year-old Thomas appointed a ‘messenger and to assist at the door’. Two years later, the Minister for Public Instruction approved ‘the employment of Mrs Casey’s two sons as extra attendants’ to handle the crowds because of the introduction of Sunday afternoon openings.

In 1898 a letter written to the Public Service Board complained that the caretaker’s cottage ‘was nothing more than a home for the Casey family and that there were at present living in the caretaker’s residence, Mrs Casey, Thomas Casey, James Casey, with their wives and families, and also that Joseph Miles, a son-in-law of Mrs Casey, was at present employed at the Gallery on Sundays and holidays, when he was earning perhaps £3.0.0 per week elsewhere.’

When his mother died in 1907, Thomas Casey was appointed to her position ‘with an allowance of £20 pa, with quarters, fuel and light, valued at £30’. The bonus of quarters, fuel and light was well earned given the nature of the work. A visitor to the Gallery who spoke to the attendants wrote about their working conditions: ‘I understand that two men take it in turns, twelve hours on and the same off, this including Sunday makes 84 hours duty.’ At night two men were locked inside the building with kerosene hurricane lamps. Contact with outside was made through a ‘speaker tube’, similar to ones used on a ship between the captain and the engine room. In 1916, when Thomas Casey asked for an increase to his salary, the first in twenty years, he noted that ‘the position of Caretaker entails a week of 116 hours duty’.

Perhaps it is not unique to Sydney, but an overlapping of the institutional and the intimate, the public and the domestic, is a distinctive feature of our Gallery’s history.

The Caseys’ story is just one of many in The exhibitionists: a history of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, available from the Gallery Shop, from which this is an edited extract.