We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

A who’s who from our Visitors’ Book

A closed book with a worn red cloth cover, inscribed on the front in gold lettering 'Visitors' Book. National Art Gallery of New South Wales'

The cover of the Visitors’ Book of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, as we were then known

The cover of the Visitors’ Book of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, as we were then known

‘Locked away in the Director’s room is a treasure the ordinary visitor doesn’t see’, a 1924 newspaper article began. ‘That is because it is marked “Distinguished Visitors”. It is a fat and rather faded book, and as you turn its pages you find that the smaller the signature, the greater its interest.’

The Gallery’s Visitors’ Book is a fascinating marker of key moments in the institution’s history and the characters that shaped and influenced that history. For the author of the 1924 article those small signatures of particular interest were, predictably, ones left by royalty: ‘Under the date September 22, 1880, King George, who was then a midshipman, made his first entry … Many years elapse, and then “Edward P.” announces the King’s eldest son.’

The ‘book’ was carefully assembled. The earliest pages are loose folios of signatures that were collected when the Fine Arts Annexe in the Botanic Garden was officially dedicated as the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 22 September 1880. These were bound into the volume and placed symbolically at the front. The very first signature is that of the governor’s wife, Emma Loftus. She and her husband had arrived in the colony the month before and the official opening of the Gallery was one of their first duties. Everyone present was invited to sign; over 500 did on the day and 300 on the following.

Rebecca Martens, the eldest daughter of Conrad Martens, was the very first artist to sign, in 1880. Martens was among a large group of artists present at the dedication, including George and Arthur Collingridge, Lucien Henry, JC Hoyte, HH Calvert, Gordon Coutts, John Rae, Alfred Tischbauer and a Thomas Roberts from Melbourne.

If artist Tom Roberts was not in Sydney for the dedication of the Gallery in 1880, he certainly visited in 1902, while making studies for his large commemorative commission The opening of the first parliament of the Commonwealth.

Two balding men dressed in dark jackets and white shirts. The person on the left has glasses and a cropped beard. The person on the right has a luxuriant moustache.

Tom Roberts Self portrait 1924 (left) and Arthur Streeton Self portrait 1923 (right), Art Gallery of New South Wales

In Sydney also during 1902 was artist Violet Teague. She was brought to the Gallery by Freda Du Faur, the pioneering daughter of the Gallery’s president Frederick Eccleston and a ‘Lady Alpine Climber’ who caused ‘a sensation in New Zealand’ by climbing the three highest peaks of Mount Cook, the first woman to do so. Teague signed the book again in 1908, when she exhibited as part of Five Women Painters, a precursor to the formation of the Society of Women Painters.

Arthur Streeton, returning to Australia after seven years abroad, signed in 1914 and again in 1922.

Dora Ohlfsen, after a 20-year absence, signed in 1912. The Royal Art Society of NSW had just included a display of her medallions and sculptures in its annual show and the Gallery purchased a quarter of the works exhibited.

A person with a patterned headwrap holds up a large circular disc depicting a head in relief.

Dora Ohlfsen with the plaster cast of her 1922 medallion of Mussolini, 1922, by unknown photographer, National Art Archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Albert Namatjira signed on his first visit to Sydney in 1954, while en route to a royal reception in Canberra. In the previous year he had been awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal for services to the arts. He was met at the Gallery by assistant director Tony Tuckson, who took him to see the Archibald Prize, where Reg Campbell had a portrait of him hanging. He was polite about the work, but much more eager to view the Wynne Prize for landscape, in which he had exhibited ten years before.

Two seated men dressed in suits. The person on the left is dark-skinned. The other is light-skinned.

Artists Albert Namatjira and Rubery Bennett listening to an art broadcast, 1954, by unknown photographer, National Art Archive, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Although Namatjira was the first Indigenous artist known to have signed the Visitors’ Book, he was certainly not the first Indigenous visitor to the Gallery. Unfortunately, we do not know the name of the skilful ‘young Aboriginal in the employ of Mr Harry Stockdale’ who dazzled Archduke Ferdinand and his entourage on 27 May 1893. The Archduke was on a world tour and in Sydney wanted to see a demonstration of sheep shearing, boomerang throwing and some art. The throwing was staged on the steps of the Gallery and as the boomerang flew within a whisp of the Archduke’s head the assembled crowd gasped in shock. The Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo was the immediate cause of the First World War. How different would have been the history of the 20th century if not for the skill of that unnamed boomerang thrower.

Detail of a page with 1983 written at the top. On a column to the left of a vertical red line, various dates are written. On the right are corresponding signatures.

Some of the Visitors’ Book entries for 1893, showing the signatures of Robert Louis Stevenson and Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The writer Robert Louis Stevenson visited three months before Archduke Ferdinand in 1893. Living in Samoa ‘made him a kind of neighbour,’ one journalist wrote, ‘who might drop in at unexpected moments’.

Mark Twain, following Stevenson’s directions to ‘sail west and take the first turn left’, signed as S Clemens on 25 September 1895. (Born Samuel Clemens, he wrote under a pen name.)

When Paul Gauguin stopped off in Sydney during 1891 and in 1895 it is likely that he visited the Gallery, but it is doubtful he would have been asked to sign the VIP Visitors’ Book because, as current Gallery director Michael Brand has noted, ‘at the time he wouldn’t have been considered one’.

A seated woman dressed in a chiffon dress with sparkly embroidery. She wears a ribboned medal on her chest, long necklaces and a jewelled headpiece around her bobbed hair.

Harold Cazneaux Dame Nellie Melba 1922, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Harold Cazneaux Dame Nellie Melba 1922, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Dame Nellie Melba, a VIP of the first order, signed twice, on 18 August 1909 and again on 8 August 1921.

At the beginning of 1940, painter and dancer Loudon Sainthill brought to the Gallery members of the Ballets Russes who had been stranded in Australia because of the war. Canadian Maud Allen, another type of dancer, visited on 3 April 1914. That night she performed her famous ‘sensual’ dance of Salome at the Palace Theatre, assuring Sydneysiders that ‘there is nothing in her dances to hurt the most susceptible’.

Journalist and explorer Henry Stanley and his wife, Welsh artist Dorothy Tennant, visited on 1 December 1891. By this time, Stanley’s publications How I found Livingstone (1871) and Through the dark continent (1878) were best sellers.

Another person who had spent time in Africa signed as ‘Rev George Smith’, and added after his name ‘Rorke’s Drift, Jan. 22–23, 1879’. As Smith stood before The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 by Alphonse de Neuville, he told those gathered around him that he was the tall bearded figure in the painting, standing directly behind the line of fire, handing out cartridges from a bag slung over his shoulder.

A chaotic battlefield scene in a rural setting with many red-coated soldiers with firearms, injured people, a burning building and smoke.

Alphonse de Neuville The defence of Rorke’s Drift 1879 1880, Art Gallery of New South Wales

A signature that one would expect to find in the Distinguished Visitors’ Book on 22 October 1966 is that of President Lyndon B Johnson. He was the first incumbent American president to visit Australia, on a three-day, five-city tour to thank the country for its support during the Vietnam War. A state reception was organised at the Gallery, which director Hal Missingham described as ‘a fiasco from the start’. It was decided to make the austere classical facade of the Gallery ‘more Australian’ by shipping in boulders and native trees to hide the sandstone pillars. Koalas ‘were brought in at the last moment, placed in gum-trees and prevented from climbing down by the same galvanized iron cones you see on ships’ mooring to stop rats getting aboard. The whole thing was … horrible beyond belief.’ As it turned out, all this artistry was lost on Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. They had been heckled on Oxford Street. As they arrived at the Gallery they were met by another group of protesters, including the director’s wife Esther ‘with her anti-war badges pinned to her dress and holding aloft a tattered banner, on which was lettered the single word “NO”’. The official party was rushed quickly inside the building. In the pandemonium the Visitors’ Book was forgotten.

An edited extract from The exhibitionists: a history of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, available from the Gallery Shop.