When it came to collecting art, the early trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW aimed to follow the cultural standards of the Victorian-era British middle class.
Eschewing the controversial, they favoured works that were accessible in subject matter, conventional in style, and capable of being appreciated and understood by audiences of widely differing social and educational backgrounds.
Watercolours fulfilled such requirements. As The Sydney Morning Herald noted in 1861 in relation to the private collection of Australian industrialist Thomas Sutcliffe Mort:
‘The pictures… immediately commend themselves to the admiration of everyone possessed of the slightest taste, and do not need the services of professional connoisseurs to point out their excellencies, or to vouch for their genuineness. There is nothing whatever obscure or traditional in their merits; their essential truthfulness and exquisite beauty are quickly recognised even by those who have but little knowledge of art…’
The domestic and democratic appeal of the medium was repeatedly asserted by various commentators, including the highly influential writer and art critic John Ruskin, who declared – not without a hint of irony – in Notes on Samuel Prout and William Hunt (1879–80):
‘…drawings of this simple character were made for the same middle classes, exclusively; and even for the second order of the middle classes, more accurately expressed by the term bourgeoisie. The great people always bought Canaletto, not Prout, and Van Huysum, not Hunt. There was indeed no quality in the bright little water-colours which could look other than pert in ghostly interiors, and petty in halls of state; but they gave an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to a suburban villa, and were the cheerfullest possible decorations for a moderate-sized breakfast-parlour opening onto a nicely-mown lawn.’