Do you remember that ad that Victorian Tourism used to run before every film at independent cinemas?
“You’ll love every piece of Victoria” was a marketing campaign that spoke to something observable about Victoria. It is a relatively small state, with diverse landscapes packed in between relatively short driving distances, with excellent museums and galleries in regional cities and towns, and with distinctive regional histories. It is a state of interlocking pieces, and the differences between them are as interesting as their connections.
In this photoblog, Nick Gordon and Damien Flint share some of their experiences and observations from last year’s Yarra Valley to Bendigo: Victoria’s Regional Galleries tour, in the lead up to our tour this May. The tour this May takes in the Geelong Regional Gallery’s special exhibition of the complete Ned Kelly series by Sidney Nolan, along with Bendigo Regional Gallery “Tudors to Windsors” exhibition, which includes masterpieces from the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Historic Royal Palaces of the UK.
Rather than doubling up on the same strengths, Victoria’s regional galleries have their own histories and unique collections. Some, such as Ballarat and Bendigo, owe their beginnings to the Goldrush boom, and a sense among the population that their cities were going to be the next Melbourne so needed art collections and theatres to match their ambitions. Other collections, such as TarraWarra and Heide, capture the personal visions of their creators and their willingness to invest in the arts. Such investment in the arts is less contentious in Victoria than in other states – Shepparton (population 65,000) is about to start work on a new art gallery designed by Denton Corker Marshall, which has a price tag of over $20 million.
But they also have developed different sorts of special exhibitions, from the blockbusters of Bendigo, to the National Indigenous Ceramic Prize at Shepparton Art Museum, contemporary Australian exhibitions at Ballarat and TarraWarra, and the fine sculpture parks at McClelland and Heide. These galleries have a well-earned reputation for excellent temporary exhibitions, and they put together interesting programs year after year. (The tour this coming May, for example, includes Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series at Geelong and the Royal Portrait exhibition at Bendigo.)
We all know that Australia is a country of varied landscapes and very different climatic zones. The distances between these landscapes in Victoria, however, are quite small, so that each day’s drive took us to somewhere new, from the verdant vine covered hills of the Yarra Valley to the red-earthed scrub of the Goldfields, and from the temperate climes of the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas to the dry expanses of sheep country to the west and north of Melbourne. Some of these landscapes are iconic, each has its own charms, and thinking of the different ways people have used these landscapes over the millennia is both fascinating and revealing.
The towns too are lovely and they share an obvious civic pride – streets are clean and well-kept, historic buildings are preserved, and rose gardens both public and private benefit from care and the right climate. (Older varieties with abundant fist-sized flowers are favoured – they’re not just pretty, but intoxicating.)
Despite their differences, each of the regions we travelled to were linked by their histories. When admiring the view across Melbourne to the Yarra Valley from Mt Dandenong, the history of colonial Victoria begins to make sense – the population boom in Melbourne that resulted from the Goldrush in Bendigo and Ballarat created a clear and present need for food, and selectors took their chances clearing land as close as possible to the burgeoning city and established farms, orchards and vineyards up the Yarra Valley.
The labour of these selectors was immortalised by the Heidelberg School, especially by McCubbin, who articulated the idea of Australia as a country built on the hard labour of ordinary individuals rather than by the vision of great men. But here too there is an observable difference between regions – Melbourne was founded by men seeking good pasture to make a mint selling wool to the mother country.
These men – the future squattocracy – took vast swathes of land to the north and west, and there is no better proof of their establishment than Barwon Park. It’s a 42-room bluestone manor, in which the style of Queen Victoria could be emulated, surrounded by fields of wheat and sheep. Much of the labour that brought about this wealth was, however, undertaken, by ordinary men and women, and it is perhaps no surprise that Australian unionism began in a shearing shed, much like the one depicted by Tom Roberts in Shearing the Rams pictured below.
Dr Nick Gordon
Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.