By Stewart Reed
Destined for another institution, a reproduction of ‘the famous La Pérouse picture’ found its way to the Mitchell Library in 1912.
On prominent display in last year’s Napoleon: Revolution to Empire exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was Nicolas-André Monsiau’s Louis XVI Giving Final Instructions to the Comte de la Pérouse. The oil painting, completed in 1817, was on loan from the Palace of Versailles.
What few visitors would have known is that the State Library of NSW has held another version of this painting for just over a century.
The man responsible for obtaining the La Pérouse painting intended it for a different institution. He is immortalised on a plaque in the Mitchell Library vestibule, which states: ‘The Mitchell Library portion of this building was commenced in 1906 when the Hon. Sir Joseph Carruthers … was Premier’.
As well as being Premier from 1904 to 1907, Sir Joseph Carruthers held many offices during his lifetime. These include Chairman of Cook’s Landing Place at Kurnell, President of the NSW Cricket Association, and Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW. Perhaps as a consequence, his attendance at Gallery meetings was so infrequent that his seat was declared vacant by the Gallery in 1903. He was soon reinstated by Parliament, but attended less than 10 per cent of meetings held during his 33-year tenure.
After returning from his appointment as NSW Commissioner for the 1908 Franco–British Exhibition in London, Sir Joseph suggested at a meeting of the Gallery’s board in September 1908 that ‘NSW should request a loan of the famous La Pérouse picture’. A request was made to the French consul in Sydney via the Premier’s office. Gallery minutes from May 1910 record that the French Government would not lend the painting and normally did not permit copies to be made, but were ‘in this special case, prepared to have a reproduction made by a competent artist’.
The Gallery’s London agent, F Graham Lloyd, was asked to broker an agreement with the French Government. Lloyd met their Consul-General in London in October and was told it could take over a year before the copy could be started as it would need to go through the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Beaux-Arts. Since the French government would appoint Edouard Nuel to paint the copy, the Consul-General advised Lloyd to approach Nuel directly to save time. Lloyd did and agreed a price of £25.
In February 1911, Nuel reported that the painting was nearing completion. Lloyd arranged for noted Parisian art critic Marius Vachon to inspect the work. ‘I certify that the copy is a faithful reproduction of the original,’ Vachon reported, ‘… with all its qualities and also with all its faults.’
By the time the Gallery received the painting, in July 1911, it had started to redefine the scope of its collection and move works considered to have more historical interest than artistic merit to other institutions in Sydney. In June 1912, the Trustees decided to transfer the painting to the Mitchell Library where it has resided for 100 years. Sir Joseph was not present at this meeting.
Stewart Reed teaches about visual arts at the University of Sydney Centre for Continuing Education. He recently gave a talk on May Gibbs’ comic strips as part of the Library’s Scholarly Musings series.
This article was originally printed in the Autumn 2013 issue of SL, the magazine for Friends of the State Library of NSW Copyright © Stewart Reed 2013.
Caption: Louis XVI Giving Final Instructions to the Comte de la Pérouse, 1785, 1911, Edouard Nuel, copied from a painting by Nicolas-André Monsiau, ML 39, State Library of NSW