Series Guide: The Coombs Collection of Australian Paintings
Description of series
The series comprises illustrated records of paintings, screenprints and tapestries collected by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and the Reverse Bank of Australia from 1950 to 1975.
Modest in scale, the Coombs Collection began with a humble ambition. The original Commonwealth Bank of Australia – the forerunner of the Reserve Bank – produced an annual Christmas card that was distributed to fellow institutions, including international ones. Dr HC Coombs, then Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, believed that the funds used in obtaining the image for the card should be directed towards the annual acquisition of a painting by an Australian artist. The painting would be reproduced on the card, thereby promoting the country’s arts, and the Bank would build a small, considered collection of paintings.
The Bank’s first attempt in collecting was the offer of a prize for a student work from East Sydney Technical College, that would then be reproduced on the card; it was won in 1949 by Barbara Blakemore. The Bank’s interest soon turned to independent artists, who were either emerging with promising careers or maintaining established practices. Kenneth Macqueen’s modernist landscape, The hill, was acquired and reproduced as the Christmas card in 1950. The following year, two ambitious landscape paintings of Central Australia were collected from Sidney Nolan.
In 1952, Dr Coombs commissioned a painting of wildflowers from Margaret Preston, who was represented by the Macquarie Galleries in Bligh Street, Sydney. Throughout the 1950s, many of the Bank’s paintings were selected from the stable of artists who exhibited at this gallery. These prominent artists included Jean Bellette, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, John D Moore, Jeffrey Smart and Grace Cossington Smith.
As the decade of the 1950s drew to its close, major changes occurred within the Commonwealth Bank. In 1959, its commercial banking activities were separated from its central banking functions with the creation of the Reserve Bank of Australia, which opened the following year as the nation’s independent central bank. The Reserve Bank’s new Head Office and branches became the settings for a revitalised approach to the collecting and commissioning of Australian art.
The Bank’s Head Office in Martin Place, Sydney, was designed in the International Style and conveyed the progressive spirit of modernism. Opened in 1965, the Bank’s architecture was complemented by a prominent work of freestanding sculpture by Margel Hinder, one of the city’s first public sculptures of pure abstraction. The lobby of the new building featured a relief sculpture by Bim Hilder, based on the Bank’s distinctive logo that had been designed by Gordon Andrews. Commissions for the Bank’s branches included Sidney Nolan’s mural, Eureka Stockade, for the Melbourne office, and Gerald Lewer’s relief sculpture for the Canberra branch, both completed in 1965.
The modernist design of the Head Office building and its new furniture, commissioned from the designer Frederick Ward, created sympathetic settings for the display of contemporary works of art. Whereas paintings acquired in the 1950s were selected as much for their reprographic qualities on Christmas cards as their physical presence, those chosen for the new Reserve Bank became larger, bolder and more theatrical than their predecessors, while still appearing on the annual card.
From the 1960s onwards, the Reserve Bank began acquiring paintings from new galleries, including Rudy Komon’s Gallery in the Paddington area of Sydney and Melbourne’s South Yarra Gallery. The artists selected for the Bank’s new Head Office included leading figurative painters such as Charles Blackman, Robert Dickerson and Clifton Pugh. An additional painting by Sidney Nolan was acquired, as well as landscapes by Fred Williams, who was experimenting with degrees of abstraction in his scenes of Australian gum trees.
Significant examples of abstract painting were also acquired for the Bank’s collection, including art works by Leonard French, Thomas Gleghorn, Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, Carl Plate and Margo Lewers. In 1968, Margo Lewers was also commissioned to create a tapestry for the Bank’s Board Room. Woven by Aubusson Tapestries in France, it combined a traditional art form with contemporary abstraction.
Following Dr Coombs’ retirement as Governor of the Reserve Bank, his successor, John Grant Phillips, continued the practice of acquiring paintings for the Head Office and branches. As a national institution, Phillips expanded the Bank’s representation of artists from other states, including Guy Grey-Smith from Western Australia and Basil Hadley from South Australia. Further paintings of North Queensland by Ray Crooke were also acquired.
Phillips’ term as Governor also saw the confident acquisition of paintings of imposing scale, including Triptych by Rodney Milgate and Brett Whiteley’s Lyre bird. Works on paper were also collected, with Whiteley’s series of prints, Palm trees, representing one of the last significant acquisitions of this period.
The nucleus of Bank’s art collection derived from some 25 years of considered acquisition, which often pre-empted the collecting of public galleries. The selection capitalised on the need to furnish the Bank’s new Head Office and branches, while expressing its alliance with modernity and innovation. Inspired and shaped by Dr Coombs, the collection contributes to an understanding of the history of both the nation’s arts and its central bank.
Selected paintings collected during the Governorship of Dr HC Coombs (Commonwealth Bank of Australia, 1949–1960 and Reserve Bank of Australia, 1960–1968) and John Grant Phillips (1968–1975)
1950: Kenneth Macqueen, The hill, 1950, acquired in 1950.
1950: Kenneth Macqueen, Eroded farm, date unknown, acquired in 1950.
1951: Sidney Nolan, Northern Territory, 1950, acquired in 1951.
1951: Sidney Nolan, Camels, Central Australia, 1950, acquired in 1951.
1952: Margaret Preston, Australian wildflowers, 1952, acquired in 1952.
1953: Jean Bellette, Still life, date unknown, acquired in 1953.
1954: John D Moore, Steel Point, 1949, acquired in 1954.
1955: Grace Cossington Smith, Wardrobe mirror, 1955, acquired in 1955.
1956: Donald Friend, Crew of the Norena, 1956 acquired in 1956.
1957: Jeffrey Smart, The store, Hill End, 1957, acquired in 1957.
1958: Arthur Boyd, Winter landscape, date unknown, acquired in 1958.
1958: Russell Drysdale, The Puckamanni [sic], Melville Island, date unknown, acquired in 1958.
1960: J Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, Form in landscape, 1959, acquired in 1960.
1960: Russell Drysdale, The young mourner, Melville Island, 1960, acquired in 1960.
1961: Clifton Pugh, A piece of my world, 1960, acquired in 1961.
1962: Sidney Nolan, Burke on a mountain, date unknown, acquired in 1962.
1962: Robert Juniper, Moorine Rock, date unknown, acquired in 1962.
1962: Thomas Gleghorn, Sofala landscape, c.1959, acquired in 1962.
1963: Leonard French, The coming of the turtle, 1962, acquired in 1963.
1963: James Gleeson, Perseus with the body of Acrisi, date unknown, acquired in 1963.
1963: James Gleeson, The forgiveness of Arion, date unknown, acquired in 1963.
1964: Charles Blackman, Girl in the checkered dress, 1963, acquired in 1964.
1965: Charles Blackman, Midsummer dream, 1965, acquired in 1965.
1965: Robert Dickerson, The sisters, 1964, acquired in 1965.
1966: William Dobell, Sketch of Dame Mary Gilmore, 1956, acquired in 1966.
1966: Kathleen O’Connor, Still life with gladioli, c.1966, acquired in 1966.
1966: Fred Williams, Chopped trees, date unknown, acquired in 1966.
1966: Ray Crooke, Landscape, 1964, acquired in 1966.
1966: Ray Crooke, Island repose, date unknown, acquired in 1966.
1966: Margo Lewers, Unobserved, 1966, acquired in 1966.
1966: Margo Lewers, Substantial matter, c.1966, acquired in 1966.
1967: Clifton Pugh, Landscape, date unknown, acquired in 1967.
1968: Fred Williams, Dark hillside, date unknown, acquired in 1968.
1968: Carl Plate, Blue monument No.4, 1967, acquired in 1968.
1968: Margo Lewers, Wide penetration tapestry, 1968, acquired in 1968.
1969: Ray Crooke, Landscape, North Queensland, date unknown, acquired in 1969.
1970: Brett Whiteley, Lyre bird, 1970, acquired in 1970.
1970: Guy Grey-Smith, Cricket, c.1968, acquired in 1970.
1971: Ray Crooke, Early light – Deighton River crossing, date unknown, acquired in 1971.
1971: Leonard French, The great turtle tapestry, 1970, acquired in 1971.
1971: Clifton Pugh, Flight of the galahs, 1968, acquired in 1971.
1972: Clifton Pugh, Lizard and butterfly, date unknown, acquired in 1972.
1973: Basil Hadley, The triumph and the tragedy, date unknown, acquired in 1973.
1974: Lloyd Rees, Evening, Omega Headland, 1974, acquired in 1974.
1974: Rodney Milgate, Triptych, 1970, acquired in 1974.
1975: Brett Whiteley, Palm trees I-IV, 1975, acquired in 1975.