Collecting Stories about Art at the GAC

Dr Claire FitzGerald, Curator (Modern & Contemporary) tells us about her love for uncovering the stories hidden within the Government Art Collection

My experience of artworks started early in childhood poring over picture books and illustrated fairy tales, and looking at reproductions of great paintings in my grandfather’s volumes on the French Impressionists. Art was always embedded in stories – the stories in the books, but also all the stories that I would make up when looking at the images. The ultimate experience, aged nine, was being taken to my first art museum ever (The National Gallery), where I discovered that you could actually walk through whole rooms filled with tales about art.

As a curator at the GAC I get privileged access to a treasure trove of stories – from those hidden in our paper archive, which notably documents the life of all the embassies where we’ve hung art, to those hiding within the pigments of our paintings. But how is this relevant to my job? Since the 1980s, every artwork that the GAC sends out comes with some information about its subject and its maker. Over the years we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge, the result of much labour from curators past and present. Our website is a way for us to share some of our findings.

It’s an ongoing project, and there are a number of artworks in the Collection whose stories remain to be revealed. Here is one anecdote that I’ve particularly enjoyed piecing together:

Unknown Artist, King George V (1865-1936) Reigned 1910-36, c.1910–1930

Tasked with preparing some information about our artworks on loan in Yangon, Myanmar, I came across a bit of intrigue in the form of an early 20th century sculpture of King George V (1865–1936) by an unknown artist. How did the statue enter our Collection? Could there be any clues in our archive about the artist behind it? Why had it been picked for Myanmar? I wasn’t expecting to necessarily find full answers to all of my questions – but I definitely wasn’t anticipating what I found in the artwork’s object file!

Here was a voice from the past in the form of a letter dated 28 November 1980 from Ambassador, Charles L. Booth, CMG LVO (1925–1997) addressed to Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, the Rt Hon Lord Carrington, KCMG MC (1919–2018) presenting a ‘tale of two statues’ – one of them the George V bust in question.

Reginald Henry Lewis, Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon, with Worshippers, c.1940–1950

Ambassador Booth conveyed that the sculpture was, he believed, ‘…shipped here shortly after the setting up of the Embassy in 1947 and stood for many years on a marble pillar on the spot where Sir Arthur Payne now stands. It was however missing when I returned to Burma two and a half years ago.’ Upon asking the butler if he knew of its whereabouts, the Ambassador was informed that ‘the gardener was dusting it and knocked his nose off.’ It ensued that Booth’s predecessor, Terence J. O’Brien MC CMG (1921-2006), then made the odd decision to have it buried in a corner of the garden. After digging it up, Booth reported that he had ‘…sent it to a marble worker at the Shwe Dagon [sic.] Pagoda, with several photographs of King George to see whether a new nose can be carved and invisibly and firmly affixed.’

It is unclear what came out of Booth’s enquiry at the Shwedagon Pagoda. A report on the condition of the artwork dated 2000, indicates that the nose, ears, and areas of the braiding on King George V’s uniform had been done up in plaster. Whether this was a temporary measure, or the outcome of the 1980 restoration, this remains a mystery.

The bust of the King (and his nose) remain on display in the Embassy’s garden in Yangon today.

Just imagine what other stories remain to be told with over 14,000 works of art in our Collection.