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The National Portrait Gallery's 20th Anniversary

by Angus Trumble, 10 April 2018

The National Portrait Gallery's 20th birthday party
The National Portrait Gallery's 20th birthday party

Last month we marked the twentieth anniversary of the formal establishment of the National Portrait Gallery, the tenth of the opening of our signature building, and the fifth of our having become a statutory authority under Commonwealth legislation. This convergence in 2018—when Parliament House turns thirty and the National Library of Australia turns fifty—provides a suitable cause for celebration, mindful of everything that has been achieved for and by the Gallery in those relatively brief periods.

Anniversaries, as such, are curious things. The word descends from the Latin annus, year, and versus, turned, or a turning—in other words the turning of the year. The deep history of the calendar itself began with the crucial discovery that time may be measured by the year. In Mesopotamia, physical space was divided into 360 degrees because according to their inaccurate calculations those degrees corresponded with 360 days—in other words a year, a year in which space and time were ordered in approximately the same way.

As all of us might reflect, upon the anniversary of our birth, for example, that there may well be no particular significance to the fact of an anniversary other than that whatever it was took place exactly a certain number of years ago, and not one day more or less. Still, it is a human instinct as ancient as civilisation itself to take the measure of time, and to find within that not merely a just cause for celebration, as in our case, but also an opportunity to reflect upon it, and look ahead by comparable increments. After all, by any measure twenty years is not a long time. Indeed for those of us in the firm grip of middle age, twenty years can feel alarmingly brief—one score only, in which the activities that were contained in it feel, at times, merely inchoate.

I spent the Easter weekend thoroughly absorbed in A Tale of Two Cities. Madame Defarge with her knitting is one of Charles Dickens’s most sinister but fascinating inventions, and at a crucial moment he describes Thérèse Defarge walking “with the supple freedom of a woman who had habitually walked in her girlhood, bare-foot and bare-legged, on the brown sea-sand.” Dickens seems to have had a thing about bare-footed Frenchwomen, because you may recall the scene in Bleak House when Lady Dedlock’s French lady’s maid Hortense walks back to the great house, angrily bare-foot over wet grass. Certainly, few scenes in Dickens are as exciting as the one near the end of A Tale of Two Cities in which the doughty, stout-hearted, fiercely loyal Englishwoman Miss Pross deals with the menacing Madame Defarge.

I am also put in mind of the famous opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Dickens was looking back from 1859 to 1775—merely 84 years. Apart from being a sensational piece of English prose—note Dickens’s use of the ancient rhetorical devices of antithesis, anaphora and epistrophe—I found myself thinking that in various compelling respects it could be applied no less plausibly to the world today.

Another thing that stood out for me was the passage early in the novel in which Dickens recalls British justice in 1775 (more epistrophe): “…at that time, putting to death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions…Death is nature’s remedy for all things, and why not Legislation’s? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson’s [Bank] door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death. Not that it did the least good in the way of prevention—it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly the reverse—but, it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else connected with it to be looked after. Thus, Tellson’s, in its day, like greater places of business, its contemporaries, had taken so many lives, that, if the heads laid low before it had been ranged on Temple Bar instead of being privately disposed of, they would probably have excluded what little light the ground floor had, in a rather significant manner.” Naturally, before too long, part of the solution to this problem, unique to Georgian England, was commuting sentences from Death to Transportation to the Australian penal colonies—of which Dickens was well aware.

He stooped a little by Fred Barnard

But the ancien régime is the greater corporate villain in Dickens’s mind: Monseigneur and the necessary dignity of being served his chocolate by no fewer than four servants in livery—one to carry the chocolate pot into the sacred presence; a second to mill and froth it; a third to proffer a napkin, and the fourth to pour. “It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.” Then, of course, there is the hideous Marquis de St. Evrémonde who thinks no more of the poor street urchin, crushed to death under the wheels of his coach, than that the child, whether living or dead, had posed a risk of injury to his horses.

A Tale of Two Cities relies upon the picturesqueness of historical distance, and to some extent so do many art museums. A national portrait gallery, however, is as much concerned with picturesque and human proximity. Our nation state is relatively young, even though the indigenous culture at its heart is exceedingly ancient. The stories we tell about Australian people and the many remarkable things that have been done by individuals in and for Australia involve known particulars, and we do nothing if we do not strive to make those deeds, those stories, familiar to the rest of us, and make them in some tangible way real. The paradox, here, is that story-telling—the writing of history itself—is a creative act, no less for institutions than for individual historians. We may strive for objectivity and truth in the telling, but on occasion one does have sympathy with that shadowy but fascinating character in the Passion narrative Pontius Pilate, who, increasingly exasperated by the conduct of Jesus, asks “What is truth?” (John, 18:38).

Consider the telling of stories. Some facts are selected and put in order. The order may imply cause and effect, consequences, or suggestive adjacencies. Other facts are deliberately left out, or parked somewhere relatively inconspicuous. The story-teller may not even be aware that he or she is doing this. As well, the membrane that separates fact from interpretation is porous, at best wobbly, and there is no question that in fifty, one hundred, 150 years’ time future generations will notice blind spots that we are uniquely ill-equipped to identify in ourselves. A technical invention that is today universally applauded may by then be regarded, for good reasons or ill, as a desperate scourge. A reputation hitherto burnished for decades may by then have declined, or even been supplanted by universal opprobrium—or vice versa. A person now living in complete obscurity may by then have been recognised for an achievement of which nobody is yet aware.

We cannot hope to escape from these tidal mechanisms of time and memory—even when that memory turns out to have been reliable (because very few are). These operate whether we like it or not. We are embedded in them, and to that extent the stories we tell about distinguished Australians will eventually say a great deal more about us than they do about them. As your National Portrait Gallery turns twenty, therefore, this I think is perhaps the greatest cause for celebration: that we are engaged in writing a collective, virtual and continually evolving national autobiography—and will, I hope, continue to do so for as long as we exist. Just cause for celebration indeed!