NAS Collection Highlights

The Collection is inextricably linked to the history of the National Art School, and indeed much of the story of the School can be told through the items held. The Collection is wide ranging with more than 800 photographs and countless documents, diplomas and ephemera that form a rich network of meaning when placed alongside the artworks, and reveal the fascinating narrative of the School’s alumni.

The site of the National Art School in the former Darlinghurst Gaol also means that thousands of artists have responded to one of Sydney’s most significant heritage sites by making artworks relating to the buildings and their history. As well as these works, the Collection holds a small but revealing number of items including gaol maps, photographs of inmates and warders, and restraining devices from the gaol period. These have often become the subject matter for works in the Collection.

Rayner Hoff

Rayner Hoff (1894-1937) was born on the Isle of Man in the UK and came to Australia in 1923 to take up a teaching position at East Sydney Technical College. He suggested renaming the art department the National Art School, and he and his students soon dominated sculptural production in Australia throughout the 1920s and 30s.

Hoff became the most successful public sculptor of his era. He was best known for his remarkable sculptures on Sydney’s Anzac Memorial, which were all made in his studio at the National Art School (now the Rayner Hoff Project Space in Building 11).

This is the original plaster cast of the bas relief made by Rayner Hoff in London in his first year as a student at the Royal College of Art in 1920. It is an outstanding example of a student work, showing his strong interest in Greek mythology and prodigious early talent. The sculpture is based on a Greek legend and depicts the moment when the mortal Hercules has beaten the river god Achelous for the hand of the princess of Aetolia Deianeira. During the fight Achelous transformed himself into a snake and then into a bull. Hercules tore off one of the bull’s horns which became the Cornucopia, or the Horn of Plenty.

The work remained in the collection of the Hoff family in England until it was transported to Australia by his great niece who moved to Melbourne in 2008. The bronze version is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Unfortunately, the plaster relief was damaged during its transport to Australia, and when it was donated to the NAS Collection, it was in poor condition with approximately 16 cracks. Funds were raised for the conservation of this work in 2017–18, through a crowd funding campaign by the NAS, entitled ‘Save Art: Save History’. The campaign raised $15,000 and enabled conservator Donna Hinton to spend eight months repairing it. The work is now on display at the National Art School.

Hoff modelled the maquettes for these works in clay and then they were enlarged to the final scale (approximately four times the size of the maquette) by his students and assistants. This is the only original Hoff maquette known to have survived from all the 20 exterior figures on the Anzac Memorial. The final sculpture of Pioneer was cast in synthetic stone – a mixture of ground granite, cement and red oxide. It represents an AIF soldier from the Western front, and sits on the north face of the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park.

Images: Jack Briggs, Rayner Hoff, aged 28, student at the RCA, London, 1922, black and white photograph, National Art School Collection; Unknown photographer, NAS students with full size external sculptures for the Anzac Memorial. Rayner Hoff studio, National Art School, 1932, black and white photograph, National Art School Collection; Rayner Hoff, Hercules, Achelous and Deianeira, 1920, plaster with clay wash, 76 x 46 x 2.5 cm, National Art School Collection, gift of Wendy Wade, 2016; Rayner Hoff, Pioneer, maquette for the Anzac Memorial, c1931-32, plaster, paint, sand, 53 x 23 x 33 cm, National Art School Collection

Edith Bell Brown

Edith Isabella Bell Brown (1864–1946) studied art at Sydney Technical College in Ultimo in the 1890s. She began teaching drawing and watercolour in 1894 and continued to teach when the art department moved to ESTC in 1922. She also worked as a china painter under the name ‘Edith J Brown’. Her exquisite ceramics are represented in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The art school moved to the former Darlinghurst Gaol site in February 1922 and this work was painted in April, two months after the move. As a historical record of the site and its conversion from gaol to technical college, it is a remarkably significant painting. A note on the back by the artist says the beam in the foreground is from the Darlinghurst Gaol gallows, which were situated in the fork of E wing from 1869 to 1914. It also shows the iron bars on the ground after they were removed from the windows, and the former mess sheds where the prisoners ate their meals.


Image: Edith Bell Brown (1864-1946), Looking towards the church in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1922, watercolour on paper, 17 x 24.5 cm, National Art School Collection, purchased 2017

Elioth Gruner

Elioth Gruner (1882–1939) was born in 1882 in New Zealand, the son of a Norwegian father and Irish mother. In 1883 the family moved to Sydney, where Gruner commenced drawing lessons with Julian Ashton from 1894. At 14 he became a draper’s assistant and attended classes at Ashton’s art school. Here he met George Lambert, an artist who remained a lifelong inspiration. Gruner exhibited regularly with the Society of Artists, Sydney, and also taught briefly at Julian Ashton’s art school.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Elioth Gruner became Australia’s foremost landscape painter. He won the prestigious Wynne Prize seven times between 1916 and 1937 and gained critical acclaim for his work. His painting Spring Frost is one of the most popular works in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection.

An important supporter was Norman Lindsay; and Gruner frequently visited Lindsay at Springwood. He also became friends with Rayner Hoff and was a regular examiner of student work at the National Art School Diploma exhibitions.

When he died in 1938 at the age of 57, two of his unfinished paintings of Michelago Valley near Cooma were donated to the National Art School by the trustees of the Gruner estate. Donated as a teaching aid, Michelago Valley shows Gruner’s mastery at capturing light across the Australian landscape, and has been admired by NAS students and staff for over 70 years.


Image: Elioth Gruner, Michelago Valley, c.1938, oil on canvas, 91 x 136 cm, National Art School Collection, gift of the Gruner estate, c.1938

Margaret Olley

Margaret Olley (1923-2011) was one of Australia’s most significant still life and interior painters, but she also modelled and painted portraits herself. Two paintings of her by other artists won the Archibald prize – William Dobell in 1948, and Ben Quilty in 2011.

Olley began her course at the NAS in 1942, during the Second World War, so classes were greatly reduced and the students were predominately female. Life models were scarce, and students would often pose for each other. Olley modelled in class, and NAS holds a beautiful drawing of her posing, drawn by NAS student Ena Joyce.

This rare and pensive portrait of Olley’s fellow student Jocelyn Rickards (1924-2005) was completed by Olley in her painting class in Building 16 at the National Art School. Found in extremely poor condition in 2008, it underwent extensive conservation work in 2013 as part of a Community Heritage Grant from the National Library.

Olley graduated with first class honours in 1945, and in the late 40s worked as a set designer in the theatre before travelling overseas in 1949. Olley and Rickards became life-long friends, even after Jocelyn Rickards moved permanently to London and became a costume designer for films such as Blow Up and James Bond films. She also won a BAFTA for her work in 1966, and wrote her autobiography The Painted Banquet: My Life and Loves in 1987.


Image: Margaret Olley, Portrait of Jocelyn Rickards, c 1943, oil on canvas, 51 x 42 cm, National Art School Collection © The Estate of Margaret Olley. Courtesy of Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane

James Gleeson

Life drawing has always been an integral part of the course at the National Art School, and many students have used these skills extensively in their later work. One of these students was James Gleeson (1915-2008), who later became a teacher, art critic, author and Australia’s best known surrealist artist.

In the 1930s, students drew and painted from the model for at least 12 hours a week, and Gleeson’s expertise in this field can been seen in his surreal paintings of the human figure which draw substantially upon religious imagery and classical mythology.

The National Art School holds five of Gleeson’s student life drawings in the collection, and a photograph of him taken in his later years by photographer Greg Weight.

Images: James Gleeson, Male figure study, c.1935, Graphite on paper, 51 x 38 cm, National Art School Collection © the Estate of James Gleeson; Greg Weight, James Gleeson, 1995, inkjet photograph on Epson paper, 34 x 41 cm, National Art School Collection, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Patrick Corrigan AM, 2017, image courtesy and © the artist

Fiona Hall AO

Fiona Hall’s enigmatic sculptural installations use everyday materials to create poignant displays with social and poetical resonances. In 2018 Hall donated two collections of photographs made between 1973 and 1974, when the artist was in her third and fourth years at East Sydney Technical College (now called the National Art School).

These albums are important documents of the School’s history during a period of transition in Australian art and art education. They show portraits of students, classes taking place, life models being drawn, and sculptures being made. They provide a snapshot of life in the 70s, showing cars, fashions, student demonstrations, bands and performances. Hall says, ‘I didn’t set out to be the School’s archivist, but these photographs do capture a sense of the times’. The albums also form a significant record of the School’s architecture and use of space in the 1970s.

Hall began studying painting in 1971, but by the end of her second year had moved across to sculpture. She also continued pursuing an interest in photography and was influenced by Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, August Sander and Edward Weston. By the end of her time at the National Art School, Hall was spending more time in the photographic studio and less time painting and producing sculptures. These early photographs show the artist’s formal development, as she moved from more documentational and figurative compositions to a more confident pared-back aesthetic.

Fiona Hall was appointed a NAS Fellow in 2012. The Fellowship is the institution’s highest award and recognises the artist’s immense contribution to Australian Art.


Image: Fiona Hall AO, Jan, Steven Mori, Louise Samuels from East Sydney Tech Photo Album, 1974, handmade album with 67 silver gelatin prints, 31 x 31 cm (each), National Art School Collection, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2018 © the artist

Martin Sharp

Martin Sharp (1942-2013) studied at Cranbrook School, Sydney under artist Justin O’Brien, and enrolled as a student at the National Art School in 1960. There he met Garry Shead, with whom he collaborated on a student newspaper, the Arty Wild Oat, in 1962. By 1962 the Art Students Ball had become a major part of Sydney’s bohemian arts calendar, with students, staff and models dressing up in themed costumes and dancing late into the night at the Trocadero in George Street or at the Paddington Town Hall. Along with his fellow NAS students, Sharp attended these balls and made posters for them.

This important poster, printed at the NAS, was the first poster Sharp ever made. His later distinctive psychedelic posters for Circus Oz, Oz magazine and record covers for bands have their origins in this student work. Although Sharp did not complete the course, he studied at the NAS for three years, and always regarded it as his ‘alma mata’. In 1963-64 he worked as art director of Oz and became the major contributor of drawings and cartoons.

The much publicised prosecution of Oz in 1964 was sparked by a Sharp cartoon. After living in London and starting London Oz magazine, he moved back to Australia, and in 1972, took on the renovation of Luna Park, the amusement park at Milsons Point. Over the next couple of years, he also created the Yellow House, an artists’ community in Kings Cross, where each room was an artwork in itself. Credited with giving the 1960s pop counterculture its visual expression, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in visual arts from Sydney University in 2012, and a NAS Fellowship in 2013.


Image: Martin Sharp, Art Students Ball poster, Moulin Rouge, 1962, screenprint on paper, 76 x 50.5 cm, National Art School Collection, gift of Barry Blight, 2004 © The Estate of Martin Sharp. Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

Darlinghurst Gaol

In 1871 a photo studio was built near the morgue in Darlinghurst Gaol. Here all prisoners were fingerprinted and had their photo taken in their civilian clothes on entrance to the gaol. Drewett was photographed in this building on site, which is now demolished.

A huge number of Darlinghurst Gaol Description books are held at the NSW State Records Office. The NAS Collection holds a few examples of these records.

William Drewett’s record shows that he was a typical serial offender and had spent time in Maitland, Newcastle and Darlinghurst Gaols by the time these photos were taken. He was charged with 15 offences between 1887 and 1895, ranging from stealing, to assaulting a constable. He was tried in Sydney as an accomplice to a shooting, for which he was acquitted, but continued to offend after this time.

Much can be learnt from these detailed gaol records. Any marks or tattoos were recorded: Drewett had a tattoo of a jockey inside a horseshoe on his arm and was 5’ 3 and 3/4” tall. His profession is listed as a groom.

Although most of the original Darlinghurst Gaol items were removed from the site when the gaol closed, a few have survived on site since the gaol period. This ball and chain is one of them and was found in building 22 in 2008.

It is a small ball, weighing only 1 stone (or 6.5kg). The chain is still attached, but the shackle that would have attached it to a prisoners’ leg is missing.

Convicts who were committed for secondary crimes after arriving in the colony were often put to hard labour in iron gangs. They had to work with leg irons or with ball and chains to prevent escape. They varied in size and made any movement extremely difficult, often causing great pain when they were removed by blacksmiths.

One of 20 gaol plans in the Collection, this plan of Darlinghurst Gaol appears to be based on an earlier drawing by notorious prison inmate Henry Louis Bertrand, a dentist, artist and murderer who was held in the Gaol from 1866 to 1894. His hand drawn plan of the Gaol from 1891 is held in the State Library of NSW and is almost identical to the Vernon plan from 1900, except that the Vernon plan has the names and uses of the buildings printed on it. It has been an invaluable resource for researching the early history of Darlinghurst Gaol.

This photograph was taken in the south western corner of the Gaol, and shows the guardhouse behind the warders. This is the only guardhouse still standing today, near where the photography studios for the National Art School are located. It is taken from a large glass plate negative, so is a particularly clear print.

This photograph was also taken in the south western corner of the Gaol, and shows the guardhouse behind the warders. The warders have changed from their guard uniforms and are sitting in the same position and attitude as the photo taken on the same day in their uniforms.

The National Art School owns two copies of the death masks of bushrangers Captain Moonlite (Andrew George Scott) and Thomas Rogan. These plaster copies were made by NAS sculpture lecturer David Horton from originals housed at the Justice and Police Museum, Sydney.

Captain Moonlite was the most notorious bushranger held in Darlinghurst Gaol. Along with his gang he held up a sheep station near Wagga Wagga and a policeman was killed in the ensuing shootout. He was hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol in 1880 with his 21 year old accomplice, Thomas Rogan.

Death masks were often made after prisoners were hanged. The practice of Phrenology was popular at the time. It was believed that the proportions of people’s heads could indicate their criminal tendencies.

The original death masks were made from the bodies at Darlinghurst Gaol after Scott and Rogan were hanged in 1880. The new moulds and casts were made at the NAS in October 2014, with permission from the Justice and Police Museum.

Images: Conviction Record for William Drewett, c1887-1895, Prisoner photographs and record of imprisonment, paper, 35 x 22 cm, National Art School Collection, purchased at Davidsons auction, 2018; Ball and chain, c1840s, iron, ball 12cm (diameter), National Art School Collection; Walter Liberty Vernon (Government architect), Plan of Darlinghurst Gaol, 1900, printer’s ink on paper, 67 x 110 cm, National Art School Collection; Photographer unknown, Darlinghurst Gaol warders in uniform, c1880, silver gelatin photograph, 25.5 x 30.5 cm, National Art School Collection; Photographer unknown, Darlinghurst Gaol warders in civilian clothes, c 1880, silver gelatin photograph, 25.5 x 30.5 cm, National Art School Collection; Death masks of Captain Moonlite and Thomas Rogan (copies), 2014, plaster, 25.5 x 17 x 27 cm, 30 x 17 x 27 cm, National Art School Collection.

#Follow us on Instagram