If you visit the Mildura Arts Centre you will see this striking painting by Irish born artist William Orpen.
The inspiration behind the c.1913 painting is fascinating. At that time in Ireland, government grants for art and education came from Whitehall under the direction of the Irish Board of Agriculture. Orpen was horrified by the bizarre situation, and furious that agriculture received far more funding than art. His picture mocked the attitudes of the government via allegorical figures.
The nude female represented the sowing of new, more progressive ideas. The naked children appear as the progeny of this intellectual enlightenment. The peasant couple on the right and the tumbledown farmhouse with its pig-pen on the left, signified the Board of Agriculture’s backward attitude to art and culture.
SEWING NEW SEED PURCHASED FOR ADELAIDE
The picture was selected by the South Australian born artist Margaret Rose Preston, then known by her maiden name, Rose McPherson. While travelling abroad in 1912-13, Preston and fellow artist Will Ashton acted as advisors to the South Australian Art Gallery on the acquisition of new works.
There was a flurry of correspondence to the newspapers when Sowing New Seed was displayed in conservative Adelaide. It resulted in the following piece in the Daily Herald on July 15. 1914, part of a report on a meeting of the City Council. Councillor Johnson asked;
Has your Worship seen the picture in the Art Gallery entitled ‘Sowing New Seed’, and will you draw the attention of the Commissioner of Police to the painting to decide whether it is ‘decent’ or ‘indecent’? The Mayor replied that he took it for granted that the Commissioner of Police had seen the correspondence on the matter in the newspapers. Councillor Johnson said that some time ago the police prosecuted vendors of postcard reproductions of famous paintings alleging they were indecent. He did not see why the Art Gallery Board should spend all the money it had on the picture when it had available for hanging some 150 pictures of the Angas Collection, which his father gave to the gallery. They were of historic interest, and some were framed; but the board did not hang one of them. The new picture was a disgrace.
The picture certainly drew the public to the Gallery. From The Register, August 3 1914;
One letter writer was delighted when Sowing New Seed was removed from display the following year. He certainly had a low opinion of the painting…and rather a low opinion of the Adelaide public;
The Register, February 25 1915, from ‘Art Lover’ :- I was pleased to see that the Public Library Board have decided not to give ‘Sowing New Seed’ a permanent place in the Adelaide Gallery, and I hope that, in the event of an exchange of Orpen’s works, the picture chosen will be more in accord with public taste. Even after reading many of the criticisms which appeared in The Register, I was unprepared for anything quite so worthless, The work has no redeeming point. The drawing is bad, colouring unnatural, and the meaning obscure. A picture which needs explanations beyond the title must necessarily be a failure. Added to all this there is something unwholesome about the picture; the effect on spectators is anything but elevating or pleasing. Any person who admires or pretends to admire it is to be pitied. I would like to suggest that if any other pictures are brought here ‘on approval’ the citizens of Adelaide be allowed to decide by ballot whether they shall have a permanent place in the public gallery. The general public have no artistic reputation to lose – they can be indifferent to the smiles of the artistic world.
The real reason why the picture was no longer on display was explained in the same publication on May 27 by the President of the Board. Someone had ’embellished’ the nude figure with indelible pencil. It had been temporarily stored away…complete with a protective glass cover.
Later, a cheeky Orpen painted a self-portrait with a bold gold version of the painting.
In 1917 the Gallery tried (and failed) to sell off the troublesome painting to the National Gallery of Victoria.
Melbourne Punch magazine could not resist poking fun at Adelaide;
‘The picture belongs to dear, good little Adelaide….all the old ladies in luster gowns and elastic-sided boots who saw the picture pronounced it too terribly ‘Oh My!’ and made an immense commotion until it was removed from the walls. It is evidently imagined that Melbourne’s morals can stand any kind of shock and so the picture has been offered to us.’
In the end an arrangement was made with Orpen himself to swap Sowing New Seed for what was described a ‘a mediocre copy of his portait of Marshall Foch’.
Ten years later Melbourne art collector R.D. Elliott purchased the painting. He was a friend and admirer of William Orpen and already owned many of the artist’s works. In 1944 he bequeathed his substantial collection of paintings to the Mildura City Council.
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