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It’s Australia v England, in battle over Stubbs masterpieces

Early prototype of Skippy. Kangaroo Private Collection Courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures Ltd

Not for the first time Britain and Australia are at loggerheads over cultural heritage. At issue this time are two images of genuine historical significance to both countries: Kongouro from New Holland and Portrait of a Large Dog were painted by George Stubbs, one of Britain’s foremost painters of animals, on instruction from Captain Cook’s legendary botanist Joseph Banks. They were painted in England, exhibited in London in 1773 and have never left the country.

The paintings are the first examples of two iconic Australian animals in western art – so obviously Australia has been very keen to acquire them – to “bring them home”.

The pair were in private hands until last year when they were put up for sale and the National Gallery of Australia had agreed to buy them. But the UK government placed an export bar on them to allow the National Maritime Museum time to bid for them – and this week a £1.5m donation from shipping magnate Eyal Ofer enabled the museum to complete the purchase, leading to genuine disappointment from Australia.

This marks the end of a campaign which has seen very different stories told in the two countries, debating which nation’s heritage has the greatest claim. James Cook’s landing in Australia in 1770 changed the political, social and natural world. For the latter, the animals the expedition discovered, described and exported have had profound effects on people’s experience and understanding of zoology.

Cook’s tour

While I believe that Cook’s descriptions of his party’s early encounters with kangaroos were so constrained by comparisons with European animals as to be ridiculous, it was these encounters that began Europe’s relationship with Australasian wildlife.

A few marsupials in the Americas (opossums) were already known by this point, but a whole continent with entire ecosystems based around them including 6ft kangaroos questions the very nature of mammals. What else was there we didn’t know about? American opossums, with their pouches, would have been interesting discoveries to scientific communities of the day, but they must have been nothing compared to the sensation of the kangaroo in the eyes of the public.

Here boy… stay! Dingo Private Collection Courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures Ltd

It was Joseph Banks – the legendary naturalist aboard Cook’s Endeavour, whose name dots the map of Australia and who, the Australian Dictionary of Biography, notes “has been called ‘the Father of Australia’” who commissioned Stubbs to paint the two creatures on the basis of his descriptions and specimens and sketches by the crew.

When considering the impact of the painting on the European psyche, it was Stubb’s kangaroo that became Europe’s first idea of a kangaroo – what author John Simons described as the archetype of kangarooness. It would come to be the key influence on representations of kangaroos for decades. The paintings are also emblematic of the age of exploration and the historical threshold of the European occupation of Australia. Nothing was ever the same again.

So both sides had right on their sides when arguing about who should provide a permanent public home for the painting. In Britain, it was felt that they were too important to the country’s heritage to be allowed to leave. While in Australia it was felt that “the two Stubbs works represent the beginning of Australia’s rich visual culture and the gallery believes they have much greater relevance to the development of Australian imagery and art than to Britain’s maritime history”.

The response by Australian press has at times been peppered with vitriolic language, with a suspicion of accusations of colonialism.

Coat of arms

In truth, it’s very difficult to say of the first days of European exploration of Australia what is Australian history and what is British history. That these paintings are part of Australia’s heritage is essentially fleshed out in the National Gallery of Australia’s collections. They hold many subsequent drawings of kangaroos that hark back to Stubbs’ depictions. Indeed it was one of them that inspired Australia’s coat of arms. Is that enough to make Australia the natural home of these paintings?

They love a sunburnt country. National Archives of Australia

Personally, I can’t think of any artworks more important to the history of British exploration. This is not just in the way they introduced the animals to Europe, but their positioning in time as emblems of discovery. That’s why I think it’s so important that the National Maritime Museum campaign was successful.

This is not, thankfully, a normal issue of restitution or spoilation. There is no controversy about who has owned the paintings and where they were sourced from. The two countries’ claims over how significant the works are to their national heritage are impossible to pick between. There is no doubt that they are key to both.

Why the National Maritime Museum’s acquisition shouldn’t be seen as imperial Britain seizing Australia’s history, as some have suggested, is in the story of the paintings themselves. This is wholly British. But whether Australia or Britain can claim the greater stake in their national heritage is less clear.

In the end I am pleased that the National Maritime Museum has been successful in keeping it in its national collection. But I hope that this is not the end of the conversation between the two countries over how the paintings’ stories can be made accessible to people in both.

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