Watercolour by Willian Tibbits, courtesy of Andrew MacKenzie
Early panorama of Fitzroy. A parcel of land was allocated to the Society in Albert Street East Melbourne by the colonial Governor, on which was built a bluestone building 'designed for the purposes of Art'.
The Victorian Artists Society had its beginnings in 1870 when a small group of artists and lay persons met in magistrate James Robertson’s house at Blessington Street, St. Kilda, to form the Victorian Academy of the Arts, the direct ancestor of VAS.
Among the founders were Louis Buvelot, JA Panton, Thomas Clark and Hubert de Castella. This heavyweight group was instrumental in not only securing the Crown Land Grant on which our building now stands, but in the early establishment of the Society as a legal entity.
The original bluestone studio building was opened in 1874 following the grant of land on Albert Street—a single-storey construction without windows that earned the nickname of ‘the morgue’. Although almost totally subsumed by the present building, the building still serves both as a studio and a reminder of our history. It was built by Corben and Stuart and designed by architect Leonard Terry, who had worked principally as a designer of warehouses and banks—an influence seen in the solid and conservative style of the original gallery which also reflects the society’s humble beginnings. At the time of its construction the media mocked it severely.
‘As external matters at present stand, the Victorian Academy of Arts is lodged in a gallery rising from amidst a waste of water-pipes, and rivalling in ugliness the anathematise water-tanks’
(The Age 1874, p. 3)
If the original building was ridiculed for its hideousness, the modern two storey gallery and façade has earned a listing as a heritage building and is regarded as one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Melbourne. The building was designed by Richard Speight Junior, who won the competition for its design. The winning tender was submitted by William Massey and the building completed in 1892. It is made iconic through its high standard of decorative mouldings, columns and beautiful façade. The façade of the building owes much to the American Romanesque tradition, pioneered by American architects Richardson and Sullivan. The detailing of the interior is more Victorian in character. The building is essentially intact apart from minor 20th century alterations.
The extension of the building in the last decade of the nineteenth century was necessitated by the formation of the Victorian Artists Society and the increase in the number of members. In 1886 the professional artist members, led by Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder, had split off to form the Australian Artists Association. Talks later commenced in 1887 to unite the Victorian Academy of the Arts and the Australian Artists Association, forming the modern Victorian Artists Society.
In recent years, the building has undergone major restoration and conservation works, led by architectural firm Chiri-Hall.
Storage spaces that had been constructed under the stairways and in the galleries have been cleared, opening up access to the balcony. Conservation demanded reconstructed the roof and the three upstairs galleries. Work on the ground floor rebuilt the kitchen and offices.
The studio requires several conservation and restoration projects, including removing and replacing water-damaged plaster from the walls and the replacement of the Caneite ceiling with plasterboard. The original floor of Baltic pine, coloured with 150 years of paint and worn by the feet of some of Victoria and Australia’s most iconic artists, has been treated and restored where damaged. Many original features also remain, tables and easels once used by the likes of Frater, with the addition of modern amenities and electrical work that bring the Victorian Artists Society to the intersection of historic tradition and modern innovation.
The next project is the restoration of the courtyard and the inclusion of disabled access.
The Hammond Gallery during the inaugural exhibition of the VAS building, 1893.
The building and the Society are historically significant because they have been associated with the early career of almost every eminent Australian artist of this and the last century.
It is within these walls that young artists including Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Tom Roberts, Walter Withers, Frederick McCubbin, and many others, commenced their journey of brushstrokes, which today form the foundation of Australia’s major art collections in national galleries across Australia.
Many of these works were purchased from members’ exhibitions, a process which continues today as the Victorian Artists Society, with members from all works of life and all levels of skill, continue to learn to paint and exhibit.
This building is a public asset and learning centre for following generations, and is open to the public and all of those who love art. The studio and galleries are still being used the way our predecessors had intended for teaching, artistic expression and exhibiting. The studio provides a place for artists to come and study under the guidance of experienced tutors and to meet other creative like-minded people. The galleries provide a wonderful light and contemporary space showcasing many different works of art throughout the year.
Visitors are encouraged to come and view the exhibitions as well as attend opening events. The VAS attracts Australian exhibitors as well as international.
The building is the permanent home for the members of the Victorian Artists Society creating a welcoming and friendly community. The VAS is a statewide society but extends its membership nationally.
New members are welcome.
We would like to pay our respects to the traditional owners of the land on which our building stands, their leaders, past, present and emerging.