ART: Dr Roland Pope's rich legacy displayed

Ramphastos dicolorus (red breasted toucan) by John Gould.  A monograph of the Ramphastidae, or, family of Toucans London : Published by the author, c1834. Roland Pope Gift Collection, Newcastle Region Library

Ramphastos dicolorus (red breasted toucan) by John Gould. A monograph of the Ramphastidae, or, family of Toucans London : Published by the author, c1834. Roland Pope Gift Collection, Newcastle Region Library

IT is now 70 years since Dr Roland Pope presented his library and art collection to the City of Newcastle.

They were the catalyst for a significant leap in the city's cultural life and laid the foundation for the development of the Newcastle Art Gallery and the Newcastle Region Library.

For the first time, I believe, these two institutions have combined to commemorate this legacy and put on display a strong selection of the works Pope donated seven years before he died in 1952.

The Newcastle Art Gallery has found it possible to show about one-sixth of the art he purchased, largely from Sydney's prestigious Macquarie Galleries, between 1935 and 1945. Paintings and works on paper were bought in competition with other notable collectors - the Fairfaxes, Howard Hinton and Lloyd Rees, among others. We are reminded of how expectations of scale have expanded over 50 years, how works for domestic walls commonly were small, even those by important artists.

Dr Pope's tastes were conservative. He bought landscapes and studies of pretty ladies, with Russell Drysdale's The Crow Trap a surprising avant-garde acquisition. It comes from Drysdale's first Sydney exhibition in 1941 and its blend of outback subject and surreal theatricality inaugurated a whole new way of depicting Australia.

This small painting has been widely exhibited and is one of the gallery's treasures. So, too, is a lyrical Lloyd Rees from the late 1930s. Other notable items include early and late works by Arthur Streeton, two of Lionel Lindsay's most luxuriant woodcuts, an elegiac landscape by Sid Long and a fine Hans Heysen watercolour of gum trees. Nothing hints at modernism or abstraction.

At the Lovett Gallery of the library, two rooms show some of Dr Pope's most valuable acquisitions. About 30 blown-up plates from the famous Gould bird folios dominate the main gallery, with displays of some of the thousand finely bound books from his library featuring not only birds but the ballet, cooking and his major enthusiasm: cricket.

Curators Sarah Johnson for the gallery and Sue Ryan for the library have made many new discoveries about our eccentric benefactor. It's an ongoing project.

Public art collections have frequently started with the donation of works acquired by passionate individuals. In recent weeks I've been in Copenhagen, where five of the six major art museums from the past 200 years all started with a private collection.

One vivid example is Louisiana, named after the three wives of the founder, a spectacular museum of modern art on the coast north of Copenhagen, with its glass-walled or underground display areas imbedded in an imposing garden of mature trees and wide lawns, where Henry Moore's giant reclining figures have never been better sited. Tasmania's MONA has a similar site, but not as yet the comparable artworks.

Spring at Hunter’s Hill, by Lloyd Rees 1937 oil on canvas board 49.3 x 59.5cm Gift of Dr Roland Pope 1945 Newcastle Art Gallery collection

Spring at Hunter’s Hill, by Lloyd Rees 1937 oil on canvas board 49.3 x 59.5cm Gift of Dr Roland Pope 1945 Newcastle Art Gallery collection

In contrast, the Pope collection waited 12 years before the city built its first promised home.

Collecting art was perhaps not the major passion of this wealthy and highly qualified ophthalmologist who spent many years as a travelling medico - and father figure - to a generation of Test cricketers. He could always be relied on to produce a necessary screwdriver advice in etiquette for receptions at Buckingham Palace.

- STUDIO 48 is showing the work of art teachers retired from the classroom coalface. Skills levels are predictably high, with Lyn Fabian happily experimenting with encaustic, Vivienne Nelson's bold ink drawing and Kim Simm's mosaic of leaves on show until September 6.

- NANSHE has a pair of environmental painters until September 12, with Libby Cusick's subject the moods of water in idyllic landscapes and Karen Bloomfield's birds exhibiting rather more animation than the monumental Gould illustrations at the Lovett Gallery.

- AT Gallery 139, also until September 12, an eclectic mix of works invokes indoors and outside. Belinda Street's richly textured paintings are centred on autumn in the Central Highlands. Priya Joy's still lifes and Gina Ermer's cups and saucers weave domestic drama. Jeremy Robinson's precarious fairytale houses provide a sculptural component.