Australia and England are at war over Stubbs masterpieces

This is not the first time that Britain and Australia disagree cultural heritage. This time, two images of real historical importance to both Australia and Britain are at issue: Kongouro, from New Holland, and Portrait of a Large Dog, painted by George Stubbs – one of Britain’s leading painters of animals – on the instruction of Captain Cook’s legendary botanist Joseph Banks. These paintings were painted in England and exhibited in London in 1773. They have never been taken out of the country.

These paintings are the first Western examples of two iconic Australian animal species – Australia was obviously very eager to “bring” them home.

They were privately owned until last year when the National Gallery of Australia agreed to purchase them. The UK government put an export ban on the pair to give the National Maritime Museum the time to bid. This week, a PS1.5m gift from shipping magnate Eyal Ofer allowed the museum to make the purchase.

The campaign has ended, and the debate over which country’s heritage is most important has been settled. James Cook’s arrival in Australia in 1770 altered the world in many ways: politically, socially, and environmentally. The animals that were discovered, described, and exported by the James Cook expedition have profoundly influenced people’s understanding and experience of zoology.

Cook’s Tour

Although I find Cook’s descriptions of his early encounters with Kangaroos to be so ridiculous compared with European animals, these encounters are what started Europe’s relationship with Australasian Wildlife.

The existence of a continent with a variety of ecosystems, including kangaroos that are 6 feet tall, raises serious questions about the nature and function of mammals. What else did we not know? Scientists of the time would have found the pouches of American opossums fascinating, but the public was more interested in the Kangaroo.

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

The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes that Banks, who was the naturalist on Cook’s Endeavour and whose name is dotted across the map of Australia, has been called “the Father of Australia.”” Stubbs painted the two creatures based on Banks’ descriptions, specimens, and sketches made by the crew.

Stubb’s Kangaroo was the first kangaroo image to appear in Europe. Author John Simons called it the archetype for a kangaroo. This painting would become the main influence in kangaroo representations for many decades. These paintings also represent the age of exploration and the beginning of European colonization of Australia. The world was never the same.

Both sides were right in their argument about who should be responsible for providing the painting with a permanent home. In Britain, they felt the images were too valuable to Britain’s cultural heritage to allow them to leave. In Australia, it was believed that the two Stubbs’ works “represent the beginning of Australia’s rich visual culture” and that they are more relevant to Australia’s development than Britain’s maritime heritage.

The Australian press’ response has been, at times, peppered with vitriolic words with suspicions of accusations of racism.

Coat of Arms

It’s difficult to tell what Australian history was and what British history was in the early days of European exploration. The National Gallery of Australia has a collection that demonstrates the paintings’importance of the paintings to Australia. The National Gallery of Australia has many drawings that are reminiscent of Stubbs’ originals. In fact, one of these paintings was the inspiration for Australia’s coat-of-arms. Does that make Australia the rightful home for these paintings?

They love a sunburnt country. National Archives of Australia

I cannot think of any other artworks that are more important for the history of British discovery. It’s not only the fact that they brought the animals into Europe but also their position in history as symbols of discovery. It’s for this reason that it is so important that the National Maritime Museum’s campaign was successful.

It is a good thing that this is not a typical issue of restitution. It is not a question of who owned the paintings or where they came from. It is impossible to choose between the two countries’ claims about how important these works are to each country’s national heritage. Both countries value them.

The story behind the paintings explains why the National Maritime Museum acquisition shouldn’t have been seen as Britain grabbing Australia’s past, as some people have suggested. This is a British painting. It is not clear whether Australia or Britain has a greater claim to their national heritage.

The National Maritime Museum is a great institution, and I’m glad that they have been able to keep it in their collection. But I hope this isn’t the end of the discussion between the two nations about how to make the stories behind the paintings accessible to both.

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