Grant on Atkinson

It is a pleasure to read this reflection on a spirited gift from the artist Yvonne Atkinson in 1977, written by the curator and writer Kirsty Grant. Through a Community Heritage Grant from the National Library of Australia (see below for full list of supporters) Grant is undertaking a significance assessment of CAMs art collection. As part of her assessment, Grant has undertaken community consultations and we look forward to sharing the results of her work later this year.

Yvonne Atkinson The Tram Stop 1937. Castlemaine Art Museum. Gift of the artist, 1977. Copyright Jo Daniell. Image: Ian Hill.

As a curator who has worked in public galleries for more than twenty-five years, one of the things I enjoy most is getting behind the scenes to look at a collection in storage. While a carefully considered display of the highlights of a gallery’s permanent collection is always a pleasure to view –telling a story about the works of art and the way the collection has evolved through chronological and thematic groupings perhaps– it is behind securely closed doors, in spaces that are organised with function rather than aesthetics as their guiding principle, that the unexpected is often found.

In March this year, just before the first lockdown was put in place, I spent two days at Castlemaine Art Museum surveying the collection. Engaged to undertake a significance assessment of the Museum’s holdings, my first step was to visit and look at the art collection in detail. While I was familiar with many of CAMs well-known ‘treasures’ – from the major paintings by Tom Roberts, E. Phillips Fox and Dora Meeson, to the great breadth and depth of holdings by the tonalist artists who gathered around Max Meldrum in the early twentieth century – there were also surprising discoveries.

One work in particular has stayed with me, a modestly scaled painting in oil on cardboard which was made in Melbourne in 1937. It depicts a scene of everyday urban life, a sawtooth-roofed factory providing the backdrop for a group of people waiting for a tram. Three women of varying ages, each ‘made up’, wearing hats and carrying handbags – well-dressed and groomed according to the custom of the day – are pictured beside a man who slouches against a pole, a cat at his feet, and nearby, a laughing schoolboy.

Yvonne Atkinson (1918-99) painted The Tram Stop when she was studying at the George Bell School in Melbourne. Remembered by a fellow student as being very elegant, with ‘green eyes, red hair [and] a creamy complexion’, she was also always late to class, a failing indulged by Bell because of her status as a talented and favoured student.1 Typical of her art during these years which often depicted aspects of contemporary life, the deliberately naïve style of the painting reflects Bell’s modern approach and has affinities with the work of fellow students at the time, including Peter Purves Smith and Russell Drysdale. The palette is vivid – acid green, deep pink and bright yellow – the application of paint is lively, and if we read the disapproving expressions of the older women, the boy’s amusement and pointed finger, as well as the apparent about-face of the woman in yellow, an interesting narrative begins to unfold.

One of the interesting things I have learnt about the development of the CAM collection is that many works have been acquired through donation and often directly from the artist. Atkinson donated this painting in 1977 and it now sits alongside works by her peers including Sybil Craig, Helen Ogilvie, Constance Stokes and Guelda Pyke (to name only a few), part of a compelling subset of the collection comprising significant female modernists of their day who are now little-known and underrated.

Kirsty Grant
July 2020

1. See Joan Kerr, Yvonne Atkinson biography in Kerr, J. (ed.), Heritage: The National Women’s Art Book, Craftsman House, Roseville East, 1995, p. 307. 

Kristy Grant

Kirsty Grant is a curator and writer with a specialist knowledge of Australian art developed over two decades working with major public collections. From 2015-16, she was Director and CEO of Heide Museum of Modern Art, and prior to that she held various curatorial positions at the Queensland Art Gallery and National Gallery of Victoria. From 2007-2014 she was Senior Curator of Australian Art – responsible for paintings, sculpture and decorative arts made before 1980 – at the NGV. Currently working in a freelance capacity as a curator, writer, valuer and art consultant, she is undertaking a significance Assessment of the CAM Art Collection which has been funded through the Community Heritage Grants program is funded by the Australian Government through the National Library of Australia; the Department of Communications and the Arts; the National Archives of Australia; the National Film and Sound Archive and the National Museum of Australia.

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