Vale: Joan McClelland

Above: Joan McClelland, circa 1930.
Below: Joshua McClelland Print Room catalogue cover, 1964, featuring Pablo Picasso’s
Tancerze (Flecista, koza I tancerz), 1959.

Following the recent death of the much-admired art world figure Joan McClelland, aged 104, we republish the PCA’s tribute to her life’s work, which first appeared in Imprint last year (vol.51 / no.3, Spring 2016).

Interview by Marguerite Brown.

Joshua McClelland opened the doors of The Little Gallery at 172 Collins Street Melbourne in 1927. Some years later he and his wife Joan McClelland established the Joshua McClelland Print Room with a focus on prints, Chinese porcelain, and paintings amongst other fine and decorative arts. When Joshua passed away in 1956, Joan continued the gallery and today this family business operates in association with Rathdowne Galleries at 310 Rathdowne Street, Carlton. I met with Joan McClelland, and her daughters Philippa Kelly and Patricia Williams, for an insight into the remarkable history of the Joshua McClelland Print Room, Australia’s oldest continuously operated gallery.

Joan McClelland: My father was interested in prints. He’d been in Oxford in England, and I think it was probably in the back of my mind all along.  We had a small collection of prints, but you can cover the walls overmuch. I think my mother probably kept him in control with his print collecting.

My real interest was in Australiana – the prints from the early voyages and early topographical prints. In my view the pre-eminent Australian print is not one of the early Sydney views, but the marvellous West Australian panorama Panoramic view of King George’s Sound, part of the colony of Swan River a print after Robert Dale, 1834. I first saw the Dale in Sir Russell Grimwade’s house and lusted after it. Some years later I found it at an Antiquarian Book Fair for $2,000. Being a trader, I traded it on, regrettably as it has since sold for as much as $40,000.

The Australiana market is a wayward business with highs and lows. I think you could say that we would not have survived if we had dealt only in prints. When Australiana was in the doldrums, a few good paintings could save the day, or a piece of Chinese porcelain could find a good home. Prints were our steady diet, but the paintings could put the icing on the cake.

I lean to anything with an Oriental flavour, and I had some good tutoring in Chinese porcelain through both my husband Josh, and some dedicated collectors. We have continuously had good exhibitions of Japanese woodblock prints. I did travel to Japan and became very interested in these astonishingly skillful, richly detailed works of art.

An exhibition of Japanese prints from Geraldine Hall’s collection sold out immediately due to a member of the Japanese consulate who took the red stickers from us and placed them firmly on twenty-five prints in the first ten minutes, causing a rush by other collectors. We hang Japanese prints three deep in a ladder frame of natural wood, which is very effective and means they need only to be carefully mounted to size.

There were a group of talented women making adventurous prints whose works seemed to have been ignored. Margaret Preston was ahead of her time. Violet Teague and Geraldine Rede had made the first hand printed woodblock book in Australia, as early as 1906. We were selling the early Australian women printmakers later, in the 80s and 90s, and it was at this period there was a growing realisation of the important role they played. The main galleries, the national galleries, were anxious to represent all the women artists, and they did buy a lot from us.

Locally, we persuaded Helen Ogilvie that there really was a market for her tiny wood engravings, which she had put away for many years, and we sold them regularly over quite a long period.

There were much fewer galleries when we started. I mean there were the main galleries, like the Australian National Gallery and the Sydney Gallery [AGNSW] and so on, but there were not so many private galleries, very few in the beginning.

Prints were something that young people could afford. They couldn’t afford paintings, and even the main galleries were very happy to get things at a more reasonable price than going to auction and buying them there. Often they would find something quite special from us. We sold an awful lot to galleries; the West Australian Gallery, the Adelaide Gallery, the Darwin Gallery, and Queensland.  If you got something interesting and that you knew was rare, you’d immediately think of a gallery or a few private collectors. But often we’d think, well the gallery ought to have this, it’s important and they haven’t got it and then at least people can go and see it on the walls. It was a very interesting time.

We put out regular illustrated catalogues. They were a good record of the things that we did. We’d post these out and we’d be very disappointed if a few galleries didn’t ring up the next day and say we want this and this … because we did get some very interesting and some rare things, which we were very happy to have, and the galleries were very happy to have. They were quite small catalogues compared to how people produce them now.

We lived in a time of great change with so many Europeans coming here (after WWII). It changed the whole of society, and also the art. You can think of a huge influence of all sorts of people. The Dunera Boys, Hirschfeld-Mack and so on – there were fascinating waves of influence. We’re much more civilised than we might have been otherwise.

In 1979 Conzinc Riotinto leased me the front first floor of 105 Collins Street, which they intended to demolish in due time and rebuild a high-rise tower. In the end we were there for six lovely years. The building was only partly occupied and we could change anything we wanted in our area. We knocked an extra doorway in and we had three connecting rooms across the front and another behind, with a further storeroom. They were the best years; what was more, we had the Print Council of Australia in the basement for company.

I do believe there should be room in Melbourne for a really orthodox print shop, dealing in good etching, and early Australian historical prints, etc. The London gallery I would like to be equated with is the Fine Art Society in Bond Street, which has an interesting and varied stock of minor artworks, always with something unexpected and surprising.

Today, I believe there is a climate of great respect for the print among contemporary artists, but less so with collectors. I have always felt the need to encourage younger printmakers to exhibit, which we do with varying success.

The current exhibition is of digital drawings. Printed – it’s a different thing all together. Chips Mackinolty, the artist, says it takes him fifty to sixty hours to do a drawing in endless marks. It usually takes a printmaker to really appreciate the work.

Now I’m just over 100 I’m not driving my car, so these two [Joan’s daughters] pick me up most days to come in here, which is very kind of them and probably an awful bore.


Patricia Williams: We get in serious trouble if we suggest a holiday, that’s off the list!