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Research Guides

A Nation's Imagination: Australia’s Copyright Records, 1854–1968

1 What shaped the imagination

Writing about features of works by late nineteenth-century Australian artists, the critic Robert Hughes describes 'a general trend towards poetic melancholy in Australian art and literature', and declares:

Australians like local set-backs, like bush fires, floods or Anzac Day. They serve as substitutes for history.9

At a first encounter there is much in this collection, and indeed contemporary life, to support Hughes' provocative statement. Poetic melancholy and sentimentality mark much of the work submitted for copyright registration until well into the twentieth century.

But a more detailed examination of both the records and the statement provides a different perspective.

What constitutes the 'history' of a country? If what is commonly referred to as 'official' history consists only of the actions of government, then much of the 'official' history of this land and its people has been created directly in response to the disasters of nature and of war.

Image 3: Professor Richard, a man with a grievance, 1905.<sup><a href=10" />

Image 3: Professor Richard, a man with a grievance, 1905.10
NAA: A1721, 129
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The National Archives holds hundreds of kilometres of records detailing government discussions and decisions on the very 'local set-backs' to which Hughes refers: disaster relief after fires and floods, securing water supplies against drought, the deployment of troops and civilians in war and their experiences, and the migration programs set up specifically to accommodate and welcome those displaced by war. 

What do we draw on to illustrate, comprehend and enliven the 'official' view, or to see its impact? Where do we find evidence of the response of citizens to events and issues that occupied them – the 'social' history? Very often it is records like those in the copyright collection which, because they have survived, are now an (albeit unintended) invaluable source for this, providing an eclectic, but incomplete, view of more than 100 years of creative endeavour and response to the world as these applicants saw it. The collection is incomplete because colonial and Commonwealth record series (ie those containing application forms, exhibits, registers and indexes) were sometimes incomplete when they were placed in archival custody.

In addition to this, registration of works for copyright was neither universal nor compulsory. The view presented is shaped, therefore, by those who applied for registration. When seeking evidence of the national character, it is also useful to remember that most of the collection spans a period in which the dominant population group in Australia was of British ancestry with political, economic and emotional allegiances to the United Kingdom. There is a sense of certainty and sometimes superiority – even in times of social upheaval – that accompanies this cultural bias. Combined with an underlying fear, born of the continent's physical isolation from its principal influence on identity, of being overrun and dispossessed by foreigners – a constant motif in many exhibits – this collection can reflect a very particular, and not always pleasant, picture of the national psyche.


Chapter notes | All notes

9 Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia, rev. edn, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, UK, 1970, p. 50. Later (p. 194), when discussing the work of artist Russell Drysdale, Hughes asserts that the paintings the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned the artist to paint in order to illustrate its coverage of the 1944 drought made Drysdale's name as an artist. In this case it seems a drought contributed directly to art history.

10 There can have been few men so brave or foolhardy as the miffed Professor Richard, who registered his intention to air his grievances in more than one colony.


Chapter 1
What Shaped the Imagination