With thanks to The Collingridge Family
All my life, I have been aware of art. I grew up with an ‘artistic’ brother, my Grandmother was an ‘artist’, and I had a house full of ‘art’. As I grew older, I loved the pictures which were in old children’s books, and those which decorated the covers of old pieces of music. I became something of a crusader, devoting time (and money) to hunting down undamaged pieces and saving them from destruction at the hands of art dealers who wanted to make a quick profit by selling the illustrations. I was surrounded by and enjoyed art, but didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to examine, explore or learn about it. It was an important part of my life, but also one which I took for granted.
Then, an artist came into my life. His name was George Collingridge and he was an extraordinary man. Although his name was familiar from my forays into local history, and even from local street signs, I knew nothing about him. That was until serendipitously he elbowed in on another local project. Artist, linguist, historian, geographer and author, he bowled me over with both his artwork and his extraordinary range of talents. The fact that he was dead was irrelevant.
George Collingridge (de Tourcey), although little known today, was a man of great significance, not only to the area in which I live, but nationally and even internationally. Although he was born on October 29, 1847 at the Manor House in Godington, Oxfordshire (England), he spent much of his childhood and received much of his education in France. When he was sixteen he enrolled at the Academie des Beaux Arts, where he studied architecture with Viollet-le-Duc and landscape with Harpignies. Collingridge was interested in landscape painting, and was fortunate to be given the opportunity to watch Corot paint in the Barbizon. There is even suggestion that Collingridge was tutored for a time by Corot, though this is unconfirmed, and would have been exceptionally rare, as Corot was not known for taking students. Corot, who is considered by many to have foreshadowed the impressionist movement in his paintings, clearly influenced Collingridge though. Collingridge completed many magnificent landscapes, both before and after migrating to Australia in 1879, several of which hint at impressionism, and was a pioneer of the plein-air style of painting in NSW. He may even have been one of Australia’s first impressionists.
Although an accomplished painter, Collingridge’s major skill was Xylography, the art of wood engraving. He was taught the art by Horcholle, and by 1872 was established as one of Paris’ leading wood engravers. His talent was such that he was selected by Le Monde Illustre as one of three wood engravers to accompany Daniel Vierge to Madrid in 1878 to document the marriage of Alfonso XII, King of Spain, to Princess Maria de las Mercedes. A year later, Collingridge’s talent for wood engraving was confirmed when he was awarded first prize for Xylography at the Sydney International Exhibition. His talent for Xylography was further recognised when he was asked to complete artwork for The Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, an ambitious and (ultimately) financially disastrous publication for which only the best artists in the colony were commissioned.
This was not the only distinction earned by Collingridge during his lifetime though. In 1886 he was awarded prizes for painting at the Colonial & Indian Exhibition and he exhibited many times to critical acclaim. He was the first to publish pictures of Jenolan Caves, which appeared in the Illustrated Sydney News of 1881, and with his brother, established the Art Society of NSW (still running today as the Royal Art Society of NSW). He also published a monthly magazine, Australian Art, which was the first dedicated entirely to Australian art and he and his brother, Arthur, were the first non-indigenous artists to use the Hawkesbury area in their artwork, with many of Collingridge’s paintings and other works depicting the Hornsby area and Hawkesbury River. In addition, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of Santiago in 1908 (Portugal) and in 1917 a Knight Commander of the Order of Isabella la Catolica (Spain) in recognition for work he had completed concerning the early discovery of Australia.
During his lifetime, Collingridge was considered one of the foremost historians in regards to Australian history, as recognised by the knighthoods mentioned above. His book, The Discovery of Australia (published in 1895) was considered the greatest book on the subject of the time and its influence and importance was such that in 1983 a facsimile copy was published. Collingridge was of the opinion that Australia had been discovered by the Spanish and Portuguese prior to the British. In recognition of his historical works, he was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Australian Historical Society, one of the first to receive this honour.
In addition to being an accomplished historian, Collingridge was recognised as an excellent geographer and cartographer. He produced several maps, including the first known map of Ryde NSW, as well as making corrections to existing maps. His publication Berowra And The Unsolved Mystery Of Its Amazing Ridge (1924) highlights the errors made by the Department of Lands in mapping Berowra, having omitted from their maps between 4 and 5 miles of Berowra foreshore, including the area where Collingridge lived, now known as Collingridge Point. His work as a geographer was recognised by many Geographical Societies and he became the Hon. Secretary for the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Sydney Branch) (now known as the Australian Royal Geographical Society) and the corresponding member at international societies located in Switzerland, Portugal and Spain.
Collingridge’s accomplishments don’t end there though. He was also a master linguist, speaking six ‘conventional’ languages, as well as the ‘universal’ language, Esperanto. He was a major supporter of Esperanto in Australia, helping to set up the first Australian Esperanto Society in Gosford, NSW in 1908. He also wrote articles about the language for several publications.
What was it about Collingridge which transformed me from an ‘I know what I like’ art appreciator, to an avid student of art at Collingridges metaphorical knee? His achievements and exploits have made him an endlessly fascinating study, but were not what first captured my imagination. It was a humble children’s book, Alice In One Dear Land (1922), which really captured my heart. Collingridge was the first of the Australian artists to adapt the beloved Alice In Wonderland to an Australian setting and even before I had ever seen the book (which is now extremely rare), the idea of it had grabbed hold of me. Very few artists seem to cross the divide between ‘adult art’ and ‘childrens illustration’, and the only one I knew of who had successfully done so in Australia was Norman Lindsay, author of The Magic Pudding. So often, ‘adult artists’ fail to inject their children’s illustrations with the whimsy and innocence they need, yet Collingridge had succeeded. Not only had he succeeded, he had also become one of the first Australian authors to anthropomorphise native animals.
I admired Collingridge’s paintings, was awe struck by the detail of his wood engravings, and fascinated by his story, but when I saw the illustrations which accompanied Alice In One Dear Land, I was in love. Not with him so much as with his art. For the first time, art had made me stop and think, made me want to learn about it, and about the person behind it. I wasn’t just passively enjoying art, I wanted to know more. For those of you who view art as something to be enjoyed from a distance, I hope you find your Collingridge.
The Collingridge Museum
If you would like to learn more about George Collingridge, visit the Collingridge Museum, a virtual museum located at https://collingridgemuseum.wordpress.com/
This museum was created by Elissa MacDonald in association with the Collingridge Family