Australia's most treasured art comes to London for biggest show yet seen in UK
Britain's 'shameful ignorance' of Australian art, from settlers to Aboriginal artists, to be remedied with Royal Academy exhibition
Britain's "shameful" ignorance of Australian art is to be addressed by the Royal Academy when it stages the most important survey of the country's art ever mounted in the UK, with more than 200 works spanning two centuries. The collection will include many works travelling abroad for the first time.
Anna Gray, head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, said on Thursday that they were already anticipating complaints as some of the most loved works in the country's galleries leave the walls for five months – a month to take down and transport, three months in London and a month to get back.
They include works such as the Melbourne artist Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneer, which is regarded in a similar way to how Britons feel about Constable's The Hay Wain; the Canberra painter Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly, and the Sydney artist Arthur Streeton's Fire's On – all "destination" paintings, said Gray.
The RA's secretary and chief executive, Charles Saumarez Smith, said people in the UK had been "historically, shamefully ignorant" of Australian art and would find the show a revelation. It will include Aboriginal art as well as art by 19th-century settlers and work by artists working today.
The last big Australian art exhibitions in the UK were in the 1960s at the Whitechapel and Tate, but they were mostly contemporary, as was the big show before that, a survey held at the RA in 1923.
"I think it's true to say that there has never been an exhibition like this before," said Kathleen Soriano, the show's curator and the RA's director of exhibitions. "This survey is long, long overdue. We should know more of these important figures as part of our broader art historical canon, not least because so much of it relates directly back to this country but even more so because there are some tremendous artists we really should be aware of and should be able to enjoy."
The show will open with more recent work by indigenous artists – Rover Thomas' Cyclone Tracy for example – before a chronological journey from 1800 to the present day showing how the story of Australian art is inextricably linked to landscape. It will include early works that are very Australian but also very English – for example, John Glover's 1835 painting of his house and garden could be the home counties were it not for the Tasmanian landscape around it.
But most works will have something distinctly Australian about them, said curators, and the bush, growing cities and beaches all feature in the show, the latter represented by paintings including Charles Meere's Australian Beach Pattern from 1940, full of bronzed, beautiful bathers "encapsulating the myth of a healthy young nation", said Soriano.
The show features paintings, sculpture, photography and video with works by contemporary artists including Gordon Bennett, Fiona Hall, Shaun Gladwell, Christian Thompson and Judy Watson, who is creating a new sculpture for the RA's courtyard.
Prince Charles has given his backing to the show, while the exhibition itself is essentially being bankrolled by Australians – rich patrons of the National Gallery of Australia and the government itself. Australia's deputy high commissioner, Andrew Todd, said at the announcement of the show in London: "No group is more persuasive than artists who, in holding up a mirror to Australian life and landscape, express so effectively who we are as a people and a nation."
• Australia will be at the Royal Academy from 21 September to 8 December