A report on Crispin Howarth’s OAS Lecture, by Jim Elmslie
The ‘lost’ collection of Massim art of the late Methodist missionary, the Reverend Samuel Fellows, lay undisturbed beneath the family home (called ‘Kiriwina’) in Swanbourne, Western Australia, for decades after his death. By chance his grandson, Ben Fellows, discovered the trove when checking a faulty telephone cable in 1971. This led to a flurry of activity which finally concluded with the collection making its way into the vaults of the National Gallery of Australia. This fascinating story was told with great flair by the NGA’s curator of Pacific Art, Crispin Howarth, at the final OAS lecture and AGM held at Skiffs Yacht Club in Mosman on 12 November 2016.
The collection is perhaps the most concise and important collection of its type anywhere in the world. The rich history of the Fellows collection is one of discovery and rediscovery. While the Fellows family at the time of the discovery of the lost crates of objects did know about Samuel and his wife Sara’s missionary work their substantial collection had been overlooked and forgotten since the early 1930’s. Knowledge of the collection derived from a portion of it having been on display at King’s College, WA.
Ben Fellows sought the assistance of anthropologist, Kim Akerman, to assess the collection’s merit, particularly its financial value. Akerman produced the 1971 catalogue, ‘The S. B. Fellows Collection of Primitive Art’, which itemized the collection acquired between 1891 and 1901. It listed about 290 objects across the spectrum of material culture of the Trobriands at that time, including combs, coconut cups, net making shuttles, paddles, spears, bowls, drums, betel nut spatulas, figures and shields.
Ben Fellows then undertook a concerted campaign to sell the collection, contacting people as far afield as Sotheby’s in London and the British Museum. Jim Specht, from the Australian Museum, also inspected the collection as debate over its value raged. Ben Fellows showed himself to be a wiley negotiator included organising a newspaper article claiming that an export permit had been refused to sell the collection to a New York dealer for $100,000 – although there was no evidence that an export permit had ever been applied for.
The collection subsequently captured the attention of the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board (CAAB), which was responsible for acquiring art for the yet-to-be-built National Gallery of Australia. In 1972 the CAAB bought the collection in two tranches, one from Ben Fellows and the other from King’s College.
Thirty five years later, in 2007, Crispin and colleague, Chris Harman, were given the task of rehousing the collection and discovered, or rediscovered, that much of the collection was still in their original crates and had never been unpacked. Much to their astonishment the crates yielded over 600 objects, many more than the 290 listed.
During his talk Crispin looked into the life and times of Reverend Fellows’ sojourn in the Islands. Fellows seemed to be an ideal missionary: physically and mentally strong; kindly and with a lively curiosity in and respect for his ‘flock’ of Trobriand islanders. He learnt the local language and translated religious texts and hymns into Kiriwinian and recorded vocabularies of their dialect. He admired the islanders’ art and commenced his collection, while also giving away examples to visiting government and church officials.
Reverend Fellows and his wife took an active interest in local affairs, including in trying to resolve local conflicts that escalated into tribal warfare in 1899-1900. Traditional fighting was not open warfare but consisted of ambushes and stealth attacks. Nevertheless the situation deteriorated to the point where the local Resident Magistrate, Matthew Henry Morton, and his party of seven armed constabulary, were called on to intervene. The dispute between Chief Moliasi and Chief Numakala was resolved by the administration’s force of arms, showing that colonial rule was still in the process of being established in 1899. However it was not violence that eventually forced the Fellows to leave, rather the other curse of the tropics – malaria. Sarah Fellows suffered badly from the disease which caused the missionary couple and their collection to finally depart from the islands in 1901 and subsequently settle in Western Australia.
The lecture then covered a visual overview of the Fellows Collection, very informative as we were able to see a large amount of material collected in one precise period from a specific geographical location. It was interesting to note that while some of the material had great age and worn patina, others appeared to be ‘new’ – without staining or patina. Were we looking, asked Crispin, at some of the earliest examples of objects made in the Trobriand Islands for sale to outsiders? Notwithstanding some early ‘airport art’ the Fellows Collection is a significant body of early Massim art with its origins from the earliest days of Australian colonial period.