Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen
I was very touched and proud to be asked to be Patron of this Exhibition here at the Royal Academy, and I feel awful that I wasn't able to open it and I can only apologise for that. I am thrilled, with my wife, to be able to join you this evening, and to have had a chance to go around and view it for ourselves.
I also know that probably any minute now they will start the cricket again, the other side of the world - I hardly dare to say anything about it - but I know at least the world keeps going around as a result and there's a tiny bit of "Pommy-baiting" every now and again...otherwise everything would come to a grinding halt!
But having seen the Exhibition and having, as the High Commissioner said, spent part of my education, nearly 50 years ago in Australia, at that age I was sixteen or seventeen, it was a very impressionable period of my life and I have never forgotten the impact that landscape had on me. I remember feeling as I think a lot of people who went to Australia all those years ago originally, this extraordinary sense of the landscape being like an English park, and it was one of the things that struck me so much when I was out in Australia.
So of course the Australian landscape is an integral part of Australia's national identity. For millennia it has served and continues to serve - as a source of spiritual nourishment to Australia's indigenous communities. Later, and as so wonderfully expressed in the poetry of Banjo Patterson, the Australian bush and the "well-loved mountains" became an iconic backdrop against which Australia's developing sense of nationhood was forged. The bounds of Brumby's Run, the Jolly Swagman's billabong and Clancy of the Overflow's "vision splendid / of the sunlit plains extended" are, I think, still well-known to every Australian schoolchild even today.
Of course, as we have been reminded so powerfully this evening, notions of land and landscape have also contributed to the development of a uniquely Australian visual arts tradition. From the powerful iconography of early and contemporary ‘Dreaming’ narratives to the sense of ‘truth to Nature’, which artists such as Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts sought to capture on canvas, artists have responded to Australia's impressive landscape with vigour and enthusiasm. I could not help but be struck once again this evening how the artists of the Heidelburg School so wonderfully adapted the well-known techniques of impressionism to reflect the colours of the Australian Outback , and how even the buildings in Roberts' Bourke Street West reflected the colours of Australia.
One of most inspiring times of my life growing up was the two terms I spent at school in the Victorian outback. I can't say every memory inspired my artistic interests - encountering goannas and snakes during hikes covered in leeches (which I remember only too well, which could only be got off by using a cigarette...) in the searing heat never moved me to paint! But my love of Australia and of Australia's vivid natural beauty, and its own particular quality of light - that is what I always find so fascinating - has stayed with me for nearly fifty years and is renewed each time I visit. I have vivid memories as I speak of that landscape for instance around Richmond in Tasmania, which we visited (the "Cotswolds with Kangaroos", I am told...) and I took an Australian artist called Warwick Fuller with us wherever we went around Australia to try to capture such evocative landscapes for us.
It is an extraordinary achievement that the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Gallery of Australia have been able to bring together so many important works for the first time outside Australia. I can only hope that you, and the tens of thousands of other visitors who have seen the exhibition since September, have been inspired, as we have been, by its depth and variety. Many congratulations to all those who put it together.