It started life as an entertainment venue but quickly became a white elephant before being turned into another type of cultural venue – Manly Art Gallery.
When it opened in 1930, Manly Art Gallery was the first metropolitan-based public regional art gallery in NSW but the present building grew out of what was built eight years as the West Esplanade Concert Pavilion.
The concert pavilion grew out of an idea in 1921 to build a band stand on the harbour beach at Manly to complement the existing band stand on the oceanfront.
In September 1921, Manly Council called for designs for a band stand that would cost no more than £1000.
Only two designs were received and that of Sydney architect Hedley Graham was chosen.
Graham was also given the job of overseeing construction of the band stand.
Tenders were sought in May 1922 and that of Manly builder T. G. Hastings for £1080 was chosen, although the price was reduced to £1003 after modifications were made to the design.
The new band stand was much larger and grander than the band stand on the oceanfront, and it was soon being referred to as the West Esplanade Concert Pavilion.
In September 1922 Manly Council invited tenders for the right to use the concert pavilion for two years (Sundays excepted) and the successful tenderer was sketch artist, caricaturist and raconteur Arthur Tosseau.
Tosseau was no stranger to Manly – and vice-versa – although his name had changed a bit.
At various times during his career he called himself Arthur von Tossau, Baron von Tossau, Arthur Tozart and Carl Arthur Neven Tossau, and he changed Tossau to Tosseau during World War I to sound French, rather than German.
He called himself The Poster King because he sketched large posters while on stage, all of which were advertisements for products whose manufacturers paid him to advertise their wares.
In December 1906 von Tossau appeared at Manly for the first time at – his first appearance in Sydney.
For several months von Tossau performed artistic shows on the ocean front, backed by an orchestra, and was promoted by the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Co, which used his performances to promote its ferry service.
While admission to the shows was free, his shows were rich with advertisements for a variety of companies and products, from which he would have earned a good fee.
One Sydney newspaper said von Tossau prided himself on being the only man who could persuade people to pay to look at advertisements.
Although entry to his shows was free, there were some seats at the front for which one penny was charged, with the money going to Manly Cottage Hospital.
And von Tossau was generous – during his time at Manly he was reported to have raised £400 for charities by charging one penny per person.
Despite basing himself at Manly for several years, von Tossau continued to tour other states and regional centres.
When the inaugural meeting of Freshwater SLSC was held in late 1908, von Tossau was present and he designed the club’s badge and organised its first surf carnival.
Over the next 14 years von Tossau travelled and performed in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States but in late 1922 he returned to Manly.
Tosseau, as he now called himself, agreed to pay £300 for the right to perform at the concert pavilion, although it’s not known if he signed a two-year contract, which was what the council had wanted.
The concert pavilion was officially opened on November 15, 1922, by Manly mayor Francis Heaton, who welcomed Tosseau to the stage in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, with the whole of West Esplanade Reserve from Manly Wharf to the concert pavilion reportedly thronged by people.
Several Sydney newspapers stated that the pavilion promised to give Manly Council a good return on its money.
While Tosseau was not allowed to perform on Sundays – entertainment on the Sabbath being illegal – various local bands were permitted to play in the pavilion on Sunday evenings, with the council collecting 40 per cent of the takings.
Tosseau performed six nights a week at the concert pavilion until April 7, 1923, but it appears the financial return was less than he had been hoping for and questions were raised at Manly Council meetings as to whether Tosseau had fulfilled his financial obligations to the council, after which the council issued a writ against him for non-payment.
When the council sought tenders for the pavilion over the 1923-24 summer season, none were received.
Instead the Manly Municipal Military Band performed at the pavilion regularly for several months but it was obvious that the pavilion was not going to give the council the financial returns that had been forecast.
To worsen matters, businesses on The Corso began complaining that performances by the band at the West Esplanade Concert Pavilion were drawing crowds away from their businesses and from the band stand on the oceanfront, especially as the Manly Municipal Military Band didn’t pay rent for the concert pavilion and the band was subsidised by the council to the tune of more than £1000 a year.
The council was able to obtain at tender for the 1925-26 summer season from James Taylor and Edward Carlton, who formed part of a troupe of Pierrots but they told the council they wouldn’t be back for the 1926-27 summer season.
In the meantime, Tosseau spent the 1923-24 summer season performing on the reserve behind Coogee Beach and the following summer season he performed at Bondi.
On November 20, 1926, Tosseau returned to the stage in West Esplanade Concert Pavilion.
Apparently either Tosseau had paid his debts to the council or the debts had been forgiven because on opening night he was introduced by Manly mayor Arthur Keirle.
But whereas Tosseau had been prepared to pay £300 a year in 1928, in 1926 he only offered £108 for a one-year term, although several alderman – perhaps those with longer memories – opposed him being given the right to perform at the pavilion.
But within two months of opening night, Tosseau told the council that he was having trouble performing due to the noise coming from the small bathing enclosure at the western end of Manly Cove – directly in front of the pavilion.
From that time on, Manly Council struggled to find anyone wanting the rights to use the concert pavilion, something that was well-illustrated when a Mr Hill asked if he could use part of the land in front of the pavilion to build a putting green while a Mr Saunders wanted to convert the pavilion to a refreshment kiosk.
But in March 1929 the Manly Art and Historical Collection suggested converting the concert pavilion into an art gallery.
The Manly Art and Historical Collection was born out of an art competition in 1923 organised by the owner and editor of the Manly Daily newspaper, Joe Trenerry.
The main prize of £50 for the best oil or watercolour was won by local artist James Jackson for his work Middle Harbour from Manly Heights, a view from Seaforth looking west over Middle Harbour.
During the exhibition that followed the competition, numerous local residents and artists lobbied Manly Council to buy Jackson’s painting, hoping it would form the nucleus of an art collection that would eventually be housed in a council-owned art gallery.
The council acceded to the lobbying and the Manly Art and Historical Society was formed just two months after the Manly Daily art competition.
Manly Council’s decision was a brave one – there were no other suburban art galleries in the country and only a few galleries outside the major cities – so it generated great interest in the art community.
Although the money to build an art gallery was slow in coming, ideas and donations of paintings were not.
The list of donors reads like a Who’s Who of Australia art – Lindsay, Rees, Ashton, Preston, Lister-Lister, Fulwood, Proctor, and Dattilo-Rubbo being just some of those who donated artworks to the fledgling collection.
At first the collection was housed in the council chamber but it was barely accessible to the public so regular exhibitions were held in Victoria Hall on The Corso and in the Manly Literary Institute.
With the West Esplanade Concert Pavilion having proved to be a white elephant, Manly Council didn’t need much convincing to convert the pavilion into an art gallery.
Tenders for the conversion were sought in late 1929 and that of John Porter for £1296 was accepted.
The fact that the owner and editor of the Manly Daily in 1923, Joe Trenerry, had sold the newspaper and was now an alderman on Manly Council meant he was in a good position to ensure the vision of an art gallery bore fruit.
Manly Art Gallery was opened on June 14, 1930, by Chief Justice Sir Philip Street, by which time the collection had grown to 200 artworks, including 79 paintings, and was valued at more than £3000.