The teacher was attempting to instruct his class in Year 11 physics. After a lengthy divagation on the theory of Newton’s laws of relative motion, I thought I had a handle on it. “Sir, that’s like when you’re lying down in the fields, looking up at the sky and watching the clouds drifting by overhead,” I said. “When you do that you get the feeling that you’re moving and it is the clouds that are standing still.”
The teacher paused from his discourse for a moment and looked at me pointedly. “And do you do a lot of this lying around in the fields looking up at the sky, Mister?”
It made sense to me at the time but was apparently too left field for schoolboy scholarship. Needless to say I didn’t go on from there to forge a career in the sciences but commercial art, with its apparent opportunity for creative expression, appealed to a young man with his head firmly stuck in the clouds. As a graphic artist I had plenty of opportunity to draw and paint and for a time I derived a good deal of job satisfaction from my profession. But that’s where the story ends I’m afraid. As a graphic designer these days I find myself like most people in the digital age, parked in front of a computer and wondering about whatever happened along the way to creativity in the 21st century.
A desire for aesthetic expression is a part of what makes us human and from the dawn of time that expression has found voice in the decoration of the places where we live. The earliest cave dwellers decorated their rock walls with images of those things that were important to them in their Stone Age lives.
At Chauvet Cave in France, early humans of the Aurignacian era, 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, painted hundreds of extraordinary images of animals, many of which are now extinct. In classical times, Roman artisans decorated the walls of every day dwellings with murals, examples of which were uncovered and so can be seen today at the ruined city of Pompeii.
Take a leap forward to the modern world when the Victorians built houses in the classical manner in a style dubbed “Italianate”. They decorated these buildings with stencils and murals and heavily patterned or embossed wallpapers all of which were linked to a new materialism that surfaced in the 19th century. The Scottish designer and a pivotal figure in the Aesthetic Movement, Christopher Dresser, wrote that by the application of decorative art, “a very barn may become a palace.” To the later Victorians, highly developed ornamentation became an art form and this was worthy of their great endeavour.
It is clear that this was the style chosen to ornament Yallambie Homestead in the second half of 19th century. Meagre decoration and furnishing in a home were thought to be akin to poverty and Thomas Wragge would therefore have been keen to mark his successes as a wealthy pastoralist by the correct decoration of his Melbourne home. Enough discarded wall paper has been found under the floors at Yallambie to give some impression of the mode of décor chosen by Thomas Wragge and his family. The surviving interior surfaces of the house Wardlow in Parkville (the outside of which is used as a location in “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) are an example of what possibly might once have been found on the walls at Yallambie in the post 1880s, although at a guess the earlier 1870 decorations when the house was new might have been simply painted.
When I discovered these fragmentary wall papers under the floor a decade ago (along with the previously mentioned Day Book and a few mummified moggy cats), a friend said to me enthusiastically, “That’s great, now you know the style of decoration you will need to follow in order to recreate the interior at Yallambie.”
Frankly the idea of following such a course of action filled my wife and myself with horror. As that other famous exponent of Aestheticism, Oscar Wilde reportedly said on his death bed, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Not being prepared to share with the Irish playwright the fate of the “ex-parrot” just yet we decided instead on a series of painted surfaces with just a passing nod to what had gone before in the form of a few individually hand painted surfaces.
Even in the 19th century, writers made a mockery of Victorian decorative values and of the drawing rooms of the colonial nouveau riche in particular. Richard Twopeny in “Town Life in Australia” (Elliot Stock, London, 1883) wrote satirically of the Australian squattocracy which for him was defined by a character he dubbed “Muttonwool”, a person probably not so very dissimilar to Mr T. Wragge, Esq. himself:
“…it is time we should go through Muttonwool’s house room by room. On entering the drawing-room the first thing that strikes is the carpet, with a stiff set pattern large enough to knock you down, and of a rich gaudy colour. You raise your eyes — find opposite them the regulation white mantelpiece, more or less carved…”
At Yallambie, two of the marble fire surrounds in the principle rooms had been removed and a third modified during Sarah Annie Murdoch’s 1923 renovations of the homestead. In that decade, she and her husband, Wallace Murdoch, were intent on creating a post- Edwardian style interior within the Victorian house that Sarah Annie’s father had built. Although at odds with the building, the ideas chosen did have some merit and were you might say the Murdochs’ contribution to the precept of the Chauvet Cave principle. Rooms were enlarged, plumbing installed and a red pine panelled and timber beamed ceiling introduced into a front room that became the new dining room.
Over the last decade, the Edwardian mantle pieces from the Murdoch era have been replaced and the earlier marble fire surrounds repaired in a style more befitting a mid-Victorian building. These included a chimney piece installed into the music/drawing room. It was reconstructed on a limited budget, not so much a shoe string, more a shoe thread from pieces found in demolition yards. The same source supplied discarded slate and marble that were recycled to tile the ground floor halls with a black and white diamond pattern, a design motif that is typically Victorian and which I am told is rooted in Freemasonry symbolism of the dark and light or of the yin and yang. This tiling project alone took 18 months to complete. Each piece of stone was cut individually and laid with mortar, a task which I suppose qualifies this amateur as some sort Mason himself now, but without the obligatory handshaking.
The Melbourne merchant and decorator William Henry Rocke described a more tasteful mid Victorian drawing room in a booklet he published in 1874: “Once the walls were hung with fluted silk, of a French grey tint, but now they are simply painted that colour and relieved by oblong panels of gold beading, which is also carried along the line where the walls and ceiling meet… A few intertwined sprays of delicate Australian blossoms, hand painted, form the central ornament of each panel.” (Remarks on House Furnishing and House Decoration, W H Rocke, Melbourne, 1874)
This was the inspiration for the approach that was eventually chosen. The painted surfaces at Mt Rothwell Homestead near Geelong and the slightly later but utterly remarkable interior of Villa Alba in Kew are grand and significant survivors of this approach to interior decoration.
The Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward La Trobe Bateman, who visited Yallambee in the 1850s and who produced a series of drawings to record the property, worked in a number of creative disciplines and he was admired for his contemporary coloured stencil decorations on board walls and ceilings and for flowers painted over fireplaces in at least two properties.
Whether any of the Wragges met Bateman is unrecorded but the daughters of Thomas Wragge are known to have hand decorated several doors at Yallambie in the 1890s with designs based on plants found in the garden.
Three of these doors have survived with their decoration to the present day and follow a tradition of painted doors in Victorian houses that can be found elsewhere at properties in the state like the aforementioned Mt Rothwell and at Reedy Creek Homestead near Broadford, amongst others.
In the spirit of this tradition, my wife, herself a fine artist, painted a couple of interior doors at Yallambie. She also painted the panels under each of the seven windows of the music room and gilded the cornices and architraves.
A ceiling in another room which had been covered with lining papers in the past, presumably to hide the various imperfections in the Marianas Trench style, lathe and plaster surfaces, was found to have a ghostly outline of a painted frieze around the deep cornices when the papers were removed. This became the basis for a design that my wife has gradually been repainting overhead from a precarious height.
When it came to painting a ceiling rose however, unlike Michelangelo, she painted the plaster at table height before we lifted the rose delicately to its present location 13 feet above the surface of the floor. A gilded and pressed metal centre rose completed the effect.
Gilded cornices were described at Yallambie in an inventory made of the house in 1910 after the death of Thomas Wragge. The metal was presumably destroyed during the 1923 renovations as several pieces have been found discarded in an old rubbish pit. Replacement gilt metal has been cheaply sourced at demolition yards and reinstated at several locations in the house, wherever practicable.
Why go to such efforts with a house that has been variously described by Winty Calder as a “white elephant”? It is the same urge that drove those cavemen to go “Ugh,” and decorate the walls of Chauvet cave and the artisans at Pompeii to decorate the walls of Roman villas even as Vesuvius murmured their impending doom. Yallambie Homestead was purchased 20 years ago for what seems today the price of a town house or a teepee, or maybe only a part thereof. Almost everything that has been done since that time has been done DIY on a limited budget although it is a disturbing thought that parts of the building continue to deteriorate faster than they can be properly maintained. However, if things cannot be done by our own hand, they tend not to get done at all. Although solidly constructed, Yallambie is a building that has become fragile with age but necessity is the mother of invention and it is surprising what can be achieved by a couple of artists left purely to their own devices.
A versatile artist who left a legacy in the City of Banyule was Napier Waller, the 20th century Australian muralist, mosaicist and painter of stained glass. Waller lost an arm in the Great War but later trained himself to work with his non preferred left which shows that disability is not necessarily an impediment to artistic expression. One of Waller’s later designs was installed as a moving war memorial at St John’s Church of England in Heidelberg, alongside the Wragge Ascension Windows triptych described previously. Waller’s home and studio was located in Fairy Hills, Ivanhoe not far from the house that Nancy and Cliff Bush built for themselves when they left Yallambie. (It can be seen as the location of the doctor’s house in the “Dr Blake Mysteries”). Since his death in 1972, Waller’s house has been preserved as a sort of memorial to his memory with many of the artist’s preliminary drawings, sketches and full cartoons remaining inside the house. The overall effect is “mysterious and church like” in the words of one visitor, with one large design for a mosaic from the University of Western Australia dominating the interior. Art lives on at Waller’s house long after the inspiration that created it has returned to the cosmic dust.
One of the great conundrums has always been, just what constitutes art? Pablo Picasso said that, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Last week a painting by the famed Spanish modern master went under the hammer at Christie’s auction house for a record price of some 227 million Australian dollars. Picasso’s Cubist painting “The Women of Algiers”, itself a reworking of a subject tackled a hundred years earlier by Delacroix, is rather a snazzy picture I think and I certainly wouldn’t mind taking the auctioneer’s hammer for a moment and nailing it to our own wall. (Fox News didn’t think so however. Bizarrely, when reporting on the sale, Fox felt obliged to blur out the so called “breasts” of Picasso’s abstract).
But $200,000,000? Really? What painting is worth the GDP of some Pacific island nations within our region? Either art is priceless, and therefore by definition worth nothing, or it is worth a fair price and that’s not the sort of money that regularly changes hands for some fine art these days.
In his film, “The Great Contemporary Art Bubble”, the art critic and film maker Ben Lewis revealed how the contemporary art market deliberately inflates the prices paid for certain modern artists at auction in order to maximise prices for pieces by the same artists when sold privately. It is a business practice that would not be tolerated inside other industries.
Today there are practically no large scale paintings by Picasso remaining in private hands so it could be argued that 200 million big ones is a fair price to pay for “Women of Algiers”. I dunno. Maybe after all these years I still have my head stuck in the clouds but I suspect that there are in private hands today an awful lot of smaller scale Picasso prints and drawings whose value has just sky rocketed. And what price should we put on Melbourne’s own Picasso, “Weeping Woman”, infamously stolen from the NGV in 1986 by the self-styled but to this day unidentified “Australian Cultural Terrorists”? My teenage son, looking over my shoulder while I write this post, claims he could make us a “Weeping Woman” with crayons if we gave him half a chance. I’d never heard of Picasso having a “Crayon Period” but then you never know. Picasso was a remarkably prolific artist.
The NGV’s “Weeping Woman” was held to ransom for a while after the theft with a demand for an increased public funding of the arts. The story reads to me something suspiciously like a piece of performance art. Burnt matches were delivered to the authorities with the ransom notes. Legend has it that as the police net closed in, the typewriter used to write the ransom notes met a watery grave in the Yarra off Princes Bridge. It’s probably still down there, the rusted keys of the typewriter mixed with all those keys from the lovers locks thrown from the Southbank footbridge. Killjoy Council workers began removing the locks from this impromptu art installation this week.
In a sleight of hand, last week’s Federal Budget removed about $105 million from the Australia Council for the Arts, the body previously charged with funding arts projects in Australia, and placed the spondoolies into the hands of the Minister of the Arts. There is a theory behind the action of course because the money will go towards funding a new programme called “Excellence in the Arts” but it’s a move that would have the Australian Cultural Terrorists fuming if they were still around.
“Weeping Woman” was eventually returned to the gallery unharmed, more famous and probably more valuable than ever before, but without any of the unlikely ransom demands for arts funding met. The crime has never been solved but the process left then gallery director, Patrick McCaughey’s bow tie in a twist for more than a little while. In the final analysis the lack of a pecuniary outcome was apt. After all it’s well known that art is priceless. Well, isn’t it?