September in Melbourne and there’s something in the air. It could be the sight of footballers sailing through the sky, hanging speckys off the back of the pack, or perhaps it’s the art of conversation as people cast off their winter coats to sit in the pale sunshine and dine al fresco along fashionable shopping strips, but for those of a horticultural disposition, it’s the scent of flowers. Like an uncoiling movement from inside a vintage Swiss watch, spring has sprung in Melbourne and in Yallambie the smell of new mown grass and the staccato sound of motor mowers in the distance fills the air as gardens and their gardeners awaken from a wintery sleep.
Most properties in Yallambie enjoy a back yard and gardening as a leisure time activity is pursued by many green thumbed residents in a variety of ways and to a varying form of extent. Even Banyule Council has lately got in on the act, planting a load of scratchy looking bottle brushes up and down the nature strip in Yallambie Rd. Not quite guerrilla, gardening it’s more like some kind of monkey business.
Although not immediately obvious, the story of gardening in Yallambie dates back to the earliest days of settlement when the Bakewells’ garden “Yallambee Park” was arguably one of the finest experimental acclimatization projects of exotic plants then operating in the Port Phillip District. The Bakewells called their home “Floraville” and, from the early 1840s onwards, surviving written accounts and the visual record portray an estate of rambling style, used both as a working farm and as a living herbarium.
Richard and William Howitt, the brothers of the Bakewells’ brother in law Dr Godfrey Howitt, himself also a keen gardener, both wrote previously quoted, interesting accounts of Yallambee Park in 1842 and 1852 respectively. Richard and William both had training as pharmacists, an occupation which in the early 19th century required a close understanding of plants and herbalism. Their writing at Yallambee underscores this training with careful observations of what had been planted and with what success.
“At the river Plenty reside J. and R. B. The river is a small one, but as its name imports, never exhausted,” (Richard Howitt, Impressions), and “All these things you see growing amid the strangest and most foreign-looking things,” (William Howitt, Land Labour & Gold).
Some little time after the second Howitt visit, the artist Edward La Trobe Bateman recorded the property with a minute, Pre-Raphaelite inspired attention to detail in his “Station Plenty” series of drawings.
The precise date of these drawings, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, remains unclear. Bateman didn’t arrive in Australia until a little while after the time of William Howitt’s 1852 visit but some of the pictures may have been ready to be seen at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854 for the visiting Irish psychologist W. H. Harvey, Professor of Botany at Dublin wrote of the show, “I was more interested in some very spirited sketches of Australian home scenes and also of wildflowers drawn by a La Trobe Bateman”. The artist had been preparing a number of drawings for a proposed project, “The Bush Homes of Australia” but whether the Plenty drawings were ever intended to be a part of that project, they were evidently completed as a set sometime before mid-1856 when they were exhibited and reviewed in London.
1856 seems to have been a decisive year in the history of Yallambee. The Victorian gold rushes had changed colonial society irrevocably and in the midst of it all the Bakewells announced their plans to return to the UK, sailing in 1857 where two years later John would marry Dr Godfrey’s English niece, Emily. The Bakewells’ pastoral activities north of Heidelberg meanwhile settled into the hands of a young Thomas Wragge, who became their active tenant at Yallambee.
Also in the year 1856, the Vandemonian artist and writer Louisa Anne Meredith, a life-long friend and correspondent of Bateman and friend of the extended Howitt family, put pen to paper to write another description of Yallambee after stopping by during a whistle stop tour of the Victorian Colony. Her report, more theatrical in style than either of the two earlier Howitt efforts of carefully chosen prose, is nevertheless of great interest for what is said, and for what is not:
“Lo! another vision of a Victorian garden, on the banks of the river ‘Plenty’; not by any means English in character, but rather Oriental in its associations, with groves of massive fig trees of various kinds, rich with their luscious autumn gifts; rows of graceful olives, laden with fruit. Mulberry, peach, and all common orchard trees, in luxuriant abundance; vineyards, where the grapes have nearly all been gathered, but the leaves of each kind, assuming a different set of tints in their autumnal changes, made a glorious show of colour.
Some had scarcely altered their green summer garb; others wore it with a change of paly gold just gleaming over, showing the veins and deeper mid-rib, more emerald still – like verdant valleys, in a land of ripening harvest; some seemed as they had drunk the fervid sunshine in, until an amber light reflected it from every vein and tissue; here, pale and tender; there, deepening into golden russet; some had but shades of brown; but these, how exquisitely blent and softened! If one could dress in hues from such a pallette!
Creamy-fawn, passing to cinnamon colour, and then warmed with touches of burnt sienna, where the sun had rested longest, and relieved by dark full browns in the deeper shades; some again, parti-coloured green and gold, were flecked with vivid scarlet, like a sunset sky in the tropics; and others, with crimson for the gorgeous ground-tint, shaded it with deep maroon and purple, till, where shadows rested on it, they were black.
The beauty of the fruit still left there, was as naught beside those wondrous leaves. In other places, tall spiral cypresses, darkly verdant, rose from a neighbourhood of rounder-growing, lighter-tinted trees, with tropical-looking cycal zamias and yuccas, making such exquisite groups of varied foliage, such charming bits of light and shade, that they seemed asking to be photographed forthwith; and some of the nooks have received even worthier honour from Mr. E. L. Bateman’s pencil.
One is a rustic flight of broad wooden steps, down a steep bank, not a formal flight (like the stately stone terrace steps in noble old English gardens, with great vases on the heavy massive balustrades, and one of Juno’s own peacocks, shedding over the grey stone his train of rainbow jewels in the sun), but with an easy bend in it, artfully concealing one end, as you stand on the other; and decorated with ivy, that runs down on either side in clustering luxuriance, and sends out long straight shoots along the angle where a carpet-rod would be on a house stair, with delicate, young, green leaves, laid as closely and precisely as if Titania’s upholsterer had devised the wreaths. A noble cypress stands grandly, in lieu of a statue, at the stair-foot, and great leaved tropic growths fill-in the foreground.
And then the wreath of roses! Nothing like them has gladdened my senses since. One, monarch of the whole, seemed a giant elder brother of the noble ‘cloth-of-gold’, with great ruddy juicy stems, polished spreading leaves; and such flowers!
A full-blown one might have formed a bouquet for the ample bosom of Glumdalclitch herself; the colour was rich warm buff, almost saffron colour, deepening in the centre, and the texture of the broad petals was that rich wax-like substance, like a Camelia, but even thicker.
It was the noblest of the rose-tribe I ever saw, and well contrasted by the delicate Annie Vibert and Devonienses, Banksias, &c., while the cloth-of-gold and some other deep-red roses aided to make up the courtly group around.
What treasures we carried back with us to Melbourne, after that merry luncheon in the cottage-room, with its windows curtained by fuschias and passion-flowers!”
(Over the Straits, Louisa Anne Meredith, pp181-184)
It’s a beautiful picture, a picture that would be hard to emulate in any place outside of a botanical gardens today. The author of this description, Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-95) – artist, writer, feminist, environmentalist, animal activist (and passionate hater of Staffordshire figurines, “this menagerie of crockery monsters”, ibid) – is a fascinating personality from Australia’s early colonial past. After immigrating with her new husband Charles to Van Diemen’s Land in 1839, Louisa became part of a group of amateur painters which had been working in that colony from the arrival of John Glover a decade earlier. In the 1840s the group included the Colonial Auditor, G. W. T. B. Boyes; the first Bishop of Van Dieman’s Land, Francis Russell Nixon, and Mrs Nixon; Lady Franklin’s nephew, Lieutenant F. G. Simpkinson; Surveyor-General, George Frankland and surveyor James Erskine Calder; poet and lecturer, Samuel Prout Hill; art teacher and lithographer, Thomas Evans Chapman; and Louisa herself. According to Vivienne Rae Ellis, writing in her biography “Louisa Anne Meredith – A Tigress in Exile”, both Bishop Nixon and Louisa in particular are known to have exercised, in addition to their painting activities, a keen interest in the early photographic processes. Louisa had seen an “exhibition of Daguerre’s first essay in sun-printing – the very dawn of photography”, at a soiree she and her husband attended in Oxford in 1839 shortly before embarking for the land Downunder. “Louisa recognised immediately the value of Daguerre’s revolutionary process, and became one of the earliest amateur photographers in the colonies”. (LAM – A Tigress in Exile, Blubber Head Press, 1979).
Furthermore, Ellis goes on to speculate in her biography that “it is highly probable that some of the illustrations in Over the Straits were engraved from Louisa’s own photographs taken in Victoria in 1856, but there is no proof of this.” (ibid)
Dr Anne Neale, in her PHD discussion of the work of E L Bateman, observed that: “It is interesting to note that Meredith considered the planting at the Plenty to be ‘Oriental” and ‘tropical’ in flavour, while William Howitt had been impressed by its Englishness. Meredith herself was inclined to find English comparisons for Australian landscapes: the ‘Oriental’ comment suggests that Bateman himself, with his well-established appreciation of oriental design, may have been her guide in viewing the gardens at the Plenty Station.” (Illuminating Nature, Anne Neale).
Louisa’s description of “a rustic flight of broad wooden steps, down a steep bank” suggests her familiarity with at least one of Bateman’s Yallambee pictures, View VIII in the Plenty Station series. Did she have Bateman’s pictures to draw from in memory, or did she have physical access to them during her visit to Yallambee? Louisa’s words “they seemed asking to be photographed forthwith; and some of the nooks have received even worthier honour from Mr. E. L. Bateman’s pencil” appear to be trying to tell us something from between the published lines, no mean feat from this great distance of more than 160 years hence.
In these pages I have speculated previously about the identity of the “unknown photographer” who took the SLV-Daguerreotypes, formerly mis-attributed as representing Dr Godfrey Howitt’s garden but which are, due to their similarity to Bateman’s drawings, readily identifiable as the Bakewells’ Yallambee Park. Stay with me then for a moment while I draw what is very possibly a very tight string on a on a very lengthy metaphoric long bow and imagine one day in late summer in the first half of the year 1856. It is a day when the garden at Yallambee is as yet in full bloom. Summer fruits burden trees with a late harvest. The owners of the garden have announced their plans to shortly return to the land of their birth and have invited friends and family for a last visit and a “merry luncheon in the cottage-room”.
The leaves are on the oak trees still and the yuccas are in flower. It is a day when bees drone in a lazy way around bee boxes placed on the river flat for that purpose by one, Robert Bakewell.
It is a day when maybe, just maybe, Edward La Trobe Bateman and his friend and artistic collaborator, Louisa Anne Meredith, have found themselves together for a short while in the convivial surroundings of the Bakewell garden, one to stand at an easel, possibly sketching additional material for a probably already complete set of well-known Pre-Raphaelite drawings due to be exhibited in England later that year, the other to stand alongside him with a photographic tripod on which she has mounted an early Daguerreotype form of camera, brought here on a voyage from “over the straits” for just this purpose.
Speculation certainly, but could it explain the identity of the “unknown photographer”, the mysterious author of the pictures in the SLV collection? It’s a fascinating possibility but in the words of Ellis, “there is no proof of this”.
Louisa returned to Van Diemen’s Land, styled from 1856 as the colony of Tasmania, and continued to write and paint while living a seemingly semi-nomadic life with her husband and family and never residing in one place for very many years. She maintained a correspondence with Bateman in Victoria and later in Scotland, when he settled there after 1869, but in her winter years, Louisa like her friend Georgiana McCrae, considered her life to have been a failure. In 1892 near the end of her long life, Louisa wrote to Henry Parkes, Australia’s ‘Father of Federation’, remarking that “I was born under an evil star.” History has been kinder and today Louisa Anne Meredith is recognized for the considerable contribution she made to Victoria’s 19th century cultural landscape. The story of Yallambie is the richer for it.